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Part V: Accelerando (second half)

Return to Part V (first half)

Contents

Chapter 9
Chapter 10
Chapter 11
Chapter 12
Chapter 13
Chapter 14
Chapter 15

Chapter 9: Bram

I lay on my side, heavy bandages holding the pain in my ribs in check and almost comfortable in the absence of my bonds. Alexander had insisted on that, and with two guards inside the tent and at least four still outside, it was not hard to see how he could afford the charity. I suppose he was also according me the honors due my rank, but there may have been more to it than that. Trying to be practical, I ran over my options again in the hope that I had missed a simple method of extracting myself from this situation. But no matter how I looked at the situation, it still added up to checkmate for me.

Nice analogy, that, but the real world is more complex than chess will ever be; there’s always another angle to consider, or a rule to be broken if you look hard enough and your opponent fails to watch you with sufficient care. Among other things, captured pieces can sometimes be brought back into the game. So I kept my mind active until I found myself going in circles and forced myself to stop. Though my analysis had gone nowhere, it was still more productive than contemplating other things—my thoughts turned to Alison, Gareth, and other friends if I left them unfettered for too long. I found I was more than a little worried about my loved ones, and no longer so worried about myself. Resigned to my fate, at least for the moment, I let my mind drift again.

The sound of the tent flap brought me back to the present. I rolled over to confront my brother, who was still straightening up after ducking under the flap that his escort still held. He dismissed the guards, and after a moment’s hesitation, they complied, exchanging nervous looks. I sat up, arms around my knees, wanting to clutch at my wounded side but not willing to give Richard the satisfaction. He had turned away from me to reseal the tent, so he missed my half-suppressed grimace of pain.

“You look well, Richard, all things considered.” A feeble gambit, declined contemptuously, so I tried again. “Mother and father—are they as well as you?”

For a moment, his face became vulnerable again. “Father is dead... a winter fever took him a year after you left. And mother still weeps more days than not. Your deeds and the treachery of our former friends ensure that.” His look hardened, every muscle on his jaw standing out. Gambit accepted, then cast back in my face. My own jaw had gone tight, the pain of this news stabbing through years of carefully nurtured defenses. A cruel smile took shape on my brother’s visage as he recognized my emotions. “So you can still be hurt, dear brother. Good! I had feared that emotions and memories were too heavy a burden for a traitor.” He reached into his cloak and withdrew a heavy dagger. I narrowed my eyes and began gathering my feet beneath me, ready for a desperate defense should he try what his eyes promised.

“Are you bitter enough to murder a defenseless man, Richard?” My voice was loud enough for the guards to hear, though none came to my aid. That suggested they were his men, and narrowed my options. In response, he drew his own dagger from his belt and flipped it to me. It landed point down in the blankets by my hand, quivering. Just as countless other knives had once done in assorted tests of courage during our childhood.

“I will cleanse the soiled honor of our family and rid Amelior of her greatest traitor. But I will not have it said that I did so in dishonor. Not that I expect you to understand.”

“I understand too well.” I rose, not attempting to mask my pain, and moved as far from the dagger as I could in the tight space. “I will not contemplate fratricide, Richard, nor add to our mother’s burden by slaying her one remaining faithful son.” The words hurt to say, but they came from the heart. “Take my hand,” I said, holding out my empty hand palm upward. “Take my hand and let us be reconciled.” He hesitated, but his face did not soften.

“Please. For her, if not for us.”

Richard slammed his dagger home in its sheath and retrieved the other weapon. Frustrated rage shone from his eyes, almost masking the turmoil there. I had come that close, yet had failed. “No, brother, I cannot forgive you, and I will see you dead by my hand for what you have done. But if the time is not yet right, then I shall wait until you remember your courage and your duty.” He left without another word, and I let my hand drop to my side.

***

Perhaps an hour later, Alexander entered the tent. He pulled a rickety camp stool towards him, sat down, and gave me an appraising look. I stared back at him without speaking, wondering what he had come to tell me and hoping it was not news of my fate. My nonchalance had been replaced by a growing apprehension. The silence broke when he had seen whatever he was looking for.

“I remember the first day you were given into my care by your father.” My pain returned, but his gaze was unfocused and he missed it. “He told me to make a man and a knight of you, and I joked with him about the inferior quality of the material he had given me to work with.” He laughed harshly. “We joked again when you won your spurs, and yet again when you led your first charge in battle. You were so proud then of your responsibility, you reminded me of myself.” He looked up and our eyes met, open and unguarded. I saw a much younger man for an instant before he dropped his gaze and went on.

“We jested one last time after Kardmin, while your father and I sat our horses and watched you from afar. But when you returned, you worried me. I was not surprised when I learned you had gone missing, nor later when we discovered you had left us for good. I did not understand then, not having come to my own fork in the road, but I think I may understand now.” His shoulders slumped and he suddenly looked exhausted.

I half reached out a hand to him, then drew it back before he noticed. “I am glad for you.”

“You should not be,” he replied, eyes still downcast. “If there is anything more useless than a general who thinks too much about matters other than war, then I have yet to meet it.”

I misunderstood for a moment, then his meaning struck me. “You have that backwards. It takes just that sort of man to see that every war comes to an end. Wars are not always ended by the sword, but sometimes by those who tire of the fighting.”

“Like you? That’s a pretentious cliché and you know it. Even if it does bear a grain of truth.”

“More than a grain.”

“But I still have my duty. I am too young to go off and sit with crippled veterans and reminisce about deeds that grow ever bolder in the telling. When I do that, I shall indeed be old. That is when the game ends for me.” His silver hair made his words ring hollow.

“It sounds like what you want...” I let my voice trail off on the implied question.

“No, never that. Yet I have grown tired of this, as you have, if for different reasons. I wonder whether what we do here today serves Amelior’s purpose or instead serves our mutual enemies. There is not even glory to be won in this.” He grinned wearily at my amazed expression. “Aye, Bram, I too think treason at times. Though none shall ever hear of it.”

There was something in his words I was missing, and that I needed to hear. I played for time. “If you feel that way, then stop. End it all now. You have done enough that no shame will be attached to your name, only great honor and the respect of those you served.” I felt a hint of his turmoil and hoped I was not pressing too hard.

“I need a reason, and a compelling one. The precocious wisdom of a captured traitor and oathbreaker will not convince the court, let alone His Majesty. Neither will it solve our problems at home. You know nothing of what lies at our back, and why we must have terms from Ankur before we depart.” Hopelessness was written on his face. “But these Easterners are too proud to even hear our terms.”

I was almost there, but something still eluded me. Hear our terms? I lacked the right answer, but I could at least probe closer to it. “I have one compelling reason. Volonor comes to our aid as we sit here. It is possible that, together, we may even outnumber your forces. Not even Amelior would fault you if you were to sue for peace under these conditions.”

Alexander no longer looked so fatigued. “Truth?”

“Truth! Send scouts to the northeast and see for yourself.” New hope entered my voice, for I half saw what I had been ignorant of all these years. Alexander watched me, seeking any sign of a trick, but seeing instead my new intensity. “And there is more to ponder. Am I right in assuming you are not here to conquer the East for nothing more than the glory of Amelior?”

Alexander blinked. “How could you believe that of us? Think you we are so secure we could waste our resources on conquest for its own sake?” His eyes narrowed at my look.

“Indeed, Alexander, that is precisely what we thought. Why else would you march this far if not to conquer?” Before he could answer, I continued, suddenly enlightened. “The Goblins. Of course!”

His eyes widened at my sudden understanding. “Yes, the Goblins. There are strange things afoot these days. New races of Goblins we have never seen before, large and strong as men, and just as cunning. There are as yet few of them, but if their numbers increase—and we have reason to believe this is happening—they will overwhelm us within my lifetime.”

“So you came east to obtain the resources you need to win that war. Why not send emissaries to request our aid?”

Alexander spat upon the tent floor before replying, his voice bitter. “You have lived here longer than I. Do the Easterners believe the Goblins exist? Would they now send their sons to die for us, or would they leave the struggle to us as they have done ever since the Exodus?”

“I take your point. Yet surely you should have tried?”

“We did—repeatedly. Did you ever ask yourself why we crushed Kardmin?”

I had thought for many years I knew why we had crushed our former ally, and now it was clear I had badly misunderstood the situation all these years. I shook my head, numb, one of the keystones of my world no longer in place.

“I know what you believed, and what we told you, but it was a lie. Kardmin, even after years of alliance, would not help us in our war, and we could not afford to leave them the luxury of neutrality.” He paused, and there was bitterness in his voice. “If our own allies would not help, what were the odds the East would help without coercion?”

I shook my head again, denying the realization that had grown in me as we spoke. “Your reasoning was impeccable, more's the pity. But perhaps it is not yet too late to try again.”

Alexander rose to his feet. “We have invaded Ankur’s lands, unprovoked, and you tell me it is not too late? Our hope was to intimidate you into suing for peace and agreeing to let us keep the lands we have won... with Belfalas to feed us, we might have had enough resources to defeat our enemies, at least if we could convince you to leave us our gains. And yet you say it is not too late?”

I pondered a moment. “I have enough credibility with my new masters that we would be fools not to at least try. If you can persuade your commanders there is a credible threat from Volonor, you can halt your attack long enough for me to convince my comrades to negotiate. Some, at least, of those you lead must understand the real reason you are here, and they will understand full well that encountering the combined forces of Ankur and Volonor on this field will destroy any hope of achieving your larger goals. Alexander, we must try—it is our only hope.”

His face showed his conflict, hope warring with despair. “I shall seek the evidence I need to support your words. Our last reports said Volonor was still engaged in its civil war, but if that has changed, it should buy me the time I need.” He left the tent so fast he nearly forgot to stop for the tent flap, and for the first time in two days, the tension in my stomach began to unknot. It would take all my scant gift of persuasion to convince John and his commanders to listen to my version of what had happened and to grant Amelior a fair hearing, but there was now hope we could end this war before there was no turning back. I had gambled that bringing news to Ankur would not mark me a traitor for the second time. But even in chess, one must gamble now and then.

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Chapter 10: Gareth

The catapults had stopped pounding us, but no attack came, and that was scary in its own way. But a few peaceful days later, I stood on the walls beside Alison, not quite believing what I saw. Below me, Bram rode unfettered astride a prancing horse, flanked by the enemy commander, an old guy who nonetheless looked like he belonged there. A young page came before them, white truce flag snapping to and fro in a spirited spring breeze.

“Hello the wall!” came the youth’s hail.

“Hello yourself!” I bellowed back, hope springing up and tension blown away on the winds as I saw how easily Bram was riding. He was unhurt! “And what is the meaning of this?”

The old man riding beside Bram rode up to the moat's edge and brought his powerful mount to an easy halt. Craning his head back and shading his eyes, he shouted up in a powerful voice. “It means that I, Lord Alexander of Amelior, commander of His Majesty’s armies, would talk peace with Ankur.”

For the first time in a long while, I was too flabbergasted to reply.

***

What with all the confusion that followed, I didn’t have a chance to do much more than see that Bram was really all right. He disappeared from sight with Alison for a few moments, then returned to explain the situation to us in depth. All this fuss over a simple misunderstanding? Well, perhaps not so simple a misunderstanding after all. We’d never have listened to Amelior’s requests for help, even if they'd thought to ask—though for all I knew, maybe they had asked and been turned down. And once they got their armies moving, there was no way we’d ever have believed them. If what Bram said was true, they had a mighty fine reason to get their armies safely back home.

I shook my head. Goblins! Who’d have believed it? I’d heard the same faery stories as everyone else, but until I’d met Bram, they'd just been stories.

As it turned out, we didn’t have much time to talk. The same day Bram returned to us, a messenger arrived under the flag of truce with news that Volonor was less than three days’ march away. That gave us about that much time to reach a truce; the closer Volonor got, the greater the temptation for one of us to turn things into a war again, and if they arrived without a treaty in place, old grudges might renew the war despite our best efforts to calm things down. We set up a pavilion just outside the main gate to hold the negotiators, and set about making arrangements to guard against treachery from either side. Oh, there were plenty of other commanders to share the load, but they weren’t nearly as suspicious as I was and John couldn’t trust them half so well under the circumstances. Philip, of course, got stuck with the most tedious work inside Ankur, along with the rest of the large staff responsible for the bookkeeping. I got the impression, on the whole, that Alex would play us fair—he was an honest, solid sort—but there were others I wouldn’t trust with my back turned.

Bram’s brother, for example.

Richard hung around a lot that first day, sullen, watching for Bram and being as insolent as possible to anyone who got in his way. He ignored me so pointedly I almost felt flattered. Not so much, though, that I didn’t keep a careful eye on him, particularly when I had to turn my back for any length of time. When he didn’t think I was watching, he let a betrayed expression creep back. Finally, when it looked like his frustration was getting too big to hold in anymore, I decided to put a damper on things before they got out of hand and ruined the negotiations. I intercepted him as he made to leave the secure area we’d set up.

“Hold on there.”

He made to thrust me aside, frowned more deeply than usual when he found he couldn’t shift me, and put a hand to his sword. He drew it several inches from its ornate scabbard before I grabbed his wrist and forced the blade back into its sheath. “Not so fast. You and I need to talk.”

“I have no words to waste on you. Now unhand me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. We’ve got to talk about our mutual brother.” I held up my scarred palm to remind him of the bond between us. He cleared his throat and spat onto the ground by my feet. If his anger hadn’t pleased me so much, I’d have let him draw right then and there and settled the matter. After all, accidents do happen when both parties to a truce insist on keeping weapons close at hand. But that would have pretty much ruined the negotiations, and I didn’t like to think of the distance it would have set between Bram and me.

“An oath means nothing to my brother, so he is no brother of yours and you no brother of mine.” Once again, he tried to move past me but I hadn’t released his wrist yet. He went nowhere. Like Bram, he was strong, but he didn’t have the weight to move me if I wanted to stay put.

“Suit yourself. Fact is, though, that Bram and I are brothers, even if you’ve forgotten what that means.” I met his eyes, seeing the same strength Bram had, but worn openly on top of a powerful mass of scorn and anger. “That means this matter concerns me too. You catch my drift?”

“Very well.” His voice trembled, at the edges of his control, and his hand relaxed in my grasp. “Very well. Send for our brother and remind him he has a debt of honor to be paid in blood. That is, if he has relearned anything of honor. Tell him to meet me here tonight once the talking has ended, and tell him that the matter must be settled once and for all.”

“I’ll do that. But make sure you bring a second. You might just get lucky and need one.”

I let him shake off my hand, and he brushed past and left at a fast walk.

***

I’d been waiting outside Bram’s door for almost five minutes before he came out. He put a finger to his mouth, with a whispered ‘hush, she is sleeping’. Then he took my arm and led me to a small sitting room a short way down the hall. He tucked his robe a little more about him, wincing when he touched one of his sides. I looked him over a little more closely, noticing a few bruises I’d missed before, but figuring that on the whole, he was otherwise unwounded. I leered at him, nodding my head in the direction of his chambers. “Looks like you got a pretty good working over.”

He raised an eyebrow, then rose to embrace me—lightly—before sitting back down and indicating I should join him. “My apologies that we have had so little time to talk, Gareth. I had several things to attend to that would not wait.” An awkward pause. “You look well.”

“Yup. I came through our little raid even cleaner than you did. For a change. Besides, I wasn’t going to be so selfish I’d let your wench get all jealous and kill you for kissing me first.” We smiled warmly at each other, enjoying the comradeship. Then we sat in a comfortable silence for a while.

“Something is bothering you, Gareth, not so? You never were very good at hiding your feelings.”

I gave him a hurt look. “I’m that subtle, huh? Well you’re right. I ran into Richard today. All day, in fact.” Bram’s expression grew guarded. “He’s been looking for you, and we both know why. I told him you’d come over tonight and talk or settle things, however you chose. You also know what that means.”

“I wish it were so simple, my brother. You know as well as I do that Richard will never be satisfied with just talk. One of us must die if we meet again, and you know I cannot kill him.”

“I do? I thought you’d decided to face up to the fact you might have to do some killing before this war was over.”

During the war, yes. But now it is almost over, I am done with fighting. And fratricide is not what I want to contemplate now. I have told you already what my treason must have meant to my family, but I discovered it was even worse than that.” He paused, and I could see he was making an effort to control himself. “My father died soon after I left, leaving my mother on her own, with only Richard to protect her. Young as he was, I can scarcely imagine what that meant to him. But in addition to the loss of my father, my mother lost many of her friends. Without my father, she was no longer worth courting for her influence, and indeed, in light of my treason, it would have been dangerous to show her any open support. I cannot add to her burden any further, Gareth, nor can I bring myself to feel any hatred for Richard. I only feel pity.” There was naked pain on his face now.

“Well, what it comes down to is that I promised him you’d be there. Unconscious if necessary. Not that you care whether my reputation for honesty dies here forevermore.”

“Now why would I make a liar of you, Gareth? Your reputation speaks for itself.” A painful grin appeared on his lips, then disappeared again. “You are right, however. The problem will not go away, no matter how much I might wish it to. Better to try solving it tonight than to keep putting it off until it solves itself in blood. I will be there, if for no other reason than that I owe my brother a last try.”

We will be there.”

Bram smiled. “Of course.”

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Chapter 11: Bram

I entered the pavilion ahead of Gareth, feeling an increasing sense of wrongness with every step. My feud with my brother was the largest part of what was worrying me, but there was another thing I could not pin down. When I stepped out onto the heavy canvas floor and saw Richard and Alexander standing there in the midst of a cleared section, part of the puzzle clicked into place and the whole picture took form in my mind. All the main players in this part of the bigger story were present and accounted for. Or would have been, had only the bard been here. I was relieved he was not, but after such a long struggle, the sudden denouement was too much of an anticlimax to fit my sense of rightness. Somehow, things should have ended with blood and thunder. Dariel, who had started everything, should be here, but he was nowhere to be seen or heard. That set my nerves even more on edge, for it meant he would reappear at an even worse moment. I hoped I would be there to stop him, or to at least make a better attempt than the last time.

Richard broke into my thoughts, his voice controlled but triumphant. “I am pleased to learn your honor has not wholly deserted you, brother.”

“I have always known honor, Richard, though not as you would define the word. I see the honor that drove you to this meeting, but I still fail to understand what honor lies in slaying a brother. The war is ended: let our private war end too.” I looked gravely to Alexander, who averted his eyes, but not before I saw the disapproval.

No.”

Just that one word, spoken with absolute conviction. “This must end tonight, but not in your way.” He drew a light leather glove from his belt and slapped me hard on the cheek before I could react. “I challenge you, Sir Coward, and bind you to a reply. Your honor, and that of our family, demands it.”

Alexander said nothing, but the grimness of his look spoke volumes. I felt the flush of blood in my cheeks, part shame, part sting from the glove, but I could find no anger in me nor any wounded pride. I stood in impotent silence, unable to speak. Gareth took it on himself to speak for me.

“Fair enough, we accept.” I spun towards him, feeling the shock of betrayal. He winked. “But as the challenged, the choice of weapons and conditions falls to us. We choose bare hands, and that the fight lasts until the seconds judge one man's defeated.” Alexander looked up, startled, and the look of disapproval was erased by a broad smile.

The beauty of Gareth’s solution overwhelmed me for a moment; there had been too many shocks in too short a time for me to appreciate how well he had understood me. I seized hold of my whirling thoughts and faced Richard again. “Yes,” I stated, as calm as I could. “Barehanded combat until one of us is dead or incapable of continuing. Is this acceptable?”

By way of answer, Richard shot me a feral smile and began to strip off his clothing. I followed suit more slowly until we stood naked save for our breeches and the bandages that held my ribs in place. To an outsider, we could have been twins almost, save only for Richard’s face, relieved of a tension that had dwelt there for far too long, and for my own livid bruises. I was sore, and my ribs shot fire through me if I breathed deep, but I knew the damage would not slow me once the fight began and old reflexes took over.

Alexander checked us both for readiness, with a grudging half smile, then he signaled for us to begin. I fell into a comfortable crouch, advancing on my brother. I tried to recall his weaknesses by sifting through memories of dimly remembered childhood brawls, but Richard gave me no time. He feinted once to my left, then stepped in with a sweeping blow I stepped back to avoid. Too late, I saw that this too was a feint, and his low tackle came in under my guard. We went down in a heap, Richard driving his shoulder into my midriff and giving me the worst of it. My vision dimmed as breath left me, but the stab of pain from my ribs cleared that haze before it could deepen. My instinctive grapple kept him at bay long enough for my sight to clear.

Fending his clawing hands away from my throat, I rolled in an attempt to dislodge him. He did not resist, adding to the roll so he came out on top again. I still retained a solid grip on his arms, and our legs were intertwined to stop kicks and add leverage. For a brief moment, we lay frozen in that position, muscles standing out with the strain, pain lancing in my abused ribs. Then, again too suddenly for me to react, Richard’s head darted forward and strong teeth closed on my forearm. I tore free before he could get a proper grip, losing skin and blood, but fast enough to avoid any serious damage.

That freed one of his arms, however, and he managed to land a punch that numbed my shoulder. A wild slash with clawing nails drew blood from my cheek, missing my eyes only thanks to a wild toss of my head. But before he could attempt another blow, I drove my elbow into his skull, crushing an ear, and rolled over and pulled free as his grip slackened.

I started to rise, blocking a flurry of punches, and took a weak kick in the side as he got to his feet first. My ribs shot fire through me and flesh tore, but the pain cleared my head of all else but the combat, and I rolled with the blow's force and came up facing Richard again. My blood gleamed on his heaving chest as he launched himself at me once again. There was no time to dodge, so instead I met his rush with a solid right hook. The shock traveled up my arm even as the impact of his body took me off my feet. Dazed though we both were, the now constant pain from my ribs cleared my head first, and I hit him again on his wounded ear even as he connected with a wild, weak blow to my body. He was hurt, but I—I felt the thrill of battle now, and I am shamed to say I was elated at his weakness.

Gasping for breath, ignoring the agony in my ribs, I landed another blow, pulling away from him as he collapsed. I crouched, and it was only with a strong effort that I gave him time to rise, only belatedly beginning to hope he could not. But his head rose, blood trickling from a cut lip over a weak but still-predatory smile. He gathered himself for a fresh attack but, slowed though I was, he was even slower. I rose to my feet, unleashing a kick that could have broken his neck, but he brought up an arm in time and blocked it. Bones snapped, and the kick’s momentum drove him backwards to land at Alexander’s feet. Face gone pale from the shock of the broken bones, he tried twice to rise, and failed. Feeling sick in the pit of my stomach, I forced down the urge to land one more blow.

“It is over, Richard,” I panted. “You have lost. With honor. If it was important, I could kill you now, but I want my brother alive.” He lay still, and with a mighty effort, I gathered my feet beneath me and began calming my breathing. My fist was growing numb from the blow I had dealt earlier, but my foot ached abominably from that kick. I turned and almost fell into Gareth’s arms as my muscles turned to rubber.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Richard, risen but leaning much of his weight on Alexander, suddenly use his good arm to draw the old general’s dagger. In slow motion, I saw my brother take a lurching step towards me, Gareth not reacting fast enough under my dead weight to make any defense, my own balance too far gone to react at all. Unable to avoid it, I steeled myself for the thrust. Then a sword flashed by lantern light, transfixing my brother’s chest and protruding left of center. A look of great surprise crossed Richard’s face, mouth working silently as the dagger fell from his slackening grip and landed by my feet. Richard slid forward off the sword blade and crumpled to the ground, blood pooling upon the canvas.

“And at last, honor is satisfied,” the old general whispered, wiping his sword on the bundle of Richard’s clothes, then sheathing it in a swift, economical movement.

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Chapter 12: Gareth

Volonor arrived while Bram was off mourning his brother and making arrangements to preserve the body against its return to Amelior, so my oathbrother wasn’t there to meet them. I wanted to stay and help Bram with the preparations, but duty called and I joined John in the delegation that rode out to inform Volonor of the changed situation. Predictably, they were miffed about coming all this way for a fight and then missing out on the fun. But I did see one or two looks of relief on tired faces, so I guess not everyone was disappointed.

We made arrangements to keep our new allies close at hand, just to be sure Amelior wouldn't change its mind after Richard’s death, and Volonor sent riders back eastward to explain the situation. Finally, as everyone adjusted to the new situation, casks were broached and we began a small celebration of the easy peace. I’d thought Volonor was a stiff-necked bunch of knights and such, but they turned out to be as human as the rest of us; besides, they had infantry along for the ride, and by the time our delegation rode back to Ankur, I’d decided I liked their way of doing things. Bram was nowhere to be seen when I got back, and Alison was gone too, so I let myself into their room and propped myself in a large chair by the fire. I took a half-full bottle from the table, popped the cork with my teeth, and made myself comfortable for a long wait.

***

I felt a gentle touch on one shoulder and opened an eye. Alison stood there, dressed in flowing dark robes, looking stern. When she noticed I was awake, she let go of my shoulder and stepped back, hands on hips, as if getting ready to lecture me. I opened my other eye, blew her a kiss, and sat up straighter. My head hurt, but not enough to be a bother. Bram doesn’t just drink anything in a bottle, and this stuff’d been good enough it hadn’t even left an honest hangover.

Alison scolded me. “Don’t you have a room of your own?”

I glanced down at the empty bottle lying by my feet. I put on my most woebegone look, then swapped it for a rueful smile when Alison refused to look sympathetic. “Sorry, lass. I came here to wait for you and Bram to return, and I guess I must have fallen asleep.” She cocked an eyebrow in disbelief, but I could see a smile crinkling around her eyes. “Speaking of which, where’s the man at?”

“He’s down with the body. He’s been there all night, conducting some sort of vigil. It might be an idea if you talked to him. He never listens to me.” She frowned. “I only hope he pays as much attention at my funeral.”

“Looking for a replacement already, huh? I’m not doing anything next week...”

Alison pulled her dagger and held it between us the way I’d taught her. “Over my dead body!” Then neither of us could keep a straight face any longer, and we burst out laughing. Alison bent over and kissed me on the forehead, then stood back, sheathing the dagger. “Enough of this foolery, Gareth. I really think you should see him and drag him away from that morbid place.”

I stood up, towering over her, and patted her on the shoulder. “Fear not, I shall rescue the lad and abduct him until he’s broken his fast. Good enough?”

“You’ll have trouble. He can be stubborn.”

I grabbed Alison by the waist and hoisted her smoothly until our eyes were on a level. She started to speak, but I kissed her first, and without much hesitation, she responded warmly. “So who said I was going to let him talk about it? I can be persuasive when I want to be.” She hugged me, and I hugged her back, careful not to squeeze too hard. Then I set her back on her feet, a little breathless. The woman knew how to kiss.

I left in search of Bram, feeling warm and belonging.

***

When I came across Bram, he was kneeling a short distance from the coffin, head drooping in sleep. For a moment I thought of waking him with a bucket of water, but it didn’t feel right. After all, he was in mourning for his brother, even if I had a hard time understanding why. I mean, if my brother had been a poisonous snake like Richard, living only to do me in, I’d have been the first one to celebrate his passing. Then again, I was never close with my real brother, and I couldn’t have told you whether he was even still alive.

So instead, I knelt beside Bram and shook him. He woke, stifled a huge yawn, and had to lean on me to get to his feet. I didn’t comment on the pain that shot across his face as he rose. “Good morning, Gareth.” Then he added guiltily. “Looks like I fell asleep. What brings you by?”

“I promised Alison I’d take you to breakfast, whether or not you wanted to go.” I gave him a menacing look, even though he was still leaning on me while the feeling returned to his legs. “Understand?”

Bram’s serious look vanished. “And me without my sword! Oh well, it seems I must bow to necessity,” he bowed, his legs buckling under him and only my grip keeping him on his feet. “That is, as soon as my legs will let me. Lead on, and I shall hobble behind you as best I may.”

The barracks mess was nearest and fastest, so we went there. While we ate, Philip appeared, looking for us. I shot him a glance which said ‘later’ in no uncertain terms. His hands shaped a circle on his head, mimicking a crown, but he nodded. I nodded back. Bram, still distracted, failed to notice. We finished our meal without any further disturbance, though many watched us eat.

“I think John wants us,” I said around a last mouthful of eggs. Rationing was over, and I was enjoying myself.

“Hmm. I suppose I have been somewhat neglectful of my duties of late.”

“Yeah. I hate to think where you’d be right now if John weren’t my friend.”

“Safe in Volonor, in all likelihood.” He rose, wiping his mouth on his sleeve and grinning. We went in search of John, and found him already on his way to the pavilion we’d fought in just the other day. John looked tired, so much so he wasn't amused at our respectful bows.

“Good morning, gentlemen. Very nice of you to show up.” His voice was cool, with an undertone of anger, and the guards escorting him shot us sympathetic looks. He dismissed them, taking us in tow and striding onwards until we were alone. Then he stopped.

“Is anything wrong, Sire?” Bram looked innocent, unsure of John’s mood.

“Yes, several things in fact. And Bram, don’t call me ‘Sire’ when we’re alone. Just ‘John’, all right?” Bram nodded. “Pay no heed to my moods, I’ve been up half the night arguing with Her Highness and the royal councilors, so I haven’t had much sleep.”

“Why argue? Aren’t you King?”

John looked at me sadly. “By marriage, yes; by loyalty, no.” I started to speak, but he continued. “And don’t interrupt your king again or I’ll feed your balls to the ravens.” He smiled, but there was no humor in it. “I’ve done my best here, but there are always those who are sure they could have done better. In the end, they accept my authority, but not without a struggle. Yes, Gareth, I know what you’re thinking, but I can’t begin my reign by slaughtering my entire council. Not that I haven’t been tempted, mind you. So I tolerate them, but even now I must play off one faction against the others so they can’t unite their efforts against me. Then, every so often, everyone agrees not to fight with each other long enough to give me a good working over.” John shared a malicious look with us. “It doesn’t mean I have to put up with their bickering today, however. For the moment, you two may consider yourselves honorary diplomats of Ankur, at least until such time as the real diplomats start acting diplomatic.”

Needless to say, I wouldn’t have really proposed slaughtering the whole council, but he’d known me well enough to anticipate the remark. In his place, I’m not so sure I’d have shown as much restraint as he did, however. It was yet another reason I was happy not to be king. I had too many things to worry about as it was, and the sort of restrictions he was working under always make me want to flee a place. Not the best trait to have in a king.

We arrived at the pavilion and turned our weapons over to the guards. The first meeting had ended without open violence at the table, but after Richard’s death, everyone agreed to leave weapons far from the table in case the negotiations got heated. Inside the tent, Alex and three of his command staff were already seated around the table, drinking from simple pewter mugs. Volonor’s single ambassador sat on our side of the table, watching the goings-on and ready to have his say now and then in support of Volonor. Interesting that their general wasn’t here with them. I guess he was happier in the field, where he could keep an eye on Amelior’s army. Everyone stood up to greet us, polite enough considering the circumstances.

Then the haggling began again.

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Chapter 13: Bram

Alexander cleared his throat as we sat. “Let us lay our cards on the table. Amelior is prepared to sign a treaty guaranteeing cessation of all hostilities as well as ensuring the present and future safety of the kingdoms of Ankur and Volonor. We cannot, however, relinquish any territories gained in battle at the cost of Ameliorite lives. Nor shall we pay recompense for any damages, real or imagined, done during these necessary campaigns. These negotiations are for mutual peace and support in the coming struggle with the Goblins, not to arrange an advantage for any particular side.” Alexander glanced about him, trying to give the impression of a man who would rather fight than make concessions. Nonetheless, we both knew this opening was for the benefit of his commanders, and I had told John and my fellow commanders as much.

The new King nodded, and spoke in his turn. “These things we understand. However, as King of Ankur and thus, acting as representative of the free peoples of the east, I cannot accept certain portions of your terms. Indeed, as the inevitable loser in this struggle, it behooves you to accept such terms as Ankur and Volonor see fit to impose.”

Both sides had now laid out their initial bargaining positions, and we could set ourselves to the task of finding mutually acceptable common ground. Volonor’s ambassador nodded his approval, but it appeared we had set our marker just a bit too far. Alexander’s face turned grim and he gathered himself to rise. I spoke first, forestalling him, wondering how it could be that a situation so beneficial to everyone could have progressed so rapidly in the wrong direction.

“If I might speak? Thank you. Let me remind those assembled here that neither side has yet conquered the other. We meet here under the flag of truce... not to discuss terms of surrender, but rather, as Lord Alexander has indicated, to discuss an acceptable end to our war and the potential beginning of a new, graver one. Though it is true the forces of Amelior are outnumbered and outflanked, any battle would produce a pyrrhic victory that would impoverish all our nations for generations, irrespective of the outcome. Worse, it would leave us vulnerable to the threat of our ancient enemies, the Goblins. For our own sakes, gentlemen, and the sakes of those generations who will follow us, let us settle this matter with words, not swords.”

I glanced around the table, wincing. I had resolved to be diplomatic about the whole thing, and I had said what needed to be said to remind them our purpose was too important for such games. Sadly, my choice of words had been strained, perhaps even melodramatic. It was obvious I had far to go if I were to become a statesman and exchange my sword for sharper tools. But my words nonetheless had the desired effect. The Ameliorites knew well the consequences of failure, and I had convinced the eastern contingent to at least consider the problem with an open mind. Alexander relaxed and settled back in his chair.

Thereafter, John and Alexander spoke in a less confrontational manner, whether because I had persuaded them or out of fear of a repeat of my rhetoric. It soon became obvious there would be no military solution to our problem. Amelior’s spies had been almost supernaturally efficient, and they knew very well how extended and vulnerable Volonor’s lines of supply were in the wake of their civil war. We, on the other hand, now knew that Amelior could not afford to meet us on the field, for even if they won, their losses would be such that they would lose any imminent struggle with the Goblins; neither could they remain long in the field, for the Goblins would soon notice Amelior's thinned ranks, perhaps leading to a strong offensive. However, if Amelior lost that war against the Goblins—a thought that sent a chill up my spine—the burden of defending the east would fall on our shoulders, something neither Volonor nor Ankur desired. Balanced on those points, we spent the morning discussing details of how to preserve that balance.

Neither side left the table save when nature’s demands made it necessary. Meals were brought to us, tasters tasted them to guarantee their safety, and we argued and cajoled until well after sunset. But by then, we had reached the inevitable conclusion that Belfalas lay at the heart of things. From the way we had sounded each other out, it began to appear we could reach a compromise by leaving Amelior the lands west of Belfalas, and using the Belfalasian farmlands as a independent and neutral buffer between East and West. Having reached that unspoken conclusion, wiser heads prevailed and we chose to postpone any further discussion until the morrow. Tired, frustrated men were far too likely to say something now that would lose us what ground we had gained, and tomorrow was still soon enough for a resolution.

Once we had returned to the palace, and John had dismissed us until the morrow, I drew Gareth aside. When we were alone, I glanced around me to confirm no one was within earshot. “Brother, I want you to meet me in the pavilion tomorrow morning, at least two hours before dawn. Come alone, but come armed.”

Through the day, Gareth had made no secret about his boredom, but now he looked alert and interested. “That’s an odd thought. Don’t you think you might raise a few eyebrows if you try to smuggle weapons into the tent?”

“You misunderstand me. It is precisely because things are going so well that we must be there.” Comprehension dawned on Gareth’s broad face.

“Ahh! You mean our musical friend will be there.”

“Exactly. I am under no delusions about the brilliance of my wit as a negotiator—the seriousness of our problems and the misunderstandings that have arisen must have done so because someone not at the table continues to manipulate events. Having come so close to a resolution, we may have made it necessary for a more direct intervention in our affairs.” The possibility that Dariel had been absent because we had been working in whatever direction he intended did not bear thinking on.

“My guess is that someone will die tomorrow, and that thereafter it will be impossible to stop things short of a bloodbath.”

“Can’t argue with that. If, say, John dies, the power struggle among the remaining nobility will tear Ankur apart. If Alex is the target, same story on the other side, except the eventual leader will be wanting to crush us and make their own reputation. I’d bet he’s not having an easy time with his own staff. If it’s Volonor’s man, then we reallyhave fun. They're barely willing to sit still even now.”

A thought struck me then. “Gareth, come and stay with Alison and me tonight.”

“Huh?”

“We must also consider the possibility you or I could be the next target. We may be the only ones who comprehend the threat posed by Dariel, and that means we are in danger too. Together, we can protect each other.”

“No dice, bro’. He’s had plenty of opportunity to get rid of us, and he hasn’t even tried. Don’t forget, he could have killed you that night in the snow without raising a sweat. That means John and Alex are still the best targets. We’re not that important.”

I thought for a moment before conceding his points. “True enough. But sleep lightly, and keep guards by your door. Pass on the warning to John too—Alexander should be safe in his camp; if not, there is no warning we could give him that he would believe.”

We clasped hands. “And you watch yourself too, bro’.” We parted then, going our separate ways.

***

I slept poorly that night, with Alison in my arms because she felt like she belonged there, not because we were in the mood for lovemaking. I had told her my fears, and that halted anything else that might have developed.

When the time came for me to leave, she was already awake and we embraced. Alison had grudgingly accepted what it meant to be a soldier’s wife, but she liked it not at all. I wished I had her equanimity, and hoped to have an opportunity to change the pattern of our lives after today. To make things easier on myself, I left without looking back, buckling on my sword as I walked. The guards at our door saluted briskly despite the early hour, and I returned their salute. With them there and alert, I at least had no need to bear with me any worries about Alison.

There were no guards outside the pavilion, for each side had agreed to search it together each time the negotiators arrived. That mutual inspection would promote a sense of partnership, but more important, would give neither side an opportunity for treachery. We had come far in a very few days, but by no means were we ready to trust each other implicitly just yet. That would have to change if Amelior’s interpretation of the military situation in the west was correct.

By now, I could sense a presence in the air, bringing me to full alertness, and I drew my sword. This time, I would take Dariel’s life without pausing to agonize over the decision. Experience had shown I could not defeat him if I left him time to talk or to anticipate my moves. There was no sign of Gareth yet, so I entered the tent to determine whether Dariel or his emissary had arrived. I was unsure how I knew he would be coming, but the heavy silence that hung about the pavilion told me all I needed to know.

He was waiting for me as I entered, glossy black hair aswirl about his shoulders, harp between us and gleaming in the lamplight. Sword in hand, I rushed at him, knowing as I did that he was too far away. He stood unmoving, unperturbed, blue eyes confident, not needing to look to the harp cradled in his arms. As before, his fingers brushed the strings and I felt their echo in my heartbeat and in the sudden paralysis that took hold of me. I came to a full halt, swaying, more than a sword’s length distant.

His mellow voice fell in the tent’s silence, heavy with its power, as his fingers continued to move in a complex pattern on the harp. “No, Bram. You cannot kill me. Have you not understood yet that we both serve a higher power, and one who has set my role for me?”

My voice, at least, was still my own. “I must try. If you kill Alexander or John now, all our striving will have been in vain.” His fingers moved on the harp, but I heard nothing; instead, the music had become a visceral thing that moved in me, almost beneath the threshold of perception, yet beginning to throb in my ears like my pulse after heavy exertion.

“Fate cannot be thwarted. There is a symphony playing that you cannot hear, and your part in it has been a rich one. But all songs must come to an end, and it was not by your own will that you came to know I would be here, waiting for you.”

His fingers continued to caress the harp's strings, and my vision began to dim. A part of me knew I should be afraid, yet there was a terrible feeling of appropriateness growing in me. Dimly, a great weight dropped from my right arm, and I felt the dull shock of impact as I fell to my knees in its wake.

Dariel’s voice went on, resonating in my ears above the beat of my pulse and his music, though all other sounds had long since ceased. “Soon you shall sleep, and as you do, an Ameliorite loyal to your brother shall slip into this tent. Finding you helpless, he will revenge himself for your brother's death; Gareth will arrive shortly afterwards, and slay the soldier in turn. There will be an awkward time in which both sides accuse the other of treachery, but the fear of the war that would follow will ensure the truce holds.”

He paused. “Sleep now, Bram, for you have done your part. But your death shall not be in vain. The forces at work today are neither arbitrary nor random.”

With what was left of my consciousness, I felt myself topple forward and strike the floor. There was no pain, and as my eyes closed I began to float, cradled as if in a large basin of warm water. Dariel’s words foretold my death, yet adrift on the warm waters of his spell, that was meaningless. Heedless, I floated onwards, tugged hither and yon by the aimless currents of a dream I could not perceive, lulled by the rhythm of the waters I had once imagined soothing my ancestors to sleep during that long-ago ocean passage. Part of me knew this painless oblivion was desirable, an end to all my troubles such as no warrior could hope for.

Then, as I drifted away amidst a featureless fog, my thoughts merging with that deep, abiding rhythm, a tugging began at my mind. I resisted, peevish, unwilling to be disturbed even were the world itself at stake. But urgent words arose in the void, riding atop that same rhythm that drew me away, relentlessly forcing me to heed them, for I lacked the strength of will to evade them.

“Fie, young Bram! Is it thus easily you surrender?” The voice was familiar, but I remained too numb to be curious. “What would your coarse brother think?”

Gareth? He would understand. I started to drift away again, but a face appeared before me, incongruous amidst the peaceful surroundings. Part of me supplied the word ‘Grace’, but the rest of me lost interest and continued its slow slide into oblivion and the image began to fade. Thin lips pursed, the voice ever more urgent.

Stop that! Come back to me, lad, come back.” Then she was blotted away by the fog that had arisen, and Alison replaced her, a worried, loving look in those familiar eyes. I was warmer, and my attention focused languidly on her. “Have you forgotten your oath? And even so, if you be not concerned ’bout Gareth, then be you concerned for her?”

At the mention of our oath, something stirred in me, a fire I could feel in the palm I had forgotten I possessed. With that fire came pain, and the sensation my palm was once more connected to me by an arm. I found it harder to hear the rhythm that was drawing at me, and the gentle warmth that cradled me slipped away. Alison had spoken with Grace’s voice, something that alarmed me. “Alison?” I mumbled past thick lips. “... or Grace? You’re dead...”

 “Nay, lad,” the warm old voice chuckled, relieved. “Witches don't die the same way as ordinary folk. And I’ve a debt to repay.”

The fog clung less thickly now to my thoughts, and I clutched at Grace’s words as a child to its mother. But the fire that burned in my arm was stronger still, and as I focused on it, strength rose in me once again. I found myself fighting the emptiness that clutched and drew at my consciousness, trying to take me away again.

“I do not understand.”

“Never you mind, Bram, never you mind. My time is short and I must pass on something a’fore I depart. Wake yourself, for their sakes, and fight on. Destroy his focus, else you’re done before you begin.”

Her voice began to fade, leaving me alone with that numbing rhythm. Her face remained longer, but at last it too was swept away, unrecognizable long before its echoes faded from my mind.

“I cannot understand. Help me, Grace!” But my words were swallowed by a resurgence of the fog, and that deceptive peace sucked once more at my strength. It would be so easy to give in, to seek rest at last! But there was another rhythm now pulsing in me, moving up my arm from the fire in my palm, and it fought with the other rhythm for dominance. Alison’s face returned then, a memory of times of love and peace and the hope for something new in my life. Together, these two things renewed me. I was no longer ready to slip away, not with an unborn child who would never see its father if I surrendered. With regret, and with growing fear at my weakness, I turned my back on that beckoning emptiness and forced myself to wake. As in a nightmare, the harder I struggled, the harder my body resisted. Fog swirled about me faster now, cold and cloying in the breeze that tore it to tatters, but negated by the warmth growing in me.

There came a sudden easing of tension, and the spell’s fabric blew into shreds about me and was borne away by an invisible, silent wind. With that, I forced my eyes open.

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Chapter 14: Gareth

I arrived late and there was no sign of Bram. There was no sound from the nearby city nor from enemy camp just outside its walls. I made a point to talk to John about this when we got back, ’cause the war wasn’t over and I didn’t want anyone getting too confident just yet. I looked around, only then noticing the lamplight inside the tent and spotting a slim figure standing in silhouette. So Bram was inside already! Getting ready for a taunting at my lateness, I cradled the heavy crossbow in the crook of my arm and entered the tent. What I saw startled me so much that I was slow in raising my weapon.

Bram lay slumped on the floor, scarcely breathing, and standing over him, back towards me, stood Dariel. He was busy at the table, and since I'd learned not to give this enemy time to plan, I let fly at his back. It was impossible to miss him at that range, and the bolt flew straight and true. The iron head struck dead on below his shoulder blade, just left of the spine.

Swearing, I let the crossbow drop. Instead of transfixing the bastard’s heart like it should have, the bolt stopped as if it’d hit a wall, then dropped to the floor with a faint clatter. The bard turned, setting aside his harp bag on the table where he’d just been fussing with it. His look was grim, but not at all surprised, and I turned my eyes away. I’d just as soon have met the gaze of a viper.

“I bid you welcome, Gareth, though you come too early.”

“Too early? What do you mean by that?”

With a graceful movement, he pointed at Bram, regretful. “He sleeps, and you shall be unable to wake him. His time has come, and neither you nor I can change that fate. We must both leave now; you can return soon.”

I felt cold, the one time I can remember such fear. “The only way you’re leaving is over my dead body. And you’re unarmed, despite that trick with the crossbow. So you’d better wake Bram for me.” I put my hand to my sword.

He shook his head. “What I want does not matter.” He kicked the fallen crossbow bolt aside. “Nor what you want. You cannot harm me with weapons, as you have seen.”

“We’ll see about that.” I drew my sword and advanced on him, aiming a heavy overhand blow at the angle between his shoulder and his neck. My sword stopped with a clang!, the impact nearly tearing it free from my grip. The edge was blunted, but though Dariel flinched, the impact didn’t budge him so much as an inch. I aimed another blow, a disemboweling stroke, with the same result. All the while, he stood before me, calm as a statue, happy enough to let me convince myself he wasn’t lying. Panting, I stepped back.

Now are you convinced? Gareth, you cannot stop me, but neither is this your time. Leave now of your own free will, else I must compel you.”

In the silence, Bram moaned and began to stir. Dariel looked vastly surprised for a second, then he stepped back, face impassive again. As I turned to Bram, relief going through me like bad water, Dariel reached for his harp where it lay in the bag on the table. I let him, not sure what I could do to stop him anyway. Instead, I crouched beside Bram and helped him sit up, braced against a table leg. He was so weak he could hardly hold himself up even then, and his skin was corpse-cold.

Bram! You’re all right now, bro’. What happened?”

He managed a weak smile. “I shall be fine Gareth, but it was a near thing.” His voice was low and so lifeless I had to lean closer to hear his words. “Dariel thought I was next, and sang me to sleep.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the bard slipping the harp out of its bag.

“He said I wouldn’t be able to wake you. Why was he wrong?”

“I am not sure I understand why.” Bram’s eyes narrowed as he looked past my shoulder, losing that dreamy look. “Stop him, Gareth. He says I am next, and he has not given up yet.” His voice had strengthened, but there was desperation in it now.

I rose and advanced on the bard, who now held that fancy harp in his hands. “Put that down, Dariel. I’m not going to let you do that to Bram again.”

From behind me, Bram’s strengthening voice muttered something. “Focus... did she mean...?”

“Move away, Gareth. You cannot stop me and you must not try. You cannot comprehend the need.”

“All I understand is that you got away from us a few times and you won’t do it again.” I lunged at him and tried to grapple. To my relief, I found I could hold him, though not without a struggle. Slim as he was, even with his arms pinned against his sides, he had plenty of muscle and knew plenty about infighting. But he was trying to protect his harp, and that gave me the advantage I needed.

Bram’s voice came louder still, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying.

Then the harp fell, jarred from Dariel’s grip, and it struck the ground with a harsh noise. The sound echoed and swelled in the tent, then vanished, but it doubled me over in agony, hands clutched tight around my chest; I could feel it tearing through me the way the assassin’s knife had done in Belfalas, only worse. Dariel himself reeled, and Bram fell sideways with a scream.

“Forgive me, Gareth, I had not intended for that to happen.” Through the receding pain, Dariel sounded like he meant it. I tried to climb back to my feet using the table as a crutch, and I managed to make it to one knee. The whole room darkened at that, and a sour taste rose in my mouth to match the tremors in my belly.

Through the pain and fear in Bram’s voice, I heard triumph. “The focus is the harp! Gareth, smash the harp!”

I hurled myself at Dariel, but he was faster. The harp came into his hands, fingers snatching at the strings, and I braced myself for the pain... but nothing happened. The bard’s eyes widened in shock, then, unmistakable panic. Then I hit him, and though I had braced myself in case I was trying to knock down a stone wall, he went down beneath me, off balance. Again, the harp flew from his fingers, but this time nothing happened other than a faint chime from the strings. I got to my feet, dragging Dariel with me, and he didn’t resist; his eyes were closed and raised to the sky as if he was about to faint.

Meanwhile, Bram had crawled to where the harp lay and took it up in his arms, looking at it as if he was holding a dangerous wild animal.

Dariel’s eyes opened, and the panic was gone. “It is over, and my role in this is ended. But you must not break the harp.”

Bram rose, leaning against the table, face grey and muscles shaking with the effort. “Too much has happened for us to trust you now. You leave us no choice. Farewell, Dariel.”

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Chapter 15: Bram

I raised the harp high over my head, and brought it smashing down on the heavy oaken table. After the pain that had washed through me the first time the harp fell, I was expecting far worse when it broke. But when the harp struck the table, there was only the brash sound of ancient wood snapping and a plaintive sort of echo from the strings. What had lain in my arms as a solid, unified piece, now hung limp, broken and lifeless.

Dariel’s face had fallen when I raised my arms, and now it was as if a light had gone out of it. “That harp was older than your civilization. I told you, there was no need to destroy it... my role here has ended.”

He stretched out his hand, and I handed him the broken harp. Moving like an old man, he pulled free from Gareth’s grip and went to the table to replace the harp in its bag. When that was done, he straightened his shoulders with an obvious effort, and turned back to us.

“You know a small part of what has happened here, but it will be long, if ever, before you understand what has happened. I will leave you with one thought, since all that is left now is speech: It was for this moment I was sent, for which you and your companions came together, for which all the deaths and struggle and pain occurred. What you have begun here must continue, else everything will have been for naught.”

Gareth met my eyes, then looked back at the bard. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere. It looks an awful lot like your magic has deserted you, and I’d bet a year's wages my sword won’t bounce this time.”

Strangely, Dariel smiled, life returning to him with that gesture. “Gareth, have you learned nothing? You could not have stopped me had it not been time. It is true my role here has ended, but there is yet much for me to do elsewhere. I bid you farewell, and hope you can heed my words.”

Gareth reached for Dariel, but his hands passed right through the bard. Dariel had begun to fade from our sight, vanishing like the frost on a kettle set to warm on a winter campfire.

I turned to Gareth, noticing as I did how the odd silence that had gripped the tent had faded along with the bard. Around us came the familiar sounds of a waking military encampment and the changing of the guard. It was as if nothing had happened that morning, as if nothing had changed.

“Next time let’s take the harp for a souvenir, huh?” Gareth’s voice was subdued, but there was a grin on his face nonetheless.

“Agreed, brother, but if it is all the same with you, I would prefer that there not be a next time.”

We laughed together in the dawn, knowing we had reached an unexpectedly happy conclusion. There was considerable work that lay ahead, but for the first time, I could hope that it was work within our ability to perform.

***

It was still early, long before we were due to meet with Amelior to continue our negotiations. I led Gareth to the castle’s smithy, deserted at that time of day, and he followed me without question, though he looked perplexed. As he watched, I locked my sword into the anvil’s vise and went to obtain the smith’s heavy hammer.

“Bram?”

I spoke to him, musing, still not certain of my feelings. “I told you once a man could not run away from what he truly was.”

“Yes,” he agreed, impatient, “and then you accepted your responsibility and took up the sword again. You made the right choice, bro’.”

“Indeed, for the time I did choose right. But not for the reasons you thought. I had renounced war before we met, and I returned to it only out of necessity. Our oath bound me to you, and you were walking a different, more dangerous path than I had believed myself to be upon. Later, there was Alison to defend. Dariel leads me to question how much say I had in any of those choices, and I must test that now before I can sleep again.”

Gareth snorted. “Choices? Don’t get all witchy on me. We did what we wanted to do, not what we had to do.”

I paused, the hammer heavy in my hand. “After all we have seen, I would have hoped you had more faith in witchcraft. We both know magic is not a thing that only exists in children’s tales, Gareth, and I will sleep far easier if I can be sure it no longer influences our lives. The way of the sword was chosen for me, and I would test now whether I can abandon it of my free will. Though a man cannot escape what he is, he can at least try to change what he has become.”

“And you think that breaking your sword will prove anything? Look around you, bro’.” His arm swept the room, encompassing dozens of weapons in various stages of completion. “We can find you another sword in less time than it takes to break that one.”

I paused, knowing full well he was right, yet certain I had to try. “You are right, of course, but I must make this test nonetheless.” I hefted the hammer, then brought it down with all my strength on the sword hilt. The hammer sped downwards, propelled by all my strength, and struck the blade at its juncture with the hilt. There came the impact's sharp chime, but the sword only shifted in the vise. I tightened the vise and tried again, with the same result, then again. A tremor began in my arm, and a coldness spread throughout my body. There was no sign I had even bent the bright blade that mocked me in the torchlight.

Gareth took the hammer from my hand, and pushed me aside. “Let me try.” He raised the hammer in both hands, impressive muscles bunching in his shoulders, and struck the sword with all of his strength. This time, the weapon flew apart, blade and hilt flying in opposite directions, but a shard of the blade scored a shallow gash in my forearm. In the silence after the hammer blow, I imagined I heard the sound of a harp’s strings. As I reached to stanch the wound, the blood ceased welling on my arm and the wound closed over. I shivered.

“I think, brother, I have just been given a message.”

Gareth’s voice held awe. “Bloody magic.” He looked as if he were about to say more, then reconsidered.

I touched his arm. “Gareth, like it or not, I have been given a message. I am weaponless for now, but not by my own doing. It appears I can no longer deny what I am, though for the moment I have been released from the need to prove it.”

Gareth knelt to gather the pieces of my sword, then stopped before his fingers touched them. “And you think you’ll need to prove it again soon?”

I reflected a moment. “Our war with Amelior is over; if there had been any doubt, I have none after what Dariel said. But the problem with the Goblins will not end any time soon.”

“And if we’ve got to do it all over again?”

I met his eyes, and there was warmth in my voice. “Then, my brother, you will be there to provide me with another sword... and someone to wield it beside.”

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