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Part III: Martial strains (first half)

Return to Part II

Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9
Chapter 10

Chapter 1: Gareth

It’d been good to see John again, and good to see how far he’d come. But he had problems to accompany that power, especially now, which was why I’d never wanted his job. Besides, if I’d stayed an officer in Kelfan, I’d never have met Bram nor found John again. Now, it was a good bet that at least I wouldn’t be lying dead in Kelfan in another few months. Every role’s got its good and bad, and I was comfortable with the bad I’d chosen for myself.

Bram and I spent the afternoon at a nicer inn than we would’ve been able to afford without John’s letter, across from the palace and with a higher class of boozer than I was used to drinking with. We rested in our room, not able to sleep, and discussed the good and bad points of John’s proposal all afternoon. Bram danced around the issue for as long as he could, but I managed to convince him to stay in Ankur even if he decided not to serve under John. After all, it wasn’t as if he had much choice—he sure couldn’t return westward. If he was right about Amelior, on the other hand, there wasn’t much point in running east either. Volonor was on the seacoast, about as far east as you could go, and that wasn’t very. I’d never heard much about the lands north of the city, other than rumors of endless sandy desert, and nothing’d convinced me it’d be worth our while to travel there.

In short, running wasn’t a good option. At worst, it would delay the inevitable. At best, we’d never find another offer as good as John had given us. I’d never led more than a handful of men before, and had never wanted to, but I’d also never dreamt of rising as high as John promised, and given the benefits—like the fancy inn—it was looking like an awfully attractive notion. After all, I wasn’t getting any younger, and it was getting less and less pleasant moving on every few years. Even so, if things didn’t pan out, I could always leave. So I was pretty sure Bram would come over to my way of thinking in time. All things considered, we could do a whole lot worse for ourselves. In the meantime, we could settle down to a few days of serious recreation while the festival lasted. For the moment, we had no commitments and could have a grand time without worrying about our future. I had the feeling it might be a long time before we’d have that kind of luxury again, and I was planning to take full advantage of it.

Bram and I beat the subject near enough to death that we could let it drop and spend the last part of the afternoon napping, readying ourselves for a long evening.

***

The crowds buzzed like the marketplace at noon, so loud we couldn’t even pretend to sleep by dinner time. By the time the sun had dropped below the rooftops, the singers, dancers, musicians, and onlookers were too loud to ignore. By the time the last sunlight had faded, you’d never have known it looking out the window. Torches and oil lamps burned everywhere, lighting the streets as bright as a cloudy day beneath the smoke. Bram and I watched for a while from our second-floor room, wall-to-wall people swirling around obstacles below us like brawlers in a drunken melee. Here and there, one of the poor bastards stuck on guard duty did his best to look stern and avoid being swept away. But John was on the ball, even if the town guard were in trouble—a cordon of guards with pikes kept a large area cleared around the palace. I don’t know if it was our conversation earlier in the day, or a standard precaution, but it still struck me as wise.

Before leaving the inn, Bram and I made sure our weapons were visible, and our money much less so. After a light meal, we joined the crowds, and the weaponry and my size earned us space most times. At first, we were too shabbily dressed to attract the sort of thief who hung around the inn; later, once we’d put some distance between us and the inn, the local cutpurses were happy to look for easier prey. There was plenty of that, after all.

“What say, bro’, we head for a less polite section of town and find us a good tavern?” I had to repeat myself, louder, to be heard over the commotion. Bram grimaced and shrugged his shoulders, which was all the encouragement I needed. We set off through the crowd, following our intuition until the last of the silk-and-gold crowd was replaced by the leather-and-iron one, and much of the party had moved inside from the streets. Bram didn’t look quite so comfortable, but I figured it wouldn’t hurt to broaden his horizons.

The first dive we ran across had a flaking signboard bearing the painting of a horned helmet with a hatchet embedded in it. The ‘Cloven Helm’ looked like my kind of place, and in we went. Bram looked leery of my choice, but I pushed him in ahead of me before he could find an excuse to look elsewhere.

Inside the tavern it was crowded, noisy, smelly, and smoky—in short, just the sort of place to start the evening off on the right note. The two of us shouldered up to the bar and ordered ales. Why not start easy? Most of the others had a pretty good head start on us, but the night was young and we had plenty of time to catch up. Not long later, we found ourselves sitting in a corner with a few regulars and swapping tall tales of where we’d been and what we’d done; I told them the straight goods, and Bram played with his old stories until they weren’t quite so awkward for this place. Another half hour and I was losing at dice in one corner while Bram was proving to a few drunks that he could arm-wrestle with the best of them. Mind you, he lost as much as he won, but he put up a respectable fight for a guy his size. Tired of my string of ‘luck’, I took over for him and showed him how it was done right. That won me back what I’d lost earlier on, and got us to learning the local drinking songs. Less money changed hands, though, ’cause it was getting harder to concentrate on the dice, and I was no fool. We switched to throwing daggers at a wall target after that, and covered our bets until one hustler started cleaning out all takers.

Round about the changing of the watch, I had a pretty good buzz going and Bram was unsteady on his feet, so I directed us out the door and towards a part of the city I’d not visited for too long. Bram looked a little unfocused, but he figured out soon enough where we were headed once he saw the red lanterns. Maybe he was less innocent than he liked to pretend. The streets here were near empty, seeing as how most business was conducted indoors, so we could talk without shouting.

“You game, brother mine? I haven’t had a good round of wenching in longer than I care to remember.”

Bram's face was far too serious for him to be sober, and he protested just a bit too fast to be truthful. “I’ve never been in such a place before.”

“Then it’s high time you visited one. I’ve almost forgotten what a woman looks like, and it’s time you learned. I'll pay!”

Bram hesitated. “I doubt I’m sober enough to get your money’s worth. But don’t let me stop you, this is no group sport anyway if memory serves. Perhaps I should meet you back at our room tomorrow morning?”

Not a group sport! Well, maybe not the way he was thinking, or just maybe he was as innocent as he pretended. So we embraced, and I sent him reelin’ on his way, remembering that next time I’d have to get him drunker first. He called out a loud and fond goodbye, but by then a young blonde had caught my eye. We exchanged meaningful grins, and I approached her to begin dickering over the price of dickering in Ankur. After a time, my bargaining skills not being at their sharpest and my heart not being in the financial end of the transaction, we reached an agreement and, smiling, she led me inside and up to her room. I was drunk, but not too drunk, and neither of us got any sleep until much later that night.

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Chapter 2: Bram

I nodded, the epitome of courtesy, hand on sword hilt, and sidestepped the drunk. He went sprawling, and I moved on with a brief glance backwards to be sure he wasn't just a clever thief. But he was just a drunk, vomiting in the gutter, and posed no threat. Despite the sword hilt beneath my hand, I could empathize with how he was feeling at the moment: I was only a threat to myself. My head was humming with the night’s warmth and the onslaught of more alcohol than I was used to; for a moment, I fancied I could feel the night and its denizens beating in my heart and on my mind like a human symphony, but the feeling faded and the strangeness it left in its wake alarmed me into a semblance of alertness. I made a mental note to avoid the local rum at all costs, and to protest more strongly next time Gareth asked me to go drinking with him again. I made it through the less frequented part of town without incident, but ran into a few more problems nearer home.

The crowd’s noise and the bright lights did strange things to my equilibrium. I managed to make it past an entwined young couple, dancing amidst a circle of admiring bystanders, and staggered off to the side until I found a wall to lean against. The crowd was moving like tall-grass prairie in a wind, and pressed me there, up against the wall, eyes closed in an effort to clear my head. After a time, the world stopped reeling, and several deep breaths cleared my head and forced my stomach back down to where it belonged. Feeling better, though by no means less lightheaded, I was able to continue with nearly my usual poise, though I suspect it was a sham obvious to even a drunken bystander.

I arrived back at the inn to find a boisterous party overflowing the common room. It was, however, sedate by comparison with what was going on outside, and I was able to slip through the press of revelers without stepping on too many ornately booted toes. The palace bells tolled twice as I wove my way to the stairs—could it be that late already? I climbed the stairs slowly, then counted doors until I arrived at our room, where I fumbled the lock open, and fell through the door. The stiff hinges saved me when my balance could not, and when I got my feet back under me again, I closed the door behind me and shot the bolt; the latch dropped into place on its own. Gareth wasn’t likely to be home anytime soon, and he’d wake me when he returned. I left the coal box covered—there was no need for light, for I had a drunkard’s confidence I could find my way to the bed by the light seeping through the shutters. Even impaired as I was, I succeeded, leaving a trail of clothing and harness behind me en route. My left leg touched the bedsheets, eyes closing in rapturous anticipation of sleep, and I sank towards the bed. Then, as I slid beneath the sheets, I realized something was very wrong.

My leg touched soft, warm skin instead of bed.

The touch sent a shock through me that very nearly cleared my head. The first possibility that struck me was that I had entered the wrong room, and that the landlord had taken the traditional shortcut of using the same keys for several rooms. Another possibility was that Gareth had returned before me, which, considering the erratic course I had followed, was not impossible. Had it been two bells, or three when I passed the palace? But beneath my probing hand, the skin was soft and hairless. That convinced me I had an uninvited guest. One who was stirring drowsily and rolling over onto her back.

For a moment we held still, eyeing each other as best we could in the light seeping in from the street. Then my reflexes cut through the alcoholic fog, and I rolled off the bed, grabbing Gareth’s blanket en passant and wrapping it about my waist. At the same time my guest gracefully pulled the covers up around her neck and, to my surprise, remained silent, watching me. I cleared my throat—surprise and shock had done a good, though incomplete, job of clearing the fog from my head—and started to speak. My voice broke. I had a sudden, rueful appreciation of how Gareth must have felt when Grace surprised him in her cave.

While I tried without much luck to gather my wits about me, the woman hissed at me. “I don’t know who you are, and I don’t much care. If you touch me again, you’ll regret it—I can scream loud enough to have every man in the palace in this room before you can even complete a lecherous thought!” Her voice was firm, but couldn’t quite hide her nervousness. Despite that, I couldn’t help but note her composure given the circumstances.

“Forgive me, milady, but we have not been introduced.” I bowed, losing my balance and almost losing my blanket in the process; it was possible I was not quite as sober as I had hoped. “My name is Bram, and I do not bite nor do anything else offensive unless provoked.” I sat myself down very cautiously on the edge of Gareth’s bed so as to assume a less menacing pose—and to avoid falling on my face.

Still demure beneath the covers, she replied with a little more confidence. “I’m Alison. You don’t bite... maybe... but you do sneak into an innocent maiden’s room quite unannounced and uninvited... Bram. Should I be flattered?”

“Umm... well, then.” I avoided the question, unsure how to answer. “Now that we have dispensed with the formalities, perhaps you would be so good as to tell me what you are doing in my bed? Not that I mind, but...” I stopped, realizing that strong drink and my relationship with Gareth had put serious dents in my formerly polished politeness.

A tinge of amusement lit her voice as she replied. “Your bed? And how would that have found its way into my room? As you know, your room would be in a different part of in the palace.” Her voice trailed off as a crash! sounded from downstairs, echoed by gales of laughter from many throats. She paused to listen, then continued, a suddenly forlorn note in her voice. “... but then, this isn’t the palace, is it? And come to think of it, I’m sure I’ve never met any Bram before. Where am I?”

She sounded so plaintive that for a moment I forgot myself and reached out an arm to comfort her. That was a mistake, for she drew back so sharply, eyes flashing alarm and breath gathered for a scream, that I started back myself and fell from the bed. That broke the tension, and she let her breath out in a tremulous sigh, ending with an enchanting giggle.

“I am sorry,” I said, picking myself off the floor and clutching the blanket more around my waist. “I did not intend to... I mean, I wanted to...” I sounded rather pathetic even to myself, and winced, hoping she would not notice.

The warmth was back again. “I’m sorry too. You’re a gentleman of breeding, or you’d have taken advantage of the situation by now. But Bram, where am I? The last thing I recall is falling asleep over that drink Jordan brought me.”

I told her where we were and though I could not see her face as much as I now wanted to, I would have been willing to bet she looked relieved. She had my curiosity piqued now, and I did not intend to let her escape just yet. “You mentioned a room in the palace, Lady Alison. You live there, then, with the royal family?”

She laughed again, a delightful sound in the dark. “Not exactly. I’m a gift from Volonor, sent here to serve as a maid for the princess Amanda. But I’m a favored maid, for they’ve given me a room of my very own.” Now she sounded proud, and all apprehension had left her voice, as if we were two old friends talking together after a party. In spite of myself, I was becoming ever more interested in her. I felt a familiar yearning as well, for it had been a very long time indeed since I had been alone with a woman, and I now felt that lack keenly.

I thrust those thoughts aside, not wanting to abuse her trust by taking advantage of the situation.

“Milady, we must get you back to the palace at once, then. Things will doubtless go ill for you if your presence is discovered here.” I repressed my disappointment at those necessary words.

“There’s a small problem with that idea.” She sounded plaintive once more, and it was hard to stop myself from reaching out to her. Somehow I managed. “I’m quite sure I know who smuggled me out of the palace, and they would not have left me any clothing. Unless you see any? ... I thought not. So they’ll be waiting for me to come crawling home without my clothing. Can you imagine what that would do to my reputation at the palace?”

I could indeed. I knew far too well the double standard of public propriety and private scandal that hung about any court. Someone had played a very clever, very nasty trick on Alison, intended no doubt to ruin her status with her princess and possibly make room for a competitor. The inspiration of alcohol struck me then, and I knew how the situation could be resolved with minimal pain to all concerned, and I told her so. “We’re not done-for just yet. The Commander-in-Chief of the royal armies is an acquaintance of mine, though I confess to being a stranger in town. Tomorrow, I shall thank him for providing such a fine guide to the town, and that will be that. Public propriety will be satisfied, even if there is talk behind your back, and everyone will return to their games and scheming. And that will be the end of the matter for now. But I suggest you reconsider who your friends are.”

Relief and respect mingled in her reply. “That would work! His lordship often does such things.” Then she paused, and I imagined her blushing in the dark. “But there’s still one problem.”

“Yes. You shall have to wait until tomorrow to get clothing. Not to mention a chaperone, if you want to avoid unpleasant conclusions being drawn about just what sort of guidance you provided. I hope you will trust me enough to share this room for the night... in separate beds of course.”

She went quiet for a moment, pondering, and I found myself hoping she would accept. “You seem to have thought of everything. But I must make you swear an oath first, just in case your baser nature wins out. ‘Fair words oft conceal foul heart,’ as they say.” There was a definite trace of mirth in her voice, as if she were testing me and finding my responses amusing.

I grimaced, forgetting that in the dark, she would be unable to see my hurt expression. Then, resigned, I swore an oath on my supposed knightly honor before bidding her a good night. I collected my scattered clothing and half-dressed before making myself comfortable in Gareth’s bed, hoping he wouldn’t be back until late the next morning. I stiffened as there came to my ears a rustle of blankets from the opposite bed, followed by the pad of bare feet on a wooden floor. In the darkness, a tantalizing silhouette bent over me and soft, warm lips brushed my forehead.

“Thank you Bram.”

Wanting her, but not wanting to lose her trust, I delayed a fraction of a second too long before reaching out, and she was gone again. I took a long time to fall asleep.

***

I was out of bed before she woke, and dressed myself in silence. As I pulled on my overgarments, I took the opportunity to glance discreetly at my roommate. During the night, the sheets had slipped a little, leaving one pale shoulder bare. Gentled by sleep, her broad yet delicate face was framed by a halo of disordered, deep brown hair. A nicely shaped nose, not too small nor yet too straight sat humbly above thin lips curled in a peaceful smile. Beautiful enough in her own way, yet not the sort to have suitors beating a path to her door. I found myself relieved at that thought, then disturbed at where those thoughts were leading.

A mild hangover, milder than I deserved, had begun to make itself known by the dull throbbing in my temples, adding to my confusion. My harness must have jangled or else she was awake, for her eyes opened as I gazed upon her. As she returned my gaze, she covered herself once more with the sheets. Her eyes were as lovely a shade of brown as her hair, and though spaced a little wider than what custom called beautiful, were lovely still. Her eyes and lips smiled a warm good morning, and I smiled back, guilty at having been caught watching her. Then I turned away to complete my dressing, not giving either of us time to grow embarrassed.

When I was done, I slid the bolt, then turned to explain why I was leaving—and, let me be honest—to have another look at my roommate before I left. At that moment, a key grated in the lock.

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Chapter 3: Gareth

Now that was something I’d been long overdue for!

It'd been months since I’d bedded a woman, but there are things you just don’t forget. Not this boy! I had a grand old time, and so did the blonde if I’m any judge. So what if we kept a few other tenants awake? Festivals are for being festive, and if they didn’t like the idea, they’d picked the wrong neighborhood to sleep in. I stretched, muscles cracking and joints popping, and patted her exposed bottom. She muttered and pulled the covers back over herself without waking. Well, she deserved a good day’s sleep after a good night’s work, so I let her lie and got myself dressed. I left before she woke up, and strutted back to our inn. I had a hangover, but last night’s exertions had, as my blonde companion might have said, done the trick.

The silence made it clear it was near the end of the festival. It wasn’t all that early, yet almost no one but a few servants was up and about. Exhaustion was beginning to take its toll, and even the most energetic were sleeping late to prepare for the coming night. In another day or so, the party would go on all day and night as schedules got muddled and time began to run out. The noise would get pretty bad too, until a little drinking was necessary just to ease you into sleep. But today was quiet, and I met no one interesting on the way home.

I listened at our door when I got back, then decided not to worry about waking Bram. After all, the sun had been up almost two hours now, and time was a’wasting. I turned the key in the lock, and found the door latched on the inside. That didn’t worry me, and I used my key before Bram had to get up and get the door for me. Then I walked in and stopped dead in my tracks.

Bram’s bed had someone in it, and she didn’t look much like Bram. Bram stood in front of me, looking as if he’d just been turning away from the door. We three stood frozen and silent for a second or so until I realized what’d happened and burst out laughing. That broke the standoff, and Bram began turning red right to the base of his neck. He brushed past me in a hurry to shut the door, then placed himself directly between me and the girl. Not as if he was afraid I’d take her or anything; more like he was afraid I’d see something I shouldn’t.

I looked around instead, seeing my bed disarranged but no sign of the wench’s clothes. I stopped laughing, but kept my smug grin and added a knowing wink to Bram. Despite my worries, my brother clearly knew how to take care of himself, even if he’d been too bashful to talk about it—though I admit, I was looking forward to learning where he’d found a naked woman and defended her all the way back to the room with a good drunk on. My respect for him rose another notch or two.

“This is not what you think it is,” he said, and past him I could see his lady friend glaring as if daring me to reach the obvious conclusion. “She was placed here as a joke by some friend and...”

I interrupted, winking again. “Whatever you say, bro’, but if that’s your story then I’d sure like to get on that friend’s good side. Do you think her friend could arrange entertainment for me tonight?” I nudged him in the ribs, but he wasn’t ready to laugh just yet.

“Look, Gareth, think what you want, but we have to get her back to the palace by early afternoon. We will need clothing, and any respectable woman should do for a chaperone. This is very important.”

He looked so sincere, now his blush was fading, that he wasn’t stringing me a lie about the palace. My respect increased—I don’t think I could’ve smuggled a naked wench out of the palace, drunk or not. Not that I’d ever thought of doing so, mind you. Something wasn’t quite right about my reasoning, and besides, I’d had enough fun at Bram’s expense for the moment. I chose to leave the two of them alone a little longer.

“Say no more, children. Uncle Gareth will see to everything for you.” Another broad wink for Bram. “And clothes will accompany our sturdy chaperone.” I left then, hearing Bram’s voice behind me as the door swung shut:

“Please accept my apologies, Alison. Gareth...”

***

By the time I’d talked a bleary clothing merchant out of bed, convinced him by liberal applications of coin that it was safe to rent out his wife for an hour or two, and made my way back to the inn with the woman and the clothes, the sun was well up in the sky and people were beginning to stir. I was feeling fine, but some of them, including the shopkeeper who’d provided a set of clothes and other assorted womanly stuff, looked like they’d spent the night conversing with the royal torturer. All the way back, I made sure to greet them loudly and cheerfully, enjoying their winces. The merchant’s wife watched me warily, and when we arrived at the inn, refused to accompany me upstairs. She would’ve been safe, of course, but it wasn’t worth arguing about.

I left the chaperone downstairs and went to rejoin Bram, bundled clothes and other stuff tucked under my arm. He was waiting outside the room, still looking as nervous as the groom at a crossbow wedding. I beamed at him and he scowled back, snatching my burdens from me and disappearing inside the room. There was a low murmur of conversation, but I didn’t catch any of it. Then Bram came out, shooting me a look that dared me to comment. I resisted the impulse, rolling my eyes towards the ceiling instead, whistling innocently.

Hah!

We waited in silence, and when she came out, I’ll admit that she looked a lot better with her hair brushed and pinned—I wouldn't have thought of any of that, but the chaperone clearly knew more of such things than I did—but she was still small for my tastes and not so well padded as my blonde. Different strokes for different folks, as they say—I’m not fool enough to tell my friend what I think of his taste in women. Besides, he was my friend, so it wouldn’t be wise to criticize his taste in companions.

After awkward introductions, we took a short walk around town, made a few small purchases, and eventually delivered Alison to the palace. We stopped to ask for John, found he’d left instructions for the guards to send us to him if we came calling, then tromped upstairs to his office to thank him for our guide. John’s eyebrows rose a good inch before he mastered himself, but he was skilled enough to play along despite the smirks of a woman cleaning his room. The chaperone looked stunned at her good fortune in getting a look inside the palace, and left after Alison hustled off without a backwards look, nose in the air and all proper as you please.

As we turned to go, John leaned across and whispered in my ear that we should return that night to talk. I told Bram on our way downstairs, and he nodded, distracted.

“Something wrong, bro’?”

“I am not sure, Gareth. But I would like some time to myself to think. I shall meet you tonight at John’s room.” And with that, he started off alone into the thickening crowds.

“Hey... Bram!”

“Gareth?”

“Don’t forget... you owe me one, not to mention the cost of the clothes and the chaperone.”

He smiled, then turned and walked away.

***

I wasn’t sure what John wanted to talk about, but since he’d sounded serious, I didn’t do much drinking that day. Still, my clothes were stained and my knuckles ached by the time I started back from the Cloven Helm. Night had fallen, and there was no sign of Bram at the inn, so I changed into cleaner clothes I’d bought on the way back and set out for the palace. The guards looked at me, dubious, but they’d been told to expect me and they let me through. A page, accompanied by a guard, guided me to John, though I probably could’ve found him myself. Bram was already there, sipping brandy, off in his own world, while John read through a sheaf of papers, pausing every now and then to jot down a note with a plume and ink.

I closed the door behind me, and John set aside his reading material. “Paperwork is the price of privilege,” he apologized. “I sometimes wonder why I don’t toss it all and rejoin you, Gareth.” He smiled. “That’s not why I asked you here, though.” His voice lost its easy tone and turned businesslike. “My sources inform me that Kelfan has just received notice from Amelior that they will be expected to pay tribute henceforth. For ‘Amelior’s services in guarding the western lands’, though it wasn’t specified against what. Kelfan has, of course, refused, though it's uncertain who remains with the authority to make such a decision.” He paused to let that sink in, leaving us wondering how the news had gotten here so fast. Birds, maybe; there were a few townfolk who had relearned the art of communicating in that manner. Seeing that we’d both understood him, he continued.

“I regret having to interrupt your fun so soon, but I’m afraid we’re going to have to get serious a lot faster than we’d expected. Can I count on you to join me? Gareth?” Smart of him to ask me first, leaving Bram with less room to say no. John knew my answer, but I said it aloud anyway.

“You really need to ask? I live for this.” I felt a little guilty about answering so fast, knowing what it would mean to Bram, but it was for the best. John turned to my brother, who took a long sip from his glass and looked up at us, sadness in his eyes.

“As well you know, Gareth, I have tried my best to avoid this, but events have left me no choice. I will stand with you.” I sighed with relief, ’cause until then I hadn’t been sure.

John appraised Bram for a time, sensing his uncertainty, then shrugged, pretending he’d noticed nothing. “Grand!” he exclaimed. “Now this calls for a real celebration.” He reached behind his desk and seized a large bottle filled with clear amber liquid. He refilled Bram’s empty glass, and splashed liberal doses into our glasses. His face was flushed and excited as he raised his glass high.

“Gentlemen,” he cried, “let us drink a toast to war, and to our victory in the upcoming one!” We all drank, though Bram hesitated just long enough before sipping at his drink to make a point. I understood how he felt, but I was too excited to give his mood as much thought as it deserved.

We spent the rest of the evening in discussion, the end result being Bram and I appointed to the rank of field commander in the armies of Ankur, a temporary appointment pending proof of our capabilities—'a formality', John assured us, and we’d meet our fellow commanders soon enough. Bram would work with cavalry, and I was to be posted with the infantry. Not bad for an old footslogger! I was proud John was willing to trust me with so many men, and just a little bit nervous before the whiskey took hold. Bram wasn't bothered, though he was drinking more than was normal for him. I didn’t let on I’d noticed, content to keep quiet as long as he did. We agreed that Kelfan and Arden would be lost causes, too far away to reach in time, and indefensible by virtue of their locations in any event.

Our best move would be to meet Amelior in the passes west of Belfalas so we could deprive them of a major source of supply if they chose to advance that far before winter. None of us liked the idea ’cause it meant marching in less than two months if we hoped to reach Belfalas in time. We also knew how indefensible the farming town would be against the sort of large-scale attack Amelior would be likely to mount, but as far as we could tell, it would be necessary. Yet another problem was the coming winter, which would hit the mountain passes not long after we marched. It began to look like we’d spend what remained of the summer drilling at Ankur before leaving for Belfalas.

Bram excused himself well before the change of the watch, leaving John and me to finish off the bottle ourselves and start on the brandy. Deceptive stuff, this fancy liquor—by the time the second bottle was mostly dead, neither of us was in any condition to do any walking. But if nothing else, life’s taught me to be practical. John had already passed out in his armchair, snoring, so I took the floor and hoped that Bram wouldn’t be too lonely that night.

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Chapter 4: Bram

I left the room and drew the door shut behind me. The brandy I had consumed burned warm in my veins, but it could not banish the chill along my spine. I had sworn an oath with Gareth to be a shield at his back just as he had sworn to shield me, but that had been another Bram in another place, far from any prospect of war. Now, although the oath allowed for no situational ethics, I remained uncertain. I had conceded the essential truth of my upbringing, yet at the same time I had sworn to abandon the casual killing that had been my way for most of my life. For the most part, I had succeeded, yet I had also failed twice in recent weeks. That was something I needed to come to grips with, and I had spent hours yesterday, walking and attempting to reach a decision.

It was strange how my views had changed. In older days, killing had been just a job; given the consequences of letting a Goblin live to return and tear once more at our people, mercy was not an option, and I slept the sleep of the contented after each battle, even though I mourned lost companions. Later, though I could understand the need to support my country against its human enemies, it was never a satisfying task. When I fled Kardmin, my mind in turmoil, bloodoath broken, there was something broken deep in me, something that gnawed at me like a broken rib and that would not be assuaged. It hurt, and it frightened me, and I could not even guess what was happening. I needed guidance, and the only man who could have given me that guidance was half a world away, if a poisoned Goblin arrow had not taken him in the intervening years. I felt another pang at that thought, and was helpless to do aught but wonder what would ease that feeling.

I had taken a few steps away from the door, still close enough to hear Gareth’s loud laughter and John’s quieter voice, when something caught my eye and I stiffened. A few feet farther down the corridor, a body lay slumped in the shadows that had gathered where a lamp had burned out and not yet been replaced. I drew my sword and advanced cautiously, half-expecting a poised assassin to leap from concealment at any moment.

Then the alcohol ceased clouding my thoughts and I sheathed my weapon. Head pillowed on her arms, dark hair spilling across the stone floor, Alison lay there asleep, calm and breathing easily. But out here in the hall? I put a hand over her mouth to catch any startled waking noises, and her eyes flew open, full of fear. She began to struggle, but I caught her with my other hand until she recognized me and her struggles ceased. I released her then, helping her to her feet as she endeavored to brush the hair from her eyes and set it in order.

“Another practical joke from your friends, Milady?” She blushed prettily, wishful thinking and intoxication telling me why she had come. With mixed emotions, I awaited her words.

“Bram! No, not a joke. This morning, not long after you left, I overheard the Lord High Commander notifying the guards that you and your coarse friend would be returning tonight. I wanted to see you again,” her blush deepened, “...to thank you for what you’d done for me. I decided to wait here until you finished talking to him, but I guess I must have fallen asleep.” An embarrassed smile.

I said nothing. With the shadows from the lamplight caressing her, she was even more beautiful than I had remembered from the day before. My hands were still on her arms, and she did not resist when I drew her nearer. I bent my head down to hers and softly kissed her lips. She closed her eyes and pulled me closer, kissing me hard enough that my head swam. Then, realizing all at once where we were, I drew back and looked into her eyes. What I saw there made a warmth grow in me.

“Why me?” I whispered. “I scarcely know you, and I have no illusions about my appearance.” She came into my arms again, and I did not resist her as she rested her head on my shoulder.

“Because you have an open, honest face. You’re polite, gallant, chivalrous—everything the men here pretend to be but are not. You care about people, even that Gareth ruffian, and you’re not afraid to show it.” She hugged me tight. “And because I’m lonely, too, and need a champion to defend my interests in the palace. Besides, with a princess to court, who pays attention to the maid other than to gain access to the mistress?” And she bent her face to mine again, and while our lips met I lost track of time.

I came back to myself at the sound of measured footsteps approaching from down the hall. I gently disengaged myself from her and taking her arm, led her down the hall and into a shadowed alcove I had noticed earlier. The guard passed by, glanced knowingly at us, and continued on his way without a challenge. Sloppy of him, and that would have to change soon. I gazed back down at Alison, losing myself in the depth of her eyes.

“This is no place for a tryst, Milady. Know you of anywhere more private?” She kissed me lightly, her soft hands running teasingly across the back of my neck, then she led me to her chamber.

***

I lay with my eyes closed, savoring the night's memories and the sensations of peace lying heavy on me now. Alison’s warm body was a comfortable weight in my arms, fragrant and oh! so soft. She wore none of the perfumes so many women affected, so I could smell her own musky, delicate fragrance even above the room’s damp mustiness. The faint aroma of our mingled sweat still clung about us as well. I curled my arms protectively about her and she murmured something incomprehensible deep in her throat, snuggling closer.

We relaxed there together until the normal morning noises of waking servants began to intrude. Alison woke and turned in my arms to gaze on me. We kissed, and I gloried in the welcome in her eyes. We made love once more, slowly and tenderly, knowing we would both soon have to leave, off to our duties. Then we kissed one last time before moving apart to dress and return to our separate realities.

I went to the door when I had finished, and listened to be sure the hall would be empty when I left. Slim arms encircled me from behind, hugging me tight.

“What are you doing, lover?”

“Making sure no one is out there. I have no desire to embarrass you before your neighbors.”

“It’s probably far too late for that. Neither of us was very quiet last night, and the walls here do a poor job of stopping sounds.” I blushed, feeling embarrassment mingle with chagrin that I had so dishonored her. She must have felt the way I held myself, and chided me.

“Don’t be worried, Bram. This wouldn't be the first time someone visited the servants’ quarters for a night’s dalliance. And as you know now, you were not the first to share my bed. Besides,” she added, turning me to face her, “what makes you think I’d be ashamed?” We embraced one more time, neither of us wanting to let go. Then I left, this time boldness personified, ignoring the knowing glances of the few people I met.

As I left the palace I came across Gareth walking slowly and cautiously towards the inn, in the last stages of death by hangover. I smiled, the sun having not yet erased the last traces of Alison’s warmth on my skin. Repressing a malicious grin, I crept up behind my comrade and clapped him on the shoulder. He flinched, startled and wincing at the pain his movement cost him. To have left Gareth in such a condition, it must have been a drinking bout for the bards to sing of! But for today, all was right in my world and I intended to let him know it.

“Good day, brother Gareth!” I exclaimed, loud enough to turn heads. “What a fine day to be up and about! I trust you spent your night peacefully enough?” I could feel my silly grin, and elation shone from every pore.

“Not so bloody loud, Bram, you’ll wake me and the rest of the unburied dead. Someone’s been using my head for mace practice.” He forced a smile. “I can see I won’t have to ask you about your night. Was it that Alison wench I caught you with yesterday?”

For a moment, I thought of denying it, but that felt so wrong I could not bring myself to do so. Instead, I winked at him and clapped him on the back again. Together, we moved off to retrieve our gear from the inn and bring it back to the rooms John had promised us in the palace. The streets had begun to fill with people, although the majority were too weary or hung over to make much noise. Fortunately for Gareth! We had no score to settle at the inn, as John had taken care of that with his letter, so Gareth added a few ‘medicinal’ drinks to the tab before we returned to the palace. John met us there and, after showing us to our rooms and letting us deposit our scant gear, led us to the stables.

In the stables, three horses were already saddled and waiting. John’s horse and Gareth’s were nothing special, but mine was a fine beast indeed, large enough to carry an armored man, yet with the look of uncommon endurance. I approached him carefully, then gave him time to catch my scent, his groom holding him still. When I touched his fine, soft nose, he snorted, but accepted my touch.

We mounted and rode abreast towards the northern end of town, near the walls, and I was delighted at how smoothly my new mount moved and how well he took to my hand on the reins and, within no time at all, to gentle pressures from my knees; he was a warhorse for sure, and one that would serve me well. There were few adults up and about to interfere with our ride, but shrieking street urchins darted in front of me, waiting until the last possible moment to get out of the way and requiring a firm hand on the reins to prevent the horse from biting or kicking. A weak smile replaced Gareth’s clenched teeth as his ‘medicine’ took effect, and he had begun to ride in a more relaxed manner by the time our path opened up into a broad square of flattened earth; I, on the other hand, was delighting in the feel of a horse that would soon become as much an extension of my body as were my own legs.

The square lay at the base of the walls, beneath which stood a group of nearly two hundred men. Their officer called them to rigid attention when he saw us, and they stood stock still as we trotted across the square to join them. We dismounted and Gareth and John left their horses in the officer's care; I had to confirm this first for my mount, and even then, he remained restive under that stranger’s hands.

John stepped before the men and looked them over with pride. “Men, allow me to introduce you to two of our new field commanders. This man,” he placed a friendly hand on my arm, “is Bram, an experienced cavalryman and as of today, a welcome addition to our command staff. The man beside him is Gareth, an old friend of mine from Kelfan. I expect you to obey him as you would obey me, since he’s now your leader and responsible only to me.” Discipline wavered as the men openly appraised Gareth. I watched with approval.

Good-natured laughter broke out as John continued. “Treat him like you would treat me, but go easy on the bruises... he’s an old man too.” He turned back to us. “These are the men you’ll be responsible for, Gareth. I’ll introduce Bram to his men once the festival is over and I can free them up from crowd control and border patrol. Best of luck, and I’ll expect you both for dinner tonight.” We shook hands, saluted, then watched him ride off at a sedate pace. There came an expectant hush as the assembled men continued their evaluation.

Gareth had anticipated this moment. He stepped forward, hands on hips, eyes roving over the ranks of men, each of whom met his gaze with frank curiosity. There was dead silence as he moved from man to man, inspecting equipment without comment save for an occasional satisfied snort. When he returned to my side, he winked. Hands on hips again, Gareth wet his lips and spoke.

“None of you know anything about me except for what the Lord High Commander just told you.” A melodramatic pause. “I’ve been an infantryman long enough to know that I wouldn’t pay much attention to an unknown leader, even if he was as pretty as me.” A ripple of laughter came from the men. “It’s not fair to ask you to follow a leader you know nothing about.” Another pause. “Looks like it’s time to learn. I’ll meet the best man among you, here and now, with the weapon of his choice. You choose him, he chooses the weapon. If he beats me, he gets my pay for a week and a spot promotion. The rest of you get leave during the festival, in shifts. If I win, we’ll spend the next few days doing close-order drill. Fair enough?”

Gareth wore a cocky smile that broadened as the men cheered. Discipline lapsed hesitantly at first, then collapsed as it became obvious Gareth was not going to stop them. The men coalesced into small groups to discuss the matter. I took him aside, whispering to ensure we would not be overhead. "Do you think this is wise?"

Gareth smiled back at me. "Not with veterans, perhaps, but these are amateurs. I'll be pleasantly surprised if they pick someone who knows which end of the sword to hold."

Arguments broke out here and there, but soon, a few groups began chanting a name. Within a few moments, every throat but one was calling out the same name: ‘Anders’. Anders, a hulking man well over six and a half feet tall stepped forward from the ranks, wincing in acute discomfort. Tall as he was, he was only slightly broader in the shoulder than Gareth, but he outweighed my companion and had a longer reach. And despite his obvious embarrassment at being chosen, he carried himself with a confidence that worried me.

As the shouting died down, he stepped forward and saluted briskly. “Sir!

Gareth returned the salute better than I had expected, evidence he was taking his new responsibility more seriously than his behavior until now had led me to expect. “Are you willing to go through with this, son, or are the men forcing you?” Anders indicated his acceptance with a slow nod. “Good man. All right, then, choose your weapon. Swords? Fists? What’s it to be?”

“If it’s all the same to you, Sir, I’d prefer staves.” A murmur of eager anticipation ran through the troops.

“Done!” shouted Gareth, peeling off his shirt and flexing his muscles under the bright sun. “You there! Fetch the weapons. You, Sergeant, form the men into a ring.” Gareth began to limber up, smooth and sure, while Anders followed suit a few feet away. While the equipment was being brought from the small barracks by the square's edge, the two men were watching each other from the corners of their eyes, sizing each other up. When the weapons and padded armor arrived, the two combatants chose between them and entered the circle of men. Courteously, they parted to let me through to watch from the front ranks, and I looked on with apprehension as Gareth stepped to within ten paces of Anders and bowed.

Anders bowed in response, keeping both eyes on Gareth, unsure just how far he could trust his new leader. Knowing Gareth, I could have warned him such caution was wise. The two moved together with none of the clumsiness you would have expected from men of their size. Gareth spun his staff, showing off, then aimed a powerful blow at Anders, trying for a swift finish were the bigger man larger in size than in skill. The bigger man parried the blow without flinching, the sharp crack of wood on wood echoing in the still air, and Gareth was forced to step back to evade a vicious counterstroke. The two brawny men then settled down to a wary circling motion, testing each other’s guard now and then with a brief staccato of crisp blows. Anders had a few inches of reach on Gareth, but Gareth had an edge in speed. Once this mutual appraisal had been completed to their satisfaction, the true contest began.

They came together suddenly, and the clacking of staff on staff filled the square, mingling with the shouts of the onlookers. Startled crows arose from their perches beneath the walls, then circled, croaking their displeasure. In the early morning heat, both men were soon pouring sweat that ran from gaps in the thick padding. By now, the fight had lasted almost five minutes, with neither man having been touched more than once or twice, and no injuries that would leave more than a bruise. Then Gareth tried a trick I had never seen before. The staff is a striking weapon, not a thrusting weapon, even though it may be used as such for spear drill. The problem is twofold: a staff is not an edged weapon, thus it is easy to grab, but more important, a thrust exposes the wielder’s hands to a disabling blow from an opponent. Consequently, Anders was taken very much by surprise when Gareth changed his grip and thrust low to his opponent's midsection.

Though surprised, Anders corrected his stance and blocked low. But as his parry carried the thrust low and to the side, and he began a counterstrike at Gareth’s exposed hands, Gareth had already shifted his grip and pivoted his staff end over end, blocking Anders’ attack and simultaneously using the other man’s staff for leverage. Overcommitted, Anders had no time to do anything more than raise the end of his staff to protect his head. Gareth’s blow struck home, only partially deflected into the bigger man's shoulder, and sent the big man reeling backwards, staff dropping from numbed hands. Gareth stepped back and assumed a guard stance, but Anders lay unmoving upon the ground. I let my own breath out in a sigh of relief, loud amidst the respectful silence of the spectators.

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Chapter 5: Gareth

In the sudden silence after Anders hit the ground, I stepped back and stood ready, but the poor lad lay unmoving on the ground. Dropping my staff, I kicked his aside before kneeling beside him to check his pulse. I was glad to see he was only unconscious. I beckoned, and four men ran over to carry him away to the barracks; I ordered a fifth man to fetch the surgeon, and once I was sure he was off on his way, I stood and faced the others. “Anyone else feeling lucky?” There were no takers, of course, until Bram spoke up.

“A staff is a nice training tool, but how about a real weapon?”

I turned to see him standing there, eyes laughing, patting his sword hilt. I laughed aloud, echoed by a roar of approval from the soldiers around us. Not surprising: another fight meant another delay before they’d have to do any of the work I’d threatened them with. But the idea sounded fun, and I’d always meant to try my brother’s skill... Just to be sure where we stood.

“Why not?” I bellowed. “Fetch the practice swords and smaller padding.” Moments later, we stood facing each other and I watched as Bram buckled on his own armor. At just about the same time, we each tested the balance and edge on our blunted swords; he grinned when he noticed. I started to raise my blade, then watched as Bram began going through a series of fencing stretches. He looked rusty, but then again, I was no expert on fencing; it’s an eastern style of fighting that I’ve learned but never mastered, and I hadn’t known they used it in the west. But Bram’d proven his skills at deception when he pulled that scam with the jousting pole, so I couldn’t be sure whether he knew what he was doing or was just playing with me. The practice sword was light enough to fence with briefly, but far too heavy for extended fine swordplay, particularly for someone as small as Bram. I watched as he worked out his kinks, motions growing increasingly smooth.

No, he wasn’t faking, and he wouldn’t be a pushover. He saw I was ready, finished his loosening up, and raised his blade in a fancy duelist’s salute as he approached me.

Show-off!

I swirled my own blade at him to mock his own flourish, then thrust at his upper chest, hoping but not expecting to take him off guard. He leaned aside, letting my blade slide off his padding and bringing his hilt slashing down in the same motion. I was still mostly on my balance, but I wasn’t ready for his speed. I found my sword arm drawn down and to the side, and before I could recover and untangle our sword hilts, he’d beaten me to it, his point was at my throat, and I could feel myself turning red enough with embarrassment I was glad the headgear hid most of my face. Bram smiled a tight little smile, much too pleased with himself, then withdrew, stepping gracefully back on guard. His eyes were focused on me now; nothing else existed in his world. As I stepped forward again, the men roared their appreciation.

This time I was a lot more careful, circling clockwise to expose the back of his sword arm. We engaged blades, tip to tip, as I tested his sword arm and found it solid as I’d expected. No obvious weakness there. He tested me in turn, always subtle, always forcing me to defend. Then, believing the moment was right, I tried a different test and swung a solid overhand blow at him as he recovered from a parry. It was a good blow, and hard enough to jolt my shoulder, but he took it well, pivoting backwards around his front leg and angling his sword down and to his left to spread the force over the blade's length. As he did, I added all my strength to my own blade’s rebound, whipping the heavy sword up and around to strike at his unprotected back. He parried strongly again, this time spinning clockwise, stepping inside on me and bringing his blade slashing down across his front to meet my blade square at waist level. This time I hit him harder, and drove his blade back against the thick padding, making him yield to my greater strength. Again, I added my strength to the rebound, whipping the sword overhead once more to cut at his unprotected back with my next stroke. A slower man would never have made it, but he swung around again, pivoting away on his right foot, stepping into me and catching my sword hilt with his own before I could complete my stroke.

I glared and struck at him with my free hand, but he threw himself backwards and away, disengaging, his eyes never wavering, his blade still pressing mine so I couldn't swing freely. Then he moved again before I could free my blade, and he was waiting for me again, on guard and at sword’s length. I tried another feint to open his guard, failed, tried again, and failed again. He was faster than me, and each time our swords met, I tried and failed to hammer his weapon out of his grip. It wasn’t working; maybe he was a fencer, but someone had taught him how to handle a bigger man’s strength, and our swords never met squarely enough for me to hurt him. It was starting to become obvious I wasn’t going to out-finesse him, so I tried instead to force him back and tire him.

For the next few moments, I hammered at him as fast as my muscles could bear, trying to beat aside his guard and open him up for a thrust. Bram couldn’t match me strength for strength, and I caught him a few glancing blows, but he gave ground magnificently, never letting the full force of a blow land on him or his blade. The men alternated between yells of appreciation and breathless silence during the most heated exchanges.

At last, Bram stumbled, sword swinging wider than was safe on a parry and leaving me an opening. There comes a point with a sword when the play is too fast for thought, and your reflexes take over. So I lunged at him, one of the few things I’d learned to do well from my fencing teacher before I’d run out of money and interest. He recovered as if he’d been expecting my move, and executed a perfect stop-thrust, almost skewering me. I was off balance, still hung over from last night, and tired after my bout with Anders, so there was no way I could maintain the pace I’d set. It was my turn to defend now, and the cold grin that began to grow between panting breaths told me he knew it. We circled again, gasping, ’cause I knew that as soon as I tried to stop giving ground he’d end the fight then and there. He came close several times when I did try to regain the initiative.

In the end, figuring I wasn’t going to beat him in an honest fight, I closed with him and tried to grapple. Instead, I ended up on my side in the dust as he kicked my balance foot out from under me. Then he drew his sword across my heaving chest and withdrew once more. With a flourish, he sheathed his sword and extended an arm to help me up. I smiled, seemingly the good loser, dropped my sword, and grasped his arm with my left hand. As I began to rise, I shifted my weight and pulled him down to meet my rising right hook. His eyes widened in surprise, then my fist connected with his jaw with a loud and satisfying crack. He fell limp across me, and I let him slide off me sideways into the dust. I rose, leaving him to lie there in peace, and turned to the men.

“Lesson two for today—your opponent isn’t finished until you’ve slid your steel through his vitals, so don’t play with a man who still has a weapon. Even if he’s disarmed, make sure he’s done for. Now somebody go and see what’s keeping the surgeon.”

Long before the surgeon had arrived, Bram was stirring again, rubbing his jaw and wincing. I was relieved, now that the battle lust had left me. I hadn’t wanted to hurt him, but I wanted even less to lose face before my men. I offered him a hand up, but he just raised an eyebrow and got up by himself. Seeing him on his feet again, I sent the doctor back to deal with Anders, who was still unconscious, though breathing well. Bram was still working his jaw as if he feared it was broken, so I tried a little humor.

“Sleep well, Bram?”

He laughed first, wincing as he moved his jaw too far, and the troops echoed our laughter once the tension had broken. We shook hands, wary for just that first instant and laughing like fools when we realized why, then for the rest of the day we drilled the men together. Before we left to meet John again, I called in my sergeants and arranged for them to set up watch and leave schedules. After all the years I’d spent being drilled by others, I knew well enough how to make them sweat, but I also knew they’d need more than rest afterwards. Besides, I hadn’t been around long enough to want to deal with any unexpected absences just because I insisted on enforcing the strict terms of our bet.

I made sure that Anders was back on his feet again, congratulated him on a good fight, then rode off with Bram to our quarters in the palace.

***

Bram and I rode for a while in silence, letting the swaying of the horses work on our aches and pains. Neither of us had escaped untouched by the day’s work, and we’d grown soft in our travels. As the palace neared, rising higher above the surrounding buildings with each jolt of the horse’s hooves, I broke the silence.

“Well, bro’, what do you think of them?”

He didn’t answer immediately, and he sounded thoughtful when he did. “They are good enough at what they do, and probably as good as most of Amelior’s troops. But the men of Amelior have been blooded for year upon year, which is an entirely different thing than being good at obeying orders and using padded armor and dulled swords.”

“Come on, Bram, don’t keep feeding me that crap. Your people aren’t supermen, and they’ll be relying heavily on levees and press-ganged civilians, just like our armies do. A few of those guys we trained this afternoon are professionals, and those who aren’t will be soon enough. We’ll see to that. Now what do you reallythink?”

“I think that, at best, the next few months will be unpleasant and costly for all of us, but for them in particular. You know it, and I know it, but they lack the privilege of our knowledge.”

We completed our ride in silence.

***

Bram’s mood lightened as we took a salute from the town watch. The party was moving towards full swing again, getting louder and louder. Along the way back, a great many good-natured people had yelled up at us to join them, scattering in laughter as we faked trying to ride them down. I guess even a morose Bram wasn’t immune to the mood. But as we entered the palace through the stables and passed on to John’s quarters, I knew right off that something was afoot. A second set of guards, in richer and more elaborate uniforms, had joined John’s men, and their alertness warned of an important visitor. Bram wore his worried look again, and my own mood darkened as we saw the purposeful activity outside John's office.

We brushed past the guards, who hesitated a moment before recognizing us and letting us through. John was talking with an older, richly dressed man and a group of men who had the look of experienced soldiers. Beside me, Bram fell to his knees, pulling me to kneel beside him. He didn’t have to pull too hard, ’cause I’d seen the crown too.

“Your Majesty,” Bram murmured.

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Chapter 6: Bram

The king accepted our obeisance and gestured for us to be seated. John shot us a warning look, then cleared his throat and began the introductions. “Sire, permit me to introduce two of your newest field commanders, my own right-hand men. Bram is a former knight of Amelior, come to warn us of his countrymen’s ambitions.” The king’s eyes narrowed and met mine; he took my measure for several long moments, eyes penetrating, then switched his attention to Gareth. The eyes of our fellow commanders lingered, wary but not yet hostile. Would they know me for an oathbreaker?

John went on, unperturbed. “And this is Gareth, an old friend and one of the finest infantry leaders I’ve met.”

Gareth looked pleased, in dramatic contrast to the king. Coldly, he measured Gareth’s worth, then returned his gaze, our eyes locking. “You presume much, Commander-in-Chief, to bring an Ameliorite into Our city considering what has happened.” The voice was strong and assumed obedience and his own authority.

John’s reply was equally confident. “Sire, Gareth has vouched for Bram and I would stake my life on Gareth’s judgment. I have done so more than once already.” He paused, awaiting confirmation from the king.

The king appraised Gareth once again, slowly, then turned his gaze to both of us. Without taking his eyes off of us, he responded to John. “Then, Commander, until they have both been sworn, you have done so once again. Remember that what has turned traitor once may prove fickle in the second testing.” He left in silence, picking up his escort of guards as he passed through the doorway and moved into the hallway. We exchanged glances as the door swung shut behind him, John appraising me for a moment before he relaxed and looked away. The message was clear. We rose, weary, as he went over to the liquor cabinet. I waited for his questions, awkward ones I would have to answer with care, but Gareth spoke first.

“Spill the beans, John. What’s got his royalness in such an uproar?” John drank deep from his own glass before refilling it and pouring our drinks. The other men watched Gareth with guarded amusement.

“Kelfan has just fallen. The news arrived a short time ago from Arden, whose rulers are predictably unhappy. They’ve received their own demands from Amelior, and pass on word that Kelfan fell from within. The only way it could have gone so quickly. The Baron’s death at the hands of a traitor,” John smiled ironically at Gareth, drawing pointed stares from one man who had caught the look, “is believed to have been crucial in this matter, and our own King is understandably cautious. Gentlemen, we’ve underestimated the speed with which Amelior intends to move as well as the depth of their preparation and foresight.”

Gareth whooped and slapped my shoulder, jolting me to forestall my response, which would have been a sour one. John looked half pleased despite the lines of worry that had been evident in his face. I looked at both men sourly and avoiding the faces of the others, tasting the gall of a reality I had hoped to avoid until at least spring. Recovering, I asked the best question I could find that would draw attention from me. “Volonor?”

A short, competent-looking man replied. “Your geography’s faulty, Bram. We can’t hope to hear from them for at least a day, more probably two or three.” He reached across the table to take my hand in a strong swordsman’s grip. “Andrew.”

He went on, reading my question. “I know Arden is farther away than that, but we have no spies in Volonor with any special means of notifying us.” He grinned warmly, then continued. “But you’re not alone in misjudging distances. Arden was meek in her requests for a mutual assistance treaty. Polite, but quite naive. They’re naught but three days march from Kelfan, whereas we could not realistically expect to reach them in less than a week, not to mention the time required to assemble supplies. We could do it, but not without outrunning our supply train and arriving so weakened we’d be forced to surrender to Amelior upon our arrival. I’m sure that was taken into account in someone’s plans. Now Belfalas wants our help too...”

Gareth spoke up. “Then we’ll meet them at Belfalas—Amelior, I mean—and hold them off for the winter. We’ll stop them at the western passes, rush the harvest, and then let them break their strength against our walls. When winter comes, they’ll have to withdraw. Not even an Ameliorite,” he looked at me, grinning, “would try to set a winter siege with such an overextended supply line.” Andrew beamed, and a few others allowed themselves grins, their tension easing. “The passes will be closed by snow and they won’t dare to move through the Southwood. Not if the horror stories I hear are even half true. Then our reinforcements arrive in spring, and...”

I spoke up, stopping his rush of words. “...and do their best to ransom us back from the enemy. Or ransom you back, that is to say. My countrymen are rather hard on traitors and rather fond of setting extravagant examples for the edification of others. Are you forgetting that the walls of Belfalas are intended to keep the sheep in, not an enemy out?” I paused, weighing my next words. “Need I remind you of what happened at Kardmin? And Kardmin was no farming town. They were tough, disciplined, well-prepared soldiers.”

All eyes had turned upon me, having noted the unintended change in my voice when I mentioned the siege, and even Andrew’s face had lost its welcome. Now they knew I had been there, and I could almost feel the speculation running through their heads. Gareth met my eyes, sympathy showing but wise enough to say nothing. There was a moment of silence, then John rose, looking grave.

“Bram, I hope you’ll forgive me for this, but the king was right. For Gareth, a simple oath will suffice to bind him to us, and he has already given me his word. I shall have the decency not to ask what oaths you swore with your countrymen, but the matter of their breaking will hang over you until we dispel it. For you to have the confidence of this company, more is required.”

I nodded slowly. “Yes.” Trepidation grew in me, but I knew I had no choice.

John took an ornamental dagger from his desk, unsheathed it, and drew its tip across his hand. Blood oozed from the shallow cut. “ ‘A time of blood is upon us, and for the safety of all, we must use blood itself to bind us. By the oath of our fathers, who fled the destruction of the old world and had naught but the oath to bind us the one to the other, I command thee to my service.’ ”

I caught the dagger by the hilt as he tossed it to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a couple hands going to sword hilts. Without hesitating, the tightness in my chest making breathing difficult, I drew the blade across my own hand as I spoke what I hoped was close to whatever passed for a standard eastern reply. “ ‘For the safety of all, I offer my blood in your service, and accept thy command.’ ” I handed Gareth the dagger without looking back and moved to kneel at John’s feet.

John clasped my hand, and a painful heat spread down my arm. Painful, but less so than the heat that had seared me that night when I fled Kardmin and left blood running from a long-vanished, suddenly reopened wound. “ ‘By our joined blood are we now bound, I your commander, you my liege man. For the safety of all, let it be done.’ ” The heat rose high, and I bit my lip to keep from crying out. Then it was over, and John was helping me to my feet. As before, the blood on our palms had disappeared and no evidence remained save a small scar, almost unnoticeable had I not known where to look. I repressed a shudder, trying not to think of what I had just done.

The other men looked on half reverently, half in fear, knowing well that something magical had just happened but not knowing what. Apparently, the custom of bloodoath was no longer common in the East. Nonetheless, a certain tension eased in them. “There. Now that’s done.” John’s voice had taken on a semblance of his former humor, and he moved without a backwards glance towards the back of the room. “As it happens, you were both correct.” He swept his hand across a large table at the back; upon the table stood a map of the lands in question, covered with small wooden counters denoting the sizes and placements of known armies.

“Remember, winter comes early in the mountains, and only this pass here,” he pointed out the route that Gareth and I had traveled together, “is well enough known and easy enough of passage to let us risk an army. In less than two months, Ankur will be moving into autumn, but by then the higher passes will be snowed in. And Gareth is right about the Southwood. If the Elves are any more than a faery tale for children—and my scouts have seen unmistakable signs of something hostile and inhuman—then they’ll brook no intrusion into their woodlands. We all know what happened when our people tried that after the Exodus.”

He paused, thinking. “It would solve many of our problems if Amelior tried a passage, though. Amelior will have to leave troops to secure Kelfan, but they’ll move on Arden within two weeks. They’re not complete fools in Arden, so let’s give them a month or so before they must surrender. That leaves only three weeks or so that Belfalas must hold out before winter sends the western armies homewards.” He looked at us, musing.

Another commander nodded to us across the table, but didn’t offer his hand. “Damien. Looks like you two have joined us just in time for the fun. We don’t know anything yet of their army's size, but we should be able to hold them at the rivers for a week, and longer if they send nothing more than an advance force.”

I nodded. “That assumes we arrive in enough force to follow them upstream if they try to outflank us. Unfortunately, even if we do hold the fords for a week, that leaves at least two weeks more for them to prepare, and those decrepit town walls will not provide half so much time. It appears impossible to hold them at Belfalas. Strategically, we would do well to keep them out of Belfalas for as long as possible, even if only to deny them its agricultural resources, but my feeling is that we would be wiser to concede them that city and meet them here rather than having to execute a fighting withdrawal.”

Gareth frowned. “Blast it, Bram, you sure can put a damper on things.”

“Better that than false optimism, Gareth. He’s right,” Andrew responded. “We’d do better to hold them in the western pass until winter came, but that won’t protect us next year. If I were their leader, I’d send a small force to commit us to holding the pass, then send the main army south, around the mountains and through the Southwood's northern fringe. There’s an unknown risk from the Elves, of course, but we’d be through the forest before nightfall, and the Elves could do little to them in that short a time. If in fact they tried anything at all against a large, well armed, and vigilant force of humans.”

I cleared my throat. “We might still succeed if we could hold them at the pass west of Belfalas for more than a week. The pass is narrow, and we should be able to contain any small initial advance force with a few hundred good men. That would earn us time to treat with Volonor and to send a better-prepared force to Belfalas. If we move soon, we could be there waiting for Amelior, dug in and ready.” I looked to John, who was beaming his approval, relieved to see I was past my indecision and ready to commit myself. I rubbed at my wounded hand, which still ached and tingled despite the absence of a visible wound, but stopped as soon as I realized what I was doing.

A third man, who neglected to introduce himself, pointed at the map. “The problem with your strategy comes when you must leave the pass. It’s a long walk back to the river, and you’d be pursued by a much greater force the entire distance. Probably a mounted force, if what I’ve heard of Amelior is true. You’d need cavalry to fight a rearguard action, but what good would cavalry do you in the pass?”

I cast my mind back over our travels. “There is a point near the top of the pass where the cliffs open up wide enough to permit mounted combat. Of course, that plays to Amelior’s strength too, but at least they would have to charge uphill. In any event, though I concede that we would be risking our entire advance force if everything goes against us, we cannot afford to grant them the gift of Belfalas’ entire harvest. With that resource in hand, they can take us next year at their leisure.”

John smiled. “It seems you’ve made our decision for us, Bram. It’s a risk we can’t afford not to take. Gareth, how would you feel about leaving for Belfalas in two weeks?”

Gareth cast me a concerned look before replying, and I realized my dismay must be showing. “Not a problem. That is, if you can find me an aide who can help me organize everything by then. Unlike Bram, I’m no whiz at the paperwork and scrounging that’s needed. And what about cavalry support?”

In effect: ‘what about me?’

Andrew responded. “Bram would be the logical choice to support you. Like you, he’s been through the pass and knows the lay of the land. Moreover, no one else here knows Ameliorite tactics so well.” An amused smile tugged at his lips. “It might also be an appropriate time to prove his newfound loyalty to our king.”

John winced. “Perhaps it would be best if the name of our proposed cavalry commander at Belfalas were not spoken of too loudly. Bram will meet his men tomorrow. He’ll need to take time to drill them and get them used to his command, but the only thing holding back Gareth’s departure is the logistics. Gareth should leave as soon as feasible... within the next week at latest. Bram will escort Gareth’s supply train—I want you to travel as lightly as possible, Gareth, so you can make the best possible time. Borrow what you need from Belfalas until Bram arrives, and don’t let them forget who’s doing a favor for whom. In the meantime, the rest of us will be busy with longer-term preparations. Those of you who haven’t yet taken advantage of the festival should perhaps do so now; we won’t have much more time for pleasure before winter.”

I rose. “I have matters to take care of before I meet my command. Until tomorrow?” I tried to sound dutiful, but my thoughts were on how to break the news to Alison, something far more complex and intimidating than the simpler problems of military strategy. My new companions looked at me questioningly, Gareth concerned and John not yet sure how far to trust me despite our recent oath. Nonetheless, taking his cue from Gareth, he was willing to let me go for now. I stepped out the door, closing it again behind me and leaning wearily on the thick oak to collect my thoughts.

Gareth’s faint voice, answering a question from John, came through the door. “...probably his new wench—you know, the one from the palace...” There was a gust of laughter in response.

I moved away, getting lost once before I could retrace my steps to my lover’s door in the servants’ quarters. A few heads turned in my direction, but I paid them no heed and, preoccupied, perhaps by rumors of what had happened in the west, they were discreet enough to ignore my presence here. There was no light under the door, and no response came to my knock. She was probably waiting on her princess, so I entered and settled myself for a long wait. Alone with my thoughts, it occurred to me that the void deep within me that had been part-filled by my oath with Gareth had grown distant; if I concentrated, I could still feel its gnawing, but bearable now.

A knock sounded upon the door, and without thinking, I answered it. A young woman, trying to conceal an appreciative smile—and failing—entered, bearing a basin of warm water and a thick towel. I thanked her, and she left with an obvious sway of her hips, pulling the door shut behind her. As I bathed, I reflected on that change within me, and time passed. When Alison arrived, hours later, she opened the door slowly, wearied by her day. But her fatigue vanished, replaced by surprised pleasure, when she saw me. Before I knew it, she was in my arms, her lips on mine. Wonderful though that was, I was preoccupied by what I had to tell her, and she sensed it in the way I held her.

Deep brown eyes, shadowed in the warm lamplight, met my gaze, her concern washing over me; it was a long moment before relief at a trust not betrayed erased that concern. Without a word, she locked her door and drew me down to sit beside her on the bed. Alison had been no blushing virgin last night, so I knew her faith had been betrayed at least once before. Knowing this, I took her in my arms again, and kissed her. After a moment of hesitation, she responded.

***

Later, I lay on my back, arms folded on the pillow beneath my head, Alison lying warm against the length of my body. Try though I might, I could not recall the last time when I had felt so peaceful, even though my conscience warned me how brief the feeling would be. I shifted my weight, lifting my head and freeing my arms to draw her into a closer embrace, and she moved to lie atop me. Head raised on her crossed arms, sweat-scented hair cascading in a veil about our faces, she smiled beatifically.

“Something’s bothering you, lover. I don’t think I’m going to like what you have to say.”

If I had been less guilty, I might have missed the tension that underlay her forced good humor.

I kissed her tenderly, not with the recent passion I had spent. “There is no easy way to tell you this, milady. I must leave you soon.” Her body stiffened against me and I half-saw, half-felt her pain. I massaged the taut muscles of her back, not speaking until they began to relax. Then I related to her the gist of what had been discussed in John’s chambers. When I had done speaking, neither expecting nor demanding secrecy from someone who had lived in a palace for as long as she had, she lowered her head to my chest before responding, defiant.

“Under the circumstances, I’m inclined to trust you.” Her arms tightened about me. “But men always have a good excuse for leaving me. I don’t want another good excuse. You have a few days to arrange to stay with me if that’s what you want.” She waited for me to respond, but I lay silent, knowing how hollow any promise would sound. “I could perhaps arrange it for you. The princess won’t refuse me such a simple request, and her father dotes on her.”

My muscles tensed. I tried to turn that reaction into a hug, but she had noticed, and tried to rise. I pulled her back down, stopping her lips with a kiss. “You will do nothing of the sort,” I said, gentle as I could be. “The king has no trust for me yet, and if word of this reaches him, he will have me imprisoned as a spy. Moreover, my duty to my friend, and to John, who has risked much in accepting my service, does not permit me to stay.” I had refrained from mentioning the bloodoath to her, reserving that for my trump card if need be. I thought for a moment. “For that matter, could you still love me if I was unwilling to fight to protect you?” I was unsure what to expect, but she surprised me.

Love? You think rather highly of yourself, don’t you?” I stiffened again, and her tone softened. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you.” She kissed me softly. “I like you just fine so far, but two nights together does not a love make.” She paused. “I can respect your feelings of duty, but men think too much of such things. If it’s love you want, then you must choose between staying with me and running off to die in some fool’s war.”

“It is never that simple, as well you know. If I remain behind, the king could have my head hanging from the palace gates inside a week. He has already as much as accused me of being an Ameliorite spy. If I wish to remain here, with you—and I do—I must first prove myself to him in battle.”

“So you’d no doubt say that we couldn’t run away together, to Volonor or somewhere else where we’d be safe...” Her tone had turned provocative.

The notion was tempting, but I rejected it. “No. I could never betray Gareth in such a manner.”

She rose once again on her elbows. “Gareth? You place an unhealthy amount of importance on that man’s approval. Is there more here than meets the eye?”

I used my trump card. “Not in the way you were insinuating. Gareth and I once found ourselves in a situation where we were required to take the bloodoath together. Apart from the honor you mocked earlier, there is the issue of what might happen to an oathbreaker.”

There was silence as she absorbed that. Then she rose to sit beside me on the bed, and took my right hand in her own, turning the palm towards the dim light of the room’s one faint oil lamp. “I can’t see anything, any mark. But you have the sound of truth in your voice.”

“Did you doubt me?”

She hesitated, then nodded. “I've heard too many glib lies to accept a near stranger’s word at face value.” She lay down beside me once more.

“You should also know that staying or fleeing would only delay the inevitable. By now, Amelior almost certainly knows I am alive and will want me dead too much for me ever to have peace within any empire of theirs. If I choose not to fight them now, there is no way for me to guarantee my safety, paradoxical though that may sound.”

Alison mulled that over for a moment, then replied with the ages-old pragmatism of a woman dealing with an unreasonable man. “Then I’ll come with you to Belfalas. The princess could be persuaded that your mistress could keep watch on you to ensure your loyalty to Ankur.”

“Milady, you cannot.” I had told her that we would ride to Belfalas to fight Amelior, but not what our strategy entailed. “There is a high risk we will be defeated, in which case I should have no way to protect you. Indeed, as my mistress, you would likely be given to one of their commanders as a trophy, and though you would survive that, I would not wish that fate upon you. You must also know that the men would call you my whore; quite apart from how we would feel about that, I must wonder what effect that attitude would have on discipline. I can see no alternative but that we must part for a time.”

The silence that fell upon us was dark and heavy. Then I heard her breath catch and felt her warm tears trickling onto my face. I held her in my arms, cradling her for a time until she quieted once more and laid her head upon my chest. Softly, then, pain evident in her voice, she spoke as if to herself more than me. “I’ve waited too long to let you go without a fight. We will be together, I swear it.”

There was no answer to that, and her tone of voice told me we had not yet done with our discussion. A part of me was pleased she would not surrender me so easily, but the greater part of me knew there could be no other answer. Though a weight had lifted from my chest when I made my decision to fight, there was a new weight upon me now. By sleeping with Alison, and protesting the honesty of my intentions, I had accepted a responsibility I could not break; though there was no bloodoath to bind us, there were other magics that could.

The sleep that finally came was deep and restful, though it brought many dreams of the morrow with it. The next morning, I rose to find Alison already gone, and I left to meet my new command.

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Chapter 7: Gareth

I woke to a hangover, a cold bed, and a messenger from Bram tapping on my door and asking me to meet him at the cavalry paddock if I had the time. I wanted to pay him a visit, but I’d not forgotten my new duties. Instead of spending the morning with Bram and his men, I spent it at the barracks with the aide John had found me. Left to my own devices, I might’ve gone anyway, but the man was already waiting outside my door, behind Bram’s messenger, so there was no way to avoid him.

I’ve got nothing against bookkeepers—after all, every louse has its place—but I don’t choose to associate with them any more than I choose to associate with lice. Both are necessary—or at least inevitable—nuisances. But Philip turned out to be cut from a different cloth. He was a fit old mercenary who looked almost half again my age and was full of stories about his exploits before he’d been crippled years back. In fact, I almost didn’t regret spending the morning with him ’cause we talked as much about war as we did about our logistics—but he was also a master of the art of provisioning and moving armies. Still, the morning dragged on once we busied ourselves with our arrangements, and I didn’t manage to free myself until lunch.

Instead of heading off to the officers’ mess, like I’d said I would, I went in search of Bram. I borrowed a horse from the stables and with a little help from a guard or two, managed to find the right place. I even managed to avoid the last of the festival's temptations. At the field, several score sweaty horses were being walked or brushed down by the squires, who were every bit as sweaty under the midsummer sun. On the grass by a long fence, the horsemen themselves lay with their armor strewn about them, feasting on cold meat, warm ale, and some green vegetable. There was also plenty of cheese and bread. Bram, seated amidst the assembly, spotted me and shouted a greeting.

“Ho, Gareth! Over here! Have you come, then, to learn the art of mounted combat?” I dismounted, trying to look like a good enough rider to stop them from laughing, and let the nearest squire take my horse. I walked over and kicked Bram’s heavy breastplate where it lay beside him on the grass. A few men gave me the once-over as they ate, but most either ignored me or dozed in the sun.

“I wouldn’t be buried in that iron casket, let alone wear it in a serious fight. But I will take you on with other weapons,” and with that I grabbed a greasy joint of beef, saluted him with it, and began eating.

That earned a few chuckles, and we spent a pleasant half hour or so in idle conversation. Bram introduced me to his men, but I didn’t even try to remember their names. When the time came to resume drilling, men began rising and pulling on armor with help from their squires. I turned Bram down again, not wanting to make a fool of myself playing around with a lance on horseback. Instead, I watched from a safe distance.

Jousting is dangerous work, even in practice, so instead of risking serious injury to himself or his men, Bram had set up one of those rotating jousting poles he’d called a quintain. I watched for a while as he ran his men at the pole, and though there were still a few casualties, prides were hurt instead of bones being broken. A safer sport, one I was tempted to try myself, was throwing a spear from a full gallop at a bale of hay; it looked easy until I started counting the number of misses and reminded myself these men had done the drill before.

You could see from their faces they were high and mighty as the typical cavalryman, yet disciplined enough to follow Bram without much fuss. Sure, there were a few disagreements about how Bram was doing things, but although he didn’t stand for any insolence, he was happy to explain and demonstrate. They figured out pretty soon that he knew his stuff. He spent his time trying to be everywhere, coaxing and correcting, proving he was better at his job than they were, ending up by making them do everything his way. It never would’ve worked with my men, but these guys wanted to think of themselves as minor nobility, and Bram used that to put them in their places instead of confronting them. Bram was firm, but reasonable, and he knew how to appeal to their vanity. It worked well enough, and reminded me again that cavalry aren’t the same kind of people as foot soldiers.

By day's end, he was dirtier than they were, and they’d learned their job that much better. More important, they’d learned respect for Bram, and for the same reasons I respected him. The ride home was quiet. The knights were too tired to talk much, the squires saved all their breath for the long walk and the work that awaited them when they got back to the stables, and I didn’t have much to say while they were around. When we left them by their barracks, I spoke with Bram.

“You know, those knights of yours aren’t looking too bad. Give ’em another few months of hard training and they might be a challenge for my boys in a fair fight.”

Bram ignored my poke. “Knights they are, Gareth, at least of a sort, and that is the problem. You are quite correct: they are good, and if I have time to train them, they will eventually become disciplined heavy cavalry. Now, they lie between two extremes... neither skilled nor equipped well enough to be true knights, nor yet disciplined enough to be suitable cavalry.”

“I’m missing something, bro’. Knights... Cavalry... Is there a difference?”

Bram sighed. “Think of it this way. At the time of the Exodus, our people were uprooted from all they knew and owned, and the legends say they fled with naught but what they could bear on their backs. From what I know of our people now, I would wager the legends are over-kind to us and that then, as now, those with power over their fellows managed to make more room on the boats for their own followers, plus the weapons and horses necessary to maintain their power. The legends tell us it was a time of great heroism and noble sacrifices, and that it was a time for heroes; that much I do believe, for there were new lands to win from their former inhabitants and only the sea at our backs if we failed. But the Lords who won us a new home were supported by men bound to them by the bloodoath and the fear of standing alone against the unknown, and had motives beyond the survival of their fellow man. The Gordons of Volonor are the descendants of one such line, and won their own kingdom by force of arms, not goodness of heart; the founders of Amelior are another such line, and from what I understand, one that had a falling out with Volonor for long-forgotten reasons.

“After a time, with our new home secured against those who had lived here before us, the Lords settled down to the business of squabbling among themselves, as if the Exodus had never happened and no one had learned anything from what had gone before. Things might have grown grim indeed had not the business of feeding ourselves become more pressing than the business of expanding one’s power. In the absence of an obvious enemy, many descendants of the oathtakers took on the farmer's safer life, and though they still swore oaths to defend their Lords if called upon to do so, their service more often took the form of provisioning the Lord and supporting him well enough he could afford a personal guard strong enough to keep the neighboring Lords out of the granary. In the end, very few Lords could afford to support a troupe of armed men, and instead, most concentrated on protecting enough resources to arm themselves and a few key followers sufficiently well to continue protecting those resources. These men and their descendants are our knights, and most eastern knights have grown fat and lazy in this time of peace.

“Amelior too has its knights, Lords with estates sufficient to earn them arms, armor, and horses you would never believe; their horses alone can be worth a year’s taxes to the owner, and their armor and weapons have been made by the finest smiths in the Westcountry. But unlike your eastern rulers, each Ameliorite knight has honed his skills since before he was old enough to grow a beard, and in combat far more often than on the practice field. Individually, each of them is a match for at least two of your average eastern knights. We are fortunate,” he grinned, taking the edge off his words, “that they have even less discipline than your men, if you can believe that. It takes a strong hand indeed to govern them. The profession breeds a certain arrogance, you might say.”

I didn’t like being lectured, and took a gentle swipe back at him. “You were a knight of Amelior, weren’t you?”

He missed my meaning, and responded honestly. “Yes, I had that honor, and flattered myself that I was among the best. For a time, I was even a leader of knights.”

Bram’s eyes had grown hooded, and though they were on me, they weren’t watching me anymore. I tried my gibe again. “I’d noticed the symptoms.”

“Hmmm? Oh.” His eyes came back to me and he smiled. “Very funny. But the point I want you to understand is that there were many men as good as me and some better.”

“You’ve made your point. Your countrymen are tough.”

“There is more to it than that. Now you know of our knights, but a country can only afford to sustain so many knights. In our wars with the Goblins, we found that each knight was a match for ten or more of our foe—but we soon learned that one man alone, cut off in the midst of a horde of Goblins, was easy prey.”

I nodded. “It happens to our knights here too. Mostly, they just fight each other and leave guys like me to fight in the big crowds, but every now and then one of ’em gets cocky and we bring him down to our level.” I smiled a cold smile at him and watched the look in his eyes change. “You keep mentioning these Goblins. One day you’ll have to tell me more of them, ‘cause here, they’re just tales told to scare kids. I’m no kid, but you’re starting to scare me.”

I was joking, but the new look in his eyes took me by surprise. Was it fear? “You have reason to be concerned. One day, Gareth, I shall tell you more. But I was teaching you about the difference between knights and cavalry. Even an ordinary swordsman, well mounted, can make a convincing imitation of a knight against a weaker foe, and with our plains on which to graze horses, we had no shortage of mounts. What we discovered was that a body of men who can fight together as a single unit, who can respond when you sound the recall and reform to charge again, who can support each other once the charge falters and the melee begins... that kind of force is a true cavalry, and well led, it is irresistible; indeed, it has kept us alive against overwhelming numbers.”

I nodded, but one point bothered me. “You said the Goblins knew how to deal with your knights, so they’re not stupid. Why haven’t they stolen horses and learned to fight you on their own terms?”

“There may be other reasons, but the most important is that the horses hate and fear Goblins more than mice hate cats. Every outlying community relies on its herds for safety, for even when the horses cannot scent a Goblin, they have some mysterious sense that warns them when one is near.”

I thought about that for a moment, trying to picture a horse standing guard like a dog. The image just didn’t come clear, so I came back to the original topic. “All right, so you have cavalry. What’s it mean to us now?“

“A good question. Under the right circumstances, well-disciplined light cavalry can be more effective than a comparable body of better-armed knights. Because we fight on the Western plains, against an unmounted foe, the proportion of foot soldiers is far lower than in an eastern army. In fact, they mostly stay home and protect homesteads and small villages should any Goblins slip past our patrols. So Ankur's problem is now that knights and cavalry make up the majority of Amelior’s army, and they have the best of both to throw against us.”

“You might want to watch that ‘we’ business, bro’. Your new oath is one thing, but it wouldn’t do to get overconfident.”

Bram reddened. “Point taken. Old habits die hard.”

I brought the conversation back to another thing that had caught my attention. “How did you mean your western knights are ‘less disciplined’ than my men? No offence, bro’, but you’re not what I’d call a wild one. It also makes me wonder what you do with the bastards in a war.”

Bram laughed. “Your barbs are sharp today, brother. For the most part, we have found that placing knights in charge of a body of cavalry, and holding their free spirits in check through the power of a bloodoath to their commander, combines their individual strength with the collective strength of a cavalry unit quite effectively. Gareth, I was raised as a knight, but my family was not wealthy enough to buy my freedom from those oaths, as others did. I too served as a cavalry leader. Even then, I would not have risen so high had it not been for field promotions after the death of a commander in combat—the Goblins are never a threat to take casually.”

I frowned. “So what are you saying? What can we expect?”

Bram was silent a moment. “I honestly do not know. If it were me, I would hold most of the cavalry in reserve against an attack by the Goblins; periodically, they test our vigilance, so we can never relax.”

We?”

“I must be more tired than I thought, Gareth.”

“Yeah. You were saying?”

“The more I think of it, the more likely it is that we will fight a small force of lesser knights leading experienced cavalry, with a strong leader providing the necessary discipline. What we—what my former countrymen know of the Eastcountry would lead them to expect that such knights, supported by a strong force of levees on foot, would be most useful in a campaign. Our men should stand a good chance of beating them, or at least holding them back, if we can maintain discipline and dig in where we can neutralize the advantage of their greater mobility. A mountain pass, for instance. If I am right that they have sent young knights against us, led by an experienced leader, we have a reasonable chance of frustrating them enough to sap their patience and perhaps overcome their discipline. Even the best knight becomes vulnerable to disciplined infantry if we can goad him into acting on his emotions instead of his general orders.”

“Got you. So we’re only going to have to be as good as your cavalry if we meet them in the open. I’ve heard that the men of Volonor fight much the same way, except they don’t have as many knights and have better foot soldiers. So we’re not fighting completely unfamiliar foes.”

“That, at least, is one good thing. Nonetheless, it occurs to me that we should inquire whether Ankur has adequate archers and pikemen.”

I was quiet for a long moment. I’d never dealt with cavalry before, but I understood the advantages they have over foot soldiers, especially the kind of raw, unblooded and untrained levees that made up most armies. “Blast it, Bram, why do you always have to be right?”

He chuckled. “Being right was once my job, and I am still alive because I was good at it. If one is wrong too often against the Goblins, the few men who manage to survive your mistakes soon have a new leader, and not because you get promoted to a safe staff position. We cannot afford to let our new men discover the hard way whether I am as fallible as they are.” He was gone again, brooding, and I let him ride in peace for a while, making a note to ask John about archers and pikemen. I tried to pull Bram out of his mood just before we reached the palace.

“So how do your guys rate? If they’re not knights, what chance do they have?”

Bram looked up, startled. “My men? A good question. They should be able to hold their own if the lie of the land is on our side and if they are strongly backed by your troops. Our best hope is to do what the Ameliorites have little experience at doing—to support our infantry with cavalry, and vice versa, and to keep Amelior off balance. We lack the time to practice working together, but if we can train our men well enough, perhaps you and me working together will suffice.” Bram grew thoughtful once more as we arrived at the stables and the stablehands took our horses.

“I’m off to dinner with John, bro’. He’s asked me to go over my plans, which means I’ll have to dig up my aide. Philip’s probably assumed that I’ve left the city by now. And I’ll have to make arrangements for pikemen and archers. John will appreciate your advice on that. You coming with?”

Bram still looked distracted. “Thank you, Gareth, but no. I have to get cleaned up. I have a meeting with a lady tonight, and it cannot wait.”

I frowned, bit my lip, then said it anyway. “Don’t you think you need to get your priorities straight, bro’? There’s plenty of time for that later. Right now there’s important business to attend to. It must be if I’m reminding you about it.”

Bram frowned right back. “I know what you must be thinking Gareth, and things are not like that. Alison... well, she means a lot to me, and there are loose ends I must tie up before I leave town. I can talk to John tomorrow.”

I spat on the ground. “Bram, everyone needs a mistress. But you can’t let one get in the way at a time like this... that’s more trouble than you can afford right now. Get rid of her soon, before she makes problems for you with John. Don’t forget—you haven’t been here long enough to earn this sort of freedom yet, even if John’s my friend.”

Bram’s frown deepened. “Gareth, things are not so simple. I think... well, I think we are more important to each other than that. It’s not a question of getting rid of each other.”

“She’s pregnant already? Shit.”

Bram blinked. “No. Well, I do not think so. But I cannot just say goodbye and leave it at that.”

“You’re not serious?” His hurt look at my expression told me there was trouble here.

“Give it a chance, Gareth. If you turn out to be right, and this is just a way of relieving the pressure we are both enduring, then no harm has been done and I will take your advice. If not,” he looked very sober now, “then perhaps you should prepare yourself for the idea of supplementing your brother with a sister.”

I tried a smile, but it came out a scowl. I had no objection to him adding a woman to his life, but the likelihood of her interfering with the important things that were going on meant that I couldn’t support him in this. That kind of baggage ruins a good soldier by making it more important to come back alive from a fight than to win the fight; a few too many with attitudes like that and you have an army with no will to win, and sure enough, you stop winning. But I’d also seen many good friendships ruined by disagreements over a woman, so I bit back on my comments and let the matter lie. If it became a problem, John would deal with it and I wouldn’t have to. So we parted on that note, he going to his meeting, me to mine.

***

Dinner done, I pushed back my plates and dropped my cutlery—both unfamiliar luxuries—and belched resoundingly. John looked pained, and reached across the table to refill my mug, pretending to disapprove. That stopped working when his own gut got the better of him. We sat for a while, letting our meals settle, sipping at the fine ale. A servant came in, replaced the candles, and left again.

“Well, Gareth. Philip tells me that everything’s likely to be ready in time... if he can keep you tied down long enough to settle things.” His look of disapproval belied his casual tone. “You’ll be ready to leave once all that annoyance is out of the way?”

“Almost.” I took the opportunity to reassure him, intending to turn the lie into truth starting tomorrow. “Don’t think that I abandoned my post, John. I spent the afternoon with Bram, watching the way he does things and talking things over.” Seeing the disapproval ease, I strengthened the point. “Before you ask, it’s not that I don’t trust him. I wanted to see how the guys from Amelior do things, since we’ll be facing them soon. Bram spotted a few important things we missed.” I gave him a short summary of what Bram had told me.

John looked up, intent now. “Is he all right? He’s been mighty withdrawn, and he hasn’t reported what happened today. Tell me the truth, Gareth. I’m staking a lot on your appraisal. Is he worth it?”

I hesitated, then lied. “He gets moods at times. Probably thinks things through too much for his own good, that’s all. Remember, he survived the sack of Kardmin; fact is, he was the guy led the final charge through the breach. He’ll be ready when we need him, and he told me he’ll report in first thing tomorrow. But you’ll want proof you can take to the king. Bram explained Ameliorite tactics, and made me see that we need archers and pikemen to round out our forces. It makes good sense, John, and it’s not something he’d tell me if he wasn’t committed to us. If he had simply withheld that information, Amelior would have had us at a serious disadvantage, and neither of us would've been the wiser.”

I must’ve said the right thing. John looked distracted for a moment, then smiled. “Hmmn. He has been thinking. Only Volonor uses enough horsemen to give us an idea of what to expect, and fortunately or otherwise, we’ve never had cause to meet them in battle. It would make good sense indeed to use pikemen against cavalry, and we do in fact have men who use pikes, but not on the scale you’re proposing. See me tomorrow and we’ll choose you trainees and as many skilled men as we can find. And I’ll talk to Bram first thing in the morning to see what else we’ve forgotten.

“Apart from that, how is Bram doing with his own men?”

“Treating them like babies, but it works well enough. These knights... or cavalry... or whatever it is you call them, they aren’t our kind of people, John.”

“Amen to that! But they could be our most powerful tool against Amelior, in the right hands. Which you’ve reassured me is the case.”

“When will Bram be joining me in the field?”

“Barring any new developments, you’ll be leaving in less than five days, and Bram should follow less than a week after that with your supplies. That should slow him enough that despite his mounts, he arrives about a week after you do. I’ve received news from Belfalas, and they’re growing desperate; a few merchants have already moved large sums of money to Ankur for safekeeping. What else would you expect from a town run by a council of farmers and merchants? But at least they’re willing to supply whatever we need, including their own men. I have my own opinions, of course, but what do you remember about their army?”

“A few hundred men, ill-equipped and undisciplined. Let’s say five hundred in all, mixed and matched. Add about the same amount if they draft townsmen for militia and let us weed out the hopeless cases. Those are just arrow fodder, though. My two hundred brings us up to about twelve hundred, total.”

“So, in effect we have maybe seven hundred good men. Add another two hundred for your pikemen, archers, and Bram’s men, and we have nine hundred plus change. If we can add half that again in sword-fodder then that makes about thirteen hundred. Let’s hope it’s an unlucky number for Amelior.”

I thought about it for a minute. The largest battle force I’d ever seen in a single place, less than five hundred men, now seemed much less impressive. “Against how many?”

He chuckled. “Are you sure you want to know?” I nodded. “Including expendables, mercenaries, and levees from captured towns, Amelior could have more than five thousand men in the field. That’s probably the largest force mustered in one place since the Exodus. Up to four times what you and Bram will have at your disposal in Belfalas, and many of them better trained and equipped than you’ll be. Satisfied?”

I whistled, low and long. The numbers were larger than I’d ever imagined, and I had a hard time picturing an army that size. “Well, I never expected to die in bed unless it was in the arms of a lusty wench. But that reminds me... it’s the festival's last day, and if we’re leaving in under a week I’ve got a social call to make.”

John raised an eyebrow at that. “Gareth, that’s all well and good, but you’ve got a command now. I can look the other way once, but not again. Tomorrow, you’re on duty full time. Philip is good, but he’ll need you to give him direction. Work with Bram if you need to; he’s done this more than you have. But remind him of his duty too. Do we understand each other?”

I nodded, humbled. Five thousand men. Most of them would be busy in Arden, consolidating their gains, but that still left an awfully large army headed right down our throats. At me, and the thousand men who would depend on me. It wasn’t a comfortable thought. This would be my last night of anything like freedom for some time, and I’d best take advantage of it. So a short time later I stood under a red lantern, looking for my blond friend.

***

Next morning, feeling more or less sated, I left the blonde snoring and headed back to the palace. By the time I’d scrounged a good meal and made it upstairs to John’s room, Bram and the other commanders were already there. I nodded at the two guards, and entered without waiting for their response.

“... which, after Gareth’s gone, leaves us nearly fifteen hundred men, about a third of them good quality. Good morning, Gareth.” John nodded, but kept his eyes on the other men in the room. “No news yet from Volonor, but we can expect as many as twenty five hundred from them, including up to five hundred knights of varying quality and as many mounted archers from their vassals. If Somorrah honors its allegiance, add another fifteen hundred. Let’s say we have fifty-five hundred to work with, and in that we match Amelior. Unfortunately, Somorrah is unlikely to help us, so we’d be foolish to rely on their army. Worse yet, if their fifteen hundred stay home, Volonor will need a comparable army to guard their mutual border. So even if we arm everyone strong enough to hold a club, we can hope for at best a thousand men from Volonor. In short, we can expect to be outnumbered almost two to one.”

Bram nodded, raising an eyebrow, then turned his eyes to the map that had been tacked to a wall for easier viewing. “Tell me, Sir, what are the odds of Volonor and Somorrah helping out in time to make any difference?”

Andrew, the short man, replied. “You know as much as we do. King Gordon has sworn to uphold his family oath to aid us in any fight against Amelior so long as he or any of his blood still live. He’s a smart man, is Gordon, which is why his line has held the largest kingdom in the Eastcountry for as far back as the records go. But his counterpart, Belot of Somorrah, is everything Gordon’s not. We can only count on him if his advisor, one Calonius, can hold him in line. He has always done so, to date, so the odds are about even we will have both as allies.”

“Then if we do damage before withdrawing from Belfalas, we have a chance of beating them, or at least keeping them out of Ankur. It’s not much, but we’ll have to take what we can get.” John smiled weakly.

“Wait a minute. Who said anything about abandoning Belfalas?” I cursed myself for arriving late.

“We all did,” Damien replied, “as you would no doubt have known had you had been here on time.” Several heads nodded agreement. “We cannot hold open supply lines from Ankur to Belfalas without leaving Ankur undefended. Even though Volonor would never attack us so long as we’re fighting Ameliorites, the King will never accept any advice that leaves Ankur undefended against an attack at our back. We can’t afford to lose our advance force when Belfalas surrenders. Since we couldn’t hope to hold Belfalas for long, that’s what would happen; the strategic situation there makes the city indefensible in the long run. We decided that at our last meeting, and nothing has changed since.” He looked at me with obvious contempt, then turned back to John. My hackles rose.

“Also,” Bram added, “we force Amelior to spread out further and further by doing so. If they leave a standard garrison in Belfalas, it means several hundred fewer soldiers for us to fight. At the same time, their own supply lines become vulnerable to any raiders who have fled the various conquered towns and taken up residence in the hills. Last but not least, we can always hope that by trying to swallow so much territory in a single, rapid bite, Amelior may choke on it.”

“I see it, but I don’t like it. There must be a better way.”

“Suggest it, brother.”

“Ummm.” I couldn’t. We spent the rest of that morning chewing over alternatives and poking holes in each other’s plans, but none of the variations changed anything much. We came up with preliminary plans in case the worst happened, then stopped for the day so we could begin putting those plans in motion.

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Chapter 8: Bram

That evening, Gareth and I were summoned to meet John. I was with Alison, so I arrived quickly, but Gareth arrived late again, having been somewhere in town. John plied me with liquor while we waited, but I refused for the most part, knowing his capacity for alcohol far exceeded mine. The other commanders were all present, and given that we had been dismissed earlier to begin our preparations, this was a strong hint that something was wrong. Moreover, John was concerned enough to delay the meeting until everyone was present. Needless to say this did not endear John to his staff. Gareth arrived, sweaty and tired. I raised an inquisitive eyebrow, and he winked a reply.

“Now that we are all here,” John said, no subtlety at all in his emphasis, “I might as well tell you the bad news. Calonius of Somorrah was found dead a short time ago. My source tells me the cause was poisoning. That same morning, ‘King’ Belot announced his intention of ‘liberating Somorrah from the oppressive rule of Volonor’. That means we can count on neither for any support until this blasted civil war of theirs is settled. King Gordon has already sent his apologies, no doubt, though word will not reach us for days.” Again, I wondered how it was that John could receive word from such distant places so fast. He was disinclined to elaborate, and I did not feel I had a sufficient reserve of trust to ask yet. My brief stay with Grace suggested that means other than the normal might have been employed here, and that notion intrigued me. Officially, magic was not tolerated throughout the human lands, but unofficially, there was considerable speculation about what unusual weapons the great lords might keep in their private arsenals.

“Fine time for a civil war!” spat Gareth.

“Perhaps not so bad as all that,” rejoined Matathias. Gareth frowned, and I recalled that he was not at all fond of the old aristocrat. “I am quite certain that Volonor will have concluded this business by spring and will come to our aid when we need it. In the meantime, the glory of staving off Amelior’s attack will fall to us.” Matathias, the scion of an illustrious family, was commander of most of Ankur’s knights. He was honest, loyal, and brave, but his heritage made him a knight, and thus suspicious of the innovations I had proposed. I discovered that he had watched me covertly during my first days of command, and since then, he had accepted me and treated me as an equal. Nonetheless, he was well aware of my background, and was no more than formally polite.

“Is there nowhere else we can turn for aid?” I asked, still unfamiliar with the Eastcountry despite my best efforts at self-education.

Douglas, the aged leader of the Ankurite infantry, answered. “As far as human allies go, there are only two other peoples I know of. The Acharans make up several feuding tribes of nomads wandering the wastes beyond the northern mountains. I’ve fought them in my youth, before I came here, and they're fierce and skilled warriors, but they hate all southerners. Forget them, Bram."

He thought a moment, then continued. “The other group isn’t much of a group; they’re the pirates who prey on Volonor's traders. They've begun to grow in numbers recently, so we might get Volonor to offer them an amnesty and enough gold to join our cause, but it strikes me as unlikely. They seem more than happy to fight poorly armed merchants, but rarely stand up to Volonor's navy unless the numbers are overwhelmingly in their favor.” Even in my short time here, I had heard much of Douglas’s career from the other officers, and it would have surprised me if there had been any part of the Eastcountry he had not fought in at some point. Ankur was lucky to have such a man, for in addition to his experience, he was a capable leader and gifted at the art of siege.

Douglas smiled; he had come from humbler backgrounds than Matathias and was more willing to accept a newcomer. “So much for human allies. We could try for odder allies, but I doubt that would prove much more promising. Despite what John has told us of his scouts, the Elves of Southwood have not been seen by anyone during my lifetime, and were it not for things I’ve seen and heard on the fringes of those woods, I would think they are naught but peasant myths. In any event, they are said to fear our iron and loathe our presence, and they’d as soon hunt us out of their woods as join us. Of the Dwarves of Stormhold, I can only guess. I've met them once before, long ago, and traded for this,” he patted the long-hafted battleaxe that accompanied him everywhere and that now leaned against his chair, “but I fear it would take more gold than we possess to tempt them from their caverns. No, there’s no one else to turn to.”

Gareth was eager. “But we could send envoys to them and explain the situation. If Amelior wins here, they could be next. We should at least try.”

“You’re right of course, and I’ve already sent envoys to each.” Everyone reacted with surprise to John’s calm statement. “I don’t expect to hear from any of them for at least another month, and even then I expect no good news. Indeed, I fear I may have sent a few good men to their deaths in the hope of averting others.”

We talked more, modifying our plans yet again to account for the changed situation. Little had to be corrected, as we had confined our original plans to approaches that required no outside intervention for success. But our resolve strengthened, and we confirmed our strategy of leaving the bulk of our troops at Ankur. No one believed Somorrah could pose a threat at our backs, but with suspicious deaths throughout the land, no sane commander would take that risk. Our strategy meeting broke up well after midnight, though Gareth remained behind to drink with John (and, I suspected, to receive a private dressing-down about his tardiness).

I returned to find Alison already asleep, and she looked so peaceful I had no heart to wake her. Instead, I spent a lonely night in my own quarters, finding my bed empty and uncomfortable despite so many years of solitude in which to practice sleeping alone.

***

The next five days passed in a blur. I saw little of Gareth other than at John’s nightly strategy sessions, for my new brother spent most of his time drilling his pikemen and archers in accordance with the instructions I had given him to ensure their smooth coordination with the infantry and, eventually, my cavalry. For my own part, my days were spent with my own men, who had, with gratifying speed, come to consider me truly their leader. And though Matathias stopped by twice to contribute unneeded advice, I managed to conceal my rustiness until my old training reasserted itself; the next time he arrived, the old gentleman rewarded me with an unexpected, albeit grudging, compliment. By night, Gareth vanished into town after meeting me for dinner, but now returned well before the meetings. For my own part, the time after meetings was spent with Alison, fighting as often as not but always losing ourselves in the reconciliation that followed. By the time Gareth was ready to ride west, Alison and I had reached no decision.

On the day of Gareth’s departure, I rode out to meet him. We embraced, fiercely, and wished each other well. We jested, of course; he promised to leave a few of the enemy for me to fight, and I promised to give his remains a decent burial and spill strong drink on his grave when I arrived. After that, we found there was little to say. When he strode out the gates of Ankur at the head of his column of men, I felt more alone than I could remember having been for some time. Though he left merrily enough, Gareth seemed to have felt the same.

That night, Alison read my mood and we refrained from discussing unpleasant matters without my stating the need to do so.

***

Late the next morning, I overheard words that set off warning bells. I was in the jousting paddock at the time, catching my breath after leading the men through practice riding in formation and then switching them to individual runs at the quintain; I had just finished a run at the quintain myself and was drinking deep from a water skin a squire had handed me, while around me, the men gossiped as they awaited their own turns at the quintain. Two were discussing their plans for their last leave before we departed for Belfalas. There was nothing remarkable about their voices, but something caught my attention nonetheless.

“I hear there’s a new bard in town, fresh in from the east. Anthony saw him last night at the Saddlehorn, and claims he’s the best singer he’s ever heard... though you couldn’t count the number of musicians Anthony claims he’s heard during the festival.”

“So? Anthony drinks Somorran wines. What does that say for his taste in the finer things?”

“I only know what I saw,” maintained the first. “Anything that could bring Anthony back sober from a leave in town must be pretty good. He even looked thoughtful, if you can imagine that, and he got quiet whenever he talked about the music.”

“Maybe you’re right,” commented the second, impressed. “Anything that memorable ought to be worth a listen. Besides, even if the bard stinks, the wine at the Cove’s both good and cheap.”

“Except for the Somorran, of course; that’s just cheap!”

Both laughed heartily, and I lost the rest of the conversation as I moved towards the front of the line for another run at the quintain. We'd replaced the shield with a mannequin holding a spear, and my horse had been shying as we approached. I wanted to cure him of that habit fast. In itself, the conversation was meaningless, not worthy of note. But I had argued again with Alison this morning, and my thoughts were less focused than was my wont during hard exertion. I had even been touched by the quintain that morning, a sufficiently unusual happening that I overheard two other men speculating about the woman they were sure was keeping me up nights. And indeed, she had been, though not in the manner they suspected. In another two days, I would be leaving the first woman I had found who meant something to me and possibly not coming back; try as I might, I could not force that thought from my mind, even though the possibility of my own death had never caused me to lose sleep after my first battle. Call it foolish pride in my own abilities, but I had never felt the same doubts so many of my own men felt.

I took my place in line, letting my thoughts drift, and when my turn came, I lowered my lance and began my run at the mannequin. I could not place what was disturbing me, but something was setting off an alarm ever more strongly. As I lowered my lance, I began to suspect I knew the answer. The bard was good enough to sober Anthony, who struck me as a hardened drinker, and had arrived from the east, where Calonius had died. That death had deprived Ankur of its most powerful ally, and that lacked the feel of coincidence. There could be only one conclusion: Dariel was in town.

If the minstrel was in town, and was playing the role in events that I had come to suspect, something bad was about to happen to us. I came back to the present with a shock, reflexes alone taking me clear of the pole without using my lance and thereby letting me keep my seat. I wheeled back to the line of waiting riders, ignoring their startled looks, and sought out Danton, my second in command; after handing him my lance and ordering him to take over, I spurred my mount towards the heart of the town, ignoring the buzz of conversation that broke out in my wake. I galloped as far as the streets, then slowed to a fast canter to ensure I would kill neither myself nor any citizen. We moved faster than would have been safe under ordinary circumstances, the horse dipping beneath me as he slid and recovered on the smooth cobbles, sparks flying from his iron-shod hooves. As I rode, my mind raced ahead to assess what might await me at the palace.

Grace’s story came to mind again, and I was sure someone of great importance to our cause was going to die soon. I began reviewing the possibilities, dodging without thinking among the midmorning traffic that my warhorse would have been just as content to trample. Gareth was already gone and despite my high rank, I could be replaced. No other field commander was irreplaceable, despite their obvious value. That left the King and John. The King was widowed, with the princess Amanda his only heir... at least so I assumed given that he had never remarried, and there had been no talk of a bastard child. I realized now that I had no idea of the pattern of inheritance in Ankur, other than that a daughter could apparently take the throne. If she died, he still had plenty of time to remarry and father a new heir. If he died, there would be jockeying for position among the likely male suitors, but from what little Alison had told me, the princess was competent to assume the throne. There would be many men competing for her hand, and considerable pressure for her to choose one and begin begetting heirs, but in the interim, Amanda would make a good enough ruler if strongly supported and provided with good advice. Most important, she would not interfere with John’s decisions as the army's commander-in-chief.

That left John as the target. John, the man who was most familiar with the whole situation as a result of his network of spies, and thus the best one to coordinate our defense. John, who was potentially the only thing standing between Amelior and an empire. I gave my horse freer rein on the straight stretches and spurred him, understanding that I could not afford the time to be kind.

***

I am convinced the sole reason I killed neither a pedestrian nor myself was that the main streets were nearly empty in the festival's aftermath. I was tormented by the possibility of arriving too late and finding John already dead. By the time I reached the palace, I was beginning to slow my pace. The gate guards, alerted by the sound of my approach, had time to bring up their halberds, but they recognized me as I drew nearer and waved me through. I reined in as fast as I could on the cobblestones, and flung myself from the saddle before the horse came to a complete halt. The alert palace guards, weapons drawn to halt a potentially dangerous intruder, drew back when they recognized me and realized that my mission must be important. I ran past them, ignoring their questions and shouting for them to leave my excited warhorse for its groom—if they ignored that advice, there would be serious injuries for me to explain away.

I made my way through the palace at a run, several guards collecting in my wake as I ran past. Two guards outside John's door, recognizing me and my retinue, stepped aside, concern growing on their faces. I burst in on John, who stood surrounded by a crowd of bookkeepers and scribes.

“He’s in town!” I managed to gasp out between breaths, all the while scanning the room for any sign of a hidden assassin. Seeing my obvious disturbance and inability to communicate, John motioned me to silence and banished the frowning spectators. They left, casting puzzled glances back over their shoulders until John pushed the door shut, bidding the guards to return to their posts. When I had regained my breath, sweat dripping onto my dusty cuirass and leaving streaky trails, John shook his head, bemused, and spoke.

“All right, Bram. Take a deep breath and tell me who’s in town and why it’s so bloody important.”

I swallowed hard and took several slow breaths to calm myself. “The minstrel I told you about. He has arrived here in town to kill you.” John looked unconvinced, even as I explained my chain of reasoning to him. Nonetheless, when I had finished, he looked thoughtful.

“Needless to say, I’ve already taken the standard precautions against assassination. But my aides have informed me that, as you say, a handsome dark-haired musician arrived at the palace late last night and asked for entrance. As is the custom, he was granted a room and sustenance during his stay, for which privilege he is expected to perform for His Majesty after dinner tonight. If you’re sure your man was right about this fellow, but muddled in his assumptions about the performance at the Saddlehorn tonight, then perhaps we have a problem. I still find it hard to accept your story and Gareth’s as being anything more than coincidence, but I've had enough experience with witchery I won’t discount your tale out of hand.” That reawakened my suspicions as to John’s efficient information gathering system, and that recognition must have shown.

“I need not point out, Bram, that this particular fact must never leave this room, for I’m sure you understand the consequences for me if it did. All right, then. Recommend what I should do. After all, you’ve had more experience with this troublemaker than I have.”

John looked less skeptical now, so I forged ahead, trying to sound as confident as possible. “We should arrest him before he has a chance to work his spells. Perhaps it would be wise to drug him until you can consult your ‘sources’ about how to handle a powerful wizard.” I hesitated for a moment, unsure as to what should follow. “Then, until we can question him and discover his plans, you should be guarded against the possibility of assassination. Remember, Dariel himself has no blood on his hands, but rather seems to achieve his ends through the deeds of others.”

“Very well, that's sensible enough. Though I confess I’ll feel rather foolish until you can prove anything. I’ll double my own guard, and you can take a few others to arrest the bard. When that’s safely done, come back and we’ll arrange for the interrogation.”

John rose and crossed to the door. He whispered to his guards, and one left in a hurry. Then we waited, John in a fine good humor now that preparations were underway. I could not sit still, however, and paced the room until the additional guards arrived, adding to John’s amusement. With my commander secure, I headed for the servants’ quarters with two guards to accompany me. There I discovered that our guest had already been summoned to teach the harp to princess Amanda. Apprehensive, I turned and made my way to the royal apartments.

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Chapter 9: Gareth

We moved out through the town gates, boots echoing hollowly on the wooden drawbridge. There was a bounce in my step ’cause it felt good to be on the move again, being useful. Also because Bram was watching, and I wanted him to be as cheerful when his turn came. I was pretty sure he’d be all right once he got moving again, but until then, he’d have too much time to think. That’s never any good for a guy like him.

Me? I probably think just as much—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise—but I don’t let things worry me as much as they worry Bram. There are a lot of things you don’t have any say in, and losing sleep over things you can’t change never makes much sense. Accepting saves wear and tear on the brain, and who knows—maybe you can change things later.

When we’d gone a certain distance, I looked back to the city, still visible on our back-trail at the end of the fading dust plume the packhorses were raising. There hadn’t been any rain recently, so the guys at the end of the column would be getting pretty dry and dusty. I reminded myself to rotate the rearguard forward after every rest stop, though it’d be a while before that happened for the first time. I’d started to need a break myself, but as commander of this show, I wanted to be sure they knew I was stopping for them, not for me. So we marched until the tone of the grumbling changed in a certain way before I called a halt and reordered the column. The men’d been grumbling at the unexpected effort—a good sign, ’cause contented men always grumble, as naturally as they breathe. I wouldn’t start worrying until I couldn’t hear the complaints anymore, because silence didn’t mean the complaints had gone away. Despite the chatter, and despite their long stay in the city, they kept up a good pace. Ankur’s troops were in good fighting shape, whether or not they'd been blooded before.

The mountains began to rise about us as we swung around into the pass, and remembering the last time Bram and I’d been here, I grinned. At our first long stop in the foothills, I gave the order to halt and was greeted by a ragged cheer from dry throats. Packs began hitting the ground, followed by their owners. I sent two men up ahead to alert the scouts, and two more to pass on orders about rationing water. We had a fair bit of water on the horses, and I remembered a place with running water where we’d be able to refill, but I didn’t want anyone running out just yet. It would be good practice for when we met Amelior in the mountains west of Belfalas.

I was sipping at my own water skin when a shadow fell across me. I looked up and saw Anders, standing awkwardly at attention. I sat a little straighter, swilling the warm water around my mouth until he finished shuffling his feet, then nodded my head. He cleared his throat, and hawked on the ground.

“Sir, do I have permission to speak freely?” I didn’t see why not, so I nodded again. “Well, Sir, me and a few of the men have been kind of curious. I mean, we all know that something’s in the air, though everyone’s been kind of close-mouthed about it. The full field kits for example, and the fact we’re heading for the border... usually we just head south onto the plains. This isn’t the usual sort of training hike, if you take my meaning. Could you tell us what’s going on?”

I thought about it for a moment. Usually, there’s no need to tell a soldier anything more than he absolutely needs to know. That’s always been one of my rules, learned from a long string of sergeants, and it’s a rule that’s always worked for them... like Bram, most of us do better if we don’t have too much time to think about things before doing them. I’d told the men we were going west for mountain training, maybe a little fighting with hill bandits I’d invented as an excuse. Then I thought about how Bram would’ve done things, and figured it couldn’t hurt to be freer with information. Anders stood patient, waiting and watching. I could see his thoughts, so I tried to see just how much he knew and what I’d have to say to direct the gossip into more useful directions.

“What do you know already?”

Anders hesitated at my choice of words. “The word’s out that Kelfan’s been in a fight with someone and that we’re on our way to teach that someone a lesson. I don’t buy that, Sir. With our small supply train, Kelfan’s too far out of our range, even if we reprovision at Belfalas. Our best guess is that Arden’s causing the problem, and that we’re being sent to jump ’em from behind, but there’s still the matter of supplies... and there aren’t enough of us for that kind of fight, and the boys back home have been on alert too long after the festival ended. The whole thing doesn’t sit right with me. That’s all, Sir, and I’m not the only one it doesn’t strike as quite right.” He looked at me questioningly, and just as I was about to reply, he started up again. “Then there’s that foreign friend of yours, and the new pike and bow drills he’s got us doing. An awful lot of work for a walk in the mountains.”

“You’re on the right track, which I guess means you’re smarter than you look.” I smiled to make sure he knew I wasn’t angry. In fact, there was something I’d been meaning to do for a time now. “Get yourself assigned to my personal guard when we’re finished talking. Truth is, Kelfan’s been taken, not just attacked, and by Amelior, not Arden. Our job’s to get to Belfalas and extort a little goodwill out of those uppity farmers. They’re worried, maybe thinking they might be next. For now, that’s all you need to know, all right? Dismissed, then.”

By his look, I’d said one or two words more than I should have, and when we moved out, there was too much quiet conversation in the ranks. So much for Bram’s methods—foot soldiers really are more manageable when they don’t have time to do any thinking. Rather than letting this foolishness spread, I passed on orders to start up again, and I began pushing our pace. It was smarter than telling them to shut up, and the increasing slope as we moved higher into the foothills required too much wind for them to gossip, at least ’til we stopped again.

We climbed a while longer as low clouds began spilling down the pass above us. I made the breaks shorter, so there wouldn’t be time to talk through what I’d said, and put the scouts on alert, just for practice. Later, long after we’d passed the last border patrols John had set up, a trader rode into view from further up the pass, furs bundled high atop the pack mule trailing behind him. Harmless enough, but a sign of carelessness... bad carelessness, which could’ve meant bad trouble if we’d been entering enemy territory. I was sure he was harmless, but I hauled him in anyway and called a halt. A little snooping by Philip revealed that the trader was known to a few men, confirming my guess he was as innocent as he claimed despite the sweat standing out on his forehead and his pale face. I sent new scouts ahead, telling them to replace the other scouts and send them back.

When the old scouts arrived, worried about how short a time they’d been up front, I stood them up in front of the other men. “Gentlemen,” I began, loud enough for all to hear, “did you perhaps run across a solitary rider after we passed our last patrols? And did you let him approach our column without holding him and letting me know you had someone for me to talk to?” The two men were worried enough to look each other in the eyes, and when I tried to pin one with my eyes, he looked down at his boots before answering.

“Aye, Sir. We met a lone trader early on, asked him what he was doing here, and sent him on when we were sure he was just a simple trader. That’s him over there.” He looked guilty.

“Did you think, perhaps, that he was a spy trying to slip past us or to scout out our column?” Their sheepish looks told everyone they hadn’t. The trader went a shade paler and sweated a little harder; I hadn’t bothered to clue him in yet that we weren’t going to rob him or do anything much worse than throw a scare into him. “Well, you were right... this time. But if he was a spy, we’d all be in a mess of trouble now, wouldn’t we? You were bloody careless, and if we were heading into a fight, a whole lot of us might’ve ended up dead for it.”

I looked around, noticed that my words were being relayed on down the line to anyone who couldn’t hear, and I smiled politely at the frightened trader. He’d squirmed enough, so I took a moment to reassure him and make sure he had the right story to pass on once he got to Ankur. “As it turns out, we’re lucky this is just a training run. We don’t have to keep this good man prisoner, and we don’t have to worry about all the horrible possibilities I just mentioned. Turn him loose,” I said, waving a hand at the relieved trader, and the two guards who’d stood beside him all this time took their hands off their sword hilts with cruel smiles. “Even so, I think you should both have a little time to think about this, and I’ll give you a chance to do so without any distractions. Philip, see that these two have privacy for the next day: half rations, and no company ’till tomorrow at dusk. I hear that a little hunger and time alone is good for the thinking.”

I turned away, feeling good about their reactions. Both were angry, but more relieved than uppity about it, so neither protested—they knew they’d been let off fairly lightly, but the lesson would still stick with them and with the others. Everyone who hadn’t already heard what Anders had to say would soon know we weren’t just out here for the exercise, and once the grapevine got the news out to them, they’d know why. With that business taken care of we resumed our march, continuing on until it began to grow dark and we’d entered the lower slopes of the pass. It got dark early under those clouds, and that meant things would get difficult for the scouts. I decided to call an early halt, not far from the spot I’d recommended to the scouts as a likely campsite. It also gave me time to make sure we were off the low ground at the center of the pass, just in case those long overdue rains came and started flooding. Tents began going up as the squad leaders did what they were paid for. I sent out a work detail to refill our water stores from a nearby stream the scouts had marked for us, then set about my own preparations; Philip knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t as mobile as he used to be, and appreciated the help.

To start with, I decided we might as well go easy on ourselves since we were still within friendly territory and had plenty of time left to tighten up discipline. I permitted fires, hinting that this luxury might not last long. To compensate, I posted a full night watch at strategic points ahead and behind us. No reason to be all panicky, but after the lecture, it would’ve looked strange if I hadn’t done anything. After dinner, I checked to make sure everyone knew the routine and that the sentries were all alert. It was satisfying to be challenged by each one well before I reached the perimeter. A little lesson does wonders for discipline.

Smiling to myself, I went back to my tent to get some sleep. Our few packhorses whickered in the dark, and fires crackled. As I dozed off, I found myself wondering how Bram was doing.

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Chapter 10: Bram

Four guards awaited us at the head of the stairs, but they saluted and waved me past when they recognized me and saw my look. I brushed past them and continued on down the hall, wondering whether I looked as portentous as I felt: it was not every day one had an opportunity to arrest an immortal. So it was that I paused for a moment before knocking on the door to the princess’ chambers.

From behind the ornately carved door came the sounds of a harp being played well, if mechanically. The sounds ceased as I listened and were replaced by a low murmur of voices. I made as if to knock, but halted as a different, richer harp began to play. This time, however, it was a master harper at work and the haunting passion borne on those notes froze me in place. There I stood, flanked by the awestruck guards, and it was several minutes before the dying notes of that composition freed us to move once more. When I had regained control of myself, I rapped on the door, embarrassed to desecrate the mood left by that music with such harsh sounds. When a voice bade me enter, gruff and ugly by contrast with what had preceded it, I had no doubts as to who I would find.

I entered and found myself in a crowded sitting room. Two guards stood at ease by the door, looking out of place with their arms and armor. In a large armchair, the King sat bemused, Amanda kneeling on the floor by his feet with a richly decorated harp cradled protectively in her arms. By her side sat an enraptured Alison, but my eyes were only for the tall figure standing at the room’s center.

“Dariel,” I whispered.

His startling blue eyes watched me from a tanned face, handsome but endowed with more than a human beauty by the magic of his music. He was still radiant with the look of a man who had been places the rest of us could only glimpse through his music. A cascade of raven-dark hair spilled shadowy across his shoulders, the perfect dark frame for that face. In his arms, the ancient harp lay nested as if a part of him rather than a mere instrument, much the way my old fencing instructor had seemed a softer, more flexible part of his sword. Though motionless, his body was poised with the lithe, static energy of a cat gathering itself for a prodigious stretch. As I stared at him, still shaking free from the strands of his music’s spell, the look in his eyes changed to one of wary recognition.

“Bram. I'm pleased we meet yet again after our inauspicious parting,” he intoned, softly as falling eiderdown yet none could miss his words.

“Forgive this intrusion, Majesty, but there may be a problem.” I gestured at Dariel. “Seize him,” I called to the guards who'd accompanied me, and reluctantly, they moved forward to do so.

The king rose to confront me, ice in his voice and eyes. “What is the meaning of this, Commander?” Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw the remaining two guards coming to attention and taking up position close behind me.

“Sire, my humblest apologies for my intrusion, but I must arrest your guest. He is implicated...”

The princess’s dreamy voice interrupted me. “Arrest him? Whatever for?” Her beatific look and the hurt surprise in her voice transformed ordinary comeliness into beauty, and I realized the difficulty of the task I had set myself. I began to feel the situation slipping irretrievably through my fingers.

“Sire, My Lady, this man has been implicated in several assassinations, and for your safety, he must be placed under guard in a secure place until his innocence or guilt can be proven.” The King’s face hardened, growing even more set and disbelieving when I recounted an edited account of our suspicions about the immortal, keeping my eyes on Dariel all the while. I refrained from mentioning Grace’s story, certain that any mention of a witch would lose me what little credibility I had remaining. When I was done, an expectant silence enfolded the room as we awaited the King’s reply. I felt the presence of the guards at my back, and kept my hand well clear of my sword.

“Preposterous!” He spat the word, hurling it as another man might have hurled a dagger. “Dariel, know you aught of what this man is talking about?”

I glanced at the minstrel. As I had spoken, the hint of wariness had become an open appraisal of what had changed in me and what it meant for his plans. But there was also confirmation of what I had said. By the time all eyes turned to the prisoner, his look had become one of bemused sorrow. “Your Majesty, I confess to my presence at the events your young commander has described, and was fortunate to escape with my life, which escape was made possible in one case by Bram’s own daring. But the story he tells of my namesake ‘Dariel’ is clearly impossible, for that renowned bard died long before our ancestors made the great pilgrimage across the eastern seas. Although the comparison is flattering, ignoring for the moment its implications of treachery, I suspect the accusation is the result of a tired mind in an overworked body.” He sniffed loudly, and I was aware of the rank smell of my fear and my recent exertions, lying heavy on the more delicately scented air of that room.

“There you go, Commander,” the King continued. “Allow me to suggest that you hold your imagination in better check in the future. Now if you please, I suggest that you apologize to Our guest at once and then leave Our presence while I contemplate the nature of your discipline.”

I stood for a moment in shock, unable to believe what was happening. Then the light touch of a gauntleted hand on my shoulder led me to kneel. “Sire, I crave your forgiveness for what I have so rashly done in your service, and beg that I be forgiven.” I clenched my teeth on the next words, for they rankled and were lies I would not have otherwise been capable of speaking. “I have been under considerable strain of late, and the truth of the matter must be as Dariel says.”

“It is not my place to forgive you in this situation. I suggest you turn your supplications to Our guest.” I hesitated, then before I could force myself to reply, Dariel spoke.

“There is no need, Sire. I can understand the pressure your commanders labor under, for are you not preparing for war even as we speak?” A shock ran through me, for although those in the room well knew of our plans, it was unlikely anyone had told Dariel. “There are no hard feelings in me, but rather, respect for such loyalty as would risk your displeasure to ensure your safety. Rather than an apology, I would request that you suspend punishment and instead ask Bram to attend my performance this evening.” Our eyes met again for a moment across the room, and there was something in his eyes I could not read.

The King was startled, but agreeable, and his look softened. “Very well, Dariel, your desire shall be as my command. Heed that well, Commander; although your loyalty does you credit, you have much to learn from Our guest’s graciousness. You are dismissed.”

I rose and bowed, backing out of the room without meeting the eyes of anyone still present. As the door closed, I glanced up just in time to meet the minstrel's gaze, and I saw a measure of compassion in those eyes. Yet there was also a resolution that told me I was correct in my suspicions nor would aught I could do dissuade the man from his task. Then the door swung to, and cut off my view. I stood for a moment, lost, then dismissed my men. As their footsteps receded in the distance, I began trembling with the released tension. I no longer felt only the apprehension of what Dariel’s presence had meant; in that brief exchange of looks, confusion from the rich subtext of emotions I had encountered had touched my heart. For the first time, I understood what Grace had tried to impart in her tales, and the feeling of powerful, unseen forces at work was wholly beyond my experience. I began to feel fear as well, for it was not a comfortable thing to experience such power firsthand.

Confused, I hurried back to John.

***

That evening, I stood at the entrance to the king’s dining hall. I was too anxious, confused, and frightened to eat, for my nerves continued to scream their warnings that something was wrong. In frustration, my hand clenched and unclenched on the hilt of my sword. I had never before felt such helplessness, and hoped I never would again. I stood there watching the excited activities within the spacious, lavishly decorated chamber, as I had once stood in the shadows of a border keep. Disturbed by that parallel, I looked over the room yet again to confirm the presence of the paired guards John had scattered here and there to ward against an assassination attempt. There came a gentle touch on my arm, and I looked down to see Alison. She stood there, excited, dressed simply but well, eyes aflame with eagerness. Had this been Amelior and she my mistress, I would have dressed her better, but I had not been at Ankur’s court long enough to openly offer her such status. Nonetheless, there were observant glances from several courtiers, who had noted our proximity and begun reassessing our positions and theirs within the court hierarchy.

Aware of my mood, she grew concerned, and took my free hand in both of hers, easing my fear and frustration. I closed my eyes, savoring the feeling, but the sudden silence that swept the chamber brought back my apprehensions, magnified a hundredfold. Alison released her grip on my arm and turned to watch, standing close enough that I could feel her warmth. We stood side by side at the edge of the room, beside a richly draped pillar, and waited. There was an exquisite tension in me akin to that which arose during a joust in the second before my opponent’s lance struck, but prolonged indefinitely.

For a moment, memory blinded me and I saw a scene from several weeks earlier. A firelit hall, age-tarnished tabards, and the sense of a fading glory. And even as the present minstrel stepped forth into the hushed hall of Ankur, his ghost of yesterday strode from the shadows of the border keep. I saw the fighting start again, and my right hand tightened about my sword until my knuckles crackled and Alison clasped my hand and tried to pull it free. I shook my head to clear the dream, released my grip, and saw her relax again.

Then the music began, and the golden splendor of our surroundings faded once more from sight among the new visions the bard conjured. Dariel’s resonant voice joined with the music this time, speaking emotions as much as words, summoning visions of searching, finding, losing... of making pacts and searching again through the ages without success. When the music faded, I was unable to shake off the aftereffects and return to the hall for some time. Alison was sobbing, and I took her in my arms, heedless of whether we would be seen. Amidst the introspective silence that enfolded the room, more quiet sobbing came from several women, and not a few men, but that left only a passing impression on my mind. For that instant, Alison was my world, and her eyes told me she wanted to be nowhere else.

I tried to tell her of what moved in me, failed, and contented myself with inadequate words. “You shall come to Belfalas with me.”

A choked gasp from the high table tore me away from her. All eyes turned to the King, whose face had gone livid. He rose, hands going to his chest, then doubled over with a groan, spasming and falling headlong across the table. In a moment, all was confusion as it had been once before. I saw John kick back his chair and rush to the King’s side, bellowing the while for the court physician. I fear I may have been the only one who heard him amidst the uproar of confused voices, but my mind had gone elsewhere. Knowing in my gut what had happened, I looked for and found Dariel; there was enough sorrow in those eyes that I hesitated, puzzled. Then someone moved between us, and as I thrust the man aside, I saw the bard sliding through a side exit.

I shouldered my way through the milling onlookers and across the room to pass through the wall hangings, and saw him standing there with his harp. I drew my sword and advanced on him, but he drew his hands across the strings, matching the rhythm of my heartbeat, and I found myself unable to move.

“Bram, believe me when I tell you that this was not murder. The King’s song had already drawn near its end. You could not have stopped me, nor should you have. You understand some of what has come to pass, but not enough to interfere. Remember that the next time we meet.” Then his fingers moved across the strings of his harp in a complex pattern, and he vanished from my sight, the fading ringing of an ancient harp all that remained of him. As the last echoes died, I was free once again to move, despite the ice that had formed in my spine.

I returned to the dining hall, where John had already restored order, his men guarding all exits from the room. One worried pair let me in and I made my way to John’s side, where the King lay motionless before us on the tabletop. John looked up gravely.

“Looks like we both guessed wrong, Bram.” I nodded, but said nothing. Together we waited until the physician arrived, watching the assembled feasters for any trace of fear. Most faces showed grief, though I took careful note of those that reflected naked opportunism, covetous glances cast towards the distraught Amanda where she clung tightly to Alison. Eventually, a wizened old man arrived to examine the King. When he had done, he spoke to us in an emotionless voice.

“I believe, Sirs, that he was not poisoned, though I cannot tell for certain without...” He looked askance at the tear-streaked face of Amanda. “... without further tests. His heart failed him, as is wont to happen in older men with such a great burden of responsibility.” He looked at us without hope, then moved away at John’s nod, two brawny men bearing the corpse behind him.

“What happens now, John?”

To my surprise, it was Amanda who replied, voice clear though shaking with emotion. “We wait. Until the funeral, John shall be in charge of affairs. After that, I shall announce my plans for the future rule of Ankur.” Tears still gathered in her eyes as she looked past us at her father’s corpse and shuddered.

***

For a short time I helped as best I could, then realizing that there was little else I could offer, I asked John’s permission to leave. That night, Alison and I slept together, though neither of us was in the mood for lovemaking. For a change, it was my turn to comfort her, and in some ways it was a more fulfilling thing than our lovemaking. I slept deeply and dreamlessly, as if something had drained all emotion from me and left me cleansed, but weak as a babe.

I awoke in the morning to find her gone, the bed cold with her absence. I dressed and went to John’s office. He looked like he had spent the entire night there, not surprising under the circumstances; Andrew lay asleep in an armchair, snoring, and the other commanders arrived soon afterwards. We had attempted no search for Dariel, for after I had explained to John how he had vanished, it was evident he would not be found unless it was his wish; indeed, he was almost certainly farther away by now than could be explained by mundane means alone, off on another mission of ill omen.

John smiled wearily. “Morning, gentlemen. I hope your night was more restful than mine. I’ve been with Her Highness all night, and I nearly had to invoke martial law to keep all the opportunists from marrying her on the spot. She's happy enough to let me carry on as Commander-in-Chief, which effectively makes me regent of Ankur. At least, until one of her suitors slips through and claims the job for himself. Bloody vultures!”

Damien glanced around the room, and cleared his throat. “John, let us help for a while. A few hours of sleep should keep you alive, and there’s no point in dying before Amelior arrives.” There was strained laughter. “We still need you, you know, and you’ll have to sleep.”

He agreed gratefully, and gave us a quick rundown of which courtiers to keep an eye on while he was away. It occurred to me that it was a good thing there were several of us present, so John could rest without fearing the consequences of leaving any one person to hold the reins of command in his absence. Before he left, he signed a letter of authorization to help us in the event anyone ambitious should attempt to make trouble. Afterwards, we tended to his many duties as best we could despite the rampant confusion that was the true ruler this day. Most important, his staff handled most details for us, and working as a team, we held things together. By the time John returned that afternoon, I was more than a little fatigued, and impressed at his ability to deal with this pressure day in and day out.

I took the opportunity to return to my men and confirm that my own paperwork was in order, as I would be leaving for Belfalas the next day and still had many last-minute problems to resolve.

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Continue reading: Part III (second half)



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