Authors: Jason Derleth
Legend of the Swords
By Jason Derleth
Text copyright © 2012 Jason Derleth
All rights Reserved
Table of Contents:
Battle at Three Hills
Rolling the Rocks
Up the Side
Into the Mountain
Battle in the Mountain
Questing for Strength
The Heart of the Mountain
Down the Mountainside
The War's Front
About the Author
The corpse opened its eyes.
A circle of light shimmered just above. Dimly, the realization came that it was under water, and long unused muscles struggled to sit up.
Water cascaded, running in and out of wrinkled, rotting skin and disintegrating clothes. More poured out of its lungs, through an untasting mouth. Breath came, but provided no satisfaction.
Laboriously, the corpse rolled over, and slowly pushed up to a crouch. Its eyes watched as a small fish nibbled on a ring finger, but there was no pain.
Standing seemed to take all of the dead body's reserves. Once upright, it stood without moving for several minutes, head down and body swaying, before finally looking up. Dead eyes found that it was standing in a circle of water. A well-used dirt path was nearby, turning toward the setting sun, turning away.
Shoulders slumped, then lifted in a useless sigh as its gaze followed the road and found mountains in the distance.
With no destination, there seemed to be a long way to go.
The whole town is burning!
Ryan’s young heart raced as he and his friend Edmund sped towards the fire. Thick smoke billowed out from the buildings of Middleton. As they got closer, the crackling and rush of air turned into a roar. Horse carts lay scattered near the path into town, the horses’ harnesses cut.
“Where is everyone? Why aren’t they trying to put it out?” Ryan yelled as they ran into the center of town. He held his hands in front of his face to block some of the heat while peering through the smoke.
Ryan saw Edmund shake his head, and noticed tears making tracks on his soot-stained cheeks. Ryan grimaced as a bag of herbs, gathered for potions, slipped out of the younger boy’s hand as they ran towards his home.
“I don’t see anybody!” Ryan called.
Edmund’s house had only just started burning. Ryan followed as his friend threw open the door and jumped into the smoke. A quick look showed that nobody was there. Coughing and spluttering, eyes watering from the smoke, Ryan grabbed Edmund’s shirt and pulled him, crying, out of the building.
After a moment of holding Edmund back, Ryan felt the younger boy relax and stand up. He braced himself, mentally, and turned to head towards his own home.
I’ve got to keep it together, for Edmund’s sake, Ryan thought.He’s about to lose it.
Ryan’s heart leapt into his throat as he saw his house had burned to the ground, leaving only smoldering ruins. He called out to Edmund and they ran closer.
I was just there this morning,he thought.We had eggs and toast. I asked mom if I could go with Edmund to gather herbs for his mother.
As they approached, he felt the sweat on his arms and face evaporating, cooling his fire-heated skin.
There was nothing left but a few shards of blackened pottery and the smoldering remnants of their dinner table.
This time it was Edmund who was pulling on Ryan’s arm as he called his father’s name, his mother’s…
It took a while, but Ryan eventually pulled it together. He looked into Edmund’s eyes, and saw understanding and pity—something that he would not have found a few hours before, when they had been playing at being knights with stick-swords in the forest.
As Ryan looked around the town, he saw that the fire was already mostly out, with only a few buildings on the East side of town still in flames. They split up and checked several of the burnt-out buildings, finding them mostly empty. The Miller’s wheel was intact, and the Smith’s anvil looked so untouched it seemed almost out of place.
The stables were empty, as well; the horses had run away, or had been taken along with the people.
“We should get some weapons,” Edmund said, looking back at the Smith’s.
“I doubt there are any left,” Ryan said. His cheeks felt tight and dry from the heat. He saw that Edmund’s face was bright red, as if he had been in the sun too long. “But you’re right, we should check.”
They looked through the Smith’s house, which was more intact, but they couldn’t find any weapons. Edmund sniffed, and Ryan pushed gently at the smaller boy’s shoulder.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ryan said. “The smoke’s bothering me too.”
Edmund nodded, and they staggered up a hill next to the remnants of their hometown. They both slumped down against a rock and watched the empty town smolder.
Edmund broke the silence. “Who do you think did this?”
Ryan shrugged. “We’re just a farming village,” he said. “I have no idea what’s going on.”
“Maybe they came for my mom.” Edmund’s eyes were wide. “She’s the only potion master for miles.”
Ryan chuckled softly, but stopped when he saw the hurt in his friend’s eyes. “She’s been a wonderful help for the village, Edmund, but I think there are other potion masters.”
The younger boy nodded. “Do you think it might have been … the war?”
“The war with the Triols?” Ryan asked. “I … I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. But they’re supposed to be a long ways from here.” He patted Edmunds shoulder. “I hope that’s not what it is. Dad says they’re monsters.”
“At least there aren’t any … “ Edmund blanched and fell silent.
Ryan nodded. “True. There aren’t any bones. But that’s just raises a new question: where is everybody?” He grunted in frustration. “It doesn’t make any sense!”
Edmund squared his shoulders, and sat up tall. “They’re ok. I’m sure of it.” He tried to smile, but his lower lip trembled too much.
Ryan smiled, but then sighed deeply. “What are we going to do?” He looked away.
“I don’t know. I guess … away from this?” he said, gesturing to the town below.
Ryan thought for a minute, his eyes unfocused, but staring at the glowing cinders. Suddenly, he stood up and held his hand out to the younger boy.
“Let’s go find them, then.” He looked around. “We’re going to have to find them quick, or make a shelter—it’s going to be dark soon.”
Ryan saw Edmund grimace, but he pulled him up to a standing position anyway. The fire’s smoke had filled the sky with low-hanging clouds, and the beginnings of the sunset seemed out of place: beautiful and serene. “Maybe they headed towards Bridgeport,” Edmund said, referring to the large city a few days’ travel away.
Ryan’s eyes widened a bit, and he nodded. They started walking towards the road at a fast pace.
It didn’t take long before they were beyond the wheat fields and near the forest that was between them and Bridgeport.
“It’s getting dark fast,” Edmund said, scuffing the dry ground. He pointed to the overgrown forest that the dirt road wound through. “And it’s going to be darker in there.”
Ryan nodded, looking at the dense undergrowth and tall evergreens. It was already too dark to see more than a few yards past the first boughs of the canopy.
He stopped suddenly. “Do you hear that?” Ryan said, pushing his right ear forward.
“Is that a horse?” Edmund’s voice was hushed, and his eyes darted left and right, looking for cover.
“I think it’s more than one,” Ryan said. He stepped off of the road, and nudged Edmund to do the same. “Maybe it’s someone from the village coming back to get us?”
“We can hope,” Edmund muttered, but he was frowning.
A chestnut galloped out of the forest, sweat glistening from its flanks. A shadowy gray horse quickly followed. The riders wore the armor of knights, with the crest of the king. The chestnut’s rider had a big, curly brown beard. The rider of the gray horse seemed taller, more powerfully built, and had a small scar on his left cheek, right below his glinting eyes. They saw the boys and slowed to a canter, then, as they got closer, a walk.
“Those horses are huge,” Ryan whispered out of the corner of his mouth, gesturing at the chestnut in front.
Edmund nodded. “That smoky black one in the back must be eighteen hands high.”
“Hail!” the knight on the chestnut called. His voice was clear and strong. “We have come to check on Middleton. We have news that our enemies, the Triols, have attacked. How fares the town?”
The boys were silent for a moment, looking first at each other, and then up to the knights. Ryan stepped forward.
“Triols, Sir knight?” he asked.
The knight nodded sharply, motioning sharply for Ryan to continue.
“Middleton lies burned, Sir knight,” Ryan said, quietly. “Although it seems it was empty when it burned.”
The knight frowned. “Stay here,” he commanded. He nudged his horse forward, then into a hard gallop, and was quickly over the rise. The knight with the sneer followed.
The two boys looked at each other again, eyes wide.
“Triols?” Edmund’s eyes narrowed and he looked at Ryan. “And we didn’t find any weapons.”
* * *
The knights returned quickly, before dusk.
“It is as you say. The town lies in ruins, but there are no bones, and little blood,” the bearded knight said as he dismounted. He left his horse on the side of the road. The second knight dismounted as well, and he quickly began clearing weeds and grasses a short distance from the road.
“From the signs, the Triols have captured all of the townspeople.” He took off his helm, and looked closely at the boys, their simple, patched clothes, and their sinewy muscles. “All but two, at any rate. I presume that you hail from Middleton?”
They both nodded, but Ryan could not hold his tongue. “The Triols have captured our families? How do you know?”
The knight raised his eyebrows. “Be careful how you speak to your superior, boy.” Ryan looked down at the ground and nodded sheepishly. “It is a simple matter of looking at the signs, young farmer. There was blood on the ground in the east, in the direction the Triol army was last seen. And there were signs of struggle near the forest’s edge, which we found by following the blood.”
The second knight spoke. His voice was gravelly, and low. “Gregory, you are too kind to these boys. They must help set up camp, if they want to stay warm tonight.”
“I’m not helping set up camp!” Edmund blurted. “I’m going to search for my family.” He started walking towards the forest’s edge to the southeast of them, but the second knight caught his arm.
“You’re going to search for your family, in the forest, in the dark?” He laughed sharply. “When they have been captured by an attacking army? I suppose it’s notmybusiness if you’re going to be stupid.” He pushed Edmund away, laughing again.
“Armand, don’t be cruel,” Gregory said, curtly. “Boy, what are you called?”
Edmund turned to look at the knight. “Edmund, sir.”
“Edmund, the only chance of finding your family and friends lies with our army, now.” Edmund’s mouth dropped open at the knight’s words. “And the only way that you will be able to join our company is if you live through the night.” He gestured towards where the other knight was.
Armand had been opening packs on his horse, but now stared openmouthed at Sir Gregory, who continued. “Which you certainly won’t be able to do on your own. Now help us set up camp. We’ll need firewood.” He turned away from Edmund and started rummaging through his saddlebags.
Ryan walked over to his friend’s side. “Edmund, we’d better play along,” he muttered in a low voice. “They can help us.”
On the other side of the camp, Armand finally closed his mouth, but continued staring at Gregory with disbelief. He cleared his throat, and everyone turned to look at him. “Gregory, you can’t be serious.”
“What?” Gregory asked, shaking his head slightly.
“Did you just tell these… farm boys,” he sneered, gesturing at them, “that they could join the army?”
Gregory strode over to Armand. “No, Sir Armand. I did not tell them that they could join the army.I drafted them.They will begin training as soon as we can get them to camp.”
“What?” Ryan yelled, staring open-mouthed at Gregory. “You can’t just—”
He stopped in mid-sentence, as Gregory turned to face him with steely eyes.
“Sir Armand.” Gregory addressed his fellow knight without taking his eyes off of Ryan. “As you know, our situation is dire. The Triols push us back every day. We have little hope.”
“I know,SirGregory, you’re used to training boys as we travel. That is why we brought your castle’s sergeant along. But these boys aren’t worth the trouble, I assure you.” He pointed at Ryan. “That one already spoke out of turn twice. Disrespectfully, too, with the temerity to question us.”
Gregory frowned, and thrust his chin towards the remains of Middleton. “These boys have nowhere to go, Armand. Nobody left. Edmund has already said that he would throw his life away searching for the army that captured their families, and I imagine Ryan would lead the way.” He laughed, gently, and nodded at the boys. “Imagine what would happen if you found your families? You would instantly share their fate, and be a prisoner—if you were lucky and the Triols didn’t just kill you out of surprise or spite.
“No, Armand,” he continued, “their only chance is with the army.” He smiled, but with a fire in his eyes. “If you don’t find your family alive, boy, then at least you will be properly prepared to visit revenge upon them for what they’ve done.
“But for now,” Gregory said, looking over at Edmund, raising his eyebrows, “we need firewood. Why don’t you and Ryan go gather some wood so that we are not too cold while we sleep tonight?”
* * *
The morning after Middleton burned, they had marched directly to the local Lord’s castle and met the rest of the company. After that, the days had been filled with marching towards the distant Gredarin River, and the evenings had been full of sword practice. Pretty soon, Ryan had been too tired to stay awake for dinner. Edmund seemed to handle it a bit better, at first, but Ryan got used to it quickly enough.
Over a month had passed, and the leaves were dropping off the trees where the company made camp for the night. The boys had finished marching and training for the day, and had just returned to their tent. It was just big enough to put three pallet beds on each side. Six young “recruits” had to put it up and take it down each day, which was frustrating, but it kept Ryan and Edmund from thinking too much about their terrible situation.
“This place is terrible,” Edmund said as he unlaced his leather jerkin.
“Well, at least we’re allowed to rest a bit.” Ryan flopped down on his pallet, not bothering to take off his jerkin. “The others are still out practicing. We must have done well.” Edmund dropped his jerkin onto a large pack at the foot of the bed, and slowly flopped down onto his bed.
“Sure, we did ‘well’—that just means ‘better than the others.’ They were so awful they’re being punished. I don’t know about you, but I got beat pretty bad.”
Ryan rolled over—no small feat, considering how sore he was. Harvesting in the fields had made him sore before. This was different, though: wooden training swords left marks, so harvesting seemed nearly pain-free in comparison.
Ryan wrinkled his nose, and sniffed a couple of times. “You’re right, it does stink.” He grinned. “But I think it’s mostly you.”
Edmund threw a boot at Ryan, who ducked easily.
“Seriously, Ryan, I don’t know why you’re not more upset.” Edmund groaned as he rolled over. “Endless marching, endless practice, and all of it is filled with smelly people in smellier armor screaming at us—
“—With their smelliest breath?” Ryan interjected, with a wry grin.
“Yeah, with their smelliest breath.” Edmund flopped onto his chest. “And we still have no idea where our families are.”
Ryan’s grin faded. “Well, Gregory says that we might find them on the way to the river.”
Edmund grumbled. “The Gredarin? I suppose. If they’re even still alive.”
“Gregory said that we would have time afterwards to search for them, too.”
Edmund snorted. “But when will that be? He won’t even tell us why we’re going to the river, much less when we’ll get there.”
They were silent for a moment.
Edmund finally cleared his throat. “I got hit twice as much as you did,” he said, rubbing his chest. Edmund rolled onto his side and pulled his shirt up. “I mean, look at my ribs! You’d think they’d put some cloth on those fake swords we use. Padding would be nice”
Ryan looked at his friend’s purple and black bruises. Several of them were the size of his hand.
“Maybe they can’t use padding because it would make us soft?” Ryan reasoned. He looked out the tent flap, where the shadows of several other young men fell as they returned. “Maybe they’re trying to prepare us, make us strong enough for battle, so they make us hurt?”
“Maybe they just like hurting people,” Edmund said, darkly.
“I don’t think they’re hurting us ‘cause they like to. There must be a reason.” Ryan groaned, slid to the edge of his blankets, and stood up. “C’mon, we’d better get our stuff put away. You know the sergeant isn’t going to like it if he comes back with the rest of our group and finds us slacking off.”
“But he told us to go slack off!” Edmund sputtered.
Ryan smiled. “That’s what hesaid, but I doubt that’s what he really meant.” He patted Edmund gently. “C’mon, if I’ve got enough energy to put our things away, I know you do—and if we’re going to keep getting a little bit of slack, we’ve got to stay on top of things.”
Edmund snorted. “What’s the use of getting slack if you don’t use it?”
Despite his words, he got up, opened his pack, and started folding his jerkin.
* * *
There were twelve of them in training, arranged in two rows, holding their shields high, and keeping their wooden swords pointed at their partner’s chest.
Kind of like our dancing in Middleton’s harvest festival.Ryan remembered, not without a pang of loss.All we’re doing is learning new dances.
“Repeat after me, you weak little maggots!” The sergeant grinned, enjoying his colorful language. “I will not drop my guard today!”
“I will not drop my guard today!”
“My shield is my friend!”
“My shield is my friend!”
“Okay, we’re going to try to learn three new things today. How to defend against a …”
Chanting back the instructions didn’t take any thought, and Ryan struggled to pay attention. He seemed to be able to figure things out pretty well, evidenced by the fact he had fewer bruises than the other boys. He just made sure that he wasn’t stepping on his “dance partner’s” feet—unless he meant to, of course, battle was kind of different from dancing, in the end—and the movements of his hands, the blocks, the shield bumps, the sword swinging in to give his partner a nice “thwack!” on the head, these things were easy.
“All right, you weaklings got what we’re doing today? I want you to do a simple high swing, followed by an attempt to push your opponent off his balance! Do that five times each! After that, normal rules apply, if it’s light, call ‘light’ and keep fighting; if it’s a good shot to a limb, you can’t use that limb until combat is over; if it’s a good shot to the head or chest, you’re out!
As usual, Ryan and Edmund started out together, and they were relatively soft on each other. Ryan went first, swinging his sword up to the side, then down. Edmund simply lifted his shield out to the side, deflecting the wooden blade to the side. Ryan stepped in and pushed his shield into Edmund’s center, which was left open from the shield’s sword block. Edmund pushed back with the hilt of his sword, and Ryan paused.
“What?” Edmund said. “You didn’t push hard enough, I wasn’t close to off balance.”
Ryan sighed and stepped back, squaring off again. Edmund assumed his guard position, and Ryan swung again. Edmund deflected the blow easily, and Ryan pushed in with his shield, again too gently for Edmund. They squared off a third time.
This time, when Edmund’s hand touched Ryan’s shield, Ryan flung his shield out to the side, carrying Edmund’s hand—and sword—with it. Meanwhile, Ryan had taken advantage of his sword’s bouncing off of Edmund’s shield, and used the momentum to loop it down, out, and over the top of Edmund’s shield. Edmund tried to bring his shield up, but he was too late: Ryan’s sword gently—but not too gently—bounced off the top of Edmund’s head.
The sergeant watched all of this from the sidelines. While Edmund rubbed the crown of his head and Ryan laughed at his friend’s hurt expression, he picked up a training sword and quietly walked up behind Ryan. Edmund’s eyes widened and his mouth dropped open, and Ryan turned around.
“En guard!” the sergeant yelled, pointing his wooden sword at Ryan’s chest while Edmund backed away.
The man woke up. Somehow, waking up seemed … unusual.
People were chanting. He tried to open his eyes to look, but the lids seemed glued shut. He tried to rub the sleep out of his eyes, but his arms were so weak they felt like they had been tied to the table. Maybe they had been? He wiggled his fingers, rocked his hands back and forth, but felt no restraints.
Someone spoke. It seemed to be from a faraway place, echoing, and difficult to understand. A few of the words were so garbled that he had to guess.
“You will be weak for a few days, my new friend. You were further along the path of disease than anyone we have ever called. We were not sure that you could return, despite the fact that you clearly wanted to.”
A hand brushed his eyelids, which came unstuck. Suddenly, he was looking into the crinkled, smiling eyes of a man. They were blue, but not like the sea after a storm—more like the lighter blue of the sky on a warm summer’s day.
The blue-eyed man lifted the awakened man’s head, and tipped some rose-scented water into his mouth. The water was cool, and swallowing was the only thing that seemed to come naturally.
“Rest, now, and know joy. You have survived, which in this time of war is no small thing. Most men who walk the path do not return.” He paused, and tilted his head. “You must have had great reason.”
Great reason…I wonder what he means?He thought to himself. His eyelids seemed already to be growing heavy, but they snapped open widely as he realized that his mind seemed empty.
“What troubles you enough to open your eyes, my new friend? You need rest,” the man said with a deep and soothing voice.
“I … I don’t remember anything.” The prone man’s voice was full of worry, despite his nearly emotionless face.
“Nothing?” He seemed surprised for a moment, but then nodded. “That is unusual, but not unheard of.” The man paused for a moment, considering. “Perhaps it is important for you not to know. Perhaps you had gone too far along the path when we called you back. Or, perhaps, you will remember all in due time.
The old man stood up. “But there is nothing you can do about it now. Sleep, my new friend. Tomorrow is a new day. A new day for your new life.”
* * *
When he awoke, it was evening. There were no people in his room, chanting or otherwise. He noticed a book and a glass of water on the table next to him, and found to his surprise that he was able to reach out and grab the glass with relative ease. He craned his neck upward, trying to sit up, but did not have the strength. He rolled slightly to the side, and managed to put the corner of his mouth on the glass, and drank down the rose water without taking a breath. He felt a surge of energy after drinking, and managed to roll onto his side, then push himself up into a sitting position.
There was a chair in the corner of the room. On it hung some fresh clothing. He realized that he was naked, and that his skin was pink, fresh, and clean. Embarrassed that he had needed to be bathed like a mewling babe, he got up and limped over to the chair before he realized that he shouldn’t be strong enough to do so. He paused, shirt in hand, and gave a lopsided smile.
“The damn fool didn’t know it couldn’t be done, so he went ahead and did it,” he muttered to the empty room. He was feeling much better, and so quickly. Maybe that chanting had something to do with it? Or the rose water? Or the … place where he was?
There was a polished silver mirror nearby. He staggered over to it. He was not unhandsome, he thought, as he ran a hand through his black hair. It was of medium length, and fell in loose curls against his neck. A broad jaw framed a wide mouth, and deep blue eyes looked back out of the mirror. Was there a scar on his face? Glare from the window covered it. He leaned in closer to the mirror, but found that the scar was actually on the mirror. His eyes glanced into the reflection of the outdoors that had been obscuring the mark on the mirror.
Come to think of it, whereamI, anyway?He turned around and looked out the window. The terrain was mountainous, with fir trees that had snow on them—but it was nondescript. He shrugged, and then stuffed his feet through the loose pants, dropped the shirt over his head.
There was a knock on the door. He invited whomever it was to come in; the old man with the light blue eyes stepped through.
“Feeling better, I see?” he said, smiling. He was overweight, but his flashing, bright eyes showed an unexpected energy that ran deep.
“I can limp a few steps now. I didn’t even think about my weakness, when I saw the clothing.” He blushed. “I’m sorry, it looked like I had to be bathed.”
The man nodded. “You were quite a mess when you came in. But I’m being rude.” He extended his hand. “My name is Matthew.”
The man slowly reached out and took Matthew’s hand, his eyes downcast. “I’m afraid I don’t remember my name.”
Matthew grinned. “Do not worry! We’ve been calling you ‘The Sleeper.’ I think we can change that to ‘Awakened,’ what do you think?”
“Awakened?” The look of puzzlement on his face must have been clear. Matthew raised his eyebrows apologetically.
“We weren’t sure if you would awake.” He smiled kindly. “You spent nearly a month on that bed.”
“A month.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Your eyes are as big as saucers, Awakened.” The corners of Matthew’s eyes crinkled as he smiled reassuringly. “These things can take time. Rest was called for, this past month—and it is still called for. We will have you on your way soon enough, and then you can get back to what you were doing before your illness.” He sat down on the edge of the small bed. “The clothes you were wearing were unusable. Those clothes are yours to keep.” He placed his hand on the book that lay near the bed. “This book is a history, and contains many names; feel free to peruse it to help you choose a name.
“We are also cleaning and sharpening your sword. Sister Joan was sorely disappointed with your blade; she said that it appeared as if it were made entirely of rust.” Matthew chuckled. “She is polishing it up, and making a scabbard to fit.”
“If it is a blade of rust,” the Awakened grunted, “then perhaps we should just throw it away, and find a new one.”
“Do not worry for the blade, Awakened.” Matthew smiled. “I believe that Sister Joan has been chosen to heal weapons in the same way that I have been chosen to heal people. It is a valuable skill, in times like these.” He tilted his head a bit to the side, his smile broadening as he spoke of Joan. “And I believe that your blade may have been special in some way. It had writing carved in it that we did not recognize. Sister Joan will repair it.” He nodded, closing his eyes for a moment. Suddenly, his face broke into a huge grin. “I believe that her reaction upon seeing it was similar to a hungry cat upon seeing a dead sparrow—perhaps a bit disconcerting to the rest of us, but a happy reaction for her. Your blade will likely be better than new.” His smile faded. “That is, when you finally receive it.”
The Awakened turned to look at Matthew, then ducked his head. “Thank you. How can I ever repay you? Did I have any money?”
Matthew chuckled. “No, sir, you did not—but we don’t need money here. The local farmers tithe grain to us, and we make some of our own vegetables. We are here to serve, our healing waters are here for whomever recognizes that they are needed. You recognized it and managed to get here, despite your condition.”
“Do you know what disease I had?” He sounded hopeful, but frightened nonetheless.
Matthew frowned. The expression didn’t seem to suit his face. “No, we don’t really know. We’ve seen this sort of thing before, but never really been able to put a name on it. I apologize.” His face lit up again as he continued. “It doesn’t really matter, though, you’re here and you’re alive. We can give you a bit ofvitlach,the healing rose water, before you leave, and a very modest amount of money. You had a sword; there is a war in the valley, perhaps you came here from there.” His eyebrows knitted, his smile faded. “Perhaps you are still needed down there. I don’t know.”
The Awakened turned back toward the window. “Well, thank you again. I will never be able to repay what you’ve done.”
Matthew stood up and walked over to the man, sharing the view out of the window. After a moment, he spoke softly. “There is one thing that you can do, although not for us.Help other people, since we have helped you. Do what’s right, for them and for yourself.”
“Of course, Matthew.” The Awakened focused on Matthew’s reflection in the glass. There was something more behind Matthew’s eyes. He seemed concerned, and on the edge of speaking, so the Awakened spoke again.
“What is it, Matthew?” he asked.
Matthew’s tension increased a bit. “During that month that you were unable to wake, you spoke in your sleep. What you had to say wasn’t always … pleasant.”
The Awakened turned towards Matthew, his expression mixed with emotions. His eyebrows were knitted together with worry, but his mouth was open, eager to ask for any hope of his past life. “What did I say?”
Matthew shook his head. “You were mostly expressing regret. Saying things like ‘I should have done it differently.’ There was nothing specific, nothing to help you remember, I’m afraid.” He shuddered. “But the tone in which you said it was terrible. Full of fear.”
“Well, I certainly don’t feel that way now.” The awakened still looked worried. “I feel like…well, like agoodperson, you know? What could I have done that would engender such regret and fear?”
Matthew paused for a moment. Then, he clapped the Awakened’s shoulder. “Be light of heart, my friend. I’m sure that you will be a fine man, and you will remember what is meant for you to remember. After all,” he said, with a sad grin, “sometimes it is better to forget.” He turned to leave.
* * *
It took a week of recuperation to get well enough that he could walk for more than a few minutes without becoming winded. He slept a lot, and he received instruction in light stretching exercises that helped rapidly rebuild some of his lost strength. Of course, thevitlachseemed to help quite a bit too.
After seven days had passed, and after an exercise session, Matthew visited him again, carrying a long bag with him which he set beside the door.
“I see that you’ve recovered your color, Awakened.” Matthew smiled, his eyes crinkling. “I hear that you can touch your toes now! Nowthatis real progress.” He winked.
The Awakened laughed along with Matthew. “Yes, I can.” He bent over and leaned over, knees locked, and put his palms on the floor.
“Your palms on the floor! I had but imagined that you could touch your toes with your fingertips!” Matthew bent over, but his large belly got in the way. His fingers dangled inches above his toes. “You have achieved the Nirvana of Noodles, you are more flexible than a tired old monk!”
They both grinned, and the Awakened sat down. His smile slowly faded. “I may have recovered flexibility in my body, but my mind hasn’t recovered in the same way—I still don’t remember anything.”
Matthew sighed. “I was afraid of that.” He shook his head gently, and cast his gaze downward. “I fear that you will never know who you used to be. Or what is perhaps worse, that if your memory does come back, it will be due to a shock of similar magnitude to the one that sent you here.”
“A shock similar to the disease that almost killed me?” They stood in silence for a moment until Matthew grinned again. Somehow his grin, his crinkled light blue eyes, had the power to banish worry from the room.
“Well,” he said to the Awakened, “there are other things to worry about—and to be happy about! You must choose a name today, for tomorrow you will leave and try to find a new way in the world.” He glanced over toward the door before exclaiming, “Oh! And I brought your sword. Sister Joan spent quite a lot of time on it, and wished for you to know that she enjoyed the work. She seemed to think that it had a nearly perfect blade, before it became rusty.” He shook his head, clearly in awe of what the Sister had done. “She truly has a talent with metal.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded toward the package he had put near the door. “Why don’t you take a look at her handiwork?”
The Awakened stood and approached the bag, made of red felt. He opened the drawstring and drew a broad-bladed bastard sword out of the bag. Its new sheath was made of thick leather, embossed with representations of knot-like patterns all down its length, along with a collar of carved steel depicting two dragons chasing each other around the blade’s entrance. The hilt was long, and was wrapped with silver wire, made of lighter gauge wires twisted together. Strangely, there was no pommel, and the slightly rounded cross guard was steel polished so that it shone. There was a small blue stone inset in the middle of the cross guard, with matching stones on the ends.
He tossed the bag onto the bed, and drew the sword from its sheath. The blade glinted and gleamed as if it held light within itself. It seemed flawless, as if no rust had ever touched it. He tested the edge with his thumb; he could feel each ridge of his fingerprint catching on its sharpness. The metal of the sword seemed to have been carefully forged: its surface was mirror-smooth and deep, as if it had been hot liquid metal one moment, then somehow frozen in time and space. The symbols reflected light strangely, their dark corners almost absorbing light.
There were markings on the flat of the blade, but in a language he did not know. He brought the blade close to his eyes, examining the runes closely. Cold seemed to flow off of the blade, making his eyes water. He turned towards Matthew and raised his eyebrows.
“As I said the other day, we do not know what language the markings are in,” Matthew said to his unasked question. “The only thing we know for certain is that if we have not studied the language here, it is a very old language indeed.”
The awakened nodded and turned back to his sword. He hefted it into the air and swung it. It made a satisfyingwhoosh, but he found himself off balance, and had to reach out to the wall to keep from falling. Without a pommel, the sword was blade heavy.
“Where is the pommel?” he asked.
Matthew scratched under his ear. “We don’t know. It appears to have a narrow socket, but the screw-hole is threaded too finely for any sword-maker we have ever seen. No one we know can make threads that fine.” He shrugged. “You’ll just have to get used to it, or improvise something.”
The Awakened took some more swings with it, but although his muscles seemed to feel at home with the sword, he couldn’t find his balance. It was clearly going to be difficult to get used to.
“It is a very fine sword," he said, nodding to Matthew. “Will I be able to thank Sister Joan in person? I had hoped that she would give me the sword so that I could thank her for her care.”
Matthew put his hands out to the side. “Alas, she has already left. She will be happy to hear of your gratitude, but she has set out for the Kingdom of Mathrekesh. They have been performing the arts of the blacksmith far longer than we have, and she hopes to find some knowledge of the markings on the blade.”
“Her work is masterful.” He held the sword up in front of his face, examining the indecipherable writing. “I would not believe that this blade had ever been used before, much less that it was in the state that you said she found it in…what did she say?”
Matthew smiled, and raised his eyebrows while quoting her words: “That it was ‘as if it were entirely made of rust’. But Sister Joan in an exceptional blacksmith.” He chuckled. “And perhaps she exaggerated the condition a bit, as well. I didn’t see the blade when you came in, I was occupied with your body.”
“That she must be a master, to have done this.” He shook his head, picked up the newly made sheath, and put the sword away.
For some reason, he suddenly felt warmer.
Matthew cleared his throat. The Awakened looked up at him, eyebrows raised again.
“Have you chosen a new name, Awakened?”
“I have.” He looked downward. “I believe that I would like to be called Renek.“
Matthew frowned. He thought for a moment before responding. “After the old king of Lerona, west of here?” The Awakened nodded, and Matthew continued. “He is mentioned in the third chapter of the book, I think. He is referred to as the ‘breaker of worlds,’ is he not?” The Awakened nodded again.
“That is why I thought it was fitting,” the Awakened said. “Haven’t I had my world broken?” He smiled gently. “Be it a disease or an angry man with a sword, death can come easily to all of us. Both the original Renek and I have survived at least a kind of world-breaking.”
Matthew shook his head. “But hecausedthe world-breaking wars that he survived. He was the father of death itself … he sent myriads of souls to hell, leaving their bodies unburied, where they became food for birds and dogs.” His voice grew serious as he looked away from the Awakened. “According to the text, the soil was unable to grow crops normally for three generations after Renek’s eventual death—there had been too much blood spilled!
He paused, shrugging. “I just do not think that this is a wise choice.”
“I can see that you don’t like it,” Renek said. “But for some reason, it feels right. The name does not feel evil to me, but rather feels good.” He looked at Matthew’s eyes, resting beneath a furrowed brow. “Perhaps I am here to make the name carry honor once again?”
Matthew considered for a moment, eyes narrowed. Finally, he smiled again, though weakly. “Perhaps that is the case. I hope you have chosen well, Renek.” He paused. “You should eat, and then rest well tonight. Tomorrow you can begin ‘the long walk,’ as we call it—the nearest village is many miles away, and you will want to leave at dawn.”
* * *
The dawn brought warmth to the abbey’s cold walls. Renek was already awake and ready to greet the Sun as it crested the horizon. There was snow under the dense firs that lined the pathway leading to the stone walls of the abbey, but the path itself was clear.
Matthew was there to see him off.
“It snowed a few days ago. It’s spring, so the armies will be on the move soon. If they aren’t already, that is.” Matthew shook his head and frowned that frown that still seemed to belong to someone else’s face. “I hope that there are not too many killed, this year.”
“Was last year bad?” He furrowed his brow in concern.
“Oh, yes, there were thousands dead,” Matthew said, nodding. “We had many wounded seek us out. It was difficult for all of us, but of course we were glad to be able to help people.”
“Isn’t it difficult, healing people who are just likely to go get themselves hurt again?” He put his hand on Matthew’s shoulder.
Matthew looked out at the valley, and was quiet for a while. Finally, he spoke. “Yes, it can be a heavy burden.” He turned to look at Renek. “That is why it is important that you remember: you should repay any debt you have with us by giving whatever help you can to help other people to have a better life.”
Renek looked with concern into the light blue eyes, which were so bright they were almost flashing. “I promise, Matthew. I will…but I have to ask, why do you stress this? Are you worried for my future? Do you think that my … regrets, you called them … will come back to haunt me?”
Matthew sighed. “Life is uncertain. When you were speaking in your deep slumber, and hinting at the difficulties you had been through, it was clear that you might have regrets.” He gestured down into the valley. “What happened before does not necessarily need to happen again, and, if it does, it is not necessarily for the bad.
“Perhaps your actions, which led you to regrets, were witnessed by others who were encouraged to act in a way that they would be more proud of.” Matthew reasoned. “Perhaps you regret only small things—we humans often obsess over the smallest, most inconsequential things.” Unexpectedly, he barked a laugh, and grinned widely. “I remember one time, I encouraged some of our patients to sing with me—the results were … well, let us say, the results were not spectacular.” He grinned and winked at Renek. “I sometimes think the abbey’s walls must have cracked from the sound. I am fairly sure that we drove the birds off for weeks!” He sighed, and although his smile stayed, his eyes narrowed. “I have regretted that for many years. They were such awful singers, and so embarrassed—the chagrin showed on their faces. Every time I think of it, I hang my head in shame.” He grinned wryly at Renek. “Yet, however bad it was, we did add song to the world for a time. Perhaps that is not something I should regret—but I do.”
“Matthew, you do not regret the song. You regret the embarrassment that you assume that you must have caused your patients.”
Matthew tilted his head to the side, and looked out over the valley again. The sun was rising higher, and light was spilling into the basin, chasing the shadow away. “Yes, perhaps you’re right.” He laughed again, and clapped Renek on the shoulder. “Thank you, my friend. May you never regret your actions.”
Renek straightened, and turned to face Matthew. “Thank you for everything you’ve done.”
“You’re welcome, Renek.” He nodded. “Try not to come back, but if you need to, you will be most welcome.”
Renek turned away, and began walking down the narrow footpath away from the abbey.
* * *
He had been walking for hours down the steep road. The abbey had disappeared, hidden by the forest after only a few minutes, and it seemed like he hadn’t gotten anywhere since then. Nobody was nearby, and all he could see was trees, and a pathway through them. There wasn’t much underbrush in the forest, but the occasional shrub gave places for birds to rest their wings. A bit of snow lay along the roadside.
The only thing that seemed to change was the field below him. Far in the distance, there was a large amount of dust coming off of one side, clearly emanating from a swarming gray mass of people.
Armies, probably,he thought while he stopped for a moment to drink some water. He took out a large horn that the monks had given him, removed the cap, and drank the clear coldness. “They must be fighting,” he said aloud, while fishing in his pack. Soon, he pulled out a small vial ofvitlach. “Some cavalry, or there wouldn’t be so much dust this early in the year.” One swallow of thevitlachseemed to fortify him against the coldness. He stood up a bit straighter.
“Look at me, talking to myself.” He grinned. “Too long without talking to anybody but Matthew.” He shook his head, laughing softly. “He was a strange one. Those eyes were…penetrating.” He shook his head again, but more forcefully, as if trying to clear it of the cobwebs that might have formed in his mind during the time in the abbey.Was it only a week that I was there?He thought silently.
“Seemed longer,” he added, aloud.
It took the rest of the day, as Matthew had warned him, but he eventually got to the village at the base of the mountain. In reality, the ‘village’ turned out to be a small general store and inn that the local farmers came to have a drink once in a while. He stood outside of the building, looking at the two horses hitched to the railing.
“Cold enough for ya?” he asked the horses. One of them blinked at him; he got no further reaction. “Maybe I’d better go inside. Thisvitlachdoesn’t satisfy like real food does.”
The door banged shut behind him as he entered the room. There was a fire going, with a large pot of stew of something over it, and the two men who must belong to the horses outside were sitting at a table near the fire, drinking beer. The innkeeper was a tall, thin woman who looked at Renek with suspicion. She was older, and her white hair was thinning. After a moment, she spoke in a croaking voice that sounded unused.
“Can I get somtin’ for ya? We got beer, and some beef stew.”
Renek nodded, then cleared his throat. “Beer would be nice, barkeep, and some stew would just about hit the spot right now.”
“That’ll be 7 copper, stranger," she said, holding her hand out over the counter.
Renek opened his pouch and counted out some money.There isn’t much in here, he thought.I’d better be careful not to spend too much.Aloud, he said, “How about five, barkeep? I’ll give you seven if you let me stay the night, too.”
The barkeep narrowed her eyes. “Stranger, I don’t know where you come from, but hereabouts we don’tdicker.” The two men near the fire laughed a bit.
One of them spoke up. “Now, Freiya, you know that price you quoted were for a room, too.” He turned to look at Renek but kept talking to the barkeep. “Leastways, that’s what you charged that fella last night.
“Don’t mind Freiya, stranger.” He looked pointedly down at Renek’s sword. “She’s just tired of havin’ soldiers try and haggle with her.” He pulled a chair from another table, and smiled. “Why don’t you come sit with us while you et your dinner?”
Freiya clunked a bowl on a tray, and pulled a long lever, made of a stag’s antler, to fill a stein of beer.
Renek smiled as he walked over to the table where they sat. “I suppose company would be welcome. I haven’t seen many people of late.” He sat in the offered chair.
“Oh? Where you been, then?” His voice was rough, but kind.
“Here and there.” Freiya shambled over to the fire and slopped some stew into the bowl. Renek realized Freiya had drawn his gaze away. He turned back to the man and stuck out his hand. “Traveling. I’m Renek.”
“Don’t want to talk about it, huh? Don’t blame you. My name’s Thomas. And this here’s Will.” He gestured to the younger man. Renek shook Will’s hand, looking them both up and down. They were scruffy and dirty, both with untrimmed beards. From their simple clothing, stained with dirt, they looked to be farmers. Will was very thin, Thomas a bit tubby.
“So, you gents from around here, then?” Renek asked, trying to be polite.
“Oh, yeah,” he drawled. “Will works for me up on my farm, ‘bout five miles west.”
“What do you farm?” Freiya plonked down the tray with the beer and the stew. There was a hunk of bread next to the bowl. Renek picked it up and found that it was rock hard.Probably yesterday’s bread,he thought.
“Wheat, mostly.” He took a pull of beer. “Have some sheep, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth, really.” He spat on the floor. “Bunch of dirty, sorry animals. Cows’re where the money is, though. I can’t afford `em, so that’s that for that.” He glanced at Renek’s sword again. “So, you a soldier?”
“Haven’t been for a while.” He shrugged. “Thinking about it again—”
The front door crashed open, slamming against the wall, and three men came in. Their weapons were drawn.
“We don’t want any trouble, innkeeper! We just want your money!” The tallest of the three yelled. Freiya had jumped behind her bar as soon as she heard the noise. “Give us your money—”
“And some beer!” yelled the shortest of the men.
The leader looked at the short one, frowning, but finally nodded. “Yeah, and some beer, or we’ll cut you and your ‘customers’ up.”
The men were clearly soldiers, but there was something odd about them. They were very thin, and their uniforms were in tatters. All three of them had a sword in their right hands, with long dagger in their left hands.
“Yeah, yeah, ha ha yeah” stuttered the one who hadn’t yet spoken. “Cut your ‘cuuustoMERs. Ha ha! And beer! Beer! Ha!”
“Shut up, Len!” the tallest man hissed between clenched teeth.
Back at the table by the fire, Renek was fidgeting, fingering the hilt of his sword under the table. There were three of them, but they were tired, thin, had poor weapons. This innkeeper certainly didn’t deserve what was happening. And this might be a chance to start associating good with his new name.
The two men he was sitting with were looking at him…his expression must have given him away.
“Don’t do it, lad, Freiya’ll just give them some coin and they’ll leave,” the heavyset one whispered at Renek.
Matthew told me to repay him by helping others.“Pay it forward …” Renek thought, and made his decision.
“You thieves!” Freiya shouted. “You think you can—” Len threw his dagger at Freiya. Fortunately for the barkeep, it hit her sideways, doing no damage. But Freiya was cowed a bit. She bent over and pulled a drawer open.
“Careful, there! That better be money you’re getting, barkeep, because if it ain’t—”
Renek stood up and drew his sword. Luckily, Joan had ringed the mouth of the sheath with that bit of steel, and the sword made a satisfactory ‘shing!’as he pulled it into the air.
“Gentlemen, I think that you should leave now,” Renek said, with what he hoped was a voice that betrayed none of his fear.
The sergeant is testing me,Ryan thought. He lifted his shield and brought his sword up to point at his opponent’s chest, the sounds of fighting around them seemed to drop away. He wasn’t sure if the others had stopped fighting to watch, or if he stopped hearing their noises; either way, his senses seemed to sharpen.
The sergeant swung his sword down in the maneuver that they were supposed to be practicing, but much faster and harder. Ryan defended with his shield, although he had to step back and drop his weight to fend off the much heavier man.
That gave him leverage to push back, though, and he did so with all his might. He pushed with his legs, his stomach, his chest, his arm—he felt like he was pushing with his eyes. Even his lungs pushed, and he heard air rushing out of his mouth.
The sergeant was taken aback by the power of the boy’s push, but he did not go far. He outweighed Ryan, and was also wearing heavy chain mail, belted at the waist. It threw him off balance, though, and he stepped backwards trying to regain control.
Ryan was slow in reacting to his unexpected success, and jumped forward a bit too late. He swung, hard and fast, at the sergeant’s helm, but the larger man shifted his sword just far enough to catch Ryan’s on his cross guard. He then brought the sword straight down onto Ryan.
Ryan’s right shoulder seemed to explode in pain. No bones snapped, but the blow brought him to his knees. His hand seemed to have stopped working, he realized his sword was in the dust but he couldn’t get his hand to move toward it.
“Do you yield?” the sergeant screamed at the boy.
“I yield, sergeant!” Ryan knew better than to speak softly, but it hurt his shoulder when he yelled, and he winced at the pain.
The sergeant turned to his class. “If I see any of you being as tame as these two were, I’ll come after you! This little weakling didn’t have a chance, and he’s the best of you sorry lot, so you’d better work at it!
He turned around and looked at Ryan. “Andyouhad better not let me catch you joking around again. Battle isn’t funny. If you go easy on your friend, he’s not going to know what to do in battle. You want to have his death on your head?” Ryan shook his head. “Then make himwork. You’ve only got a month, maybe a month and a half before we’re at the river. A few cold months after that and then you’re out on the battlefield.” He snorted. “The Triols won’t tap you lightly on your noggin, that’s for sure.”
He turned and walked back to the edge of the clearing they were in. Edmund held out his hand, and Ryan found that his arm could move again, though it was painful. He winced again as Edmund pulled him to his feet.
“You alright?” Edmund asked quietly.
“Yeah, but I think I’m going to win for ‘biggest bruise’ today," he said, wincing.
Edmund grinned. “I don’t know, I usually have some whoppers.” He bent over and grabbed Ryan’s sword. “He got you pretty good, though. Mean bastard, isn’t he?”
“I dunno.” Ryan rubbed his shoulder. “I think he really believes that he’s helping.”
Edmunds eyes widened. “If that’s helping, then what’s hurting?”
“The same thing that he did just now, only with sharpened steel.” Ryan shook his arm, then squared off with Edmund. “He’s right, we shouldn’t go easy on each other. En guard!”
Edmund lifted his shield, and saluted his friend with his sword before he dropped into defensive stance; shield held high, sword pointed at Ryan’s chest.
* * *
Back at the barracks, Ryan peeled off his jerkin. Parts of it were soaked with sweat, and stuck to his skin everywhere, but especially where his shoulder was swollen.
It hadn’t hurt until the end of practice, but it got stiff quickly once he stopped moving. After sitting for a half an hour at dinner, he could barely move his arm.
Edmund helped him with the last of it, pulling the leather over his arm. Ryan’s jerkin landed at the edge of his bed, and was still soaking wet despite the time sitting at dinner.
Ryan hissed as he used his left hand to pull off his tunic. His shoulder was black and blue from his neck almost all the way to his elbow. It was also swollen, but not too badly.
“Ryan… That looks like it hurts like crazy,” Edmund said. He looked around warily. “Stay here, I’d better go get something for it.”
Ryan shook his head. “What are you going to do?”
“My mom used to make this herbal thing," he said, grabbing a small pack out of his trunk. “She made it enough that I think I can do it. It uses the leaves off of a particular type of wild rosebush. I saw some of them while we were marching this morning. I’ll be back in a quarter hour.”
Edmund ran out of the building before Ryan could protest. He sighed.
“That sergeant’s a mean one, ain’t he?” someone said, quietly. He turned and saw that it was Chris, a boy about a year younger than Ryan, who had come from a farm further north than Middleton. Chris plopped down on the bed next to Ryan.
“Yeah, he is.” It wasn’t worth trying to explain his reasoning as towhythe sergeant was mean. “Beat me pretty good, didn’t he?” Ryan smiled.
“I dunno, you did pretty well.” He shook his head. “I thought you were goin’ to beat him after you caught his shield push.”
Ryan shrugged, then winced with the pain that came. “I shouldn’t have tried that, I knew he was bigger than me.”
“Still, you pushed him back, didn’t you?” He grinned. “That’s pretty good.”
Ryan tilted his head. He wasn’t used to compliments. “Thanks.”
“Sure thing.” He wandered back to his bunk and sat down.
Edmund came back in a few minutes later, panting from his running. He spilled some shiny dark green leaves into his hand, and some thin scraggly roots.
Ryan shook his head. “You didn’t have to run.”
Edmund grinned. “Yes I did.”
“You didn’t have to do anything.” Ryan grimaced. “This’ll be ok by tomorrow.”
“No it won’t, don’t be stupid.” Edmund grabbed his canteen. “We have to go outside, I need dirt to mix this in.”
Ryan walked to the door with his friend, who knelt down in the dust, still wearing his leather jerkin, and poured a little water into the dust.
“Mom always crushed the leaves—and the roots, too, I forgot that she used to use the roots—with a mortar and pestle, but we’ll just have to tear them up and rub them into the dirt. I hope that’s good enough.” He started to break the leaves into small pieces over the water.
“I’m sure it’ll be fine, Edmund, don’t worry about it.” Ryan tilted his head to the side again and shrugged—but only with his good shoulder, this time. “Thanks.”
“No problem. I should have thought about it right after that guy beat on your shoulder, I could have picked up this stuff before dinner.” He hummed absentmindedly as he ripped the roots into small sticks, threw them in the water, and started rubbing them back and forth. This broke the leaves up even smaller, and started making the water soak into the dirt. Soon, he had a thick mud, and he stopped humming. Edmund beckoned to him. “Come here.”
Ryan knelt next to him. Edmund started singing quietly as he picked up a handful of the mud. Ryan immediately felt warmer, and his shoulder felt better even before Edmund slathered the mud on, roots sticking out every which way. Edmund’s voice caught, and then he started laughing.
Ryan frowned. “What?”
“You look like some sort of crazy hermit that can’t afford a shirt, so you’re wearing mud and sticks instead!” He laughed a bit more before clapping Ryan on his good shoulder. “You’d better put your tunic back on, I don’t think that the sergeant’s going to care why you got the bed muddy—he’ll just aim for the other shoulder!” He started laughing again.
“Thanks, Edmund,” Ryan said, eyes wide open with fake innocence. “I appreciate the advice.” He pushed Edmund through the barracks’ door. “You’ll go far with smarts like that, you will.”
Edmund just kept laughing as they headed back inside.
* * *
A few weeks of marching later, it started snowing.
We’re a bit far south for it to snow heavily, thank goodness, Ryan thought,and we’re moving further south every day. His shoulder had healed completely within days, but the sergeant had started pushing him harder than anyone else. He constantly had sore muscles, but was doing very well in the cadet contests that they staged once a week.
Today was a contest day, and the cadets were lined up in front of the sergeant again, waiting to find out who would fight whom.
“Boys, I want you to form a littledanceline.” Edmund nudged him in the ribs at the word. “Spar with each other for five minutes, then rotate—winner heads to the center, losers stay where they are.” He pointed off to his left, the cadets’ right. “I’ll head up and down the line to give advice.
“That’s me, always tryin’ to help.” He grinned “‘Course, my help might hurt a bit…so do your best!”
Ryan bested Edmund in the first two minutes, feinting high and to the left, which made Edmund overbalance when he tried to defend with his heavy shield. It was a simple matter to trip him and put the wooden sword on his chest. Ryan helped his opponent regain his feet, and they caught their breath.
Chris won the skirmish to Ryan’s right, and so he was next up. Ryan quickly defeated him with a well-timed shield bump that sent him sprawling.
“Heh. Forgot about that one,” Chris said as Ryan helped him up.
As they walked over to get a bit of water, Armand came up to the sergeant. He was wearing his full armor, which showed that he was one of the Knights of the Crown, the elite order that sometimes served as the king’s personal guard. Camp rumor was that, along with guarding the king, they also did some of the most dangerous secret missions. Recon deep into enemy territory was supposed to be the easiest thing they did. Some even whispered that assassination was their main purpose.
Ryan perked his ears up, but was unable to hear what the conversation was about as they walked back to the groups of sparring cadets.
The next two battles were a blur. He won both, the first by trading shield blows for a while until his opponent got sloppy, the second by moving around his opponent clockwise slowly. His opponent followed him with his shield, blocking Ryan’s strokes easily, but not with his feet. Once he was turned a bit, he closed shields, pushed, and landed a blow to the head while he was disoriented.
Ryan was really getting warmed up now, and he was near the center of the lines where the sergeant and the Knight stood. His new sparring partner, Joshua, lined up against him. Joshua was a much larger boy, perhaps by a half a foot. In their previous matches, he had been aggressive and intimidating. He was well muscled, too—his biceps reminded Ryan of the blacksmith’s son back in Middleton.
“Ha! I’ve wanted to battle you for weeks, Ryan.” He grinned. “I’ve been watching you. You’re probably the best in the class, other than me.” He banged his sword on his shield. “You lost a battle yet today?”
Ryan shook his head.
Joshua smiled. “Me either.” He then jumped at Ryan with no warning, swinging his sword over his head and then down at Ryan with all the strength he could, screaming loudly.
Ryan acted out of instinct; there wasn’t time for thinking. Backing up rapidly to give himself space, he lifted his sword’s hilt, pointing the wooden blade downwards at an angle. Joshua’s mighty blow glanced off of it, but there was still enough force to numb Ryan’s arm. And Joshua kept coming, hailing blows at Ryan, who couldn’t do anything but back up to give himself time to defend. Most of the other cadets had stopped to stare at this wild series of attacks, accompanied by Joshua’s cacophony of incoherent battle cries.
Ryan noticed Joshua’s eyes widen almost imperceptibly, and he sidestepped instead of backing up, avoiding a log meant to define the edge of the field. Ryan was beginning to notice a pattern: Joshua’s eyes weren’t moving, but his shoulders were giving away every move in advance. When he was going to swing at Ryan’s left side, his shoulders would point there first, and then his torso and arms would swing through. Also, his swings to the left were a bit harder than the swings to his right.
That was all Ryan needed.
He waited for his opponent’s shoulders to turn to the left, and as soon as they did, he dove to his right, rolling under the swing. Joshua had swung so hard that when his practice sword didn’t land on anything, he was caught by surprise—instead of a threatening battle yell, his next sound was more of a yelp. Ryan pivoted on his butt, kicking Joshua’s feet out from under him, and leapt up to administer a blow to the young man’s back. Hard enough to hurt, but not do any real damage. Some of the other boys actually gave a cheer.
“That was well done.”
Ryan spun around to find Armand standing near him. Up close, the man looked tired and worn. Several days’ worth of stubble grew on his cheeks. He had a guarded expression, brown eyes narrowed somewhat, but his hand was extended in congratulations. Ryan took his hand, and found it crushed in the man’s vice-like grip.
“T-thank you, Sir.” He managed to gasp out, wincing in pain.
Without letting go of Ryan’s hand, the Knight turned to the sergeant, and called: “If you don’t mind, sergeant, I’d like to test this boy’s mettle. Could you please hand me a training sword.” He turned a bit further, pulling Ryan far enough that he had to shift his feet, and gestured to one of the cadets standing nearby. “And you, boy, go get my shield for me.” Wide-eyed, the cadet scurried over to Armand’s warhorse and grabbed the shield, which the knight had hung off of the pommel.
Oh, great. And he’s just crushed my hand, too.Ryan thought. The sergeant tossed over a sword, which fell on the ground, and the knight finally let go to pick up the wooden trainer. Ryan massaged his hand quickly while the knight strapped on his shield.
Ryan squared his shoulders to the Knight, who was even bigger than Joshua, and was wearing armor. His real sword still hung at his side, a broadsword.That might encumber him a bit. Ryan thought, hopefully. Unfortunately, the armor looked well made, so Armand’s movement would still be fluid and easy.
The knight saluted, drawing up into an attention-like pose, and bringing his blade up to point at the sky before swooshing it diagonally down. Ryan followed suit, and they both came to an easy en-guard.
When it was clear that Ryan was ready, the knight attacked. He moved swiftly, but not overly so, into a standard slashing attack from his right. Ryan easily caught the blow on his shield and counterattacked in a similar way.
The Crown Knight threw his shield out to meet the blade. His shield arm was strong from years of carrying a heavy kingdom shield; Ryan’s sword clanged off of the shield so hard his arm was jolted. The armored warrior quickly brought his sword down towards Ryan’s shoulder.
Ryan knew that trick, though, and he brought his shield up to take the blow. The warrior was too strong, though, and Ryan’s shield arm dropped. To protect his shoulder, Ryan fell to his knees, and the force of the blow drove his shield’s point drove into the ground. Despite being on his knees, Ryan managed to make swipe from his jarred sword-arm, but the Knight carelessly pushed it aside with his shield, and tapped Ryan’s head with his wooden sword.
“Do you yield, cadet?”
Armand turned and strode over to the sergeant, tossing his practice sword carelessly to the side, and they spoke in muted voices. Edmund and a few other students rushed over.
“Are you ok?” Edmund said. “He hit you pretty hard.”
“He did, didn’t he?” Ryan lifted a knee, and brought himself to standing. “He hit harder with his shield than we’ve ever hit with our swords.” He rubbed his shocked sword arm a bit. The life seemed to be returning to it, there was no real damage. “Wasn’t much of a challenge, was I?”
Edmund grinned wryly. “Nope. He took you out.”
The sergeant leaned around the knight to look at the boys and yelled, “Form up!”
Ryan had to wiggle his shield back and forth to get it out of the ground, so he was the last one back to the line. From the edge of the ranks, he snapped to attention, saluting the sergeant and the knight, who were both looking directly at him.
“Cadets, you just saw what it’s going to be like fightingrealsoldiers! Your skills are obviously lacking. Even the best among you couldn’t last a minute against our friend here. We’ve got to—” The Knight put his hand on the sergeant’s shoulder, and the sergeant stopped abruptly. The Knight’s armor clanked a bit as he stepped to the front to address the cadets.
“I won’t lie to you, I watched you fight, and I picked the best one, despite his … background. He didn’t do well, but he did much better than I had thought he would.” He gestured at Ryan. “Boy? Your name is Ryan?”
Ryan nodded, and tried to swallow the lump that seemed to have appeared in his throat.Something’s going on here…he thought to himself.
“Boys, I want you to all train in the weeks to come. Do your best to be like Ryan here. He fought a good defensive battle, and held me off for a time. He managed not to get hurt.
“In the battlefield, that’s often all it takes. A friend can come to your aid in a few seconds. A number of you look promising, but most of you are … rough around the edges.
The Knight frowned deeply. “Sir Gregory says I must choose a squire. That it’s in the best interests of the Kingdom if I do so.” Ryan made a strangled noise deep in his throat. Edmund grinned and thumped him on the shoulder.
“Despite his rapid defeat, Ryan is the best here.” The knight shook his head sadly. “That’s why I’ve decided to take him on as my squire," he said, heavily.
Ryan and Edmund looked at each other, eyes wide.
Renek stood with his sword pointing at the leader of the three men.
Len seemed to think Renek’s threat was hilarious. “HA! He wants us to leave, he ha ha! Says? We’ll show him leave, won’t we,gentlemen? Ha ha!”
The tall one grimaced. “Everybody thinks they’re funny, Len. Remember last week, when that hired thug thought he could … remove us?”
“Ha! Yeah, George, I remember! Weremovedhim but good, didn’t we? Ha ha!”
“Look, mister,” George said. “That there’s a nice new shirt ya got on there. I’d hate to have to put some … holes in it, see?” He smiled, but it wasn’t a friendly smile. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I don’t know if you learned countin’, like I have, but, see, there’s three of us, see, and only one of you…that’s not very good for you.”
“Haha! Yeah, George, you tell him!”
“So, if you don’t mind,” the leader of the band of three continued, “we’ll be taking the money this innkeeper has—”
“And some beer! Hahah!”
“Shut UP, Len!” George yelled.
The third man shuffled his feet, looking down. “I don’t think you should yell at my brother like that, George.”
“Adam, we can talk about that later. We’rebusyright now. Thisniceman over there was going to put his sword away for us so that nobody would get hurt.”
Renek strode three long steps forward, putting himself in between the brigands and the bar. He lifted his sword, pointing it right at the leader’s chest, and squared his shoulders. “George, is it?” The tall one nodded. “Well, here’s my proposition. You leave, and we forget that this happened.”
George shrugged. “You haven’t told me your name, stranger.” Renek blinked, but said nothing. After a long pause, George continued. “I don’t think we’ll be leaving, stranger, not with three of us here and you the only one willing to stand up.” He glanced nervously over at the two other men, and back to Renek. “Why don’t YOU leave and let us go about our business, then you won’t have to get hurt.”
Renek shrugged. George looked over at Adam, and gestured at Renek. “Adam, get ‘im.”
Adam advanced, swinging his sword easily about him. He was a little less than ten feet away when he jumped forward, lunging, reaching out with his long sword for Renek’s flesh.
Renek didn’t think; it was as if his muscles had the memory that he lacked. Adam must have been ill, or malnourished, because he was moving slowly. Despite Renek’s lack of a pommel, he easily parried Adam’s blade, pushing it out towards the bar. Adam had overextended in an attempt to surprise, and Renek took advantage of it, jumping forward slightly and sliding his blade along Adam’s, pushing him further off balance. Adam had to move his back foot to stay upright, and he wavered just a bit.
Renek quickly pushed Adam’s sword down, and lifted his hilt—higher than he had intended to, the lack of a counterbalance was irritating—as he spun his blade around Adam’s like it was light wood instead of steel. His looping blade caught Adam’s, and Adam was unable to hold on; his eyes widened in surprise as his sword flew into the room, and clattered on the floor.
Renek continued his sword’s motion, and flicked it across Adam’s body. Since it was blade-heavy, it hit Adam’s left hand with surprising force. Adam yelled in pain as the sword bit deeply, and his dagger fell, following his sword onto the floor.
Weaponless, Adam looked at Renek for a moment, holding his bleeding hand. “You’re a devil!” he yelled, backing up. “Nobody moves that fast, it’s impossible!” He turned and ran to George, who was also backing up.
Renek felt as if he was coming out of a trance. He looked down at his bloody sword, and the hand the held it, in surprise. What was he talking about? Adam had been slow.I suppose to someone that slow, I must seem fast,he reasoned.
Len was sputtering in rage. George didn’t say a word, but he grabbed Len’s clothing and dragged him through the door. Adam followed, still making noises about ‘the devil is in him.’ The door slammed shut with a satisfying thunk.
Renek looked at the two men, who were staring back with mouths hanging open. “You had better check on your horses, they might still be thinking about thievery.”
As they got up and rushed out, Renek walked over to the bar and picked up a rag to clean his sword with. Freiya looked over the counter at him, smiling but still wary.
“That was some nice work there,” Freiya said.
Renek nodded. “Thanks.”
She nodded. “You were mighty fast, they were right.”
She seemed to be considering something, so Renek filled in the empty space while she thought. “I dunno,” he said, “maybe they were just slow.”
Freiya shook her head, frowning. “No, you were fast. I’ve seen soldiers brawling before.” Her frown turned into a thin smile. “You can stay and eat here tonigh’, no charge.” She put 7 copper down on the counter, and Renek raised his eyebrows questioningly. “Yea, no charge. Thank’ee. That were a good thing you did, helping me like that.”
Renek sheathed his sword and picked up the coin. “You’re welcome. Just try to ‘pay it forward’ and help someone else, okay? That’s why I helped you—I owe someone, and so I’m helping you.” He turned to walk back to his table and food. As he smelled the food, he realized that he was ravenous, absolutely starving for food. He rushed to his bowl of stew.
The old woman smiled. She poured another mug of beer and brought it over to Renek, who was busy wolfing down his food. “You came from that Abbey up on the mountain, didn’t ya? They’re always talking about helping people.” Her eyes narrowed. “They must’ve done you a good turn, for you to help a stranger like me.”
Renek looked up at Freiya, spoon in mouth, and nodded. She visibly relaxed.
Thomas and Will came back inside. “Well, you were right.” Thomas huffed as he sat down at the table. “They were in the middle of untying our horses. We chased them off.” He looked at Renek. “I think they were afraid that you were going to follow us out there. They hightailed it pretty fast when we yelled at them.”
“Good.” Renek managed to say in between bites.
“That was some pretty nice dueling, there. You must be an experienced soldier.” He paused, searching Renek’s face. “I’ve never seen anyone move that fast. Do you think that you could take Will, here, as an apprentice? I’ve never thought about giving him up, but, you seem a good man…Will mentioned it outside, that he would like to do that.”
Renek took his time finishing his stew, mopping the last of the liquid up with the hard bread. He looked across the table carefully at the man and his boy. Will was round-eyed, full of hope, but the man seemed less happy. He wasn’t smiling.
“Thomas, right?” The older man nodded. “Thomas, I’m not a knight, I can’t take apprentices.” Thomas’s look of relief was clear.
“Well, I suppose I still need him on the farm, anyway. Too much work for an old man like me by myself.” Will looked crestfallen, but didn’t say anything.
Renek drank his beer, warm and foamy, and stood up. “I agree. Will, you’ll be happier this way. It’s not right to leave your father in the lurch.” Will looked chagrined, as if he had only now thought of the consequences of what he had suggested to his father. “And now, I am tired, and would like to go in to bed.” He realized as he said the words that they weren’t just an excuse; his stomach seemed as heavy as lead, and that heaviness was radiating outwards to the rest of his body. He wastired, as tired now as he had been hungry earlier.
He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Freiya, where is my room?”
“Down the hall, second door on your right.”
“Thank you.” He nodded at Thomas and Will, and then walked out of the room.
Renek’s room was very small. The bed fit in it, but the door brushed the blankets as it opened. There was a small nightstand with a candle and a pitcher of water on it, and that was it. Nothing more would have fit.
He stepped in, leaned over the nightstand to make room for the door, and closed it firmly. He dropped the simple latch into place, pushed his pack up against the door to make some noise in case lock didn’t work, and slumped on the bed to fall asleep while still fully clothed.
He thought of the skirmish, and his apparent speed of movement, and how his body knew what to do with a sword better than his mind did. He shook his head slightly, and shivered under the covers.
“Who — or what — am I?” he muttered to himself.
* * *
Amazingly, Renek awoke at the beginnings of dawn, feeling completely refreshed. He collected his things and splashed some water on his face from the pitcher by his bed. The water didn’t smell drinkable—it was dusty and murky—but it helped wake him up. It was still early when he came out of his room.
He entered the common room to find the innkeeper placing day-old rolls on the floor of the fireplace to warm them.
“Are those for your guests?”
Freiya jumped up, hitting her head on the fireplace with an audiblethunk. “Ah, didn’t hear you come in, sire.” She rubbed the back of her head. “Aye, they be for ye. I don’ have no other guests right now.
“Would ye be wantin’ some eggs, or mebbe some corn grits? I like me a bit o’ hot food in the mornin’, I can make some extry for ye.”
“Eggs would be good, Freiya. Thank you very much.”
“Oh, aye, it’s no problem. Have yourself some of that water if ye like.” Freiya shuffled outside, presumably to the henhouse to gather some eggs. Renek saw the pitcher of water that Freiya had offered on one of the tables, with a glass next to it. He sat down and sniffed the pitcher. Finding it fresher than the pitcher in his room, he poured a glass and drank.
Freiya came in a few seconds later carrying a load of eggs in her apron. She grabbed a sooty pan that was hanging next to the fire in the back, and scooped some grease into it. Renek sat and watched her as she cracked a dozen eggs into the pan, which was black with soot from the fire.
“The soot helps the eggs not stick,” Freiya called over her shoulder. “Saved me more than one mess, hangin’ the pot in the smoke of the fire.” She was holding a large piece of cloth, folded over many times, between the pan and his hand. “‘Course, the grease helps too.” She was quite dexterous, even through the cloth, as she swirled the pan in and next to the fire. With a quick flip of her wrists, she got the eggs to ride up the side of the pan and curl gently back down onto their yolks. No yellow seeped out—the yolks were still intact. Renek clapped in appreciation, and the woman shook her head, embarrassed, but clearly pleased.
“I’ve been doin’ that for years, I have.” She set the pan down and ran across to the bar to grab two plates. After putting the eggs onto one plate, she pulled out a knife and cut them in two large groups of fried eggs, and slid half of them onto the second plate. She handed the second plate to Renek and sat down with him.
“Have you owned the tavern for a while, then?” Renek asked.
“Oh, aye, twenty years now it’s been.” She pulled a couple of forks out of her pocket and handed one across the table. Renek grabbed the fork and began to eat, and Freiya did the same. “Thing abou’ the soot, it makes those eggs taste ok, don’t you think?” She cut another egg and started eating. “‘Course, the grease helps too.”
They ate in silence for a while. The eggs were tasty, with the yolks runny but thick from the heat of the fire. The rolls were hot and had one side toasted nicely. Freiya was the first to break the silence after their meal.
“So, where are you headed, then?” She leaned back, looking at Renek.
“I don’t really know. I had thought to go look for the battle, help the locals against their foes.”
“Those foes would be the Triols, friend. They’re a nasty bunch.” She leaned forward, the legs of her chair giving a firmthunkas they hit the floor. “They’ll gut you and tie you up with your entrails, they will, and leave you to die. I’ve heard tell that if you struggle with yer guts tied around you, it feels like you’re stepping on your own insides.” She shook her head. “No way to treat a human bein’, if you ask me. Kill him straight up, give him a decent burial, I say.”
“Well, I don’t really have anywhere better to go.” He leaned back in his chair. “I don’t know anyone in the area, and I seem to be pretty good with a sword.”
“That ye are, friend.”
“So maybe I should put my talent to use for a good cause.” He dropped his chair legs back onto the floor, and stood up. “What direction should I travel, Freiya?”
Freiya considered. “I think ye should go out the door an’ turn east. Go past me chicken coop near the road and see if you can see the dust trail those soldiers always kick up.”
“How will I know the Triols from the kingdom’s soldiers?”
“Aye, ye are from far away.” She nodded. “A good question to ask, then. The Triols wear blue and white, have spikes on their armor, and speak our tongue but poorly. Our lads wear red, have a crest of red with a rearing horse.” She scratched her head. “I think the horse is wearin’ a crown.”
“Okay. Thanks.” He turned towards the door, but Freiya spoke again.
“Before ye go, lad, you should know—” She shook her head again. “It’s bad out there.”
“No.” She paused to reconsider. “Well, aye, mebbe we’re losing, slowly—but that’s not what I meant. I mean that our king, he’s … he’s been concerned with this war for a long time. We’ve been at war, or preparin’ for war, for years now. Mebbe as long as I been keepin’ this inn.” She shook her head yet again. “Some people out there have been hurtin’ for a long time.”
Renek looked at Freiya. She seemed tired and troubled. The lines around her eyes were deep. “Thanks, Freiya. I’ll try and do what I can.” He smiled tentatively.
Freiya smiled broadly in return. “Well, if last night means anything, then the Triols won’t know what hit em.” She laughed aloud. “Do your best, young sire. Do your best!”
Renek strode to the door, but paused and turned back for a moment. “I will. And see if you can help someone to repay the help I gave you last night. Pay it forward.” He looked at her smile, framed in the doorway for just a moment, and then turned and left.
I hope Freiya’s smile lasts all day, though.
* * *
Freiya’s directions were easy to follow: there was a large tail of dust wafting into the sky to the east. He followed the road, since it led that way and it was easier to walk on. The road also led back towards the mountain range that he had come down the day before, although it seemed to be heading towards another peak. The battle was clearly taking place on the plains north and east of the mountain range, but quite a distance away.
His walk took him past a few fields that were in good shape, but by mid-morning, he was passing farms that had been destroyed. It seemed clear that the armies had been through the area and had taken every scrap of food and clothing that they could put their hands on. One farmhouse had been burnt to the ground.
He didn’t see any people.
He stopped to eat a light lunch when the sun was at its peak. With no other shelter, he sat under the awning of a farmhouse near the road. He didn’t really feel like going in—the place was in disarray, shutters hanging off of windows, no door, and dust everywhere. Through the doorway he could see some sticks that looked like they had been furniture at one time.
It was hot and dry, this far down from the mountain. Matthew had said that it was spring, but down on the plains it seemed too warm for spring. There was no humidity, so he must be far from the coastline.
On an impulse, he went around the house to the fields, casting about for something to use as a pommel. He found a barn. He pushed the large door open, which creaked in protest at the movement, and found a wall of horse tack and saddles. He grabbed a bridle, and cut it to pieces, coming away with a few long strips of leather. There was also a small amount of wire tying together one of the other bridles, which had been worn through heavy use.
The horses, of course, were long gone.
A thorough search of the grounds yielded a smooth, round stone, about the width of his palm. It was heavy. Probably not heavy enough to balance the blade, but it would help a lot. He spent some time tying the stone onto the hilt of his sword with the leather and wire. It was tedious work, methodical, and his mind wandered.
I wish I knew where I was. Or who.He thought to himself.It’s useless, this wondering and wandering.He stood up, and threw his small pack over his shoulder again. The vial ofvitlachwas like a reassuring rock pressing into his back.At least I have a direction to travel in, now. That’s something.
The feather-like dust plume seemed closer, after lunch. It was hard to tell, but he guessed from the angle of the sun, he had been walking for four or five hours.That should be around twenty miles.He looked up at the cloudless sky.On a day like today, I don’t think I should be able to see much further than that, should I?He paused, then said aloud, “Why should I know that?”
He resumed walking, shaking his head in wonder.
It was only a couple of hours later, as the road crested a small hill, that he caught sight of an army encampment. It lay in the shallow valley between two hills. It was empty of people, but filled with red cloth. Some of the tents were red, there were red tabards hanging off of a makeshift log fence. Flying on a pole next to the largest tent was clearly the flag of the Kingdom—red, with a gold unicorn, rearing to the right.
As he reached the top of the hill, he finally got a first glimpse of the armies. They were in full battle; he could see troops and regiments wheeling around each other. When the wind was right, he could hear the clang of sword against shield, the yells of battle. He increased his pace, his heart racing. There was definitely something familiar about the excitement he was feeling. He didn’t stop to think about it, but his heart was racing, his lungs were opening in deep, slow, meditative breaths. Things seemed to slow down again. It felt right, to be racing towards the battle in front of him.
He reached the contested hill that they were fighting on just as the Kingdom forces were beginning to rout. He drew his sword, and lay about him, trying to protect the soldiers in red. Both sides seemed completely exhausted, but the Triols had found a second—or perhaps even third—wind as they chased the Kingdom soldiers away from the hill, their blue tabards flapping in the light breeze.
“To me! To me!” He yelled, hoping that the men could hear his voice above the din of battle.
Another two weeks had passed. The other squires were ok with Ryan—he was “the new guy,” but they didn’t mistreat him.
His knight, Armand, was another story.
“Boy, here is my hauberk. Go and shine it.” The knight’s chainmail hauberk landed at Ryan’s bed, loudly. Ryan looked up at the window to see only black sky and stars--it was well before sunrise.
“Meet me to the north of camp in a half hour. Your skills are still … embarrassing me.” The knight grunted, then he turned and left.
Armand truly seemed to dislike Ryan. In the short weeks since he had been taken away from the group of cadets, the days had been filled with only three types of activities: marching, sword practice every day that had Armand leaving bruises all over Ryan’s body, and horsemanship. If he did anything incorrectly or incompletely, he was punished—that took up quite a bit of his time as well.
Punishment tended to be physical exercise. The day before he had been especially poor in sparring, so Armand had made Ryan run for an hour, in full gear. The excuse was always the same: fighting the Triols would be worse, get used to it.
The worst part was he wasn’t able to spend any time with Edmund. They sometimes ate together, but that seemed to annoy Armand. He would make loud comments about how he must have misjudged Ryan, that his “skills” weren’t enough to make up for his upbringing after all.
Ryan climbed out of bed, and struggled to pick up the larger man’s armor.This stuff weighs a ton,he thought to himself.Chain mail, made of circles of wire woven together to make a cloth-like weave of metal, was heavier than plate armor, but easier to make and fit.
It tended to rust, though, so the knights would often have their squires take the mail and brush it carefully. Rolling it in a barrel full of sand would have been best, but since they were traveling they didn’t have any. After brushing, a coating of oil worked into the metal’s weave would help it stay free of rust a bit longer.
Ryan threw the hauberk over his right shoulder—his left was sore from yesterday’s practice—and headed down to the horses, where the various tools were kept.
I miss Edmund.He thought.At least then I had someone to talk to when I had to do stupid things.
I miss my family, too.He frowned deeply.
There weren’t any other squires near the horses when he got there. Ryan cleaned the hauberk and oiled it as quickly as he could. It gleamed brightly as he tossed it over his shoulder.
It looks nice. I wonder if he wants to be the one with the nicest looking armor on the field?He smiled.I suppose that’s what squires are for, after all.
As he walked, he pulled his tunic straight, and stood a bit taller. The tunic had the emblem of the Knights of the Crown on it, after all. It didn’t fit, but it was still his. Only three of the squires wore the Knights of the Crown emblem, and he was the oldest. The others were younger and faster than he was—but he was smarter, more efficient. When they battled, he won most of the time despite his inexperience.
He met Armand on the field, who inspected the hauberk closely. He nodded, which was as close to a compliment that Ryan ever got. Armand donned the shining armor. A thick, two-inch wide belt came next, which Ryan belted on for him, pulling the hauberk up so that the belt took some of its weight.
Training came next. Ryan was doing better in these duels, and Armand was a good teacher, even though he hit hard. Ryan did well enough today that he wasn’t given any punishment.
The strengthening winter Sun moved through the peak of its arc in the sky as the company marched. Lunch came; after their knights were done, the squires ate together. Ryan waved at Edmund as the recruits cleaned the camp.
“There are only a few weeks left in winter,” Brian, one of the other three squires said as they sat down with a thick stew.
Ryan grinned. “I had hoped we’d get somewhere before winter.” He looked around. “I mean, aren’t there some abbeys around? Aren’t they supposed to be off limits for wars?”
“We’ve got to keep moving,” Brian said. “They would attack any Abbey we were in, anyway.” He frowned. “At least, that’s why my knight says. The Triols have no honor.”
There was a general murmur of assent.
Ryan flashed a sheepish grin. “Well, Armand doesn’t talk to me much, I guess.”
Brian clapped him on the shoulder and laughed. “I saw you doing laps again yesterday.” The rest of the boys seemed delighted at seeing the best fighter punished so frequently. “What did you do this time, blink too slowly?”
Ryan grinned. “He is hard to please, I guess. But I’m learning a lot.”
Gregory’s squire, Kevin, groaned, and pulled back his sleeve. “See this bruise? Gregory doesn’t make me run laps, he just hits harder in practice if I’m being slow.”
Brian whistled between his teeth. “That’s a nice one, that is. Well, Knight Gregory is commander of the unit for a reason, Kevin…” He laughed again. “Even so, you must have been pretty slow to get whacked that hard!” They all laughed, even Kevin.
“They don’t treat us very well, do they?” Ryan said, smiling sheepishly.
The others got quiet. There were a few nods, but nobody seemed willing to speak. Finally, Ryan continued. “I mean, it was better even as a recruit…maybe they just expect us to be perfect because we’re the ‘chosen few’, but…” he trailed off, shaking his head, eyes looking at the food that the squires were eating, all leftovers from the knights.
Brian picked up where Ryan wasn’t willing to go. “But you wish that you didn’t have to get beaten with a practice sword over and over again?”
Ryan nodded. “And then punished for being beaten wrong.”
Kevin looked at Ryan’s dejected face. “Maybe it seems bad now,” he said, “but we’ll be heading out to the battlefield. Eventually, we’ll be safer on the horses in battle, and the infantry will be the ones taking the losses.” His grin was lopsided, his eyes a bit sheepish. Some of the others nodded, though, and he gained courage. “I mean, if we are the ‘chosen few,’ then we’ll be with the Knights, the leaders of the army. They’re not in as much danger, and they’re the ones who do the strategy, too.”
Ryan’s mouth hung open. “But my friend Edmund is still in the infantry.” His voice got a little louder, more forceful. “I don’t want to be ordering him into the thick of the battle so that I can stay behind, out of the fray!” His hands were in tight fists, his knuckles white.
Kevin lifted his hands. “No, no, I wasn’t saying that we would be cowards about it—”
Ryan cut him off, more harshly than he meant to. “Sure sounded like it.”
“No, that’s not what I was saying at all.” He looked around nervously at his fellow squires. “I just meant that we would be … in charge, kinda.” He looked at Ryan again. “Someone has to keep everybody together … make sure that people are holding their lines.”
Ryan relaxed his hands. “Well, maybe that’s why we’re being pushed so hard," he said, thoughtfully, looking at the food again. Most of it was gone, and he knew they all needed to get to their chores again. “Why we all end up with bruises. We’ve got to fight so well that we can still think about other people, and what they’re doing, and where the battle is going.” He looked up at Kevin, and managed a weak smile. “Sorry, Kevin. I don’t know what got ahold of me there. I shouldn’t have been that angry.”
Kevin sighed in relief as Brian stood up.
“Well,” Brian said, “we’d better get back to our work.” He grinned at Ryan. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not done getting beaten for the day yet. If you want some beating, you can come fight against me next.”
Ryan grinned broadly, his shock at Kevin’s words fading quickly as the group of squires bantered its way to the tents.
* * *
Later that week, Ryan and Kevin sparred for the first time since that lunch conversation.
Kevin was one of the best of the squires. He was also one of the other three in the Knights of the Crown order. It was challenging to fight him, but Ryan still won most of the time. Kevin was one of the fastest swordsmen in the camp, including the knights.
They were circling, in heavy padded armor, looking for an opening. They had been avoiding each other in the sparring sessions since their lunchtime argument, and hadn’t talked much either. Today the knights were actually watching the practice, and they had paired Ryan and Kevin for the last fight for the day.
“So, Ryan, you think I’m a coward because I want to lead?” Kevin said through gritted teeth, low enough that only Ryan could hear.
Ryan considered his opponent, looking directly into his eyes. He had found that staring hard into someone’s eyes made them focus only on his eyes, and often they would react just a bit more slowly when he attacked. It wasn’t logical, but it worked. He was still mad at Kevin, though he didn’t really understand why. He wanted tobeatKevin, not just win.
“No,” Ryan said, slowly, drawing out the word. “I think you’re a coward because you want to be safe while other peopledie!” With the last word, he jumped forward, raining blows down on Kevin.
Kevin lifted his shield, and deftly moved his sword to defend against the onslaught. He did not back up, or waver. In fact, he grinned disconcertingly at Ryan, almost leering at him, blocking every blow. He was justfasterthan Ryan. He pushed especially hard with his shield on one attack that Ryan made, and Ryan stumbled.
Now Ryan was on the defense as Kevin masterfully advanced, pushing Ryan back, still leering his lopsided grin. Ryan tripped on a stray stone, and hit the ground—but he was already rolling to one side. Kevin’s wooden sword bounced off of the hard ground right where Ryan had fallen.
Ryan was back on his feet and attacking Kevin before Kevin could recover from his failed finishing blow. Kevin was forced to back up as Ryan threw everything he had into his attack. Ryan tightened his muscles and hit harder, at first, but the strength of his blows just forced Kevin to calmly and slowly step back.
In a flash of insight, Ryan realized that his strength wasn’t really helping him. He wasn’t that much stronger than Kevin, after all, he just knew what to do to get him off balance. Kevin was close to being as good as Ryan because of his speed. When Kevin needed his sword to be there to block Ryan’s, it was there; when he needed his shield, it was there; when he needed not to be where Ryan’s blade was, he was able to move out of the way quickly.
For the first time in a battle, Ryan relaxed. His muscles loosened, lengthened. He stopped trying to hit Kevin with strength, and started slicing through the air lightly, but more quickly.
Kevin’s leer disappeared instantly. He was backing up more quickly, now. If Ryan had rained blows down before, now his sword became a downpour on Kevin’s shield and sword.
With his muscles loose, and moving so fast, Ryan found it more difficult to control his sword. He tried to move it around Kevin’s blade, but it seemed balanced differently, and his blow went wide. Kevin took full advantage, and pressed forward again, a look of triumph in his eyes.
With a quick blow to the inside of Ryan’s sword, Kevin accentuated Ryan’s wide swing, and tried to get a downward swing in to Ryan’s sword arm. Ryan had no choice but to back up and cover his right side with his shield. Kevin reversed direction as his wooden sword bounced off of Ryan’s wooden shield, and went for Ryan’s left leg.
Ryan was off balance, and couldn’t move the leg. He felt the wooden sword hit with force, and hissed in pain. He shifted his weight and lifted his leg off the ground. The rules stated that he couldn’t use the leg any longer, but he could still fight.
And fight he did. His sword had already swung through an outside arc, over his head. Kevin had exposed his left side as he went for Ryan’s leg, dropping his shield as he reached. Ryan tensed his muscles, adding strength and weight into his swing, his sword snapped down, connecting with Kevin’s shoulder with alarming force. Kevin went down, a look of shock and pain on his face. On his knees, he dropped his sword, and reached up to grab his shoulder.
“Now, Ryan—NO MERCY!” Armand shouted, steel in his voice. Ryan’s brow knitted for a moment as he tensed his muscles to strike another blow…but he paused a moment too long. Instead of an enemy, he suddenly saw a prostrate boy who was in pain.
He dropped his sword and knelt in front of Kevin. “Are you all right? Did I break your shoulder?”
Kevin winced. “I don’t think so.” He sucked in air between his teeth. “Why’d you hit me so hard?” The other squires crowded around, and Kevin’s knight, Gregory, pushed his way through. He was older, with some gray in his beard, but still a formidable warrior.
“Kevin, what happened?” Sir Gregory exclaimed. “You had him where you wanted him! You should have won this battle.” He held out his hand, and Kevin grabbed it with his shield arm. The knight hoisted him to his feet.
“I’m sorry, Sir. I don’t know what happened.” He looked at Ryan sullenly. “He got faster.”
The cook rang a small bell announcing dinner, but Armand was at Ryan’s side and grabbed his arm. “Your enemies wish to kill you," he said, his features still as stone. “There is only one rule on the battlefield.No mercy.” He shouldered Ryan as he walked over toward Kevin and Sir Gregory.
Armand tapped Gregory on the shoulder, clearing his throat.
“Yes, Armand?” Gregory said, with extreme patience and politeness.
Armand put his arm around his colleague’s shoulder. “I believe there’s a little matter of the money you owe me.” He started leading the older man away from the center of attention. “Ryan won, fair and square…”
The gray bearded knight spun around to look at Kevin. “We’ll settle your loss later, Kevin. I won’t forget.” He turned back to Armand. “Kevin did well, I’d say better thanyouexpected, Armand, you dog…”
When they were out of hearing distance, Brian started laughing out loud.
“What?” Kevin said, with a hurt look on his face.
“They bet on you guys!” he positively howled, bending over and thumping his knee. “Theybeton you!”
Understanding came to Kevin, who smiled a bit while rubbing his shoulder. The others chuckled. Brian couldn’t stop laughing until they were serving the knights their food.
It was several weeks later. It was clear, and spring was in the air. While it was still a little cold at night, the days were getting longer, and some of the trees had begun to bud, or even bloom.
One day, when the weather was especially nice, the knights steered them off of the road that they had been following. A few hundred feet away, nestled in the crook of a hill near a small stream, lay a small abbey.
“We need a few days’ rest,” Gregory called to them from the front of the line. “And we can buy a few extra horses for the squires.” He turned to Armand. “Hopefully the other knights have made it here already," he said, just loud enough for Ryan to hear.
They soon found that the other knights had not arrived yet. The monks had not heard anything about soldiers of any sort.
For most of the next week, the squires had been concentrating on riding skills rather than practicing swordplay. Occasionally they got to ride one of the knights’ horses. With only a few hours practice, none of them were smooth riders yet, certainly not stable enough for battle. But, Sir William had said while training them, knights were more mobile than infantry, and were sometimes moved strategically from one unit to another by the commanders, so all the squires needed horses.
Ryan spent quite a lot of time brushing and feeding both his and Armand’s horses, over the next few days. He had never thought that he would own a horse, and he wanted to show Armand that he was taking good care of the animals.
He was brushing the horses one evening after dinner, when Armand came to him with an empty set of saddlebags.
“Ryan, the other knights have arrived.” Armand’s eyes drooped down to the ground. “You squires aren’t really ready for this, but we’re heading out tomorrow morning. We need to get to the Gredarin as soon as possible. The Triols are already moving.” He sighed. “I had thought we would have another week or two, but it looks like…well, it doesn’t matter, really.” He shrugged. “You’ll do your best, I’m sure—for what it’s worth.” He held out the saddlebags. “Pack these with an extra set of clothes and as much food as will fit.”
“Sir, have I done something wrong?” Ryan said, apologetically. “I don’t understand. I’m fairly good with the sword in practice, now.” Armand frowned, and Ryan paused for a second, then continued. “I—I know that practice isn’tbattle, but I’m the best squire here.”
Armand looked at him for a long time before he finally answered, voice harsh. “Squire, don’t question your knight. That’s a basic rule.” He turned on his heel and was gone, leaving Ryan fuming.
What was that?Ryan thought to himself.I’ve done everything he asked, I win almost every sparring match with the others…what does he want?Ryan absentmindedly packed the horse’s brush, a couple of nosebags, and some good oats into one of the saddlebags. He rolled up two extra saddle blankets and attached them to the back of the saddles.
He went back to the squires’ room to get clothes packed. The other squires were also busy packing, so there wasn’t much chatter.
A few minutes after Ryan started looking through his things, Gregory, the commander of their unit and one of the Knights of the Crown, came through. He was carrying several identical, simply made steel swords in one hand, and a smaller, heavier bag in the other hand. He set the heavy bag down, grabbed a sword, and held it out by the sheath to the squire nearest the door. It happened to be Brian.
“You squires haven’t used real swords much.” He looked around the room, clearly enjoying the eager looks that the weapons were getting. “Tonight you’re going to have to learn how to take care of one.” He gestured at Brian, who took the sword into his hands and unsheathed it.
Its blade was straight, thickest in the middle near the hilt. It tapered evenly through most of its length, but the width narrowed more quickly near the point. The blade had a diamond cross-section, with a thick ridge in the middle. The edge had been sharpened with a rough tool that had left tool marks on it.
“These are sharpened about as sharp as you ever want a sword. It’s not meant to be a knife.” He grinned. “Find something else to skin any rabbits you catch. This blade is meant to go through armor, as you know, and that’ll put a big notch in a too-sharp edge.
“Still, we’re going to learn how to sharpen them properly tonight—these were sharpened with a file. A file’s fine if you’ve got it, but they’re hard to keep clean in the field, and once a file’s rusted, it’s not gonna help you. Grab a stone from this bag,” he nudged the heavy sack, “And get busy. Sharpening a sword is different than sharpening a knife. With a knife, you move the blade down the stone and keep it at the same angle; with a sword, you move the stone down the blade, and keeping that stone straight is far more difficult.” He looked around the room at the boys, eyebrows raised, grinning. “Well, what are you waiting for? Come get yer sword!”
Ryan let the others go in front of him. He realized when the sword was handed to him that it was a little long for him—a bit longer than three feet—but it had a nice sized pommel on the hilt, which would give it a nice balance. It had a belt attached to the hilt, so he strapped it on his waist, then picked up his sharpening stone. He heard a few drops of rain hit the roof.
They all spent some time sharpening, and the commander walked among them, helping anyone who was having problems. A half an hour later, he clapped to get their attention.
“You’ve all gotten at least one face of one blade done. The rest is pretty much the same. Put your stone in your bag and keep it with you, using it’ll help take nicks out of your blade in the field. Then get yourselves and your knights ready to go. We’re riding out at dawn tomorrow.
Gregory glanced at Ryan and continued. “There’s been a change in plans: we need to move quickly, so the infantry won’t be going with us. If you have any goodbyes to say, do it tonight.” He dropped his gaze to the floor and walked out of the room.
The other squires chose to concentrate on their packing as Ryan walked briskly out of the room, struggling to keep his face blank.
* * *
“I can’t believe that you’re not going with us,” Ryan said.
Edmund shrugged. “I don’t know…it sounds like you and yourknightshave it covered.”
Ryan winced. “Don’t be like that. This isn’t my choice. You know if we were doing what I wanted, we’d probably both be with our parents now.” He smiled wryly.
Edmund snorted. “Yeah. Whether they’re dead or captured, if we had run into the forest that night, we would have probably joined them.” He looked up at Ryan. “You remember what we were talking about, on the way home, right before the fire?”
“How could I forget?” He laughed. “You were telling me that you were going to choose to be a woodsman for your profession.”
“Yeah, well, it was a good idea!”
He picked up his sword, which was identical to the one Ryan had received earlier. “I don’t know … this metal feels socold. I like the wooden ones better.”
“Heh. Maybe you should sing to it a bit.” Ryan’s lips curled. “Your singing made my shoulder feel better. I think it might have been more powerful than the poultice.”
Edmund ducked his head, but Ryan could see him smiling.
Ryan stuck out his hand. “Whatever you do, keep me in your thoughts," he said.
“Thanks, Ryan.” Edmund looked up as he shook Ryan’s hand. “I will.”
Ryan turned sharply and rushed out of the room. He heard Edmund’s voice in quiet song behind him.
* * *
It was relatively warm at dawn the next day, and the squires had lined up in a row with all of the horses under their care. They wore what armor they had been given, and all of them had their swords strapped on. Ryan had stayed up late to finish sharpening his. The rain from the night before had left the delicious smell of wet earth, but the dawn star shone brightly, low in the sky. The clouds had gone.
The knights came out of their building one by one. Armand was one of the first ones out, wearing his shining chain mail, shield strapped across his back. He had a pair of highly ornate grieves covering his shins. He inspected Ryan’s work: the horses were brushed, their packs tightly closed. He nodded curtly before motioning Ryan to assist him in mounting.
The knights formed up ranks. Armand was behind Gregory, but in front of William, the third Crown. The rest of the knights were behind the Crowns. The each squire was beside his knight. When they were all in line, the lead Crown yelled, “Move out!” and they rode out of the abbey.
This abbey they had been training at was near Forest Cairn, one of the six Great Forests, and its lands bordered the river Gredarin. The river’s waters flowed out of the mountains far in the north, meandered through the Cairn and onto the plains before spilling into Lake Gigno, a large lake a bit further south that was fed by several rivers. It was to the southeast they rode, towards the river’s path, and towards the Triols.
The rain that had fallen the night before kept the dust down while they rode. The ground was still wet, though, and mud covered the horse’s hooves. Crown Gregory kept the pace at a light trot, so they would cover a lot ground through the morning hours.
The road—more of a well-ridden path—didn’t meander much. There was no reason for it to, on flat ground like the plains. Occasionally, it did turn, or it would slowly bear to one side or another. It was monotonous, looking out at the green grass that was growing more than two feet tall. There wasn’t much wind, but the breezes that did come ruffled the heads of the grass in waves. An occasional oak tree dotted the otherwise tired landscape, although the Great Forest was visible as a dark line on the horizon to the north. Any direction shifts that the road had seemed to be keeping the forest just in sight.
After about an hour, they slowed to a walk to rest the horses for a few minutes. Despite the few hours of practice, Ryan was already getting saddle sore. His legs were tired, too, from trying to minimize the bouncing from trotting for so long. He looked back, and saw pained expressions on most of the other squires as well. The knights seemed bored. It was slow going, trotting for so long, but the horses wouldn’t last very long if they rode faster. Even a canter would tire them out after a few miles.
Crown Knight William pointed out a few of the more obvious plants along the way—the grass, he said, was a kind of wheat. They had been eating bread made out of it since they had got to the Abbey. The oak trees had been cut down a long time ago, when the Abbey had been more prosperous. For the past few dozen years, they had farmed the grain and milled it to flour, which they sold to the few locals and the occasional traveler.
He pointed out things that Ryan missed, plants and animals that thrived on the plain. There were gophers, and some other burrowing animals. William even had an eye for insects that were flying about, and explained that the insects could tell you a lot about the weather, the birds that no doubt ate them, and even the ability of the dirt to grow crops. He stopped the troop and showed them all what he meant by digging a small hole with his sword—Armand’s sour expression showed that he clearly did not approve of shoveling dirt with a weapon, but he didn’t say anything. William showed everyone the worms that were crawling through the soil, and explained how it was good for the plants.
The sun slowly rose in the sky. They slowed the horses to a walk every hour, and Ryan would try to relax his muscles. He could sense his body getting tired already. His stomach muscles pulling his torso forward, his back was holding him above the horse’s neck, and his legs had to hold on to the horse’s body.
He started experimenting with his body, looking carefully at what he was doing in an effort to minimize what his farming experiences told him would be serious pain the next day. He realized that his left side felt worse than his right—he had been favoring his right side, sitting on his left side. He tightened his right side, bringing himself to center, and immediately felt more solid. He played with how far forward he was leaning. Too far, and it was tough to keep himself from falling onto the neck of the horse; not far enough, and he felt very insecure, rocking with each step of the horse. When he was in the right spot, the horse seemed to react to his knee pressure more quickly.
They stopped for lunch right after when the Sun was at its zenith. The Sun had baked the morning’s mud into hard clay. It was quite warm, so they went a little ways off the road to eat under one of the large oaks. When they finally stopped the horses under the tree, Ryan saw that he wasn’t alone with his straining on the horse. In fact, every single squire was to stiff to walk normally when they got off their horse. Ryan was the best of the lot; his experimentation in the saddle seemed to have paid off. The knights thought their feeble, bow-legged attempts at movement were hilarious; some of them were kind enough to get lunch for their squires while the squires sat down. Armand wasn’t so kind.
“Squire, bring my lunch to the other side of the tree.” He looked over to the other two Crowns, who were pulling food out of their bags. “You two are too easy on your squires.” He turned back to Ryan. “Boy, get these two noble knights food as well.” He slung a wineskin over his shoulder, and put his arms around the other two knights, pulling them away from their saddlebags despite their protests.
Ryan loaded a small sack with some bread, fruit, cheese and dried meat, then hobbled over to the other knight’s horses. Their squires looked on, clearly more exhausted than he, as he put more food into his bag. He then picked up a skin of water and walked out to the knights with their food. As he walked, he felt the function in his legs rapidly returning.
The knights were deep in conversation, and continued speaking while Ryan served them.
“Gregory,” Armand was saying, “I think it’s absurd. The Triolscan’thave gotten as far as they are supposed to have gotten. They would have had to leave while there was still snow on the mountains. How would they have gotten over the pass?”
Gregory was a thick knight, short, with a full black beard. He had a bit of girth, but underneath the soft-looking exterior were strong muscles. Ryan knew because they had propelled a sword into his body every time he had sparred with Gregory. The man was a master swordsman, and that was why he led the group.
Gregory thought for a moment before responding. “Well, something’s attacking the villages. I’ll be damned if it’s not the Triols.”
“Do they have any Singers?” William asked.
The other two were silent for a while, but finally Gregory responded. “We think so, but nobody knows for sure. We know that they have had certain … advantages, that would only have come from help from their kind.” He sighed. “Triol is a large country. I think it’s safe to assume they have some sorcerers. I worry that they have one of the Talented ones, though. I think they know where they’re going.”
Ryan’s face must have shown puzzlement; William touched Armand’s shoulder and said: “Your squire looks confused. Have you not schooled him on the Singers?”
Armand looked at Ryan, then grunted. “Didn’t seem important.” He turned back to his food.
Gregory sighed and addressed Ryan directly. “Ryan, important things that Armand deems unimportant could fill a book. I’m sorry, we should have had a unit-wide meeting to fill everyone in. Not all of you squires have the same experience with … oddities like the Singers.”
“I knowofthe singers, Sir Gregory,” Ryan said. “I don’t know much about them, though.”
“The Singers are sages, learned men and women, who have shown an ability to manipulate part of the world through the use of their mind.” He shrugged. “Some call them sorcerers, others call them devils, for how else could they have gotten their powers? They call themselves ‘the Singers’ because their power comes from song.
“You can usually tell when you’re dealing with a Singer because of the robes that they wear. They all use different colors, depending on preference, but the robes are straight, hooded, made of a single color, have multiple stripes on the shoulders made of felt, and are tied with a piece of rope.
“What I fear most is that they have a Searcher with them,” Gregory continued. “A special kind of Sorcerer that helps locate something that has been lost. Searchers are very rare.” He drew himself up a bit straighter, and raised his eyebrows. “I have never even met one, though I have met one or two Singers.”
William smiled. “My fellow knight is very proud, methinks. We havethirtySingers fighting with the army. It is something to be proud of: together, they are like a thousand men.”
Armand mumbled something around his food, and nodded.
Gregory nodded too. “Yes, I agree with you, Armand. More like two, or even five thousand men, if they are experienced in assisting an army.” He turned back to Ryan. “A few have chosen to serve the king directly, as guards and advisors. They remain in his keep.”
Armand swallowed quickly, and interjected: “I don’t trust them.” He seemed quite angry. “Especially those who assist the king. How can we be sure that they really will help us?” He spat on the ground. “Bloody sorcerers. Why can’t they pick up an honest blade?
Armand looked up at Ryan. “Well, squire, are you done serving us? We need to continue our conversation now, and explaining every little detail to you is going to take too long.” He looked at the meal they had just had and saw they were almost done. “Go rouse the squires and get them ready, we’ll leave in fifteen minutes.”
Gregory cleared his throat. “Armand?” he said coldly. “I believe thatI’min command of this unit?” Armand seemed unrepentant, but nodded.
Gregory turned to Ryan and said, a bit more gently: “Squire, please let everyone know that we’ll do some stretches and take a few minutes to help better learn how to ride long distances before we continue. They should be ready for the exercises in about fifteen minutes.”
As Ryan walked away, he heard only the beginning of Gregory’s next sentence.
Gregory said, “If theydohave Singers helping them, it might be possible to strike from a distance, but—”
William cut him off. Ryan could barely hear him as he said, “Maybe it’s good we’re searching for the Swords.”
Armand laughed so suddenly he sprayed food out of his mouth. “The Swords are a myth…” but then he was too far away and couldn’t make out what else was said.
* * *
It took three days before the squires could ride all day without muscle pain, but long before that could happen, the chafing started. The insides of their calves, and some of the squires’ knees were nearly bleeding after the second day. There was another lecture before they started on the third day, again about proper riding posture—but this time, Gregory told them not to let their legs swing, and to move any buckles or straps that were touching their legs. For the worst afflicted, crown Gregory had brought two pairs of chaps, which solved the problem for them immediately. The rest had to suffer.
Ryan was doing fine. The time he had spent playing with his posture had paid off. His legs didn’t swing, and no buckles were in his way. Ryan thought that Armand noticed that he was doing fairly well—at least he noticed Armand looking at him several times—but there was no praise, or compliment. Not even a grunt.
I suppose I don’t really expect anything positive from Armand, any more,Ryan thought to himself.He doesn’t seem happy that I’m here, even though I just want to help. He looked over to the knight in question, riding next to him.I’ll just have to do even better.
Crown William again began pointing out variations in the local vegetation as the road finally turned south. In a few hours, they were climbing gentle hills. The grass disappeared, replaced by shrubs and some sort of flowering succulent that grew near to the ground. William explained that the change in vegetation was due to the rolling hills, which, along with the river, changed the way the wind eddied, and the Sun fell. The succulent seemed harmless, he explained, but the flower was actually made entirely of brightly colored thorns.
“It’s good to watch yourself around the river Gredarin, lads.” He gestured south, over the hills. “She is not kind to people who are careless. I think it’s her influence that makes these flowers so dangerous.”
Soon, the road reached the river Gredarin. As they crested the hill and saw the river for the first time, William gasped audibly. He rode up to Gregory and the two began speaking lowly.
It was a large river. Just upriver from the road, it over two hundred feet across, with river grass growing deeply in its eddies. It was black, and cold seemed to radiate off of it. The road intersected the river in a narrow part, where some small, flat islands lay. The rapid flow formed bow waves off of the islands—but since the river’s flow never varied, and the ‘bows’ of the islands neither rose nor fell, those waves stood still. It was unnatural that so much movement resulted in something that flowed, but did not change.
Tall grasses and strange, warped trees grew on the islands. The trees’ foliage had a muted green color, as if they hadn’t been getting enough water despite the fact that their roots were sitting in a living river. A thick moss colored somewhere between green and black grew on the north side of the trees right at the waterline. There were several small wooden bridges connecting the islands, and a pathway had been hacked through the plants on the islands that the bridges touched.
Ryan could feel the tension in the knights, unconsciously echoed in their squires. Perhaps it was the river, or perhaps they were getting closer to the enemy—perhaps close enough for the Singers to strike? Something was different with the feel of the group after they had come into sight of the Gredarin.
William looked around at the group. “The moss here has swelling buds. I believe it will bloom tonight, several years before I expected.” He shook his head slowly. “It’s a good thing we left the others. If we had marched all the way here we would have missed it," he said. “Once the Sun sets completely, the moss at the base of these trees will … flower.” He looked around at them.
Ryan felt that he wasn’t telling the full story about what would happen, but he was intrigued. William had demonstrated quite a bit of knowledge about plants along the trip.
Gregory looked at the river, then at the knights gathered around him. “We all know this river’s dangerous, especially here, on the road.” He shook his head. “I mislike being here during the night, but we’ve come far out of our way for this.”
Ryan tilted his head a bit, curious at the reaction. It was a large river, and dark, but certainly they weren’t in serious danger?
William nodded. “The flowers bloom for only a few minutes after full darkness.” He breathed deeply and calmly, which seemed to calm Ryan, and released some of the tension. “They glow, and can be pressed for a small amount of juice—no more than a drop or two. If drunk, or poured into an open wound, this juice can heal wounds in a trice.” He finally turned to Gregory. “It will be very useful once we meet the Triols.
“I can only guess that it’s blooming earlybecause we are here.” Gregory raised his eyebrows, and peered at Gregory. “It must be fate. Or one of the God’s hands.”
Armand made a sound not unlike a horse’s whinny. “There are many Gods. How do we know that this one likes us?” He laughed. “How do we know that it wasn’t the God of chaos? Or the God of death?”
Gregory considered for a moment, and came to a decision. “We will cross the river, and camp on the far side. A few of us will come back to the river at dusk to collect flowers.”
Armand snorted again.
Gregory smiled. “And, you, Armand, will lead the way.”
Armand rolled his eyes, then shoved Ryan towards his horse.
“You’re coming with us, boy," he said, between gritted teeth. “I don’t care if Gregory splits me in two. If you weren’t feeling fear before today, the river will make you feel it tonight.”
* * *
The river was flowing quickly. Its speed splashed black water up the sides of the islands, and a fine mist covered the bridges. The wood was extremely slippery, so they dismounted and led the horses in single file.
Ryan peered over the edge of every bridge, but the water was impenetrable. The only thing that he saw was the distorted shadow of his own head.
They gained the far side of the river without serious incident; slipping on the slick wood caused the only troubles. For such an imposing, foreboding river, it seemed to be easily tamed by the careful engineering of bridges.
They mounted and rode about a half a mile away from the river before cutting off of the road quite a ways before setting up camp for the night. This was a change—up until now, they had camped just off of the road. Tonight, they went far enough that they could barely see the road in the deepening shadows.
Ryan brought both horses over to Armand, who looked them over and nodded. Several other squires, including Kevin, were leading their knights’ warhorse, but not their own.
Gregory lined the knights up, and picked five out, starting with Armand William. Once they were assembled, Armand motioned to Ryan, who led both horses over to Armand.
Gregory was unimpressed. “What’s he doing here?” He asked Armand.
“Valuable training. Anything could go wrong. Got to learn to deal with that sort of situation.”
Gregory considered for a moment, then smiled. “You’re right. All of you, call your squires over. They can stand back and watch how we deal with anything that goes wrong.” The five squires, including Kevin, scrambled to go get their horses. Once the ten people were assembled, Gregory addressed the whole camp.
“This river has claimed many lives, I don’t have to tell you that. Its flow is fast, and the creatures that live in and around it are strong. Be careful.
“As to you who stay behind to guard the camp, guard your backs as well. We are beyond the haven of the Abbey’s protection, and brigands are everywhere.”
He wheeled his horse, and the group was on its way.
Near the river, the air was still, and heavy with moisture. The sun was almost completely down by the time they got to the river’s banks, and the stars were beginning to shine in the east.
“Squires stay here, on the road. Stay close together,” Gregory said. “Anything bad happens, get back to camp as quick as you can.” As they looked towards the first bridge, he turned to William and asked, wryly, “I don’t suppose we can use torches?”
William winced. “No, Gregory, they would keep the flowers from blooming wherever their light fell.”
“I figured as much.” They handed their torches over to the squires, and began to walk the horses towards the water.
“Also, we should be upriver as far as we can, the blooms will have more juice.”
Gregory lifted one corner of his mouth in a sarcastic smile. “Of course…wouldn’t want to be near the road, in case we needed to beat a hasty retreat or anything, would we?”
“Oh, and one more thing: try not touch the trunks of the trees, if you can,” William added. “Branches and leaves are all right, but not the trunks.”
Gregory just rolled his eyes.
The squires stayed on their horses, staring into the darkness intently. The older men rode north over the first bridge, then turned left and traveled on the small island until they were gathered around the western point, facing into the river’s swiftness. It was hard to see them, because of the trees as well as the darkness, but Ryan thought they were lined up on the water’s edge. The moon’s light was bright, and glinted off of the knights’ armor, so he could just make out that William and Gregory were on the south side of the island.
A few minutes passed, and the stars continued to spread over the sky. A few high clouds slowly faded as the sun traveled far enough in its journey around the planet that the land shadowed even the clouds.
The blossoms began to unfold, catching the Moon’s light and recasting it more brightly. Slowly, the knights were illuminated from the pure white flowers blooming from the black sludge at the water’s edge. William was staring all around his feet, smiling broadly, Gregory looking around warily. Armand was closest to the squires, staring at William’s beaming face. Finally, he bent to collect some of the flowers.
“No, Armand! Wait until they are so bright we cannot look at them any longer!” Cried William. Armand straightened, and began tapping his foot impatiently.
The blooms continued to unfold. Shaped like lilies, they seemed to grow many times larger than the mold from which they sprung. As they grew, they caught more of the moon’s light, and multiplied it—they were easily ten times brighter than the moon. The knights were showered in white light. There were no colors; the flowers were simply pure and unflickeringly white.
Ryan found that he hadn’t blinked for what seemed like many minutes. He shook his head, and looked up and down the river.
All the islands were ringed with the silvery light, brighter than the moon. The reflection on the water was somehow ghostly, as if the black water didn’t want to reflect such a pure and beautiful light. Even though the waves didn’t move, they broke the surface and kept the flowers from reflecting their shape in the water. The reflected color seemed bluish, weaker, and less … pure. The more he looked at the reflection, the more uneasy he became. There was one island where the reflection was even stranger: the bow wave seemed larger, but the color was brighter, though no less blue.
He reached out to Kevin, and nudged him. When Kevin turned, Ryan gestured at the reflections. Kevin shrugged.
“Now!” Yelled William. “Cut them as near the moss as you can get! Keep cutting until the flowers die and the light fades from their petals!”
Ryan snapped his head back to the knights, who quickly knelt and began cutting. They had brought canvas sacks with them, and those sacks blocked the light. As the sun set, the island’s front darkened, the reflection faded.
Ryan looked back at the strange bow wave that had caught his eye before. It was normal, though—less bright, smaller. He looked around at the other islets, making sure he hadn’t misplaced it, but he had looked at the correct one. The wave had changed.
He nudged his horse forward, to the front of the five squires. Kevin followed.
“What’s up, Ryan?” he said quietly.
“I don’t know if anything’s up…” He peered into the darkness. There was a glint, a reflected glimmer between the islands, nothing more.
Then a long snout surfaced into the pool of light, about halfway down the island from the knights. Its nostrils flared as Ryan grabbed Kevin’s arm, pointing at it…but then it sank beneath the black water again.
“Did you see that thing?” Ryan asked.
Kevin shook his head. “I didn’t see anything. What?”
“That snout! It must have been five feet long!” He grabbed Kevin’s arm again, and began riding towards the island. “Ride!” He yelled at the squires, who sat dumbstruck on their saddles. Kevin pushed Ryan’s hand away, but slapped his reins on his horse’s neck. They broke into a gallop as they hit the bridge, side by side. They would be to the knights soon, the island’s point was only about thirty feet from the end of the short bridge.
Of course, the horse’s hooves made a lot of noise as they hit the wood of the bridge. The knights looked up from their work. Gregory quickly stood, holding his small knife, clearly pointing backwards toward the camp.
Ryan tried to yell over the din of the horses. “Gregory, something’s com—”
Then the water exploded in front of Gregory. The snout was tied to a ten-foot long neck, at least, and towered over him. Gregory tried to draw his sword, but the water beast was as fast as a snake. It bit his side, and with a flick, threw him towards the center of the island. He sailed over the trees and fell on the road in the middle of the island, stunned and bleeding.
Ryan and Kevin leapt off their horses at the edge of the island, and drew their swords while they ran toward the beast.
It was difficult for the corpse to move its legs. They were wrapped—almost bound—with swamp weed. The waterlogged, rotting clothing that hung loosely about its limbs wasn’t helping. The sword at its hip was useless to its undead, strength-less arms; it was simply another weight that fought against movement.
There wasn’t anything else to do, though, and so the corpse kept pulling. The weed slowly pulled out of the soft mud at the bottom of the swamp, and one foot was freed. The corpse’s foot sank deep into the mud as it shambled forward on its first step.
The mud held fast to its second step. It was like a vise had clamped down, holding tight. The corpse leaned forward, its front foot resting on a large rock lying under the surface. It continued leaning, pivoting on its front foot to bring its entire weight into the effort of pulling its rear foot free. It was as if the swamp did not want to let one of its own leave.
The muck finally did let go, but too quickly for undead muscles to react—and the corpse teetered forward, tipping, falling…and it once again opened its eyes from under water.
It rolled over and saw the same circle of sky shining through the water. Blinking, it sat up again, a bit more easily than the first time. Perhaps resolve was tightening sinew, strengthening bone?
Regardless, it sloshed to its feet, and renewed its efforts, pushing forward step by step toward the mountains.
The confused kingdom soldiers fell in behind Renek, even though he wore no colors. He fought three blue tabards off, skewering one and sending the other two sprawling. Just as before, they seemed slow, easy to outmaneuver—perhaps even more so, now that he had his makeshift pommel balancing the weight of the blade. He backed up, giving himself and his allies more space, and gestured at the men behind him to gather ranks and retreat more defensibly.
He killed another of the Triols as about thirty or forty of the Kingdom soldiers pushed their tired bodies into ranks behind him. There were a few of the blue tabards watching him from a distance, now. They started calling for order around them, and several others gathered around. They started slapping their swords on their shields rhythmically, which seemed to be a signal to the others to drop their individual battles and join.
A quick glance behind him showed him that the soldiers were able to at least lift their shields in the same direction. That was all he needed. It was just in time, too, as the Triols had begun to advance on him.
“Retreat! Quickly!” He yelled as he turned, running from the twenty or so Triols that had gathered against him. They ran after him, but despite his long walk, he found himself as light on his feet as if he had just awoken. He slapped some of the lagging Kingdom soldiers with the flat of his blade.
“Run! They will stop to hold the hill!” he called to them.
He was correct; at the base of the hill, as the kingdom’s forces crashed through and around an old farm’s failing wooden fence, the Triols slowed. There was soon a great rhythmical metallic thumping—slow, at first, but it came faster and faster until the Triols were all thumping their shields with their swords as fast as they could. Then they started yelling and screaming incoherently, apparently in joy at their victory. It was deafening.
The Kingdom soldiers slowed to a dejected walk, and headed for the hillside that hid their encampment.
One of them turned to Renek, squinting, and asked, “Who are you, stranger? You probably saved us, but you wear no colors, and I’ve never seen you before.”
Renek turned slightly to face the man. “My name is Renek, and I fight with the soldiers of the Kingdom.” He smiled, although it seemed to take more energy than he expected to put on that happy expression.
The soldier didn’t smile back. “Where did you come from?”
Renek’s smile faded. “I do not know. I lost my memory after a disease. Since I had a sword, and those that healed me live under the protection of the king, I have come to you to help in your cause.”
The soldier sighed as they crested the hill and their encampment came into view. “Well, I’m afraid you’re too late to help our cause, stranger … Renek.” He shook his head. “We lost this battle, and six before. We’re outnumbered, and the Triols seem blessed in battle. That, or maybe we’re cursed.” His gaze lifted as he saw that other soldiers had returned to the camp. “There’s a little bit of good news! We lost, but the camp seems little diminished. Maybe we can hold them off another day.” The other soldiers seemed a bit heartened, as well.
A large chestnut horse in full battle gear rode out to greet the returning force. The man on it was obviously of some import; he had a more elegant helm, and his shield had the kingdom’s symbol wrought into the metal. He wore decorated full plate armor, which seemed out of place next to the other soldiers on the battlefield.
“Captain Rimes!” Came the call from atop the horse’s back. “You are alive! Your Company was hard hit, I tried to send reinforcements but we couldn’t push through. What happened?”
Rimes gestured at Renek. “We were saved by this man. Says his name is Renek. He came in just as they were ready to o’erwhelm us, and managed to hold them back long enough for us to organize a better retreat. Saved many lives, he did.”
The chestnut wheeled around, and the man jumped off. He was a youngish man, clean-shaven, with a few stray locks of golden hair escaping from beneath his helm. He held out his hand.
“Then I am in your debt, friend. I am Lieutenant Hesiod. Thank you for your aid.” He took his horse’s bridle, and walked with the men toward the camp. “Your clothing is strange, you must have come far. In our land, guests are treated well, as long as they are friends—and you have earned that title by saving my men’s lives.”
He stopped to remount, and the men stopped with him. Renek stared in awe at the huge horse. Its hooves were a foot across. The Lieutenant spoke again, and Renek snapped his gaze up to meet Hesiod’s.
“I hope that you can dine with me, sir? And you also, Captain? You are dusty with the battle, and you seem tired, so please take some time to refresh yourselves.” He smiled down at the men. “After you have had your fill of food and drink, you can tell me of the battle. I’m certain it will be a tale worth the retelling.” He looked more pointedly at Renek. “And, after that tale, you can tell me what brought you to my men at such an opportune time.
“Gentlemen, dinner will be served in an hour.” He kicked his horse’s flanks and was off.
* * *
Renek was lead to a medium-sized tent, with a nice bed. A soldier brought him some cold water about a half an hour after he had arrived.
“Sir, here is some water!” the man said, putting the bucket just inside the tent flap.
Luckily, this woke Renek. He had lain down on the bed, intending to close his eyes for just a moment. Instead, he had fallen asleep in his armor.
I need to be careful about this. I seem to be getting very tired after a battle, although it was better this time than the first.He grimaced, and retrieved the bucket.It wouldn’t do to fall asleep during a retreat.
He spent some time cleaning his armor and his sword, and tightening the wire and the leather straps that held his makeshift pommel on. Then he stepped out of the tent into the evening air. The guard gestured towards the largest tent.
A few moments later, he stood outside of what he assumed to be Hesiod’s tent—the large one flying the colors of the kingdom—which was strangely unguarded. There was no way to knock. He looked around for Rimes, but didn’t see anyone.
“Hello?” he said, then shrugged and scratched the side of the tent near the entrance. A guard pulled the flap to the side and peered out.
“Renek?” the guard grunted. Clearly he had been told to expect him.
“Yes.” Renek looked at the guard with a critical eye; the tall, spindly man’s armor was ill fitted, hanging loosely about his narrow shoulders but too short and tight on his legs. His sword looked too short for his body, as well, which would limit his reach in battle.
“The Lieutenant is expecting you.” The guard moved aside so that Renek could enter.
Renek passed the guard, and entered a small antechamber. The real entrance to the tent was still ahead. He reached out to pull aside the flap, but paused. He turned towards the thin man to ask, “How do you announce that you’re outside? There’s no place to knock.”
The guard laughed. “Well, I don’t know how your people do it, but we generally clap, or just speak a greeting.”
“Thanks.” He entered the main tent. Captain Rimes was already at the table, which Renek was surprised to see had a tablecloth draped over it. It also had a lit candelabra. The captain and Lieutenant both rose to greet him.
“Renek!” Lieutenant Hesiod exclaimed. “I trust your tent was to your liking?” He smiled broadly at his guest.
“Thank you, it seemed extravagant for my needs.” He smiled in return. The lieutenant’s warmth and pleasure was easy to pick up.
“Yes, yes, only the best for our guests—especially ones that come to our rescue!” He frowned briefly. “It’s a shame, but we have several extra tents like the one you were in, that would normally be reserved for captains. This has been a brutal war, with a terrible cost.” He shook his head, but brightened immediately. “But please, you must sit and eat with us. We can speak of more serious matters after dinner.”
Dinner, or at least eating, seems to be important to these people. Renek thought to himself. He looked more closely at the Lieutenant. Hesiod was a bit shorter than he had expected, judging from when he had seen him on his horse. He also noticed that, despite being in good fighting condition, Hesiod seemed to have a bit of extra girth.Perhaps it’s just Hesiod that likes food, and not the whole culture.Renek grinned as he was led to the table.
The table was set with fine porcelain plates, and real silver. The glasses, already filled with wine, were made of thicker fired clay but were still elegant. Fine cloth napkins sat on each plate, and were folded into the shape of a duck. A large plate with some sort of roasted bird sat in the middle of the table, and several local vegetables were on plates on either side.
Lieutenant Hesiod lifted his glass and held it out. The two warriors on the other side of the table lifted their glasses in response.
“To new friends!” Hesiod said, and they clinked their glasses together and drank.
The meal looked to be excellently prepared, despite the fact that it was served in a war camp. Renek saw several interesting uses of various things that seemed out of place on fine plates, such as biscuits served with the bird that were clearly travel biscuits—dense, dry, and filling, but hopefully they wouldn’t be too bad when soaked in juice from the bird. There was beef jerky in the green beans instead of ham. Dessert was already on the table, and seemed to be fruit mixed with honey and nuts, all probably gathered from nearby farms.
“Lieutenant, this is an opulent spread for a battle camp. My compliments!” Renek said. He noticed that Rimes rolled his eyes in response to the compliment.
Hesiod must have seen Rimes’ expression as well, for he said “Ah, Captain Rimes,” he said with a rueful smile, “you shouldn’t begrudge a man like myself his little … creature comforts!”
Renek smiled politely, clearly confused.
A soldier came in, dressed in a chef’s traditional uniform, and began to serve the dinner. Renek noticed that there was an odd bulge in the man’s clothing at his waist. When he reached around Renek to put food on his plate, Renek noticed that there was a similar, if smaller, bulge in his left sleeve—and he caught the slightest glint of a silver pommel as the chef reached for one of the plates of vegetables.
Hesiod sighed. “You seem confused, good sir. You are right to be.” He signed again, and looked down at the roast bird in front of them all. “You see, I am not a ‘true’ soldier, as Rimes would tell you—if I would ever stop talking and give him the chance!” He glanced over at Rimes out of the corner of his eye, then back down at the food before continuing.
“I know the king quite well. I am quite the … athletic courtier,” he looked at Renek and smiled weakly, “but, in the end, I am still a courtier. Because I am smart and ablepolitician, the king saw fit to ‘reward’ me with a command in the army.” He laughed a rather high-pitched, tinny laugh for such a large man. “I suppose our dear King felt that if I was good at stratagems in his court, then I must be good at stratagems on the battlefield.”
“Was he right?” Renek already knew the answer before asking.
“Sadly, no. I am no better than any other inexperienced man.”
Rimes cut in. “Well, it’s better than I thought it would be.” He raised his eyebrows and nodded a shaky nod, as if trying to convince himself that what he said was true. “We’ve lost about a quarter of our men, and the Triols’ army is four times our size.”
Hesiod waved his hand in the air. “My dear captain, continuously fighting a retreating battle will reduce losses even under the most idiotic commander—such as myself.”
Renek smiled, and asked, “How do you know about retreating battles if you have no experience?”
Hesiod laughed his light and airy laugh again. “To be honest, I did read a book, or perhaps even two, on our way to meet the enemy. I’m not a total idiot.”
Renek laughed along with both other men.
Hesiod picked up his fork and poked at the leg that had been served him. “Regardless, I agree with Rimes—we’re in much better shape than I thought we’d be in when we left the capitol.” He winked at Rimes. “We could have done better, perhaps, had we not had to carry a trunk of plates, cookware, silverware, and spices, eh Rimes?”
Rimes snorted into his plate.
Hesiod grinned sheepishly at Renek. “My one condition of fighting, I begged the king to find the best chef-soldier in his army before we left. One extra chest of materials and I can eat like a human being, instead of eating beef jerky for half my meals, and cold hard bread for the other half.” He wrinkled his nose. “Of course, both of those are better than…what did you call it, Rimes? That …soupyou said you had to eat in your last campaign?
“Whatchagot Stew,” Rimes said, without hesitation. “You find whatever you can that’s … mostly eatable, and you put it in water, boil it for a while, and then you eat it.” He furrowed his brow. “Shoes ain’t really that tasty.”
Hesiod shuddered. “No, I rather imagine that they’re not.” He cut off a piece of meat and chewed, closing his eyes in pleasure.
Renek followed suit, and it was quite good. More flavors all at once than he liked normally, but they did complement each other quite well.
“Ah, there’s a touch of fennel in this,” Hesiod murmured. “We must have passed some earlier, that wasn’t in the food I brought with us.” He grinned and winked at Renek. “Not too shabby for being on a campaign, eh?”
“Not at all, Lieutenant. It’s quite good.” They ate in silence for a while.
Eventually, when everyone was just about done, Hesiod pushed his chair back from the table, dropped his napkin on his plate, and sighed contentedly.
He raised his eyebrows, and looked at Renek with a piercing stare. “And now, Renek, please tell me of how you saved the day?” He leaned back in his chair a bit, and jutted his chin at Rimes. “Rimes, you can follow up with your side of the story.”
Renek settled back in his chair, thinking,I can see how this man leads. He may be a fop, but he knows how to be direct, commanding. And I’ll bet that he can spot discomfort and lying a mile away,he added to himself, thinking about the intrigue and politics that a courtier must face when vying for the attention of the king.I’d better be careful.
“Well, Lieutenant, I had been traveling in this direction since the cold of the early morning, trying to meet up with you…”
* * *
Hesiod seemed impressed with Renek’s tale.
“You mean that you managed to corral Rimes’ men, fight like a bear, and hold the Triols off until Rimes could form a defensive line, and escort them off the field, without getting hurt, after you had beenmarchingall day long?” His eyes were wide as saucers. “That’s simply incredible, man!
“Rimes, what do you think this man could do with a full belly and a good night’s sleep?”
Rimes yawned hugely before answering.
“Rimes, my dear boy, cover your mouth. I don’t need to see your tonsils.” Hesiod smiled. “I think you may have had a bit too much wine and food.” He turned to Renek. “Poor lad’s used to the field rations. Is this the first time you’ve eaten with me, Rimes?” He nodded, then answered his own question. “I think so.
“Off to bed with you, Rimes. Renek and I have a bit more to talk about this eve. It was fascinating to hear your side of the tale as well, but I’ve got that.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. I am quite tired, and the day’s … activities were hard on my men, too. I’d like to check in on them before turning in.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Good night, captain.”
They watched Rimes walk out of the tent, back straight as an arrow despite his tiredness.
Renek turned to Hesiod as the tent flap closed. “He’s seems quite the soldier. Is he one of your best, Lieutenant?”
Hesiod waved at the air. “Please, call me Hesiod. It’s how I was known back at the court, and with none of the soldiers here anything else seems silly.” He looked at the tent’s exit. “Yes, he is a good man. He would be eaten alive back at the court, of course—too many people there looking to get a leg up by stepping on your dead body—but he is a good soldier, and would happily die for the kingdom, without thinking twice.
“I would like to prevent that, Renek.” He was looking directly at Renek with a sort of intensity and clarity that doesn’t come easily to most people, especially after a feast. “I need to know why you are here. I need to know if I can trust you.”
“You can trust me, Hesiod,” he said. He tried to put conviction in his voice, even while knowing that the Lieutenant would never trust a simple assertion.
“It’s not that simple, Renek.” He smiled, tapping his fingers on the table. “You came out of nowhere. You speak our language well, like a native.” His eyes narrowed. “Yet your armor is strange, and your sword is stranger.” Renek’s eyes widened, and Hesiod smiled. “Did you think that you were the only one with eyes that could see? I saw how you appraised everything about you. I even saw when you noticed that the waiter was armed.” His smile broadened. “I don’t think you saw the dagger in his boot, though.
When Renek jumped, he smiled. “Don’t be so surprised. If I weren’t able to see the details, then I would have been poisoned, or knifed in the back, long ago.” He nodded, deep in thought. “That’s one of the reasons that I can’t trust you, not yet—it would be too easy for one of the Triols to have a good accent, and to arrange things in just the right way so as to seem trustworthy.” He leaned forward. “I already trust you quite a bit, as you no doubt have surmised—otherwise I wouldn’t have confided in you my lack of trust.” He straightened up in his seat. “Maybe I am betraying my own need of better men about me, the need for good advice, and better battle plans. Were you an enemy, it would be far better to have an enemy who does not know that I know he is an enemy.”
Renek smiled apologetically, a bit confused at the layers of thinking that Hesiod seemed to be able to think of simultaneously. “I don’t know how I can get you to trust me, then.”
“Well, you can start by answering my question. Why did you set out to find us?”
“Hesiod,” Renek said, shaking his head, “I’m not sure that you will believe me if I tell you the truth.”
“Try me.” There was no trace of his court laugh now, no smile. He was deadly serious.
And he’s probably armed to the teeth, just like that ‘chef’ was.Renek thought to himself.I hope he believes me.He drew a deep breath and let it out slowly.
“To be honest, I don’t know who I am, or where I came from. I woke up at the top of a mountain a few weeks ago, in the care of some extraordinary monks, and they took care of me. They said that I was ill to the point of death when I came to them. After they had cured my illness, they returned the things that I had with me when I came to them, and they were soldier’s things, mostly just this sword. Since they had been so kind to me, and not asked me for anything for their services, I decided that I would put my weapon to work for the people that protected them—and that would be your king’s army. You.”
Hesiod drummed his fingers on the table again, lost in thought. “You have no memories of where you came from?”
“None.” Renek shook his head, staring at his plate.
“Then how can you wield a sword as well as you and Rimes say that you do?” There was hesitation in his voice. Renek felt that, were it not for the war going badly, Hesiod’s distrust would have won. As it was, Renek didn’t know if he would be sleeping in a tent tonight, or at the side of the road.
Renek looked at the floor, and mumbled, “I don’t know.”
“I’m sorry?” Hesiod leaned forward, a hand cupped to his ear.
Renek looked up at him and spoke clearly: “I don’t know. All I know is that everything becomes very clear, very easy, when I draw my sword. When I first did that in battle, it was against some brigands. They seemed to be slow to me—but apparently I was very fast.” He frowned deeply. “One of them called me ‘devil’ because I was so fast.
“It was similar to that on the battlefield today,” he continued. “I was able to see all around me.” He shook his head, and stared at the floor again. “No, that’s wrong. I could only see in front of me, but I couldfeeleveryone around me. I could tell if they were off balance, if they were too tired to defend…I knew when your men were able to protect themselves enough to retreat safely, and I don’t know how I knew.” He looked up at Hesiod, allowing his expression to openly show how confused he was.
Hesiod looked at him from across the table. He picked his hand up and cradled his chin, obviously deep in thought.
“You’re right, I don’t believe your story," he said, finally. “It just isn’t right, Renek. I don’t know why you’re not sharing with me, but you’ll have your reasons, whatever they are.” He shook his head, and drained the last glass of wine.
“I’m telling you the truth,” Renek said, quietly, but Hesiod shook his head again.
“Well, there’s nothing for it, anyway,” Hesiod said. “It is getting late, and I am tired. Please return to your tent, and attend to me at dawn.” He shook his head and stood up. “We are in desperate need, for we must hold the Triols to this side of the river. I’m afraid that our casualties are going to increase significantly if we don’t do something—and while I don’t believe you, I am going to trust you enough to fight with us. I have to.”
He lifted his eyebrows as if disbelieving what he was saying. “I would like you to help me plan the next day’s battle, along with the remaining captains that are in our battalion. Weshouldhave twenty, each with a hundred men, but they seem to put themselves into danger before they let their men face it, and so we have only twelve captains left, and nearly none with their full complement of men.
“I will let you fight alongside Rimes for the next few days. Perhaps your … assistance can help us lose lives more slowly.” He shook his head again, and gestured to the door. “Now, get some rest. You’ll want plenty of energy to impress me tomorrow.
Hesiod looked directly into Renek’s eyes. “After all,” he continued, “A man with no past has no people to miss him if he were to … fall in battle.”
When he got back to his cot, Renek found himself unable to sleep. Hesiod had been too disturbing, too cautious. And for good reason.
“Who the heck am I? Do I have any family that misses me?” He muttered to himself before he finally dropped off.
Battle at Three Hills
Renek crouched behind the top of a hill, lifting his head just high enough to see the Triols. It was about an hour before dawn, but he could tell from their torches and campfires that their army was massive, much larger than the Kingdom’s. He shook his head, and crawled backwards down the hill to where he had left a burning torch stuck into the sandy soil.
Captain Rimes followed. As soon as they were low enough to stand up without being seen, they did so—behind some scrub brush as extra cover, in case enemy sentries happened by—and conversed in hushed voices.
“Captain, their army is much larger than I thought.” Renek shook his head again.
“They outnumber us at least four to one, I should think,” Rimes said.
“Yes, judging from the width of the fires, they have at least four thousand men. We have just shy of a thousand.” Renek picked up a small stick and started drawing on the ground. Rimes leaned in closely, holding the torch close so that they could see the drawing in the flickering orange light. “Their force lieshere, between these three hills. They have a scouting party that circles the hills.” He looked up into the sky for a moment, pondering. Rimes waited patiently. Finally Renek began to speak, drawing his eyes down to his crude map.
“I think they have made a tactical error with their camp placement,” Renek began. He pointed at the three low spots, between the hills. “Ifweattackthem, instead of waiting for them to come over the hill to us, then we can take advantage of that.
“I think they’ll pull their sentries back in quickly, and we can use the hills for cover, and flank them. We could send perhaps a third of our forces in two units around those hills and lay into their rear, and on the hills where their archers are likely to be.” Renek drew a deep breath, and let it out quietly. “Once we’ve taken out their archers, we can send ours up the hills, and fire into their center until we run out of arrows. We’ll have little chance of hitting our own men, since we’ll be surrounding them.”
Rimes shook his head. “Well, it’s basic strategy that the center has an advantage.” His lips drew taut. “But … maybe you’re right. If we can pull it off, we might have a chance. Two units flankin’, one after the other, will confuse them.” He pointed at the two hills that would surround the battle, should Renek’s plan take place. “But why won’t they send their archers up these two hills, here and here? They might see our men.”
Renek sighed. “You’re right, of course. But they should be focused on the front, not looking over their shoulders. Plus, I don’t think they’ll go to the top of the hills, they would be too exposed. It would be easy to send a group of armored knights up the hill on horses, overtake them, and take the hills.” He smiled in grim satisfaction. “If I were the enemy, I would keep my archers close enough to protect them.”
Rimes laughed, softly. “Well sir, if you were the enemy, you wouldn’t have camped in such a vulnerable spot. And my—I mean,our—army would be in a worse spot for it.”
Renek chuckled as they turned to walk back to the camp.
* * *
Lieutenant Hesiod had already woken the camp, and by the time that Renek and Rimes returned to the commanding officer’s tent, men were scurrying about making preparations.
The two warriors were admitted, and escorted to Hesiod’s table, where they sat down to a meager breakfast of scrambled eggs and the dry, puck-like biscuits that seemed to be omnipresent around the camp.
“What news do you bring?” Hesiod demanded as he served them.
Rimes smiled. “Sir, Renek’s come up with a way of maybe defeating the Triol army.” He took a deep breath. “At least we’ll do a lot of damage if we can’t beat them.”
“Explain, and take turns so that you can eat. We have little time before the Triols will emerge and attack.”
“We have even less time, then,” Renek said. “We must mobilize and attack them. It is imperative.”
Hesiod looked at Renek for a moment. “We cannot attack. Our forces are vastly outnumbered.”
Renek sighed. He had been expecting this. “Surprise is important. Because we number so few, our attack will not be expected. That will give us the edge, each of our soldiers will count for two.”
Hesiod’s eyes narrowed, but he put his fork down and stood up. “Let us away, then. If we must attack first, we have little time indeed.”
* * *
The cavalry were reserved in the rear. The knights and their squires, about fifty men in total, gathered to the left side of the battle, out of sight. A group of fifty archers rode behind their saddles. The knights were to attack last, driving their horses deep into the outer ranks of the Triol army in an attempt to confuse and demoralize the enemy.
The rest of the men with horses stood in the rear of the army, where they would be plainly visible to the enemy once the battle was joined. This was necessary, since the Triols would be expecting to see the cavalry—Renek didn’t want them expecting the flanking maneuver. Additionally, it would discourage any flanking maneuvers by the Triols.
About two hundred infantry were ready to attempt the left flanking maneuver. They were hidden behind the hill, among some sparse trees about a quarter of a mile away. Fifty archers accompanied them. The foot soldiers were to leave their position as soon as they heard the sounds of fighting, and attack as soon as they arrived.
Back in the center, the remaining seven hundred or so men formed their line—swordsmen in front, and pikes behind—they could level their pikes at any oncoming horse charges. Bowmen were behind the pikes. Reserve swordsmen were behind them, since the valley between the brush-covered hills was too narrow for everyone to fight all at one time.
Hesiod gave the call, and the army moved out as a unit. Renek, who was watching from a distance, sitting on a horse with the knights, nodded approvingly at their discipline. It was hard to get people to move as a unit. Hesiod seemed to inspire confidence in his men, despite his lack of experience.
Renek saw dust rising from the valley beyond. The large Triol army was already marching. It would be a near thing for them to meet between the hills. He watched with a worried eye, but after a few minutes, he saw that the two armies would do battle where he had hoped.
He saw the Triol archers take to the hills, hundreds on each side of the advancing army. Soon, the sounds of battle came—the clash of sword on shield, the cries of wounded and dying men. His eyes turned to the infantry hidden in the trees.
They began to stream out in small groups, running to the side of the hill in fives and tens. Renek thought that he recognized Rimes when he ran with some men—he had a captain’s white armband around his left bicep. They formed up ranks in the scrub brush on the opposite side of the hill from the Triol archers. Renek had been correct; they stood low on the hillside, near the protection of their army. He nodded in satisfaction, realizing that their arrows would not have been able to reach the kingdom’s army had they stood at the tops of the hills.
The kingdom’s archers moved forward, spilling out to the sides of the footmen as they tried to show that kingdom arrows pierced just as well as Triol arrows. They were quickly driven back, though, since the Triol archers were higher and their arrows flew further.
Renek looked around him at the knights, and nodded. They nodded in return, and the group began to ride around their hill. They needed to be in place before the first flanking attack hit the Triol army.
It took only a few minutes to get in position. Two of the knights and Renek dismounted, climbing the hillside on foot, just to one side of the empty valley. They saw the main battle had been fully engaged; Hesiod’s flag flew near the front lines. The kingdom horsemen were wheeling about on their own army’s right side, across from the knights. They seemed to be trying to reach the archers—riding up the side of the hill, shields held over their heads. It only took a moment for Renek to understand why they were no longer on the battle plan: kingdom soldiers were dying by the score in the valley, as volley after volley of arrows fell into their midst.
Renek’s gaze was wrenched away, though, as he heard the yelling of the hundred foot soldiers, running into the Triol’s flank. They fought hard, but kept out of the range and even sight of the archers. Rimes’ armband was clearly visible in the front of the attack—and the enemy seemed to be cowed, a large group of them retreating. The Triol rear commander quickly tried to organize his troops, turning several lines of swordsmen to face the new threat. They began to beat their swords against their shields, rhythmically, as they advanced. The sound seemed to remind the retreating Triols that they outnumbered the enemy. They came to a halt, and turned to face the foot soldiers.
It was the perfect time for Renek’s attack.
Ryan and Kevin ran as fast as they could towards the water beast, swords drawn and swinging at their sides. They were careful to thread their way through the trees without touching them.
William glanced at them quickly while drew his sword and stood on guard, but Armand jumped past him with a yell. He slashed down, hard, and struck the creature. It shied back, bleeding a dark fluid; what color was impossible to say in the failing light of the flowers.
For the flowers had begun to die. Unexpectedly, there was a popping sound as each one’s stamen suddenly swelled and exploded pollen into the night air. The pollen glowed faintly for a few seconds as it floated out away from the flower, then faded into obscurity. The petals fell off and went dark just as quickly as the pollen.
William breathed in deeply, preparing to attack the water beast—and started to sneeze. Over and over, he sneezed. He staggered away from the water, reaching out to steady himself on a tree while he sneezed yet again.
The tree screamed. A high-pitched keening wail came out of it, and its branches came down, surrounding its trunk. William was caught inside of the living jail cell, still sneezing feebly.
The other two knights finally rushed around the corner of the island, swords drawn.
Meanwhile Armand hacked at the beast, clearly giving his all. He motioned to the squires and the other knights to stay back as he danced around the moss covered tree roots, avoiding the water creature’s strikes easily despite their speed.
Ryan swayed in place, standing in en guard. Kevin also looked as if he was about to attack, but Armand yelled at them to stay back.
Armand deftly swung his sword into the side of its jaw, causing the creature to cry out as ichor poured out of its mouth. The snout had eyes on top of it, near the back, and Ryan noticed that they were blinking in pain or anger from this latest cut.
Again and again, the beast attacked, and Armand continued to simply move out of its way, almost lazily swinging his sword into the beast’s hide over and over. However, as Armand cut again and again, he seemed to be inflicting less and less harm—the ichor seemed to be hardening into some form of natural armor.
The sound of hooves on the bridge came over the river. The other squires were finally moving in to help.
The beast attacked again, its tail splashing out of the water and whipping sideways, connecting with Armand’s head. He was knocked into the knights next to him, and everyone went sprawling. Armand was out cold. The creature moved in quickly, its jaws closing around Armand’s head and neck when Ryan leapt forward, again pulling Kevin along beside him.
“Hit its eyes!” He yelled, swinging his sword. He connected with the beast’s left eye, which popped open like the flowers had moments before. The creature screamed and went rigid—and that’s when Kevin’s sword came down on its other eye. Ichor and blood flew everywhere, and then the creature was gone, sliding back into the black water.
After a few seconds, Ryan realized that William was still trapped in the tree. He pried the knight free, who at least had stopped sneezing.
William knelt to look at Armand. “He is unhurt and will awaken shortly. I shall go and tend to Gregory.” He patted the pouch full of flowers. “I’m sure he’ll be fine. Get the other squires back to camp immediately, we’ll be along soon.” Ryan began to protest, but the knight held up a hand. “No arguing. Events like these flowers blooming draw all sorts of creatures, but what’s done is done. We’ll be fine.” He pushed them towards the road. “Once Gregory is up, we’ll come back and get Armand meet you back at the camp. I’ll take two of those torches you have, though.
“Oh, and Ryan?” he said, as they came to the road. Ryan turned to look at him, holding his torch up, and saw William’s smile. “Good job.”
* * *
The squires mounted at the road and walked the horses back to the camp. The others mobbed them, the knights demanding to know what had happened to Gregory and the other knights. After some reassurance and a quick retelling of what had happened, two knights leapt on their horses and galloped to the assistance of their injured brethren.
It was only a few moments later that they returned, having met Gregory and the others along the way.
Armand was seething. He searched the group of squires for Ryan, and once he found him, he jumped off of his horse and strode over to him.
“I told you to stay back!” he said forcefully. “Gregory told you to stay on the other side of the river!” He spat on the ground between them. “Explain why you violatedtwodirect orders!”
Ryan was dumbfounded. He sputtered for a few seconds, but Kevin answered for him.
“Sir knight,” Kevin began, “His actions saved all of your lives. Why are you so angry?”
Armand wheeled to face Kevin. “Because, in our order,we follow orders!”
William was helping Gregory dismount; clearly Gregory’s injuries were worse than he had anticipated. Still, Gregory was well enough that he was glancing at Armand with concern.
Armand turned back to Ryan. “I don’t care if you think you saved our lives. There were two other knights there, they would have handled the situation. The chain of command is how we work, how the army works!” He sneered. “If you disobey me again, then I will not continue with you as my squire.” He spun on his heel and began to walk off.
“Well, then,” Gregory said, weakly but clearly, “I suppose he would have to become my second squire.” Armand stopped cold, and slowly turned around to look at Gregory.
“This lad potentially saved at least three knight’s lives,” Gregory continued. “He should be commended, not punished.”
Armand barked a laugh. “So this is how you discipline? Rewards, instead of punishment? It’s surprising that the unit hasn’t already fallen apart!”
Gregory limped over to Armand, and pushed his face close to Armand’s. “At the very least, the boy should be thanked. Whereas you attempted to fight the beast alone—with nearly drastic consequences for everyone around you—Ryan asked for, and received help…and your apprentice succeeded where you failed.” Armand looked like he had been physically slapped.
Gregory nodded, then turned to William and held his arm out. William assisted him in walking to his tent.
Ryan looked back at Armand, who was staring at him with such a look of hate that Ryan ducked his head and quickly walked towards the horses to brush them.
Armand stood in the middle of camp for a few seconds, frowning and sneering at anyone who would look at him. When he realized that no one would meet his angry gaze, he threw his pack of flowers down next to the fire and strode off to his tent.
* * *
After the ‘Gredarin incident’, Gregory made the squires spend time sparring every day in between their other duties. He drove them hard, asking them to practice even after a full day’s worth of riding. He held up Ryan’s quick action that ‘saved the day’ to discourage what little complaint there was. Being a lot prepared, he said, was more important than being a little tired.
Armand seemed to wince every time the ‘Gredarin incident’ was named, especially when Ryan was held up as a good example. His treatment of Ryan had worsened even further, if that was even possible. He seemed unable even to be civil, and loudly berated Ryan whenever something was wrong, regardless of if it was Ryan’s fault or not.
“I don’t know how you take it, Ryan,” Kevin said, sweat pouring down his face. He reached for a water skin, which was lying to the side of the area at the edge of the camp that the two were sparring in. He winced—Ryan had belted him on the arm in the last match, and it was beginning to hurt.
Ryan came over to drink, as well, tossing his practice sword to the ground beside them. Kevin handed him the skin, and continued.
“I mean, I don’t know what you can do, but Armand’s just getting worse and worse.” He frowned, his brows knitted together in concern.
Ryan wiped his mouth and lowered the water skin. “Well, it’s not like I have a choice.” His eyes narrowed as he remembered his village burning. “Gregory keeps saying that we’ll eventually get a chance to look for my townsfolk.”
Kevin shook his head again. “I doubt it. We’re on the way to the front, now that we’ve collected Sir William’s herbs. It doesn’t make sense. I think you should stand up for yourself.” He gestured to his bruised arm. “You’re the best at the sword among the squires.”
“I suppose.” He shrugged. “But that doesn’t mean that I can ‘stand up for myself.’ He’s my knight, Kevin. I’m his squire. He treats me however he wants. End of story.” He lifted one corner of his mouth in a half-smile. “I think I’m very lucky to be here, after all. I was a peasant, and now I’m a squire to one of the Crown Knights. This is better than tilling the same fields over and over again, right?”
Kevin sighed. “You know, I didn’t much like you at first, Ryan. You’re too good at what we do. Maybe I was jealous.” He shook his head yet again. “But you’re putting up with more than I would, and you have a good attitude about it.” He bent over and picked up Ryan’s practice sword, and held it out to him, hilt first. “Let’s see if I can damage some of that good attitude. I need to pay you back for my sore arm.”
Ryan grasped the hilt, grinning. They returned to the middle of their sparring circle, and squared off.
Ryan attacked first, moving swiftly in with a standard attack, sweeping his sword down from the upper right, aiming directly at Kevin’s neck. Kevin blocked it with his shield, while doing an identical counterattack. Ryan blocked it easily.
“If you two are going to sit and attack each other like grandmothers then why are you bothering to practice?” Armand interrupted from the edge of the clearing. The two squires lowered their weapons as he strode towards them. He reached out and took Kevin’s practice sword from him, then turned to face Ryan while Kevin took a step to the side.
“I’ve decided to take a bit more of a personal interest in your training, boy.” He motioned to Kevin, who unbuckled his shield and handed it over to Armand. “And from what I can see from how you’ve been sparring tonight, it’s a good thing.” He glanced at Kevin, and said, “Standard rules—best of three touches wins.” Then he buckled the shield onto his left arm, and straightened. He lifted his sword into a perfunctory salute before falling into a relaxed en guard stance.
Ryan saluted, then stood ready. Armand attacked immediately, and with full force. Ryan caught the attack on his shield, and counterattacked. Armand wasn’t going easy, though, and he moved fast enough to block Ryan’s attack with his sword. The two swords struck each other, deflecting Ryan’s out of the way while Armand used the rebound to speed his movements up, and landed a hard blow on Ryan’s leg.
“Point to Crown Knight Armand,” Kevin said. Armand nodded, and waited a moment while Ryan recovered and got back into en guard position.
That’s going to leave a big bruise.Ryan thought to himself.I wonder why he’s here—did Gregory tell him to come, or does he just want to beat me up?He shrugged, saluted, and went to en guard.Well, maybe I can give him a taste of his own medicine, then. Time to ‘stand up for myself.’
Armand attacked again as soon as Ryan was ready, coming in with another low attack at the same leg. Ryan stepped back just far enough for the sword to miss his legs, but kept his weight forward. As Armand swept his sword around to attempt an attack from the other side, Ryan let himself fall forward, bringing his sword down with all the speed and strength that he could muster. Armand caught the blow easily on his shield, but staggered a bit from the strength of the blow, which had Ryan’s whole body weight behind it.
Ryan pushed his shield out to impede the movement of Armand’s sword arm and pressed the attack. He rained blows down toward Armand’s head, shoulders, and legs. Armand was forced to back up. He was on the defensive, his sword arm held out useless by Ryan’s shield.
Finally, Armand lifted his sword up over Ryan’s shield and managed to attack. Ryan lithely stepped to the side. Armand had committed himself to the blow and overbalanced when his sword didn’t strike his target. Ryan lightly struck the back of Armand’s head.
“Point to Squire Ryan. Sparring match stands tied at one point each.” Kevin couldn’t keep the glee out of his voice, which was unfortunate. Armand’s eyes were narrowed with hate and embarrassment.
Knight and squire squared off again. Armand attacked just as Ryan came to guard position again. This time, though, he used a thrust, directly at Ryan’s chest. Thrown off, Ryan reeled backwards, almost running, while Armand threw blow after forceful blow at Ryan’s head. Ryan managed to keep from being hit for several steps, but then tripped over an exposed root. Armand stepped on Ryan’s shield as it struck the ground, and landed a blow on Ryan’s temple. He then unbuckled his shield, and dropped both sword and shield next to Ryan. He then turned to look expectantly at Kevin.
“Uh…Point and match to Crown Knight Armand," he said apologetically.
Armand looked down at Ryan. “Did you expect me to let you win, boy?No mercy.” He smiled grimly. “We will spar every night, Ryan. Tomorrow you will stay in camp until we are done, I want everyone to watch us … train together.” He strode off toward the camp, not looking back.
Ryan sat up, head spinning from the direct blow to his head. They normally didn’t strike for the head, and so he had not been wearing a helmet. Armand hadn’t hit at full force, but he had hit hard enough for Ryan to be a bit disoriented. Kevin helped him stand up, and brought him some water.
“Well, that was … interesting,” Kevin said, eyebrows raised.
Ryan nodded. “At least I got a point on him.”
Kevin nodded, pondering. “You know…” he began, but shook his head.
“What?” asked Ryan.
“I was just thinking…” he smiled. “What if you beat him, in front of the group?”
Ryan grinned. “It would make him pretty mad, I think.” He shook his head, frowning. “But he’s much better than I am.”
“You got a point on him,” Kevin reasoned.
“That doesn’t make me better. It makes me lucky,” Ryan countered.
“But you’re getting better. He doesn’t really practice.” Kevin nodded sharply. “I watched him, this time. He doesn’t protect his legs very well, especially on his shield side. Plus you’re faster than him.”
Ryan pursed his lips, thinking it through. “He’s still better than me.”
Kevin was silent for a few seconds. “What if he wasn’t?” He shook his head. “I mean, we’re practicing a lot now, so you’re going to keep getting better…but what Gregory said back in the camp was true: you get better faster if you fight people who are better than you. You’re the best squire in the camp—” At this Ryan smiled sheepishly. “—But what if you foughttwoof us?”
Ryan’s eyebrows went up. “Huh?”
“You’d have to be faster, smarter, and stronger than both of us at the same time.” He lifted one corner of his mouth sardonically. “Not that you’re not already better than two of us, but I think you’ll get better faster if you have to fight two. We could make you into the best swordsman the Kingdom’s ever seen, I think.”
His features hardened. “Yes, I am. Look, the Triols are going to try to kill us on the battlefield, right? We’re on the same side, but Armand doesn’t seem to think so. He needs to be taken down a notch, and we’ll still have you on our side when we get to the battlefield.” He shook his head, slowly, thoughtfully. “I’m sure that Brian would help. We’d have to practice a little beyond the camp, though, we don’t want Armand to know…” He picked up the water skin. “Let’s go talk to Brian about it.”
Ryan followed along behind Kevin, shaking his head disbelievingly—but there was a hard glint in his eye.
The next evening found the three squires standing around a sparring circle a little bit away from the camp.
“How does this work?” Ryan asked, looking at the two swords, the two shields.
Kevin answered. “We attack, you defend. If you knock us both out, you get a point. If we score on you, we get a point.” He looked over at Brian and raised his eyebrows.
“And if we get two points, you lose that match,” Brian finished.
“Huh,” grunted Ryan. “Doesn’t seem fair. I should get a point for each of you.”
Kevin laughed. “Oh, right, becauseArmand’sgoing to be fair.”
Ryan nodded. “I suppose that’s about right.”
“It would be good to beat him, though, wouldn’t it?” Kevin asked.
“Yes. It would be,” Ryan stated flatly, the hard glint in his eye again.
Brian stepped into the circle, and saluted. Kevin came in next to him, standing shoulder to shoulder. He and Ryan saluted simultaneously, and they all fell into en guard position.
Kevin attacked first, and Ryan blocked. As he counterattacked, Brian landed a blow on Ryan’s side.
“Point!” Brian called.
They squared off again. This time, Brian attacked. Ryan blocked the sword swing easily, but did not counterattack. When Kevin attacked in turn, Ryan blocked his attack, and flung his sword out towards Brian. Brian blocked easily, and Kevin managed to tap Ryan on the shoulder.
“Point, and match!” Kevin called, stepping back from Ryan. “You’re faster than this, Ryan, what’s going on?”
“I dunno, maybe it’s hard because there aretwo of you?” Ryan said, eyebrows raised sarcastically.
Kevin rolled his eyes. “Come on, you can do better than that. En guard!” He saluted and fell into position. Ryan’s eyes narrowed.
Again, Kevin attacked first, and Ryan easily blocked. When Brian attacked, though, Ryan stepped to the side. While Brian recovered from his miss, Ryan attacked across his own body to poke Brian in the side with his sword.
Kevin wasn’t standing still, though, and he attacked Ryan’s exposed side. Ryan squirmed, but wasn’t quite able to get out of the way.
“Point!” Kevin called. “That was better, though, at least you got Brian.”
“Again,” Ryan rasped. Kevin raised his eyebrows, but joined Brian in a salute.
Ryan attacked first this time, He hit Kevin’s sword so hard that it dropped out of his hand, and Kevin was left defenseless. Ryan bounced his sword off of Kevin’s body and used the momentum to block Brian’s already-started blow. He pressed in toward Brian, who was forced to back up. It was no difficult matter for Ryan to score, with Kevin out and Brian on the defensive.
“Point!” called Ryan, grinning in triumph. “Again,” he said, forcefully.
Kevin fell into en guard next to Brian, eyebrows raised.
Ryan exploded as soon as they were ready, a whirling dervish of sword and shield. There wasn’t anything the other two could do; they backed up, defending as best as they could, but it was over quickly despite their best efforts.
“Point, and match!” Ryan said, still grinning. “Again.”
“I think I’m getting tired,” Kevin said, still taken aback at Ryan’s animal energy. “I think I’d—”
Ryan cut him off. “Again.”
Kevin shrugged, and fell into en guard.
* * *
It was over an hour before the light really failed. Ryan had won five or six battles in a row before his two friends were able to hold him off. They had finally been forced to expend as much energy as Ryan, to move as fast as they could…and they found that he still won more than a third of the battles. All of their clothes were soaking with sweat.
To Kevin’s relief, as soon as Ryan gave in and let them stop practicing, he went back to being normal—the ‘bloodlust’ was gone.
“This is going to be great!” Ryan said, on the way back. “I think I might be able to beat him.” He turned to Kevin. “Do you think we could find another person?”
Kevin grinned. “I think you’re too enthusiastic. We’re still able to beat you more than half the time. You don’t need a third opponent yet.”
Ryan shrugged. “I guess you’re right, Kevin.”
“I don’t know how you do it, Ryan,” Brian said. “I was moving as fast as I’ve ever moved, and you still took at least one of us out most times.” He shook his head. “It’s amazing. I don’t know about you, Kevin, but I learned a lot about how to fight the knights never taught us.”
“Well,” Kevin said, slowly, “I dunno. He pushed us to move faster—I know I’ve never tried to move that fast before. But I think watching Ryan showed me more than speed. I mean, the way he was parrying both of us with one swipe of his sword…but then he would move around one of us. He was constantly moving, so that one of us was between him and the other.” He nodded, deep in thought. “I think battle must be something like that, right? I mean, there’ll be a lot of people all around us, all trying to kill us…who says they won’t team up in twos or even threes to attack?”
The other two nodded as the group arrived at the edge of camp.
Kevin put his hand on Ryan’s shoulder. “Ryan, I think you should make sure to lose to Armand for the next couple of battles," he said. “Study his style, look for weaknesses. It’ll be best to catch him off guard in a week or two, when you ‘suddenly get better’ overnight.”
Ryan’s eyes opened a bit wider as he considered, then narrowed. The hard glint came back, and he nodded once. The three broke up and walked back to their tents in the cooling evening air.
It was a long time before Ryan was able to sleep that night.
* * *
Another day, another two-on-one sparring match.
Ryan held his hand out to Brian, who was on the ground. Brian grinned, but his eyes were narrow with pain as he let Ryan pull him to standing. He rubbed his sore leg.
“You got me pretty good. Is Kevin conscious yet?” Brian said, gesturing.
“Yes. I’ve been conscious for a while—I just didn’t want Ryan cracking me on the head again.” They all laughed.
“Brian, you’ve got to move faster.” Ryan reached out and grabbed Brian’s hands. “Instead of moving the tip of your sword, move the hilt.” He pushed Brian’s hands to the side, keeping the sword pointing in the same direction. “Catch my sword on your cross-guard, that’s what it’s there for. It’s a whole lot faster than trying to get the end of your blade down.”
“Huh,” Brian grunted. “Hadn’t thought of that.” He walked over next to the tree where they had laid their water skin. After taking a drink, he handed the skin to Ryan.
“That’s why we’re still ‘helping’ you, Ryan—it’s helping us more than you, now.” Kevin pushed himself to his feet. “We almost never beat you any more.” He came over and reached his hand out for the water skin.
“That’s for sure,” Brian said, nodding in agreement. “We beat you, what, two days ago?”
Ryan looked at them both. “I think that was the last time.” He shrugged. “Do you think I’m ready to beat Armand?”
Kevin laughed. “Oh, yes. Watching you lose to him last night was painful.” He put his arm on Ryan’s shoulders. “It was like watching you move in slow motion.” He shook his head. “I still don’t know how you have that much control, to slow down like that.”
They took a few moments to relax before returning to camp. The dusk was coming later every night, and they were near the edge of the forest now, so there were fewer trees to block the light as well. Gregory had said that they were nearing the front lines, it would be less than three more days’ worth of travel.
Ryan gestured for the water again. As he lifted his head to drink, there was a whistling through the air, and an arrow sprouted from the tree next to them. They whipped their heads around in unison. There were two Triol riders less than a hundred feet away. Both of them had small riding bows.
“Get down!” yelled Ryan, as they all fell to the ground. The two arrows whizzed over the squires’ heads.
The two riders laughed, and turned their horses away. As they galloped off, Ryan quickly stood up.
“We’ve got to go tell Gregory.” His lips pressed together in a grim frown. “They were scouts, we can expect at least a raiding force within the hour. Maybe more.” He reached out and pulled the arrow out of the tree.
* * *
Their voices preceded them into camp, followed closely by their running forms.
“What is it, boy?” Armand was first to reach them.
“Scouts saw us practicing. They fired at us.” Armand reached out to take the arrow from Ryan’s outstretched hand.
Gregory ran up behind Armand. “What’s going on?” Armand held the arrow up. Gregory’s eyes widened. He turned, and started bellowing orders to the men to pack their camp and prepare for battle.
Armand’s raised eyebrows knitted together. “What were you doing so far away from camp.” It was more of a demand than a question.
Brian came to the rescue. “Practicing, Sir knight.”
“You have been … practicing … a lot,” Armand said, with a silky smoothness. He smiled, showing all of his teeth. “Perhaps you three can lead the first charge, then? Since, if you had been closer to the camp, those scouts wouldn’t have gotten away, and we would have had much more time to prepare.”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Of course, Sir Knight.” He looked directly into Armand’s eyes. “Whatever my knight wishes. You are, after all, taking extra time to train me, nearly every evening lately. I feel that you have prepared me adequately for anything.”
“Good, boy.” He gestured towards their tents. “You had better hurry, you have a lot of our things to pack, and you must help me with my armor.” He strode off towards Gregory.
Kevin whistled. “I don’t know, Ryan…”
“Don’t worry, Gregory won’t let it happen,” Ryan said, quietly. “Armand was bluffing.” Ryan looked worried, though, even while he was speaking. “But I don’t want to give him any excuses—I’ve got to go get our camp packed.”
The three squires ran towards their separate tents.
* * *
Ryan waited until everything else was done before he buckled on his real sword. It was different than the practice sword. Heavier, and broader.
I wonder how much that will affect how I fight?He wondered.Too late to practice with it now. He shrugged, and shot the sword home into its sheath at his left hip.
Everything was packed and loaded on the horse. Only the fire pit remained as evidence that they had camped here, and Gregory was breaking that up with his feet. Two of the squires were sweeping the campsite with tree branches they had cut down.
The sky was growing darker in the east. Even in the height of summer, the sun only stayed up for so long.
Perhaps they won’t attack?Ryan wondered.No, I’m sure they will. The Moon’s full, and the Triols never knowingly give up an advantage.He smiled.Plus, Gregory’s sure they’ll attack, despite the darkness—and he’s never been wrong yet.
He heard the sound of distant galloping hooves, and nodded.
Gregory’s neck spun as he turned to yell orders. “Everyone mounted, NOW! Fall back to the rear, and form ranks!”
They leapt onto their horses, and formed ranks. Armand gestured expansively to Ryan, making room in the middle of the front rank.
“After you …squire," he said.
Ryan sighed to himself as he took his place in the front of the troop. The sound of distant galloping stopped—the Triols had slowed their horses to a walk as they came off the road, toward the camp.
“What’s going on, Armand?” Gregory’s voice was icy.
“Ryan has been trainingextrahard.” Sarcasm dripped off his voice. “I thought I’d give him the opportunity to show us the fruits of his labors.”
“Ryan, get back into the back rank,” Gregory commanded.
“Gregory, you’re interfering in the training of my squire again.”
“Not now, Armand. Tomorrow—if we see a tomorrow—we can discuss this. Tonight…”
Around two dozen Triol knights—about as many knights as Gregory had with him—rode into the clearing, torches held high. They threw the torches down around the edges of the clearing, and drew their swords.
“Tonight, we fight.” He looked back at the rest of his group. “We’re going to need more light before this is done,” Gregory said. “Knights, light your torches and add them to the ring. Squires, stay back unless you see a good opportunity to help.”
The knights lit and threw their torches around the camp, being careful to light any brush on fire.
Ryan studied the Triols. The orange glow from under them, coupled with the pale blue of the Moon’s light, made them look more … evil, more demonic, than normal.
The Triols rode forward, and the kingdom knights drew their swords and did the same. In the center of the clearing, the two forces faced each other.
“Well met, knights.” The Triol’s accent was good—he was understandable, but his syllables were clipped short. “We come to kill you, but I have ancestors from your kingdom. I am loath to fight kinsmen. My name is Culdre; my father was Drenar, son of Narman. He was bastard son of Duke Elrin, of your ‘kingdom.’ Do any of you hail from Elrin?”
William raised his hand. “I am William, next in line for the Duchy of Elrin.” There was wonder in his voice.
The Triol Culdre smiled, and rode forward, as did William. They shook hands. Culdre pulled a small item out of his saddlebag and handed it to William.
“Take this small gift, and I beg of you, please do not enter battle. To be fair, I will ask one of my men to return to our camp.”
Ryan looked at Kevin and Brian, eyes raised. “I didn’t know they were so … honorable,” he whispered.
Brian nodded. “My father has said many times that it is their sense of honor that brings them to fight us, over and over. He thinks that one of our nobles insulted one of their nobles, and they’ve been warring with us ever since.”
Ryan shook his head. “Couldn’t we just apologize?”
Brian drew his mouth into a thin-lipped smile. “Nobody knows what the insult was, it was too long ago.”
“It’s not about the insult, at least not any more,” Kevin said. “Gregory says it’s about land resources. Stuff like those flowers we harvested at the river—the Triols want that.”
Culdre waved to one of his men, who turned and rode off.
William shrugged, reached into his boot, and pulled out a knife still in its sheath. He turned the hilt towards Culdre. “Sir Culdre. This knife was my father’s, and his father’s before him. I would be pleased if you would accept it as my gift to you, my distant kin.”
Culdre bowed, accepting the knife. “Thank you, William.” He smiled smoothly. “May I suggest that you ride down the road? It will be difficult not to engage us as we slaughter your comrades with our superior skill.”
William smiled in return. “I believe I will ride down the road a bit, Culdre, but not for the reason that you state.” He shook his head. “I detest seeing the remotest of my kin die, even if it is for the good of the kingdom. And so I will retire.” He laughed shortly. “I hope you understand if I do not wish you luck, cousin.”
Culdre laughed easily. “Be well, cousin.”
As William rode off, Culdre turned to the rest of the knights.
“You foolish knights can surrender now, or taste our hot-forged steel. What is your choice?”
Armand spat on the ground.
Culdre smiled. “So be it. Let us fight.” He spurred his horse forward, lifting his sword.
Armand charged forward to engage Culdre, roaring like a lion. The two clashed together, swords flailing, each looking for a gap in the other’s defenses.
Soon, the clearing was filled with the sounds of fighting. The squires stood off to the side, nervously watching the battle ebb and flow.
“I can’t stand it any more,” Kevin said, inching his horse forward. “Let’s get in there.”
Ryan reached out his arm. “Not yet.” He wrenched his gaze away from the battle to face the other boy. “Wait until the time is right.”
Kevin frowned, but nodded.
A few minutes later, the left flank of the kingdom knights seemed to be advancing. Two of the Triols were down, and the knights were pressing their advantage.
Kevin nudged Ryan, and pointed with his sword. “What if we went around there and attacked from behind?”
Ryan nodded. “Let’s go behind the trees so we won’t be seen as easily.” The squires began walking their horses quietly, in single file. In a few moments, they were on the road just beyond the clearing, and formed up ranks.
Ryan lifted his sword high in the failing light, and brought it down carefully, pointing at the battle just beyond the trees. The troop of squires rode around the trees and brought their forbidden and unused weapons to bear on the flank of the Triols.
The corpse had made good progress, after leaving the swamp. Now there was a problem that seemed far worse: there was a forest in the way.
He had been walking for days without incident, without disturbance. Now there was a forest. The road went around, but around was not the right direction, so it stopped and … considered. His head tilted to the side, and he blinked, slowly, looking up at the large trees that sprung suddenly from the flatlands he had been walking on.
There wasn’t much underbrush. The trees were tall and thick; underneath, it was too dim for most other plants to grow. A fine packing of leaves from the prior year’s fall carpeted the ground. The leaves on the trees were just beginning to turn colors—yellow and pale orange, mostly. There were no reds yet, but they would come soon.
Dimly, he knew that there were dangers to the forest—that is probably why the road went around—but, more clearly, he knew that the way forward was the way that he was supposed to go. The forest was to the south. He needed to go south. So he needed to go through the forest.
There was the beginning of curiosity in his mind. The desire was small, but important. He wanted to know why south was the right way to go.
Desire was foreign to him. He didn’t know what to do. There was a second, smaller desire—he wanted the first desire to go away. That made him confused.
In the end, the only way to make the first desire go away was to go south until his destination presented itself. The forest led the way. The road did not.
There was nothing for it. The corpse hung its head and slipped its feet into the darkness beneath the branches.
Renek and the two knights quickly ran back down the hill and mounted. The unit began to gallop down the slight valley, swords out. One of the knights pulled a horn off of his saddle, and sounded the charge as they neared the Triols.
The Triols turned to see the forty horsemen just as the two groups of kingdom archers crested the hill, arrows knocked. The horn sounded again, and arrows fell in front of the charging knights, cutting several Triols down even before swords were swung.
The rear commander was flummoxed by this second flanking attack. He had already concentrated his forces to fend off the hundred kingdom foot soldiers, and the knights were able to lay about them unopposed. Being on horseback made them difficult targets. When a Triol managed to lay a blade on one of the knights, it hit his well-armored leg. Meanwhile, the kingdom’s swords fell about the Triol’s heads and necks—far more deadly. Finally, the archers were able to rain death down upon the body of the Triol army. The arrows descended from above with such force that they rent the chain mail hauberks with ease.
The enemy lost a thousand men before they knew what happened.
As Renek killed man after man, he felt the same feelings he had felt in previous battles—the enemy was slow and weak, he was faster and stronger. His sword, makeshift pommel and all, was forged of better steel. Only when three or four Triols fought together could they even begin to push him back.
The enemy’s rear commander realized that there was no escape except through one of the flanking forces. He tried to rally his men, but arrows soon began falling on them from a new direction—from the front line.
For the Triol line had collapsed. The Kingdom cavalry had managed to take out first one group of Triol archers, and then the other. Without the dangerous hail of arrows, the main bevy of kingdom archers had closed distance and were able to do considerable damage to the Triol front line. It hadn’t taken long before they broke, turned, and retreated—into the path of the rest of the kingdom’s archers.
Renek kept fighting, yelling encouragement to the kingdom soldiers and knights around him. “Deeper, men! We can cut through their forces!”
He caught a glimpse of a bloodied and torn captain’s armband. Sure enough, it was Captain Rimes holding out a hand to his mounted friend. Renek slapped the other man’s hand, then turned and fought in another direction.
Only as few as three hundred Triols managed to escape. The rest were cut down like so much grain before the scythe of the kingdom forces. Two hours after the battle began, the only men left standing on the field wore red and white.
* * *
There was great celebration in the camp that night. Hesiod sent two dozen of his knights in search of a farm, and they came back two hours later dragging barrels of beer and some freshly slaughtered cows to roast. Renek had used this time to sleep off the groggy effects of battle that continued to plague him.
Back in Hesiod’s tent, several captains, Renek, and Hesiod himself dined around his overflowing table. Rimes was still making rounds, visiting the wounded, but a space was reserved just to Hesiod’s right side for him. Glasses were raised again and again. Renek occupied the space of honor to Hesiod’s right.
“Unbelievable!” Crowed Hesiod. “I can’t believe it! I wouldn’t believe it, except I was there! We few, we happy few, on this day stood against four thousand—and we see what is left of the enemy turn tail and run like dogs!” He raised his glass again, holding it out. “To Renek! Without him, we would have been the ones running like dogs!”
“To Renek!” the men all lifted their glasses and drank.
Hesiod sat down and leaned over to Renek. “Nice work, Renek,” He muttered, low enough that only Renek could hear. “You’ve shown yourself to be a valuable asset.” He patted Renek’s shoulder. “Make sure to stay a while. When the others have left—” He grinned and raised his glass to one of the captains who was trying to get his attention from across the table. “—When they’ve left, or fallen asleep, we can talk a bit about why we’re here, and why the King thinks this area is worth fighting for.”
Later that night, Rimes arrived to give the tallies: over three thousand Triols had been killed. Seventy-eight Triol wounded were captured and were sharing the medical tent, with the twenty-two wounded Kingdom soldiers. A hundred and fifty-eight Kingdom soldiers had died. The room, which had been quiet to hear Rimes’ news, erupted into cheering, and another round of beer followed.
It was only an hour later that most of the captains got up to head back to their own tents. Some of the rest had fallen asleep at the table and Hesiod had them dragged home by the guards. The rest, he outright told to leave. Finally, Hesiod, Renek, and Rimes were alone.
Hesiod leaned in to the table a bit. He had been drinking heavily, but seemed to be able to hold his liquor. Rimes seemed fine, but he hadn’t had much to drink. Renek was feeling tired again, the food and beer had weighed down his eyelids, but he kept himself sharp by force of will so that he could hear what Hesiod had to say.
“Have you two wondered why we’re out here in the middle of nowhere fighting a battle?” Renek tilted his head sideways, considering. He hadn’t really thought of it that way, but there wasn’t much here. The inn at the crossroads; the Abbey; some farms. Nothing else was nearby, not even a small city.
Rimes continued. He seemed a bit less … pompous than the night before, Renek decided. “Well, it’s not to guard the sheep, I’ll tell you.” He took a drink from his cup. “The Triols sent their eight thousand men to help guard their Searcher. Their Searcher led them this direction.” Renek raised his eyebrows, nodding slowly.
Hesiod paused, seeing that Renek was confused. “You don’t know what a Searcher is, do you?” He asked. When Renek shook his head, he shrugged. “Maybe you really don’t have memory of your time before the Abbey.” He cleared his throat, and drank more beer.
“Searchers are special Singers.” Renek nodded in comprehension. He had read about the Singers at the Abbey while he was searching for a name. “They’re historians: those who choose the path of the Searcher study the history of lost things their whole lives, and Search for them. Because they haven’t studied anything else, they don’t know how to defend themselves well. They don’t know how to call down the sheets of flame or lightning that the most powerful of the Singers are so fond of.
“They’re quite rare. Most Singers involve themselves with the current world. These are different. Only those Singers that are truly interested in the past become adept Searchers.” He lowered his voice. “Some say that they actuallylivein the past, although their bodies exist in the present.” He straightened back up. “Nevertheless, it has been four or five generations, at least a hundred years, since any Searchers have been influential in the world.” He shrugged again. “Who knows? There may not have been any in existence.
“Four months ago, the king received information that a Searcher had appeared in Triol.” His eyes narrowed. “You can see why, with someone as rare and nearly helpless as a Searcher, the Triols sent eight thousand men along to guard him. The information the King received was that the Searcher knew the resting place of the Swords of the Ascendant.
Captain Rimes laughed out loud. “That legend? The one me mother used to tell?”
He saw that Hesiod was not laughing with him, and his grin faded. “It’s not a legend?” He asked in a hushed voice.
Hesiod shook his head, slowly. “Why don’t you tell the story of the Swords, Rimes? I grow weary of the sound of my voice.”
“Yes, you, Captain,” Hesiod said, a bit impatiently. “The story you were told as a young boy.” He got up with his cup to get more beer while Rimes took a long pull off of his mug.
“Well, now, I don’t remember the story the way me mam used to tell it, but I’ll tell you the gist, anyway.” He closed his eyes for a moment, and smiled in fond memory. “Well, see, there are a bunch o’ Gods. There’s the one who created the world, and one for all the fish, and one for the plants. An’ more than one for us, o’course.
“The way she told it, one o’ the Gods got tired. They were always fightin’, carryin’ on. Well, what this God, name of Yi, decided to do was to quit, like.” Renek raised his eyebrows, and Rimes shrugged. “Well, that’s the way the story goes. Can’t help you understand it any better than I do. Don’t make sense to me.
“Well, see, Yi wanted to take out his worst enemy, Colwyn, along with him, so he set up a careful bet. He called a council o’ the Gods, and he boasted that he was better than Colwyn at anything. He went around, bangin’ his chest, sayin’ that anything Colwyn could do, he could do better, and there was some things that he could do that Colwyn could never do.
“Pretty quick, Colwyn gets up and challenges Yi. He says there’s nothing Yi can do that Colwyn can’t do better. So Yi gets Colwyn to agree to a contest—first Yi will do something, and then Colwyn has to do it. Then Colwyn gets to do something, and Yi has to do it. First one to do something that the other can’t do wins.
“So Yi gets up and he creates a sword. It’s a beaut, all sharp and long and everything. Well, Colwyn laughs out loud, and he pulls an identical sword outta his mouth while he’s laughin’.” He shrugged again. “Don’t make no sense to me either but that’s how the story goes.” Hesiod sat down with a full mug, nodded encouragingly at Rimes, and took a drink.
“Well, the gods inspected the two swords and they were both perfect, and just like each other,” Rimes continued, clearly getting into the tale now, “So now Colwyn makes a shield. It’s all intricate, with a sculpture carved into the front. It’s got a river on the outside, and some guys fighting on the inside. Yi laughs just like Colwyn did, and an identical shield falls off of his back, clangs on the ground.
“The gods inspected both shields and they were both perfect, and just like each other.” Rimes took a second to wet his throat and wipe his mouth. “Well, now Yi picks up the sword and he starts chanting. The hilt goes all white-hot where he’s holding it, and the blade is all cherry-red. When it gets hot enough, he takes that sword and he pushes it through his own heart to quench the steel in his own blood. And the sword pulls in some of that blood, turns blood red even tho’ it’s cooled down, like.
“But there was more. Yi starts getting smaller. He yells, ‘cause it hurts, but he somehow pushes what makes him a God into the blade. And when he pulls that sword out, the wound isn’t there—but he’s just a mortal man, standin’ up there on the side of the mountain, looking at Colwyn.
“Now, Colwyn protests, but the rules is the rules, and he agreed that he had to do whatever Yi did. The other Gods hold him to it. So Colwyn knows he’s beat, and he does the same thing. Pretty soon there’s two swords with God’s blood in them, shining blood red near the fire—and two mortal men standing on the Gods’ mountain.
“But there was more. The enchantment that took the Godhood out of those Gods, me mam said that it ‘rent the fabric of the universe.’ The universe wants its Gods back. Those men, Yi and Colwyn, they went down the mountains with their swords. The men died, but the swords lay in wait for the next mortal touch them.
“She used to tell me that the next person touch them would become a God. Or have a God’s power, which I dunno, sounds like the same thing to me. Said that ‘the universe wants to fix itself’ or something.
“Anyway, that’s the story she told me. I always thought that it was jus’ a story.” He drained the last beer from his mug. “We used to run around the village, playing with sticks, saying that we had the ‘Swords of the Ascendancy’ and sayin’ that we won the battle and such.” He smiled, then frowned, and turned to Hesiod.
“Are you saying that the Searcher is trying to find the Swords for them? That two o’ the Triols could become Gods?”
Hesiod smiled, but put his cup down and spoke. “The scholars and historians back at the court disagreed as to if the swords existed, and, if they did, what they would do. Most of them dismissed the tale, as you did. Some of them thought that the swords existed, but that the story about them was made up long after they were made.” He shrugged. “Something about how they wereverywell made swords, and wielded byverygood swordsmen…after they had killed a thousand people, the swords were covered in so much blood that the stains would never come off. We humans tend to assign great beginnings to things that have affected our history so much, for good or for ill. Perhaps such amazing weaponry caused whomever it was turned against to tell tales that gave the blades epic powers, simply to make themselves feel better about having lost so badly.
“Personally, I don’t know what to think," he said, tilting his head to one side. “Regardless, however, the King, bless his trusting—or greedy?—heart,” he said, smiling sadly, “believes that the blades exist. And, despite what his scholars said, he believes that the swords will turn him into a God if we can get them for him.” He shook his head, smile fading. “Himandhis son. But we don’t have a Searcher.
“The Triols do, though. And they sent him here. The scholars believe that he was headed to the mountain just to our south. I had given up on searching for the swords, but now that we’ve broken their back, we can go search.”
Renek gazed at Hesiod’s smile. It was … disconcerting. “Hesiod, did the Searcher even survive the battle? We killed so many.”
Hesiod’s smile faded. “I don’t know. I suspect that he did. He wouldn’t have been part of the battle, after all. Perhaps he was in their base camp—
“Well, we took care of their base camp, sir,” Rimes broke in.
“I know. I was there, Rimes.” He smiled to take the sting out of his rebuke. “I didn’t see him, but then I was on the front lines. You two didn’t see anyone who was wandering around barefoot, looking lost?” The two shook their heads. “I didn’t think so. It’s most likely that he survived.”
“If he survived,” Renek said, “what’s to keep him from going to the Triol main army for reinforcements? How far away is their army?”
Hesiod waved his hand dismissively. “It’s quite far away, actually, from what I hear.”
Renek smiled. “It seems like you’re intent on the swords? Are you … interested?”
Hesiod laughed easily. “I wouldn’t want to be a god, if that’s what you’re implying. More trouble than it’s worth, I’m sure. Besides, I’m not really a swordsman. All brains, no brawn. What would I do with the bloody thing?
“No, I think that the people who should get these swords are men like you two.” His smile faded. “You’ve both shown that you’re willing to fight, and even die, for the kingdom—although, Renek, I think you have a bit more to prove before I can trust you.” He shook his head. “But I can sense that youbelievethat you’re an honest and true man, at least. But perhaps you’ve been fooled by yourself, or …” He smiled, perhaps a bit sadly. “Some other thing that I can’t think of is wrong.
“For instance, you haven’t met our king.” He straightened, becoming serious again. “He isn’t always … the kindest of people. I think court intrigue sometimes gets the best of him.”
Renek smiled. “I thought it sometimes got the best of you?”
They all laughed. “Perhaps, perhaps,” Hesiod admitted. “But I think we’re all formed by the world around us.”
Rimes nodded. “Yeah, I can see that. Me, I was born in a town prett’ far away from Foradawn, where the king is, and I got this accent. Only people from my town have this accent.”
Hesiod smiled, and patted Rimes’ shoulder. “That’sjustwhat I was saying, Rimes. We learn everything that we are from those around us: how we speak, how we act, it all comes from imitating people around us that we admire, and not acting like people we dislike.”
Now Renek was nodding, but tentatively. Both imitation of likes and ignoring dislikes were necessary to make a human—but was it really a complete description? He mused a bit. There seemed to be something lacking … but he didn’t voice his concern.
There’s a part of us, he thought to himself,that’s fully our own. Certainly it’s influenced by others, but our heart of hearts is our own—for why else would we admire the people we do, and dislike the others, if not that they are like our heart of hearts?
“Gentlemen,” Hesiod said, smiling broadly. “I think it is time for us to retire. It is certainly time formeto retire, and, surely, I cannot do that while you are still in my tent.”
“I bid the two of you good night.” He stood, and walked them to the door of his tent.
Renek stepped into the cool night air with Rimes at his side. A few moments later, back in his tent, Renek’s cot seemed more comfortable than he remembered. He almost didn’t spend any time at all lying awake, trying to remember who he was.
It did take a few hours to break down the camp. Most of the tents and food folded up tightly and were placed on packhorses or donkeys; the rest were wrapped up into packs that fit nicely on a soldier’s back. Renek used some of the time to tighten the wires and leather strips that held on his makeshift pommel.
Renek’s saddlebags were fairly heavy, but he had less to pack than the other soldiers simply because he didn’t own anything. The other soldiers all had small trinkets, wooden cups and spoons, favors from their loved ones.
I wonder if I have any loved ones who are waiting for my return.He shrugged.I wouldn’t know where to begin to look for them.Still, he felt a momentary pang of guilt, wondering if there were any people who missed him, or thought he was dead.
Nothing he could do about it anyway.
The unit formed up into a train of rows of soldiers, five men abreast, and began to move out. There were cavalry at the front and rear, with the supply animals just behind the infantrymen. At Hesiod’s call, they all started marching.
Renek was surprised at how fast the army marched. They were able to walk quite quickly despite the packs they carried, nearly four miles an hour. He looked around at the soldiers, who were keeping time with each other as they marched, and felt … pride? honor? to be marching with them.
The mountains were many miles away, but they dared not send a small group of cavalry to search for the swords. There were still three hundred Triols, and perhaps they were still trying to get there themselves. It was too dangerous to send a small force.
Hesiod did send a scouting party of ten cavalry, with one captain, to skirt around the army once every hour. The scouting party was to look for the enemy—or any other problems that might occur—and report back. They changed the group every hour to keep people fresh.
About half the way through the day, a courier arrived from Foradawn, bearing a message from the king. Hesiod called a halt, read it briefly, and then the army began marching again. The courier rode with the cavalry for the rest of the day. The slower pace allowed his horse to cool down and rest.
Renek’s scouting party went quite well. The men worked with him without hesitation, knowing that it was his strategy that had brought them such an unanticipated success at the last battle. Nothing of note happened during the scouting trip; they kept the army just within sight and traveled a large circle around them. The only thing that seemed even remotely threatening was the hot sun, which beat down upon them unmercifully.
They made camp for the night just beyond the rise of the first of the foothills below the mountain range. Renek and Rimes dined together, Hesiod stayed in his tent, studying the missive that had arrived via courier earlier that day.
Renek studied the mountains in the deepening dusk, looking for some hint of where to begin the search. Assuming that things went well, they would be in the position to begin searching in two or three more day’s time, and it would be good to find some indication of where to begin. Unfortunately, nothing presented itself.
The march continued smoothly the next day. About noon, when they stopped for their midday meal, Hesiod asked a few soldiers to set up a pavilion on the side of a rise near a small copse of trees. He asked Renek to eat with him so they could discuss the missive the king had sent. They sat in the shade of the pavilion while Hesiod read the note.
“‘My dear Hesiod:’” He began, then interrupted himself. “That’s never a good thing, when he starts with ‘My dear’ instead of ‘Dear’.” He shook his head. “‘I am quite disturbed to hear that you are doing so poorly. Perhaps I can send you more troops, but I sincerely doubt it. The front lines are simply too far away, and too troubled themselves, to spare any men. I sent with you an entire battalion, along with hundreds of mounted soldiers. Surely that is enough?’
“He’s responding to an earlier letter I sent to him, explaining how outnumbered we were.” Hesiod rolled his eyes. “He liked me, and thought I was smart, so, obviously, he expects me to be able to—every time, mind you!—lead our men on to successful battles, even when the force we are facing is double, or even triple, of our own!” He shook his head. “He continues: ‘You were’—note that word, ‘were,’ past tense, not ‘are’—‘You were one of my most promising lieutenants. I hope that you can return to that status ere your return.’Sincerely, the king’ etc. etc.”
“Well, sir,” Renek said, “it looks like we’re not getting any reinforcements.” He raised his eyebrows. “But at least we don’t need them any more.”
Hesiod smiled. “Ignoring the elephant in the room, purposefully, are you? The point of sharing this missive with you isn’t to show how much I trust you—I don’t! Rather, it’s to show how poorly the king rewards failure, or the perception of failure. It is a good thing for me that you came along, now I can send a letter of great success, instead of more failure.” He looked away from Renek, apparently taking a close study of the tent fabric. “I, ah,won’tbe mentioning you by name, I’m sorry to say. It’s the way these things work, you know—success or failure is attributed to me and me alone.” He shrugged apologetically.
Renek nodded. “I know that, sir. I am glad to know that you think highly of my actions. I hope that you—” Hesiod cut him off.
“Yes, yes, I know, you hope that I continue to think of you as an asset, etc. etc.” He seemed impatient, hurried. “Of course I do, and will continue to do so, Renek, as long as you keep fighting for our side. Stop with the niceties. We aren’t in the court; you’re not a courtier.
“I just wanted you to know how I feel. That’s why I showed you this lett—” Their heads both snapped around, as there was a cry from the far side of the field, followed by the immediate sound of battle. Renek stood and strode to the edge of the pavilion. His eyes widened in shock as his gaze landed on the tabards of the Triols. He spun, lunging for his helmet, sword, and shield.
“Hesiod, there must be an attack. We’ve got to get out there!”
Hesiod leapt to his feet. “Come with me to my horse, my helmet and weapon are there.” Renek nodded, and they both ran toward the copse of trees where the horses were tied. Unfortunately, it was away from the battle—but Renek wanted to be mounted as well.
They leapt onto their horses, and Hesiod jammed his helmet on his head. They galloped to the crest of the hill, where the main body of their soldiers were milling about in panic. They finally gained sight of the enemy.
There were at least two thousand Triols. Most of them were swordsmen, but there were a few archers on foot. Not one of them was mounted.
Hesiod cursed, and spat on the ground. “There must have been reinforcements on the way," he said, glancing up at the mountainside that was their goal. He spun to look at Renek. “We have to organize a retreat. You go back into camp and get the men gone, I’ll go try and get the front working to give you some time to get the men gone.”
They both rode off. Renek was able to get everyone organized fairly quickly. As the first of the men streamed out of camp, Renek brought a small troupe of archers towards the battle to give Hesiod some relief. He watched long enough to see that the arrows did in fact push some of the Triols back, then went back to help more soldiers form ranks and retreat. He gave them instructions to march away from the battle as fast as they could run and still stay together. They were to head back towards the previous battle site.
He wheeled his horse around and galloped back to the battle line. Hesiod and his men were more organized, but not doing well. He rode toward Hesiod, who was engaged with a positively huge Triol. He must have been over six and a half feet tall.
Strangely, he was wielding a large mace. It was nearly the size of a normal man’s leg, perhaps two and a half feet long, and capped with a forged metal head that had large studs all over. He laughed maniacally as he swung the huge metal-tipped timber as if it were made of straw. Hesiod gracefully guided his horse out of the way, but the huge man kept coming.
Renek yelled fiercely as he approached Hesiod, hoping to distract the giant. It did not work. The man brought his mace down at Hesiod, who tried to deflect the blow with his sword. He managed to glance his sword off of the mace, and the giant stumbled, his weapon pulling him off balance as it hit the ground.
Hesiod yelled and brought his sword down on the man’s mailed back with all his might, but the blade had been damaged from the impact with the mace; his sword shattered into pieces as it struck the man’s armor. The giant lifted himself up, and threw his head back in laughter, clearly amused at Hesiod’s misfortune. It was at that moment that Renek arrived.
With the giant’s head thrown back, a bare patch of neck showed through a gap in his armor. His massive head and neck seemed to be covered only by a small piece of chain mail, modified only just enough to fit over his head. Renek aimed at that patch of bare skin. Spurring his horse into a gallop, he thrust with all his might.
He nearly missed, but his sword’s point dug into the giant’s neck at the edge of his armor. It was not a fatal blow, but managed to sever one of the tendons that connected his head to his shoulder. The giant bellowed in pain as his head lolled over to one side. He lifted his massive weapon far over his head and swung with all his might, dropping his massive weight into the swing.
Renek’s horse instinctively jumped to the side, but that massive mallet struck Hesiod’s knee. The armor caved in easily as the mace crushed bones, tore muscle. Hesiod didn’t yell; instead his eyes rolled back into his head as he passed out, slumping against his stumbling horse’s neck.
Hesiod’s leg was shattered, and he slumped to the side in his saddle.
The wounded giant tried to look around, but couldn’t move his head properly. Renek’s blade had cut deeply. Blood flowed over his armor, shining red in the sunlight. The giant retreated, leaping over Hesiod and his horse, and ran deep into the Triol army.
Now that Hesiod was ‘secure,’ Renek called for a retreat. Rimes was nearby, and he quickly picked up on the call. The soldiers managed to stay together and shield each other somewhat as they fell back.
There was no pursuit. For whatever reason, the Triols had decided to stay at the hill upon which the battle had begun. As the kingdom soldiers passed beyond melee range, arrows began to fall upon them again. Almost worse than the arrows, though, were the Triol foot soldiers as they started rhythmically beating their shields again. It seemed to Renek that the sound palpably lowered his spirits. He looked around at the grim faces of the retreating soldiers around him, and saw his feeling of despair echoed in their expression.
* * *
They had lost nearly a third of their men. Morale was nonexistent. They stood on the site of their previous victory, but no heads were held high, no smiles were visible.
Hesiod’s leg had to be amputated. There were no Singers in this unit to assist with healing, and it had been completely crushed. The unit’s “doctor”—a soldier who had seen to many battle wounds—came to the lieutenant’s tent to do it. Hesiod called his captains in a few hours after the doctor had taken his saw back to the medical tent.
“Gentlemen,” he said, his face pale and strained. “I obviously can’t lead the unit any more.” His breath was ragged, and his knuckles were white from how tightly he gripped a cup filled with grain alcohol. “I’ve brought you here to promote Rimes to my position. He’s been—” he stopped for a moment to drink, and grimaced at the rawness of the liquor “—very good with our men.
“Obviously, with the enemy nearby, we can’t continue the search. I’m told that a new messenger arrived. Lieutenant Rimes will have to see what the king wants.” He took another drink, longer this time, and put his head back on the rolled blankets that were serving as his pillow. “That’s all. Thank you.”
Rimes seemed as stunned at his promotion as Renek had been the previous night, but he didn’t have time to be shocked. The messenger was pressing an envelope into his hands, and he pulled Renek with him into his tent.
“Hang on a second, let me see what the king has to say.” He opened and scanned the very short letter, then grimaced. He read the terse note aloud:
“‘Lieutenant Hesiod, the front is in dire straits and needs your men. Please take your men there immediately.’ Signed, sealed, etc.”
Renek just stared blankly at Rimes for a few seconds before speaking. “Well, we couldn’t have stayed here anyway. It’s too dangerous with the Triols outnumbering us again.”
Rimes sighed. “Well, I don’t know what good a few hundred soldiers will do," he said, then fumbled about in his bags. He drew out a bottle of alcohol, and handed Renek an extra wooden cup.
They didn’t emerge from Rimes’ tent for quite a while.
* * *
The camp was a beehive of activity as everyone prepared for the march to the front. Renek had two soldiers helping him pack his tent. They seemed to know what they were doing better than he did, so after he folded the wrong flap in the wrong way the second time, he stepped back and let them do your job.
He thought he saw a look of relief in the men’s eyes, and grimaced at his inefficacy.
“Are you Renek?”
He turned to look at the speaker, a young swordsman. “Commander Hesiod asked me to give you this, sir.” He held out a small piece of paper.
“Thank you.” Renek took the paper, and unfolded it.
The note read:I would appreciate seeing you before we left camp.
Renek looked up. “Can you two handle the tent packing?” He asked.
They looked at each other. “Yes, sir,” one of them said, perhaps a bit too eagerly.
Renek nodded, smiling ruefully, and headed off to where Hesiod’s tent had been.
No doubt his tent has been packed by now.He thought back to the two men who were helping pack his tent.People here seem willing to help. That, or Hesiod asked them to help me.
When he rounded the corner, he saw that Hesiod’s tent was indeed already packed. Hesiod himself was sitting on a horse, his amputated leg carefully bandaged and padded on the end. He smiled and waved Renek over.
“Thank you for coming," he said as Renek came close. “How did you sleep, last night?”
Renek rubbed his head. “I had a bit of a headache upon waking.” He grinned. “Rimes had a bottle in his tent that he shared with me.” He lowered his voice. “To be totally honest, I’m not sure that he was really prepared to take your place.”
Hesiod laughed. “Well, I’m not surprised. It’s not an easy job.” He heaved a sigh. “Renek, I’ve called you here because I think you’re a good man.” He held out a piece of paper, which had the royal seal on the bottom. “Read this, and tell me what you think.”
Renek slowly closed his hand on the paper, drew it closer, and began to read.
My Dear Hesiod,
I know that, despite harsh circumstance, you have done very well with your unit. I also know that, despite your protestations of ‘I don’t want a higher rank,’ or ‘I want to come home,’ you have always wanted to be a general in the army.
As recently as a week before I wrote this letter, I received news that one of my generals at the front was killed, presumably in the line of duty—I don’t know, they just said ‘in battle.’ I naturally thought of you for the post, but decided against it. I think that you still have too much of the court in you—I know that the court life prepares you for people stabbing you in the back, but that’s usually just figuratively!
I have decided, instead, to promote my son to general. He will be serving with the other generals, so I am not worried that he is too young to serve in such a capacity. Besides, he is the best swordsman in the castle! I am so proud. We held lists and nobody was even able to score a point on him.
I know that you had your heart set on the position, though, so it saddens me somewhat to write this letter. Still, I must do what I think is best for the country, for the army, and for the people. It is my responsibility.
Renek straightened. “How old is his son?”
Hesiod grinned. “Sixteen.”
Renek whistled through his teeth. “I don’t want to say anything … untoward, about our king…” he trailed off.
“But?” Hesiod raised his eyebrows.
“Well, I wouldn’t put a sixteen year old in charge of a foot soldier, much less thousands of men.” He shrugged. “Perhaps the boy is exceptional, though.”
Hesiod laughed. “Yes, he is ‘exceptional.’ Exceptionally poor in judgment, and exceptionally arrogant. This is an unmitigated disaster.”
“I couldn’t tell in the letter. Was the king being serious, or sarcastic?” Renek asked.
“About ‘your heart’s desire’ being to be a general?”
“Oh, heavens, no. If I could go home, I would leave now. Eagerly.” He shook his head and gestured at the stump he had left for a leg. “Even with this leg, though, the king would tell me to stay. I can hear him now: ‘Just go have the Singers fix it, I need your help there. The Singers can make the pain go away even if they can’t restore it.’” Hesiod had adopted a high-pitched, singsong voice.
Renek’s eyebrows rose. “Canthey fix it?”
Hesiod sighed. “Perhaps, if we can get to them soon. It would take at least two of them working together, right now, and the longer it takes for us to get to them, the more of them it will take to fix it. If there are enough of them, and they have the spare energy, I’ll ask—” He shook his head, clearly not even hoping for a positive answer. “Things are going badly, though, so I don’t expect much.”
“Well, I just wanted to show you that letter,” Hesiod said, waving towards where Renek’s tent was getting broken down. “Thank you for coming, even though you probably had things to pack.”
“Not really.” Renek smiled. “I don’t have many things, and I’m not very familiar with these tents. I think the men who were helping me pack the tent were glad to see me go.”
“Ha!” Hesiod grinned. “Well, maybe you should go and check on Rimes, then. He might need your help with something.”
Renek headed towards the commander’s tent. When he got there, it seemed that there were dozens of people milling about Rimes. Renek shrugged and walked up to the end of the line of people who were waiting to speak to him.
“Commander, there are two men who are arguing about some of the things that we were able to pick up from the farm a while back.”
Rimes rolled his eyes. As he leveled his gaze, again, he saw Renek standing in the back of the line.
“Renek!” he said, a smile of relief coming to his face. “What’s going on? Did you need something?” He looked pointedly at the men around him, then back to Renek.
“N—uh, yes," he said, changing his mind as he saw the disappointed look on Rimes’ face. Rimes brightened at the response. “Hesiod got a letter describing some of the … “ he struggled to find the right word to replacenepotism. “ … situation at the front. I thought we could discuss.” He looked at the fairly large number of people who were waiting for Rimes. “It probably wouldn’t take long.”
Rimes sighed. “That’s too bad.” He turned his gaze on the other people. “Well, you heard the man. Come back in a few minutes!”
They stepped to the side, and waited a moment for the other people to disperse.
“Oh, thank the gods!” Rimes sighed. “I just need a minute without fifty people asking me to make decisions for them!” He closed his eyes for a moment. “Why did you come over? You look upset.”
“I am, a little.” Renek waited a moment for Rimes to open his eyes and looked at him. “Hesiod showed me a letter from the king. It said that the king was putting his son in place of a general that died last week,” Renek said. “Does that seem odd to you?”
Rimes sighed. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem all that odd to me.” He looked around to make sure that the others had moved out of earshot. “The king supposedly dotes on his ‘little boy’—and that boy has become a bit of a terror, from what I’ve heard.” He shrugged. “Not much we can do about it, though. The king makes the laws, right? It’s his choice.”
Renek thought for a moment. “Kind of puts the other generals into a tight spot, though, doesn’t it?”
Rimes nodded. “Yeah, I wouldn’t want to be one of them! The youngest and most inexperienced of them can just go to ‘daddy’ when he doesn’t get what he wants?” He laughed. “They can either follow instructions, and watch as their men die in battle, or try to do the right thing—and get executed for treason.” He shook his head soberly.
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
“The generals will do their best to work around the situation,” Rimes said. “Theycouldoutvote him, or do whatever they want and ask forgiveness later.”
“To me, it sounds like the boy’s not going to want to put up with that sort of behavior.” Renek raised his eyebrows. “I wouldn’t want to have to ask forgiveness if the king’s son is as much of a terror as you say that he is.”
“Well, maybe the rumors are just rumors.” Rimes smiled. “I’ve never met him.” His gaze wandered over Renek’s shoulder, and his smile faded as he sighed heavily. “I think my ‘few minutes’ are up.”
Renek smiled as Rimes brushed past him to listen to the problems raised by breaking camp.
* * *
They headed out later that morning. Renek was surprised; it hadn’t taken that long to break camp. It had seemed so chaotic.
I guess they’ve done this before.Renek smiled.Maybe even more than once.
Renek looked up and down the line of soldiers. He thought about the chaos of the morning, and the assembled line of troops was even more striking. Seeing so many people moving in the same direction, horses in the front and rear, infantry in the middle, it was so … organized.
Perhaps what’s striking is that the chaos this morning was actually organized chaos.He mused.The march justlooksmore organized—it’s not, really. To pack up all of those tents, put them on the horses.He grinned.No wonder Rimes disapproves of Hesiod’s penchant for good food, it must make things a little bit more complex!
His stomach grumbled, and he looked at the sun. It was nearing its zenith, so it must be nearing lunch. Commander Rimes had said that they would not stop for lunch, but rather just eat some of the travel biscuits while marching.
He looked around and saw that several people had pulled out some of their biscuits already. He shrugged, and pulled one out. He sniffed it before biting a corner off. As always, it sucked all moisture out of his mouth as he chewed.
But I can understand Hesiod’s desire for decent food, too.He grimaced.These things get old after a while.
* * *
It took three days to march to the front. They had to march quite a ways to make sure to avoid the Triols who had overtaken them in the foothills. Luckily, they didn’t run into any problems, and they marched into the major base of kingdom operations in the evening of the third day.
The generals wanted to see Rimes right away, and he brought Hesiod and Renek with him.
They were lead into a fairly large tent, where were five men standing around a fairly large map, pushing simple blocks of wood around by hand. One of the five waved them over. A shock of pure white hair topped his browned, weather beaten face. His black eyes seemed surrounded by bruises and bags.
“Come over here and look at this, Hesiod,” the general said. Hesiod limped over, leaning on a crutch. The general stared at the amputated limb, brows furrowing with concern. “What happened to your leg?”
“Big guy with a bigger mace, General Richard.” Hesiod grimaced.
“We have one of the best healers in the kingdom next door,” Richard said, walking away from the table. “Let’s go take care of that leg.”
“Hesiod said that it might take more than one,” Rimes said.
General Richard knelt next to Hesiod. “It might,” he muttered. “That’s a lot of flesh gone. At least you have most of your thigh.” He stood up again, and glanced at Rimes. “Don’t worry, friend, we have more than one Singer here.” He held Hesiod’s elbow, and nodded to Rimes and Renek. “Give him a hand, gentlemen.”
The two soldiers put Hesiod’s arms around their shoulders, picked him up, and followed Richard to the tent next door.
There was only one occupant in the tent. She was an old, thin woman with very short white hair. When she looked up from her table, she saw Hesiod’s leg and winced. She rose silently to get a closer look at the wound.
Without a word, she knelt next to Hesiod and gently pulled the bandages off, then nodded absently to herself. She pushed and probed with her fingers, smiling in relief when the wound began to ooze a bit of blood.
“It is still wet, underneath the scab," she said, quietly. “It is possible to regrow this limb… but it will be asking a lot.” She looked up at the general. “General Richard, is this man a good man?”
Richard nodded. “He is one of the most favored of the king’s commanders, and he recently led his forces to an astounding victory against the Triols.” He lifted his eyebrows. “I still have the letter that he sent, a few hours after the battle. Would you like to see it?”
The healer nodded.
The general drew out a paper. He handed it to the Sorcerer, who read it carefully, while occasionally glancing at Hesiod.
“Very well.” She frowned deeply, then clapped her hands twice.
Renek winced. The sound seemed much louder than it should have been. It penetrated into his skull with its staccato force. By the time he fully opened his eyes again, there were two others entering the tent, both younger than the Singer that had called them.
One was vaguely familiar to Renek, which made his heart skip a beat. He was a thin man, perhaps a bit older than Renek. He seemed average in almost every way: brown hair, brown eyes, about average height … the more Renek looked at him, the less of a feeling of familiarity he had.
Renek sighed, and turned to look at the other Singer, and his heart skipped another beat. The other Singer was a woman, with long black hair framing a beautiful face. Here black eyes were striking, but Renek couldn’t read her expression. She seemed as delicate as a bird, and almost silent in her movements. Renek smiled momentarily—she was shorter than the soldiers by almost a head—but he remembered the situation they were in and quickly sobered his expression.
“You called, master?” the man asked.
“Yes I did. We need to heal this man.” The healer gestured to Hesiod.
“His leg is missing, master," he said, eyebrows raised.
“You speak truth. Here is a letter from the king that praises him well. As you know, we are here to support the king.” He handed the letter to the younger man, who read it, nodded, and handed it to the other Singer who had entered with him. She skimmed over the letter, and handed it back to the master healer with a nod.
“I will bring some hot water and towels,” the younger man said, striding out of the room.
The healer turned to peer into Hesiod’s face. “This will not be without pain, commander.”
“Good. I’m glad that you are prepared.” He pulled a piece of leather out of a pouch and handed it to Hesiod. “You may put this between your teeth and clench.” He gave a small shrug. “Some people find that it helps in dealing with the pain.”
The Singer returned, two towels over his shoulders and carrying a bucket of steaming water. He set the bucket on the floor and handed the towels to the master healer.
The master quickly brought out his chair, and gestured for Hesiod to sit in it. He carefully soaked one towel, and began to scrub the scabs off of the extended leg, which immediately started bleeding. After a few moments, Hesiod raised the leather strap to his mouth and bit down hard.
After all of the scab was removed, the healer gestured to one of the other Sorcerers, who pushed the other towel into the bucket.
The three began to chant. They were so in time with each other that Renek wasn’t able to tell who first sang, but their voices were quite different. The woman’s voice was amazingly beautiful, with a clear tone that almost seemed to make her into a living bell.
The master was slowly rubbing his hands in the blood that was weeping from the wound. In his hands, the blood seemed to congeal. Renek stared at the second assistant healer. He was struggling with some of the words. He somehow seemed … familiar? There was nothing distinct about the man. About Renek’s age, brown hair, brown eyes, narrow face.
I must have seen him around the camp.He studied the man’s face. Sweat was beginning to bead on his forehead, but it was a strong face. One that showed the start of many fine wrinkles, despite the fact he couldn’t yet be thirty.Or maybe he’s so … average? I saw someone else who looked like him.Renek shook his head.No, I don’t know what it is.
The chanting increased its speed and volume, and the blood poured out of the leg faster. Hesiod pulled on both ends of the strap that he was chewing on. As the blood poured into the master healer’s hands, it seemed to thicken further, and to change color. The blood in his hands was the consistency and color of watery clay. He began to sculpt a new leg for Hesiod out of the clay-colored blood.
The young man that Renek thought seemed familiar was gasping for breath. Sweat had begun pouring off of his face. He gasped, and fell over, falling into the master healer. Clay-colored blood flew from his hands and struck the inside of the tent as he fell over.
Their chant was broken, and the clay-colored blood started to dry, to solidify.
The master healer had fallen directly onto his back, throwing his blood-covered hands up away from the dirt. The female healer, after a momentary pause, resumed her chanting.
“Renek, help him,” Hesiod said through his clenched teeth.
Renek blinked in shock, then leapt to the side of the master healer. Even before he was back in place, the Singer was chanting again, falling quickly back in tune and tempo with the woman. His timber had changed significantly, however, and Hesiod’s clay leg seemed harder, more viscous.
The young male healer was flat on his back, unconscious.
It seemed only to take a moment before it was done. Hesiod had chewed all the way through the leather, but his leg was solid, bright pink flesh.
“The pinkness will last for at least two weeks.” The healer was swaying, and reached out hold on to the back of a chair. “Your new skin needs to age before it obtains the color of the rest of your body.” He looked at general Richard. “General, the three of us will need food, and strong wine. As quickly as possible.” He staggered over to his table, and sat on the floor of his tent, his back up against the table leg. The other two joined him, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of him.
Richard nodded. “I’ll see to it immediately.” He glanced at Hesiod’s new leg, sticking out from beneath his cut trousers. “Thank you.”
In two steps, he was out of the tent.
Hesiod stood up, smiling, and limped over to the healers to thank them.
* * *
Later that day they gathered in the generals’ tent to discuss the coming battle. After hearing the tale of the last two battles first hand, they treated Rimes and Renek like commanders in their own right, and engaged them in the discussion of the terrain and placement of their forces.
“That’s why I think that we need to work on outwitting them.” Renek finished. He moved several of the kingdom pieces around, and finally gesturing at the large blocks of wood that represented the enemy forces. “There are just too many of them. We need to coax their forces into making a mistake, we don’t have a chance otherwise.” The generals nodded in agreement. Hesiod smiled, a bit of pride showing through at his newest soldier’s stratagems.
“I don’t think that will work,” a clear voice rang out from the entrance of the tent. A young man brushed past the tent flaps. Despite his youth, he was wearing general’s epaulets.
Renek started to speak, gesturing at the map. “I heard your ‘strategy’ … soldier. There’s no reason to repeat it,” the newcomer said. “I just don’t think that it’s very honorable.” He took three long steps up to the map, and began to move the pieces of wood back to their original positions. The older generals seemed to wince in unison.
Renek looked closely at him while he did so. He had a high brow, and intelligent brown eyes. His nose was hooked, but not overly large. He had an air of self-confidence about him—or perhaps it was just ego.
“I think that we should mount a frontal assault,” the youth continued. “If we run our main line up to these hills,here,” he gestured, and slid some blocks up to the valley, “then they won’t be able to engage us with more than a third of their forces. It will be a fair fight, since we will be able to present them with our entire force.”
“But they will be able to fight all day long, from there,” Renek protested. “They’ll be able to bring in fresh soldiers just as ours are getting tired.”
The young general turned to look at Renek. “What is your name, soldier?”
“I don’t see epaulets on your shoulders.” He theatrically pushed his face towards Renek, peering first at his right shoulder, then his left. “No, I definitely don’t see epaulets.
“Why are you challenging me, then?” he said, his voice carefully neutral. “Could it be that you don’t know thatIam a general?” He looked down at his shoulders. “Am I not wearing my epaulets?” he questioned, then shook his head. “No, I see that I am wearing them.” He stared into Renek’s eyes. “Perhaps you’re unaware that I am the crown prince, and therefore the senior officer of this force?”
Renek bowed his head. “I was unaware of that, your majesty.”
The prince nodded sharply, then turned to the generals. “We’ll do it my way, gentlemen. At sunrise tomorrow, then?” He turned to walk out of the tent, but paused at the threshold. “And see to it that our future strategy sessions are populated by people of theproperrank, would you?”
Richard looked at Hesiod, and shrugged. “That’s our boy,” he muttered.
“But his strategy is ludicrous!” Renek protested. “Our men will die, and we can do nothing?”
The generals refused to meet his eyes. Hesiod lifted his hands, helplessly, then spoke. “Would you rather have your head cut off and your name be sullied for treason? Renek, the man is the heir to the kingdom.” He smiled sadly. “In some ways, he is the embodiment of the kingdom itself.”
Renek stared at him. “So if he wants his soldiers to die, who are we to question him.” He nodded, slowly. “I will do as he asks—but you, generals, should be able to influence him to do something better than this.”
He stormed out of the tent, leaving the generals looking at the guilt in each other’s eyes.
* * *
“You wanted to see me, commander?” Renek asked.
Hesiod was sitting on his bed, wearing only his under things, examining his pink leg. “I’m no commander, Renek. That’s Rimes, now. I’m just a Lieutenant.” He grinned. “I specifically asked general Richard to demote me. I’m tired of being a commander, and I don’t know how well this leg will hold up.” He winked at Renek.
“You seem happy about it.” Renek smiled. “Your grin is infectious.”
Hesiod laughed. “I smile easily, today.” He gestured at his new leg. “Nothing makes you happier than the return of what was once lost.”
Renek’s smile disappeared. “I lost my whole life.” He sighed. “I wish I could get my memories back.”
Hesiod laughed again. “Renek, you have a life, and it’s a good one. You’re well respected; the men love you.” His smile faded. “And you never know, with that sort of thing. Maybe you forgot for a reason.
“But that’s not the point," he said, brightening again. “I asked you to come see me because I wanted to get your opinion.” He gestured to the table as he got up and started putting on his clothes.
Renek sat. “What did you want my opinion on?”
Hesiod sat down across the table from him. “It’s rather sensitive. I must ask you not to tell Rimes what I’m asking about.”
Renek nodded, slowly, and Hesiod continued.
“It’s not that I don’t trust him, exactly…” He sighed. “Well, I suppose Idon’ttrust him, when it comes down to it. He’s a good man, but…”
“But?” Renek prodded.
Hesiod grimaced, and looked down at the floor of the tent. “Well, I suppose that I have to trust you with this.” He laughed. “I still don’t really trust you, either, Renek—your ‘background’ is just too odd, despite the fact that you’ve put your life on the line for us. But I can’t help myself: Ilikeyou. And the men like you. You inspire them.
He took a deep breath. “That’s exactly the problem, though. I hear that the men don’t like Rimes very much.” He looked back up at Renek, care in his eyes. “I just want the men to be as safe as they can be. That requires them to trust their leader implicitly.” He sighed again. “I don’t think that they trust him to lead them well, not like they trust your leadership.”
Renek straightened in his chair. “You think they trust me more than they trust him, even when you yourself don’t trust me? But they don’t know me.” He smiled, a bit sadly. “Idon’t even know me. They’ve known Rimes as a squadron leader for a long time, haven’t they?”
“Not as long as you might think. He was a foot soldier in another unit before he was promoted to Lieutenant and moved to this unit, only a few months ago.” Hesiod lifted one corner of his mouth sardonically. “I think that they’ve seen how good he is under pressure. And I think that they’ve seenyouunder pressure.” He reached out and put his hand on Renek’s arm. “That’s what I think. What do you think?”
Renek pondered for a moment, and even allowed a look of concern to cross his face. “Perhaps you’re right, that the soldiers respect me more. But I don’t understand this, Hesiod—why don’t you trust me, yet? I’ve saved your life.” He gestured at Hesiod’s new leg. “I may even have saved your leg, when that healer passed out.”
“I’m from the court. I don’t trust anyone until they’ve proven themselves.”
Renek shook his head disbelievingly. “But Rimes is the commander, now, and there’s nothing that we can do about it. Nor do I think that there’s anything thatshouldbe done about it. I still don’t understand why you’re bringing this up.”
“I need to know what you want, before I can trust you,” Hesiod said, simply. “And I need to know how you see yourself. What better way than to come in as if I have a conspiracy at the hand, to promote you into Rimes’ position, and see how you react?
He laughed, seeing the look of shock on Renek’s face. ”Renek, It’s getting close to dinnertime, and we will have an early morning tomorrow. Better get in line at the mess tent," he said, with a fatherly smile. “And check up on the men, would you? I think things have been pretty bad here—the our men might not … integrate easily with the front line soldiers.”
* * *
When Renek got to the mess tent, he heard a commotion inside. He stepped in to see one of his men yelling at the chef.
“Where didourfood go?” He spluttered.
“We combined it with the rest of the army’s food!” the chef said. “We were running low. You had more food than we did, and we have ten times as many people to feed!”
The soldier looked incredulous. “And you madethiswith our food?” He laughed derisively. “Where’s our chef? He worked miracles with those biscuits!”
Renek looked around the room. The other soldiers, the ones who had been on the front for a while, were quite thin. What armor they were wearing was in disrepair. Some of their tunics had multiple patches. They were frowning and sneering at the loud newcomer.
“And these portions!” the soldier continued. “How are we suppose—” Renek strode forward and pulled the man out of line, and dragged him out of the tent.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Renek demanded.
“Lieutenant, the food they’re serving—it’s awful!” The man was indignant. “And there’s only half as much as we got yesterday!”
Renek smiled. “Well, if it’s terrible, then getting only half as much is a good thing, right?”
“What?” the soldier grimaced. “Oh. I see what you mean, but—”
“No buts about it. Look around you; we’re at the front lines of a war. Those men in there were about ready to rip your throat out for complaining about what they’re grateful to have.” He shook his head. “Now get back in there, finish your food, and compliment the chef when you’re done.”
The soldier had the decency to look sheepish as he pushed his way back into the tent with Renek. He glanced around at the angry eyes, all focused on him. Without another word, he went over to his bowl of food in front of the chef—who had his arms crossed in front of his chest, ladle hanging out to one side. The soldier nodded, picked up the bowl, and scurried to a table.
As Renek walked up to the chef, Rimes stepped into the tent. “Renek!” He lifted his hand in greeting and came over to his side.
“One of our men just told me there was a problem.” He lifted his eyebrows. “What’s going on?”
“Your boy over there wanted to complain about the rations, that’s all.” Renek grinned, nodding over at the soldier. “I think it’s all settled.”
Rimes heaved a sigh of relief. “Good," he said, dropping his voice. “These soldiers are worn down. We don’t want any troubles.”
Renek nodded, and held his bowl out for the chef to fill. “Well, they’ve been fighting a losing battle for a while, now,” he lowered his voice, and spoke even more quietly than Rimes had, “and with the prince in charge of things, I don’t think it’s going to get much better. With this battle plan, I think it will get worse.”
Rimes nodded. “Yeah, I saw that. He’s so concerned about honor that he’s willing to let his men die.” He shook his head. “Isn’t the saying ‘All’s fair in love and war?’” He held his bowl out, and the chef poured some of the stew in. “It’s not a dirty trick to flank your enemy, it’s strategy.”
They both walked over to an empty table and sat down.
“Well, I can see why he was disappointed,” Rimes said, quietly. “It’s not very good.” He lifted his spoon and let a little of the thin liquid spill back into the bowl. A few small vegetables, and a small piece of chicken, splashed back into the bowl.
Renek smiled. “It’s enough to sustain, at least as long as we’re not marching or fighting.”
“I suppose.” He shrugged. “I guess we don’t have to like it.”
“Nope. Just eat it, you’ll feel better.”
Rimes grimaced, but kept eating his thin stew.
* * *
Rimes and Renek rode next to each other the next morning, an hour before dawn. They were leading their unit, which was leading the army in its march up to the hills a half-mile away, just to the south east of the Triol army. General James had specifically requested their unit lead the way. Of course, this meant that they would be the first unit to engage the enemy.
“I don’t think he was impressed with me,” Renek said, wryly. “Sorry, Rimes.”
Rimes grinned. “You’re sorry that a spoiled brat doesn’t like you?” He laughed. “I think that’s a good thing!”
Several of the soldiers nearby smiled, perhaps agreeing with the commander.They do seem to trust me more, he thought to himself, tilting his head to the side.Rimes was the first one to trust me, though,he reasoned.I’ll support him in his command the best that I can.
The army marched into the valley, and began to prepare for the coming battle. They set some foot soldiers to digging trenches at the base of the hills and lining them with wooden spikes to deter cavalry attacks, and set up a few sentries to ensure that they wouldn’t be flanked.
As dawn broke, a Triol sentry rode over the crest of the northern hills. He paused, then wheeled his horse about and rode away.
“We only have to wait a little while, now,” Rimes said, adjusting in his saddle. “They’re camped less than five hundred feet beyond those hills.”
Renek nodded. “They’re probably already in ranks, too.”
It was only about fifteen minutes later, before the sun had risen to show the full face of his orange glow, that the mounted Triols became visible. Their army streamed into the valley behind them: thousands and thousands of archers, pike men, and foot soldiers.
There were even a few black-robed Sorcerers, in the rear. They were supported by some generals and surrounded by more cavalry.
It’s an awesome sight.Renek thought. He turned around in his saddle to see what their force looked like, but from this vantage point he couldn’t see much.We have fewer men, it’s true—but we have more Singers. That should make some difference, anyway.
The Triols sounded their horns, and their cavalry broke into a gallop.
“Well, this is it!” Rimes drew his sword and swung it over his head as he spurred his horse forward. Renek was only a heartbeat behind him.
It didn’t take long before the battle had dissolved into chaos. Everyone that Renek could see was dripping with sweat and blood, exhausted despite the early hour of the morning.
Rimes was completely out of sight. The last time that Renek had seen him, a Triol archer had wounded his horse. It was sad to see the noble mount falling, fletching sticking out of its neck. Rimes had put the horse out of its misery and waded into the nearest knot of Triol soldiers.
We’re holding our own pretty well.Renek thought, slicing into a Triol soldier’s arm. The man dropped his sword and Renek ran him through. As his enemy fell, Renek spun his horse around, looking for another Triol to engage.
He glanced up and saw the black-robed Singer on one of the hillsides, up above the stake-lined pit that the men had dug earlier. They were almost peaceful looking as they chanted, waving their hands in complex motions. A shimmering light seemed to fall from the sky, settling down on the Triol soldiers.
Renek shrugged, and galloped his horse towards some Triols. One of them turned and ran, so he turned his horse to ride the fleeing man down. He swung at the back of his head, but his sword bounced off.
He attacked again, trying for the man’s shoulder, but the sword barely scratched the armor the man wore.
The Singers must have done something.His eyes widened with fear as the man stopped running, and turned around with an evil grin on his face. A kingdom arrow bounced off of his shoulder as he advanced towards Renek.
Renek looked about him. A storm was brewing overhead. All of the kingdom soldiers wore fear on their faces, and were turning back, fleeing before the invulnerable enemy. Renek wheeled his horse around and followed them.
The Triols pushed their position hard for the next few minutes, but Renek knew that the kingdom Singers were working on some sort of counter.
Lightning began to fall from the storm clouds overhead. There was a scream behind Renek, and he turned to see what was happening. Another lightning bolt jumped from the clouds, and struck one of the invulnerable soldiers in the head. He writhed as the electricity flowed through him, but as he fell, several more bolts of lightning flew from his body to strike Triols nearby. They writhed and collapsed.
Only the one directly struck stayed down. The ones who had been near him struggled back to their feet, armor smoking. They looked shaken.
Renek turned his horse to face the enemy, certain that they were once again vulnerable. “To me!” He cried, and galloped forward, swinging his sword at the disoriented, smoking man in front of him. Some of the kingdom soldiers turned to watch. Lightning continued to fall from the sky, striking Triol after Triol.
Renek’s pommel of rock shivered in his hand as his blade bit deeply into flesh and bone. As the Triol fell, there was a shout from the kingdom soldiers behind him. One of them began to beat his shield with his sword as he advanced. Soon several others joined in, and as Renek felled another Triol, the whole army behind him was advancing once again, beating their shields.
Still the lightning continued to fall.
* * *
Several hours later, Renek finally saw Rimes again. They were both exhausted, but Rimes was badly wounded. His shield was gone, and his left arm had numerous deep cuts on it. They stopped fighting for a moment.
“What happened to your arm?” Renek said as he jumped off of his horse. He grabbed a tunic from a fallen soldier and ripped it into pieces.
“That giant’s here—and healed up, good as new. His unit must have followed us to the front.” Renek gasped for air. “He ripped the shield off of my arm with one blow from that mace of his. The shield straps cut my arm.”
Renek tied the strips of tunic around Rimes’ arm. “At least this will keep you from losing any more blood,” he muttered. Glancing up, he saw the giant in the distance. “He’s over there. Let’s go see what damage he’s doing.”
Rimes grimaced, but nodded. Renek jumped on his horse, and gave Rimes a hand up. They rode double towards the giant. Renek was distressed to see how few kingdom soldiers there were. The losses had been heavy.
At least the sky is darkening, he thought, looking towards the sun.Maybe this terrible day will be over soon.
He spotted the giant. There were a few kingdom soldiers attacking him, trying to land a blow on him. He was too strong for them, though, and they kept backing up to avoid his mace.
Rimes slipped off the back of Renek’s horse and ran in close to the giant. “Hey!” he yelled. “What the heck happened to you? Did you eat a whole sheep every day when you were a kid?”
The giant turned to look at him. “Ah, little man! You have bravery, to come back.” He grinned broadly. “And with no shield! I thought you were a coward, like these others,” he said, gesturing around him.
Renek jumped off of his horse and circled around behind the giant as Rimes continued to taunt him.
“Did your mother die in childbirth? I’ll bet you ripped her open!” Rimes laughed. “It must have been like a horse steppin’ on an orange, blood and pulp spurting everywhere!”
The giant reddened, and brought his weapon down at Rimes with a roar. Rimes jumped to the side, and sliced at the giant’s outstretched arm, but his sword just skittered off of the chain mail.
Renek, however, was a bit luckier. He lunged in to the giant’s left flank, and sunk his sword deeply into his side.
The giant lifted his head to scream in pain. Renek struggled for a moment to free his sword, but it was ripped out of his hand as the giant turned and swung his weapon at Renek’s head. Renek easily stepped out of the way of the lumbering giant.
Rimes ran in and pulled Renek’s sword out with his wounded left hand, grimacing at the pain. As he pulled with his left hand, with his right hand he thrust his own sword into the giant’s other flank. The giant bellowed again, and Rimes dislodged his own sword. The giant then spun around to attack Rimes, but he had thrown himself to the side toss Renek’s sword back to him.
Renek jumped to the side to grab his sword, and brought it up under the chin, striking the giant’s neck. He struck true, striking the same gap that he had found before. He pulled his sword to slice deeply, and the giant’s lifeblood exploded out of his neck’s artery, splashing over Renek’s hands and onto the ground.
The ground shook as the giant’s body struck the ground. Nearly three dozen Triol soldiers drew their swords and advanced on the men who had killed their great warrior. The nearby kingdom soldiers joined with Renek and Rimes into a defensive circle.
Renek looked around at his men. Rimes was grim and determined, but the other men hadn’t fought with Renek or Rimes before; they seemed either frightened or resigned. All of them clearly thought that this would be their last battle.
Renek jumped forward, moving as fast as he could, and sliced through three of the enemy soldiers almost before they knew he was attacking.
“Your little friend wasn’t a match for us!” he yelled at the Triols. “Now it’s your time to die.” He engaged the two nearest him, pushing their swords to the side with his own and skewering the one on his right. He paused to look at the other, who was a relatively young man. He said in a low voice, “I hope you’ve made peace with your maker, boy,” lifting his sword menacingly.
The young soldier took a step back, then turned and ran back towards the bulk of his army.
Renek grinned, and turned to the right. Rimes was trying to defend against two men, and Renek quickly went over to help. He parried a low blow for Rimes, pulling the assailant’s attention away. A moment later, the Triol was dead.
Renek turned back to the other Triol, but he was too late—he watched, helplessly, as the Triol pushed his sword’s point past the barrier of Rimes’ chain mail and into his chest.
Time seemed to slow down for Renek. He could almost feel the sword split the rings in Rimes’s chain mail. He watched the point slide smoothly between two of Rimes’ ribs. He had a feeling of dread and helplessness combined; he saw Rimes’s eyes grow wider as he took a stumbling step backwards, pulling his body off of the sword before he fell.
The corpse stopped, deep in the forest, and looked at his hands. They seemed to be … less dead, somehow. Perhaps they were healing?
He had heard a noise in the distance. He looked around, but could see nothing. There was still little underbrush, but the trees were dense. He couldn’t see very far.
The noise came again. He cocked his head, tilting an ear towards the noise. It was a heavy rustling, as if something large was coming his way.
The trees swayed in the wind, unconcerned, as if to reassure the corpse that all was normal and well. One especially large tree shivered and bowed to the side.
A dragon’s head appeared next to the bending tree, its scales glittering like red jewels around the golden flames of its eyes. Its head was pushing the tree to the side. Bark rained down upon the forest as the dragon rubbed its head repeatedly on the straining tree. Its eyes narrowed in pleasure.
The corpse found that he could feel awe. And fear. Perhaps his mind was mending along with his body? Or, perhaps his mind was healing faster than his body, as the corpse suddenly found his body was immovable, all he could do was stand stare at the beast in front of him.
The dragon saw the living corpse standing in front of it, and its eyes opened in curiosity. It hugged the ground and crept stealthily past the tree, lifting and placing its feet with infinite care. The flames of its irises coursed faster through its eyes as it approached the corpse.
Its nostrils were larger than the corpse’s head. The corpse stood perfectly still as the dragon sniffed it, once, twice.
The dragon’s eyes widened, and it peered into the corpse’s face with its right eye. Its iris spun open further. The corpse found that it could no longer blink as the dragon appeared to gaze directly into the emptiness where the corpse’s soul should have been.
A thrumming began to rise in the dragon’s throat. At first, it was just noise, but it quickly coalesced into a pensive threnody, an almost tuneless dirge that robbed the very air in the forest of all cheer. The dragon’s glittering beauty made the song’s sadness more poignant. The corpse was surprised to see, reflected in the curved mirror of the dragon’s flawless eye, his own tears streaming down his dead face.
Still singing, the dragon nodded once, then jumped into the air. Easily threading its wings through and around the thick branches, its heavy song carried it above the trees and out of sight.
The dragon’s song lingered in the forest. The corpse stood and wept for a time, sorrow overwhelming all else.
Battle with the Triols was more difficult than Ryan had thought it would be. The mass of bodies, all bearing weapons, shields, and armor, was confusing. His sword weighed a lot more than he was used to, and it had a different balance. He slashed and cut at anything he didn’t recognize, but despite having come in from behind, he couldn’t seem to get his sword in beyond their shields. When he did manage to hit one of the Triols, his sword seemed to bounce off of the strong armor even though it weighed so much more than his practice sword.
Finally, he felled one of the warriors. He looked around. One of the squires was hanging out of his saddle, throat cut. It was too dark to see who it was. Several of the knights were on the ground, dead—but Culdre was the only Triol still swinging his sword.
Culdre had three kingdom soldiers attacking him. He was still able to hold them off, somehow. Armand was clearly tiring, but his face was set in determination.
Culdre disarmed one of the other two kingdom knights, and quickly slid his sword between the man’s ribs, chain mail links splitting and embedding themselves into the wound. Culdre tried to pull his sword out, but it was stuck. He tugged harder, but as the blade came free, Armand’s attack landed on Culdre’s sword arm and chest. He threw his head back and howled as his chain mail armor twisted and broke from the force of Armand’s blow. Despite his bleeding arm, he managed to flip his sword out towards Armand, knocking his sword away, and he spurred his horse, bolting away from the battle.
Armand followed into the darkness as the rest of the troop gave a feeble cheer.
Sir Gregory frowned at the boys around him, but didn’t say anything about their presence in the battle. Instead, he used the time to instruct the boys about how to clean their bloody swords and to clean up the battlefield a bit.
It was nearly an hour before Armand returned. They had piled the bodies up and put a cairn of rocks over them, then moved down the road towards the front lines before tethering their horses and trying to rest. They had decided not to fully set camp, but had pulled out their bedrolls. Most of them were already asleep—the fight had exhausted them. Gregory rose to meet Armand at the edge of the camp, which woke Ryan.
Ryan rolled onto his side, straining his ears, trying to hear the news.
“He did not escape, Gregory,” Armand said. There was great satisfaction in his voice.
Gregory held out his hand. “Good work, Armand.” They shook hands. “I had Ryan set up your pallet over there. Try to get some rest, you’ve earned it.”
Armand dismounted, then turned back to Gregory. “How many did we lose?”
“Not many. Two knights and a squire. Frederick and Richard. Liam’s squire Dorrin.”
Armand shook his head. “We have too few men for this war, Gregory.”
Gregory reached out and clasped Armand’s shoulder. “I know, Armand. We will have to do our best.”
Armand nodded, then walked over to the where the horses were, tied his horse. He covered the horse with a blanket before staggering over to his pallet. Ryan grimaced—it was less than a half-minute before Armand started snoring loudly.
* * *
Ryan rolled over, putting his arm up over his head. He thought back to the battle earlier that day. He opened his eyes wide. He had killed a man in battle.
Why didn’t he feel anything? He had done well…but he had thought killing would be harder, somehow.
He mulled this over for a while. Things had changed so much since the village.
I wonder where my parents are.He sighed heavily.Or if they’re even still alive.
Armand’s snores grew louder. Ryan frowned, looking over at the noise. Armand was often cruel to him. Is that why he found it … unnoticeable, to kill someone? He frowned more deeply.
I wish Armand that had been one of the ones killed.He thought suddenly, and his eyes widened.Wait, do I really think that? He’s mean, but does he deserve to die?He shook his head.No. He doesn’t.
He was going to put me in the front.Ryan sighed.I would have been mincemeat, me against 20 Triols—and I think that’s what Armand wanted.He shrugged.But it was an empty threat. He knew that Gregory wouldn’t let him do something like that.His mouth opened in a huge yawn, and he rolled over again, trying to stifle the sound of Armand’s snoring by covering his head with his arm again.
Soon, he too was back to sleep. The next day, as they were putting rolled pallets onto their horses, a kingdom man rode into their camp. He had a few soldiers with him, and, despite his youth, wore the trappings of a general. He seemed to be headed towards the front lines, and as he saw Gregory, he looked relieved.
“Gregory!” he shouted.
“General Petrin! Brother!” Gregory grinned, and ran over to the newcomer, embracing him. There was a similarity, but Petrin was clearly the younger of the two.
“Brother, I am glad that I found you,” Petrin said. “I have news of the war, and it’s not good.” He shook his head, and lowered his voice. “Plus I have a missive from the king, for your eyes only.”
Gregory’s eyebrows rose. “Well, let us step off into the forest a ways, then, general.” He turned to the camp. “Finish striking camp and form up ranks, men. We will return shortly.”
As they stepped over tree roots and around the small scrub brush that was growing this near the edge of the forest, they spoke of the front lines.
“It’s bad, Gregory. We don’t have a chance, or even really any hope of winning. We’re outnumbered at least three to one.
“I’m hoping that the king’s letter to you has some new strategy, something to at least give us some hope.” He handed over a sealed parchment.
Gregory sighed. “Why me, brother? I’m only a commander.”
“Well, I may have been playing you up a bit.” Petrin grinned apologetically. “The king thinks highly of your successes so far.”
“Then why am I still training the new recruits?” Gregory grimaced and broke the seal on the parchment. He held it out so that Petrin could read at the same time.
The war is not going well. We are pressed back on the main front. Were it not for the Singers greatly favoring our side, we would already have lost most of our army. Thankfully, they seem, mostly, to be on our side.
As it is, we are fighting a losing, retreating battle. Let me rephrase: we are fighting battles, valiantly, but only to delay the Triol forces from taking city after city. We need your help.
One of the Searchers has recently come to my castle. He had to flee, as the battle lines moved over the area that he was searching. He has located the Swords of the Ascendant—
Petrin drew in a sharp breath.
—but because of the battle, and his lack of defensive skills, he was unable to enter the cave. He believes it is hidden, trapped, guarded—in short, he believes it to be dangerous.
Speed is of the essence; I believe that the Triols are looking for the swords as well. Youmustget there first. Take your squire, and, at most, one or two other knights and squires, and follow the map that is drawn at the bottom of this page. Once you have retrieved the swords, bring them back to me, untouched.
I have sent several small groups, and even a small unit, in search of the swords. The Kingdom will not survive unless one of these groups succeeds. I do not expect the others to prevail, they are being forced to cut through the Triols, whereas you will be able to go around. Their groups will serve more as a distraction to the enemy, giving you a better chance for success.
Gods’ speed, and good luck.
Gregory looked at Petrin. “So theydoexist.” He rubbed his chin.
“I guess so. I knew a new Singer had come to the court.” He sighed explosively. “Do you suppose this could be a trap?” he said, raising his eyebrows. “I mean, some Singers aren’t exactly … loyal to the King.”
Gregory nodded. “That’s true of all kinds of men, not just Sorcerers.” He lifted the paper. “I suppose it’s possible. But does it matter? I have my orders.”
* * *
Gregory and Petrin walked back to the camp where the men were waiting.
“Armand, Ryan, come here. Kevin, you also.” He gestured to William. “William, I’ll need to speak with you as well.”
He gathered them around in a circle.
“William, the king has asked me to search for the Swords.” William’s eyes widened. “You’ll be in charge of the unit for a while. Until we get back, which might be a while.” He turned to Armand.
“Armand, you’re easily the best swordsman I’ve got. We’ve got to travel light and fast. I’m taking you and Ryan along, as well as Kevin.”
Armand grimaced, clearly disappointed. “If I’m the best swordsman, shouldn’t I be at the front?” he said. “And I don’t understand what goodtheywill be.” He tossed his head towards the squires.
“I need you with me, Armand. And the squires will do what they can do.” Gregory gestured towards the battlefield. “We’ll travel with the rest of the unit to the edge of the plains, but then we’re going to skirt around the edge. We’ve got to get to the mountain ridge on the other side of the battlefield as quickly as possible.”
Armand nodded, then turned to Ryan. “Are we ready to leave, squire?”
William touched Gregory’s arm. “I’m guessing I am to take the unit to the front lines as quickly as possible?”
Gregory smiled. “Yes, William, you’ve got it exactly right. Thank you.”
“That’s what I’m here for, commander.” He paused, looking at Armand, then at Ryan. “Ryan, can I see you for a minute?”
Ryan raised his eyebrows and looked at Armand. Armand waved at William, nodding.
William led Ryan over to his horse, and rummaged around in his saddlebags. He pulled out a large vial of thick liquid. It was glowing slightly, even in the strong morning light.
“Take this, Ryan.” He grimaced. “You’re the only one who was really paying attention when I was talking about the plants.” He shrugged, drawing his mouth back thoughtfully. “Plus, you’re the reason we made it off of that island alive, back in the Gredarin.”
Ryan reached out to the vial. “How do I use it?”
William smiled. “Just drizzle a little bit on an open wound. It will help heal the wound, and keep it from getting infected.”
Ryan looked over at Brian, sitting on his horse, looking over at Gregory and Petrin. “You’re not giving it all to me, are you? Won’t you need it for the rest of us? I mean, rest of you?”
William glanced over at Brian, and turned back to Ryan with warmth in his eyes. “I have four more vials, Ryan. Brian and the rest of us will be ok. Thank you for asking.”
“Ryan! Get your arse moving!” Armand yelled. Ryan looked around, then back at William.
“You’d better get over to Armand, Ryan,” William said.
“Thank you, Knight William.” Ryan ran over to his horse, and mounted as quickly as he could.
“I only hope it will be enough, young Ryan.” William’s smile faded, and he shook his head sadly.
* * *
Petrin rode with them until they reached the edge of the plains. At that point, he paid his respects to his brother, and galloped off with his men to reach the front before William and the others did. He would let the other generals know they were arriving, and William knew to look for Petrin for orders once they had arrived.
Gregory, Armand, and the two squires shook hands with their friends and practice partners, then turned off to the side. A few clucks brought their horses to a fast trot—they needed to make time.
Ryan looked across the plains to the distant mountains.Odd, that to make extra time we’re going so far out of our way.He thought.If we could just go straight through, we would save a lot of time.
Gregory seemed to be reading his mind. He cleared his throat to get the small troupe’s attention, and gestured across the plains to the mountains, and then to a low, dusty cloud further to the east. “We’ll cut across the fields as soon as I think we’re able, but we’ve got to avoid the battle proper—if they see us, they’ll just send a troupe of archers to cut us down while we ride.”
They rode at a fast trot for nearly two hours before slowing to a walk to rest the horses. Gregory dismounted, and gestured for the others to do the same, and led his horse for a short time.
“I thought we’d better let them really cool down,” Gregory said. “I think we can make more time if we keep up the pace and walk for a few minutes every two hours.”
A few minutes later, they mounted and rode again. It was dusty, in the plains. Ryan began to worry as he realized that they were raising a small trail of dust that would be visible for a few miles to a trained scout.
Even with the dust, though, the rest of the day passed without incident. They stopped long past full darkness, near a small stream. They were able to wash the dust off, refill their water skins, and water the horses thoroughly—although they were careful not to let the horses drink their fill while they were still hot. They fed the horses before they ate themselves, feeding them from their sparse store of oats.
“It’s important to give them more than just grass,” Gregory said, as he fitted a feedbag to his mount’s head. “Grass doesn’t give them enough energy for pushing them like this.” He shook his head, and patted his horse’s sweating neck. “And make sure to put blankets on them, we don’t want them to catch a chill.
“We’ll wake before dawn. Get as much rest as you can.”
“Do we need to set a watch?” Armand asked.
Gregory shook his head. “No, we should be safe. At most, there are two or three farmsteads that have seen us, and even that many is unlikely. We should be safe for the next two days. We will be within a day’s riding from our objective at that point.”
They stayed awake long enough to eat some travel biscuits, and then they slept.
* * *
The next morning found them riding side by side, the two knights in the front and the squires behind.
“It’s a good thing we traveled for so long to get to the Gredarin,” Kevin said. “My whole body hurts, even with all that practice!”
Ryan nodded sympathetically. He was sore too, but Kevin was clearly worse off. “We’re making good time, though.”
“Yes, we are,” Kevin agreed.
Gregory turned the group inward, beginning their trek across the middle of the plains.
“I hope you squires remembered to put your lunches somewhere that you can get to them.” Gregory called back. “We’re going to eat in the saddle today.”
Ryan rolled his eyes. “Did you remember?” he whispered to Kevin.
Kevin shook his head. “No. You?”
Ryan grinned. “No.” He chuckled quietly. “We’ll have to rummage through our packs during the next walk.”
Kevin looked relieved. “Good idea.”
The Sun seemed to be beating down hotter here than he remembered at home. He pulled a rag out and wiped his forehead.
It was going to be a long ride.
* * *
Armand was speaking to Gregory quietly. It was near sunset, but the clouds had yet to begin their golden dance of color.
“I don’t think so, Armand,” Gregory said, a little louder.
Armand continued, quietly pushing Gregory with his voice.
“All right, then!” Gregory snapped. “I guess we’ve made good time so far. We’ll stop.” He sighed. “Gods know I could use a hot meal.”
Armand straightened in his saddle, and reined in. He slipped off his horse and waited for Ryan to ride up next to him.
“Feed and water the horses, Ryan, and then get ready for practice.” The steely glint in his eye was matched in Ryan’s. As he turned away, he added, over his shoulder, “Wear your helm this time.”
Kevin breathed in deeply as Armand scouted around for brush to burn for a fire. “I can’t believe it! We’ve been riding for, what, ten hours? And he wants to spar with you?”
Ryan’s eyes narrowed. “Wants to beat me up is more like it.” He smiled grimly. “But I don’t have to take it any more. I’m going to beat him tonight.” He narrowed his eyes as he watched Armand stride around the field.
Sir Gregory refused to watch the training match between Ryan and Sir Armand; he picked up a small travel pot and started to cook some stew.
Armand smiled cockily as he strapped on his shield. “This is the way to release some of that tension, isn’t it, boy?” He laughed. “A good fight—I mean,practice bout—helps me to loosen up those tight muscles from a day in the saddle.” He turned to Kevin. “You’re going to be the referee. We’re going to best of five touches this time.” He put his helmet on, and Ryan did the same.
Kevin winced, but nodded at Armand.
Armand Ryan saluted, and fell into position.
The first thing that Ryan had learned from fighting with more than one person was that he had to attack first, and attack fast. He did so now, and allowed himself a small smile at the look of surprise on Armand’s face as he hailed blow after blow at the knight.
Armand was able to block the blows, though. Several of his parries were followed by counterattacks that were at full speed.
Ryan’s small smile disappeared as he realized that Armand had been holding back the whole time that they had known each other. Armand wasfast.Suddenly, Ryan was on the defensive. He let go of all restraint and moved as fast as he could, blocking with his shield, with his sword, stepping out of the way—whatever he could do, he did.
Ryan realized that he was tense, his jaw was clenched, his teeth bared. He forced himself to relax, and redoubled his efforts to be faster, to hit harder. Before he knew what had happened, he had struck Armand on the temple, hard.
Armand staggered to the side. Ryan stopped attacking, a look of concern on his face as he came to Armand’s side.
“Point, Ryan,” Kevin said, quietly.
“I’m fine,” Armand said, and roughly pushed Ryan away. “I barely felt your little ‘love tap’, boy.” He straightened, saluted, and fell into a slightly unsteady en guard position. “Now get back and fight,squire. And do try not to fight like the little girl that you are.”
Ryan frowned unhappily.Why does he hate me so much?He saluted, and fell into position.
And was immediately defending from blow after blow as Armand went after him. He stepped back, and stepped back again. Armand sneered at him and stepped back, stopping his attacks.
“What is it, Ryan, too tired to return my attacks, now?” He laughed.
A surge of anger flashed through Ryan, and he stepped forward to attack. Armand seemed to simply brush aside his practice sword, and struck Ryan’s chest with such force that it knocked the wind out of him. He fell to the ground, gasping, and Kevin rushed to his side.
“Well, squire?” Armand asked Kevin coldly.
“Are you ok?” Kevin whispered to Ryan.
Ryan nodded, breath finally entering his lungs.
“Squire?” Armand demanded.
“Point, Crown Knight Armand,” Kevin said, bitterly, as he stood up and backed away. Ryan dragged himself to his feet slowly, stalling for time.
The knight and squire saluted, and they both attacked.
Their wooden swords whipping through the air too fast to see, they continued to probe each other’s defenses. Armand’s shield still did not cover his lower legs, and Ryan began to attack higher up, trying to draw Armand’s shield even further away from his ankles.
It worked. He made his move, swinging his sword up and over Armand’s head and bringing it across Armand’s exposed left ankle. Armand’s mouth formed a little ‘O’ as his feet flew out from under him. Ryan thrust his sword’s tip into Armand’s chest to score a point. Not as hard as Armand had hit him, but certainly not gently.
“Point, Ryan,” Kevin said. He was grinning, and nodded to Ryan as he saluted and fell back into en Guard.
Armand growled as he got to his feet. He made the motions of a salute, but fell into en guard very quickly and attacked immediately. Ryan was thrown off guard by Armand’s hasty attack, and Armand scored an easy point by thrusting his sword into Ryan’s shoulder.
“Point, Crown Knight Armand.” Kevin sounded angry, and Ryan shook his head.
Just score the match, Kevin.Ryan thought.All you’re doing with your anger is making Armand angrier.He looked into Armand’s narrowed eyes, and thought,and moredeadly.
“Match point,” Kevin said, needlessly. They all knew the score. Gregory looked up from his cooking, though, when Kevin spoke.
They both saluted, mechanically, before assuming en guard. Again Armand attacked with speed and strength Ryan had never seen before. The wooden blades blurred around the two warriors, bouncing off of each other.
His legs are covered, this time. He learned that one quickly.Ryan thought.Well, he is supposed to be a good warrior.
Ryan tried a shield push, but Armand simply met it with his own shield. Armand sneered again. Ryan realized his jaw was locked tight, and his shoulders were too tense. He tried to relax, but before he could get his muscles loose and his mind back into the battle, his helmet rang like a bell, and he was looking at the sky.
Armand had won, despite all the practice with two opponents, despite every best effort on his part, despite moving faster than he had moved in his life—Armand had won.
Kevin’s face appeared above him, full of concern.
“Ugh, can you stop spinning, Kevin?” He asked, weakly.