The Heart Of A Warrior
by Dan Devine
Early in the summer of my
seventeenth year, I was called to stand before the Council of the Leth.
Many still called these creatures,
our conquerers, monsters. Though I myself did not fear them, I was
to find that others did.
Their pale grey skin was smooth and
glossy, but as cold and hard as bone. In well lit rooms, such as their
Chamber, one’s reflection was visible within it.
The sheer size of them was
threatening. The smallest of the Leth were a third as tall again as the
man I knew.
It did not help that enormous fangs
protruded whenever they opened their mouths.
The Leth walked upright, but hunched
over, liked a stooped old man. Their freakishly long arms reached to
ground, and bent in odd places and alien ways. When in a hurry they
on all fours like animals, or leap like frogs and travel great
Those spindly arms held surprising
strength. Despite their slim, lanky forms, I’d seen Leth tear
men in half with their bare hands.
Of course, that had been back during
the Conquest, when I was a young boy and my father had been leading
men to die in resistance.
In the two decades and more since
the Council had imposed their rule, peace and prosperity had settled
land of Aravath. It was true that many lives had been lost to the Leth,
bringing an end to the constant warfare between our City-States had
saved hundreds more. I had faith that whatever minds lurked behind the
white orbs that served as their eyes bore malice only for those humans
disrupted their plans.
In return for the protection and the
guidance of the Council, we the nobility now served at their command.
so we affirmed our right to sovereignty over our subjects, allowing
lead safe and peaceful lives.
A summons before the Council could
confer a punishment as well as a task, however. The Leth disliked
human affairs directly, choosing instead to send the leaders of
City-States on suicide missions, assuming that the successor would take
and make the changes necessary to please them.
As the reigning Sufarian king, my
appearance here was long overdue. I was glad to see that I had not been
summoned alone. Even if I trusted that the Council’s goals
aligned with those
of my people in the long view, I could not be certain that I had done
to anger them in my management of Sufar. Certainly, I had not been
rebellious or militant, but the logic of the Leth existed beyond the
human comprehension. The most flagrant offenders of the
Council’s orders were
at times rewarded, while seemingly minor misunderstandings occasionally
the ultimate penalty.
I recognized the sandy-haired,
broad-shouldered man kneeling to my right as Prince Hektor, heir
the throne of Gawayne. I
presence was a good omen. Gawayne was a distant province from Sufar,
but I knew
Hektor’s father had established a reputation as a loyal
follower of the Leth.
This made it less likely that we had been singled out for punishment.
The third member of our party was
well known to me. Lady Shara was a minor nobless of the Idali court.
Sufar were long-standing allies, and Shara was technically a distant
mine. Her lithe athletic figure sported uncontrollably unkempt red
full lips favored an enticingly direct manner of speech. I had fancied
years. A fact to which she remained inexplicably ignorant. Regardless,
established a fairly close friendship, and I could not have chosen a
Shara felt my eyes upon her, and
offered me a mischievous wink.
“Arise!” rumbled the Council
spokesman at an impressive volume., catching me off guard during my
of the lady, and causing me to flinch.
Leth were able to speak human languages, but only slowly and
with great difficulty. This meant that an appearance before the Council
usually either terse or tedious. I was hoping for the former.
The six Council members were arrayed
before us in a small semi-circle, each behind their own sculpted stone
They were raised upon a slight dais, which was rather unnecessary
their size. Each Leth was dressed in a simple wrap of a single solid
This, I knew, was a show of status. The vast majority of the Leth were
unfamiliar with the concept of clothing.
The spokesman stood directly before
us, on the same level, wearing a garment of dull black cloth.
“State your names and positions for
A useless formality. They knew well
who we were. I could tell Shara was struggling against her usual urge
We listed our names, titles, and
lands. The spokesman nodded in approval.
you stand before us willing to fulfill your obligations as
nobility per the covenant between the rulers of Aravath and the Council
Leth?” he asked.
“We do,” the three of us responded
ritually and in near-unison. Only one man had had the gall to challenge
Council by answering no to this question, and even the most stolid of
recalled the fate of Ekbar the Unfortunate with a queasy stomach.
“Then you are ordered to travel
immediately to the Forests of Blackyew, in the province of
Clou,” he said, “A
small group of bandits has infested the
forest and threatens to
if left unchecked.”
This seemed a simple and
straight-forward mission. Clou was a wild land on the distant edges of
Aravath. Its people
were few, and its
king was old and frail. I was not surprised that he would petition the
for help. The only question was what we would face once we got there.
“You are not to rest until they have
been completely removed from Aravath. Delay is forbidden and will be
accordingly. You are authorized to act as you see fit, in the Name of
The spokesman made a motion of
dismissal with his baton of office. The Council members themselves had
spoken, but I had been told that this was not unusual.
I turned to leave. Shara followed my
lead, Hektor did not.
“If it please the Council,” asked
the prince. “What is the size of the force that the bandits
have at their
I winced inwardly. If Council had
wished to tell us any more they would have done so. The nobles of Clou
have up-to-date information to share with us when we arrived. His
a needless one, and it never paid to try the patience of the Council.
not likely to answer.
“At last report they numbered no
more than a dozen,” replied the Red Councilwoman, proving me
wrong. “Only a few
are considered warriors of any merit.”
Hektor gave a sweeping bow.
“I thank the Council for honoring me
with this knowledge.”
He smiled arrogantly, and he strode
over to join us at the exit.
“Looks like we’re headed for
he observed. “I’d hoped for a tour of duty
somewhere a bit more civilized, but
it certainly beats being ordered to conquer Altabi
single-handedly.” This was
said in jest, but had been the actual order given many years past to
Jordain of Jerus. He had been one of Aravath’s more outspoken
the Leth during the period immediately following the Conquest. Needless
he had not survived the attempt.
Shara laughed, and smiled prettily
at his wit.
“I never thought I‘d be so pleased
to visit the middle of nowhere,” she confided.
I only grunted in response. I did
not think it paid to act casual in the presence of the Council; I would
withhold my comments until we’d at least stepped outside of
Our journey to Clou proved
uneventful, which was not much of a surprise. The Leth had enforced an
of borders between the City-States, and with no wars to fight against
another, each city’s military was able to effectively police
its own province.
The only difficulty I encountered
along the way was that my initial impression of Hektor’s
haughtiness had not
been mistaken. I found him to be rude, pretentious, and not
intelligent. Since he was a few years my elder, he spoke to me as if I
ignorant younger brother. As a king being addressed by a mere prince, I
this treatment infuriating. I seethed silently, however.
I told myself that our chore would
soon be over, and it was better to try and avoid the conflict that
likely to be looming between us.
Shara certainly did not share my
opinion of the prince. She appeared charmed by the man and laughed at
practically everything he had to say. Despite our friendship, I found
difficult to enjoy our time together. Whenever I tried speaking to her,
would interrupt and correct or expound on what I was saying with his
I found my words garnering less and
less of Shara’s attention as we proceeded. The further we
traveled, the more I
felt ignored. By the time we reached Clou, I was actually glad to see
farmland and scattered hovels. It was a relief to reach the castle and
The décor of the royal banquet hall
was somewhat threadbare and out of style, and if the food provided was
it was also less than extravagant. Still, King Bordis’
greeting made up for all
of this with its warmth and enthusiasm. He thanked us repeatedly, and
us as saviors of his realm.
Bordis had even trotted out the
entire court of Clou for the occasion, and dressed them in their finest
Marrying off a niece or sister to be a queen in Sufar or Gawayne would
been a political coup for the old geezer.
Unfortunately for my fellow monarch,
all of his own sons had died before they could marry, and none of his
siblings were any younger than he was. Thus, even if Hektor and I had
inclined to settle for a hedge wife from here on the periphery, there
lady at the table who I would have trusted to be in her childbearing
I wondered idly what would happen
here in a few years. The noble line appeared in real danger of dying
would the Leth do if that happened? Invent a new one? Cede the
territory to a
duke from some other province? I made a mental note to arrange a
one of my minor lords or ladies when this mission was over. The
Nestor looked barely sixty. He was a widower but might be persuaded to
again. If I could snare him with a pretty young wife, their
might very well come to rule over Clou.
A crowned head need always be
We all made polite small talk over
dinner, complimenting Bordis and his relatives on their hospitality and
province. Finally, every pastried layer of dessert had been defeated,
talk could turn more serious.
The dishes were removed, but the
glasses of wine remained. I found that Hektor was in no hurry to broach
subject of our quest, busy as he was recounting a tale of a victory in
tournament melee to Shara and two of Bordis‘ more handsome
I was all too happy to interrupt his
“I hate to darken the mood of such a
wonderful evening,” I said loudly to the king, pleased when I
saw the other
conversations falter as their participants turned to regard me.
“But I fear the
time has come to focus upon the real purpose of our visit. I must ask
you know of the bandits inhabiting the Forest of Blackyew.”
Bordis frowned and muttered
something softly to himself. I couldn’t quite make out the
“I have little enough to tell,” he
complained more loudly. The assembled nobility murmured in agreement.
warn you, King Brandon, the term bandits is somewhat misleading. These
you typical ruffians.
“Their leader seems well educated
and well spoken. And while they have been raiding the caravans that
along the forest between Aravath and her neighbors, one gets the
that they are not seeking personal riches.”
“But then why else would they attack
these merchants?” asked Hektor skeptically.
“I believe their goal is to disrupt
trade itself,” explained Bordis. “And to weaken our
country as a whole.”
“They‘d have to be part of a larger
army,” I observed. “Interference with the trade
routes passing through Clou is
an annoyance to the Council, but it could hardly bring Aravath to its
“Indeed!” agreed Hektor, with a rap
of his fist upon the table. “We’d never surrender
just because they’ve stolen
some silks and sculptures.”
Bordis shrugged in response.
“I haven’t been able to figure it
out, either. There seemed to be a dozen or so of them when they first
sighted, but I’ve no idea how many there are now. I suppose
they’re being reinforced and will grow bolder as time
progresses, though I’ve
no clear evidence that this is the case.
“I warned the Council that this may
be the part of some broader invasion, but they assure me that there
no related activities reported in the other provinces. I did my own
within the noble community and was told the same. Whoever these people
seem to be acting on their own, at least for now.”
“How is it you know less about them
now than when they first appeared?” asked Hektor, his polite
tone not quite
able to cover the implied insult of his words.
“It’s the damned commons!”
Bordis with a sudden unexpected anger. I jumped slightly, then
hoped that no one had noticed. It was a good reminder that this man had
defending the border of our country since my late father was a child.
have been in his last years, but he was not some fool to be trifled
Fortunately for the prince, his fury
was directed at his own subjects and not Hektor.
“Oh, sure! They came running to me
for help at first, but ever since the bastards made it known that they
town to stay, the bloody farmers seem to have befriended them!
I’ve half a mind
to behead the whole lot of them as traitors.”
“Why in the world would your
commoners side with rebels?” asked Shara, her forehead
crinkling in confusion.
Bordis laughed bitterly.
“Hard to say since once they both
started getting along so well, no one’s been telling me
anything. Half a dozen
wagons will be raided within a stone’s throw of a field
that’s busily being
plowed, and no one sees a damned thing.”
“We shall have to question the
peasantry ourselves, then,” resolved Hektor, grinding a fist
in his palm, “and
see if we can’t convince them to be more outspoken.”
welcome to try,” the king told him, his voice a bit cold.
“The Leth suggested these outlaw
soldiers may be mainly lacking in skill.
Do you know if that is true?” asked Shara
“The few times my family has
actually caught them in the act, they’ve turned tail and run
as soon as they’ve
seen us. We’ve killed a couple, but have been unable to
capture any alive.
They’re good enough to cut through caravan guards like paper,
but it’s true
that none of the fallen were a match for a noble of Aravath.
“Their leader and his lieutenants
are a different story, though. A month past they fought Nestor and his
men to a
standstill to cover their unit’s retreat.”
“Their leader wears golden armor,”
said Nestor, his voice hoarse and rough. “He calls himself
Like the dissident that Hektor had
joked about before. The one that the Leth had ordered to his death.
“That’s folly!” objected the
“Jordain died bravely, attempting to fulfill his duty. There
were dozens of
“All of whom were Leth that were
there to ensure that he died even more brutally if he
“This man fought like a true noble!”
argued Nestor. “I’ve faced more than my share of
bandits, mercenaries, and
soldiers of Altabi. He was better than any of them. I’m old
but I’m not yet
Hektor snorted disdainfully.
“Did it ever occur to you that
bandits might seem a lot faster to you now than they were forty years
Nestor was on his feet in a second.
“You want to find out if I’m still
quick, you snot-nosed pup?”
“Enough!” shouted Bordis and I
simultaneously, drowning out the prince’s cocky reply.
A bit abashed, I nodded
apologetically to the other king—silently acknowledging that
it was he who
ruled at this table, and he who would discipline its occupants.
“Nestor, sit down! You will not
attack a guest within my hall,” he bellowed. Hektor snickered
and the king
fixed him with a piercing stare. “No matter how lacking the
fool is in
The prince sneered, but thankfully
had the good sense to keep his mouth shut for once.
Bordis tossed back the last of his
“I think we have told you all that
you need to know,” the king stated firmly. “Rooms
have been prepared for you,
and you are welcome to stay the night. We expect you to be gone by
would not do to dally in your obligation.”
In a swish of robes the monarch rose
to his feet.
“I shall retire now to my chambers,”
he gave his cousin a pointed look. “Nestor, you will attend
me. We have more to
He marched swiftly from the room.
Nestor followed at his heels, suddenly looking a bit sheepish.
The remainder of Clou’s court
discussed this scene softly under their breaths, then slowly drifted
gossip about it elsewhere. The final drunken uncle, a man who was a
he was a day, had to be hauled away from the table by the armpit.
“Bordy should have let Nestor give
that city brat what’s for!” he shouted testily as
they dragged him out the
Hektor watched him go with a frown,
then rose to leave himself.
“I think I’ve drunk enough
“I think you’d drunk enough wine
about three hours ago,” replied Shara, looking at him sourly.
The prince merely
shrugged in response and stalked off to bed.
“I really don’t understand
continued once he was gone, sounding a bit slurred herself.
“Just when I begin
to think he’s elegant and charming, he goes and makes an ass
out himself like
There was no one at the table now
but us and a few of the servants. They hovered nearby pretending to be
invisible, waiting for a command to top off our glasses, and possibly
sure we didn’t steal any of the silverware.
I did not want to remain at the
banquet table overly long, lest we gain a reputation for greedily
host’s wine after insulting him, but I could not pass up a
chance to actually
speak to Shara alone. Especially when she was pissed at Hektor.
“Perhaps he was trying to impress
you with his boldness,” I said without thinking, immediately
annoyed that it
sounded as if I were defending him.
“Do you believe that honestly?” she
asked, suddenly earnest. “I mean… I know you were
joking, of course, but do you
really think he’d care enough to try and impress
The raw and desperate hope in her
voice tore me apart. I’d rather turn her attentions towards
me than iron things
out between them. Still, it seemed best to try and win her over
“I find it hard to tell,” I said
slowly, falling back on truths I could admit to.
“I’ve only just met him, and
know nothing of his private life. He seems to sincerely enjoy your
then, how could he not, stunningly beautiful woman that you
“Oh, Brandon,” she sighed, leaning
out of her chair to give me a hug. I was intensely aware of her body
pressed against mine. “You’re such a flatterer. You
always know what to say to
cheer me up.”
“Glad I could help,” I told her.
pains me to see you sad.”
I felt a shudder pass through her,
despite the warmth of the hall.
“I’m sure I’ll be fine. I
so anxious with being chosen for this mission and all.”
She released me and sat up straight,
gesturing towards the doorway, and presumably Hektor’s
bedchambers beyond it.
“And this I never expected,” she
said, flustered. “It complicates things…
I did my best to nod
“I know it’s easier to say than to
do,” I told her. “But just try to focus on the task
at hand. We can’t risk you
being distracted and ending up with someone hurt as a result.”
That was good advice.
I hoped I could heed it myself.
“The Leth’s chosen have rarely
failed in a mission they were expected to accomplish, and I’m
sure we’ll be no
different,” I reassured her. “Hektor will still be
around once we’ve dealt with
“You’re right, of course,”
agreed. “I think I just needed to hear it from someone. Thank
She offered me her arm, and I walked
her to her room.
She hugged me once more, and this
time kissed me gently on the cheek.
“You are a good friend, Brandon.
Thank you again,” she said before retiring to her room and
shutting the door
I stood outside it for a moment
before returning to my own room, stupidly rubbing my cheek where it
the memory of her lips. It saddened me to find that she had such
another, when I had loved her for so long, and loved her now, truly.
With a conscious act of will, I
forced my legs to trudge back to my room.
Well, I had convinced her not to
think of Hektor for the moment, and every moment she spent not thinking
Hektor was to my advantage. I felt fairly confident that given enough
would manage to do something sufficiently repulsive to drive her away.
With that thought, and a smile, I
The morning was hot and humid, made
worse by the fact that we now dressed in our full battle armor. From
forward we had to be ready for anything.
I was surprised to find Nestor there
to see us off from the castle. I was even more surprised with
to his presence.
“Sir, I owe you a deep apology,” he
told the older man, who regarded him skeptically. “My words
to you last night
were well out of line.
“Being younger and less experienced,
I sought to downplay my insecurities by belittling you for your
dealing with an already thankless task.”
Nestor eyed the young prince
uncertainly, no doubt trying to gauge his sincerity.
“What a difference a day can make!”
Shara whispered to me, intrigued but hopeful. I shook my head in
“It was unjust,” Hektor continued.
“And I know what I say now cannot make up for what was
wrought prior, but I
wished you to know of my regret.”
Bordis’ cousin sized the younger man
up, came to a decision, and gave a brusque nod.
“I myself was not on my best
behavior, lad,” said he. “If we meet again let us
consider it a new beginning.”
The two clasped hands briefly, and
as we rode away I found that some of the gloom from the night before
We were barely out of the castle
gates when Hektor began to speak further.
“I owe you both an apology as well,”
he admitted. “My pride got the better of me, and I turned our
sour. I hope you will not think ill of me because of it.”
“I had begun to wonder what sort of
imbecile the Leth had saddled us with,” commented Lady Shara
dryly. “But I am
glad to see that you were mature enough to admit you’d been
wrong. That’s a
rare trait among nobles, though in the future you may want to try
before you speak.”
“While the lady speaks true, I fear
that may be a tactic too complex for the mind of men,”
responded Hektor with a
wink, not looking the least bit chastised.
“I fear you may be right,” agreed
Shara, with a broad grin.
And with that, they were friends
again. To my bitter dismay.
“Irregardless,” I rebuked him
sharply, my jealousy fueling my words with more anger than I had
expect better behavior from you in the future.
sorry’ is nice, but
keep making mistakes like that and you’ll soon find that
people quickly stop
Hektor and Shara glanced over at me
in surprise, as if they had forgotten I was there. Hektor seemed to
some response, then swallow it whole.
“Very well,” he said tersely.
At least they were silent for the
rest of that ride.
We began, as Hektor had suggested
the evening before, with our own interrogation of the local farmers.
a ragged sort, even for peasants. The terrain of Clou was rough and
during the best of years barely provided a surplus of food for the men
women who struggled to work it. To make matters worse, the forest grew
supernatural speed, with new trees constantly springing up and
leach the nutrients from the soil. The farmers spent almost as much
clearing land as they did harvesting it.
Because of this, the commoners were
incredibly few in number. They all descended from a dozen local
of which lived together and farmed communally.
I hadn’t nursed much hope that the
farmers would tell foreigners anything they’d been keeping
from their own king,
and by the time we’d met with the third family, I was fairly
certain that we
were wasting our time.
Hektor was clearly growing
frustrated as well, and a pulsing vein in his forehead signaled that
was threatening to boil over.
“It is a proven fact that in the
last four months, five bandit raids have happened within a quarter mile
farmstead!” he shouted at patriarch Pa Cudd, a ruddy,
middle-aged man in dirty
overalls. We had dismissed the remainder of the family after preliminary questioning
and allowed them to
return to their fields.
“You can say what you like, but I
know you saw something! Lying to the agents of the Leth is a serious
I‘m prepared to mete out proper punishments as I see
To the farmer’s credit, he did not
quail in the face of the warrior’s bluster.
“Me and my family have told you
everything we know, my lord,” Cudd said, staring Hektor
defiantly in the eye.
“You can do to me whatever you like, but if you want to find
the men your
masters have sent you after, you’re going to have to go look
The inflection on his words made it
quite clear what he thought of the Council. Small wonder, really. Here
periphery they’d lost more men during the Conquest than those
of us near the
capital, and now they reaped the fewest rewards from the money being
the center of the nation.
Hektor’s hand moved so fast that it
was impressive even to me. I wasn’t sure I could have dodged
that blow if I had
been the target.
The next thing the farmer knew, his
nose was shattered and his blood was spraying all about the room.
If the prince had been hoping for a
change in the man’s attitude, he was disappointed. If
anything, the peasant
appeared more resolved as he wiped some of the blood from his face with
sleeve. Most men would be stunned by the speed of Hektor’s
attack, but this one
must have seen nobles in battle before. I realized that he knew the
cost of his silence, that he had already decided to forfeit his life if
necessary. There was nothing to be gained by killing him.
“Speak!” howled Hektor, red-faced, his
spittle flying into Cudd‘s ruined face.
The man just stared back at him and
crossed his arms over his chest. The prince leapt at him, but I moved
My charge took Hektor by surprise
and my shoulder caught him square in the chest, but it did little other
disrupt his assault. Like me, Hektor was an Aravathian noble, a warrior
highest caliber. He had been intensely tested and trained since the
dawn of his
third birthday, it was a process that would continue until the day of
The impact bowled him over
backwards, but he rolled back onto his feet, and came up swinging. The
drawn a knife, and I was hard pressed to get my armguard up in time.
“Hold!” I yelled, as out of the
corner of my eye I saw Shara ushering the bleeding farmer out the door
safety. “I mean no harm!”
I held up my weaponless hands to
accentuate the point.
Hektor breathed heavily. He looked
like he was itching for a fight. One had been brewing between us, and a
part of me wanted it to happen now.
“Why’d you attack me then!”
barked, gesturing at me with the tip of the knife he had chosen not to
away. I tracked the point with my eyes, ready to dodge aside if he
“That man would have told us
nothing,” I informed him, resisting the urge to gesture with
my hands, afraid
of making any sudden moves. “And killing him would only
ensure the others hold
“The others are already holding
their tongues, you idiot!” said the prince with a growl.
“Did you ever consider
the possibility that proving we won’t balk at spilling some
actually get someone talking?”
I fumbled for a response that
wouldn’t seem argumentative.
“I don’t think so,” said
returning from the doorway. “I agree with Brandon. These
fringe folk are
tougher than their city cousins. You could see it in their
spokesman’s eyes. A
death would only have won their resentment.”
Hektor looked from her to me, and
put away his weapon. I lowered my hands.
“It would appear I am outvoted,” was
all he said.
Shara removed her helm and cradled
it in the crook of her arm. It was crested with an artistic array of
leaves. Her red hair was matted wildly from wearing it. She looked
“I’ve no idea what to do next. It
hardly seems worth the effort to question the other
communes,” she said. “I
doubt they’ll be any different.”
“And we still haven’t the first clue
where to start,” agreed Hektor with a sigh. “We may
have to resort to searching
the woods at random. Perhaps a caravan will pass by soon, and we can
“Let’s try one more clan of peasants
before we give up for good,” I said with an optimism that
caused them both too
look at me as if I were daft. I shrugged back at them defensively.
“I want to
see if I can’t find a way to use what transpired here to our
“And how do you plan on doing that?”
asked Shara, staring at me with an intensity that made me shiver.
“I haven’t quite worked that out
yet,” I admitted. “But I’m sure
I’ll have a rough plan by the time we get
“Sounds promising,” complained
Shara had been fastening her helmet
in a business-like fashion, but it ruined the effect when she giggled
We made our way outside and mounted
our horses. There was no sign of Pa Cudd working in the fields as we
Maybe he’d gone to seek help for his nose.
The Graal clan’s farm wasn’t far at
all, just over the next hill.
“At some point I may need to
separate myself from the rest of you,” I told them quietly as
we approached. “Don’t
try to stop me when I do.”
“What are you planning?” asked
Hektor, continuing on before I could answer. “I’m
not so sure that’s a good
idea. If we split up, the bandits might be able to overcome you
“For now, all I’m going to do is try
and talk to someone in a different room. If anything happens
you’ll be close
enough to help,” I told him. “If things develop
beyond that, I’ll try and slip
you word of where I’m going, and you can follow along
“You’re thinking of arranging some
sort of meeting, aren’t you?” asked Hektor, he was
smarter than I had thought,
I had to grant him that.
“I’d like to, but I doubt it will be
“I don’t agree with this,”
Shara. “It doesn’t sound safe.”
Luckily, we were moving into earshot
of the workers on the outermost edges of the new farmstead, and I was
forestall the argument by motioning for her to be quiet.
The peasants stared unwelcomingly at
us as we approached. I got the feeling that word about us had traveled
Perhaps even faster than we had.
We were met at the commune’s stables
by a trio of surly looking farmers, a man and two stern-faced and broad
shouldered women. They introduced themselves as Ma and Pa Graal and her
The others looked to me, and I
nodded to Hektor, content to let him run things as he had last time.
“Right,” said the prince, addressing
the commons. “We are sorry to have to interrupt you during
such a busy time.
Let us step inside and we can discuss this matter of bandits. Then we
you to summon individual members of your household for questioning as
Pa nodded silently in agreement, and
slowly turned back towards the main farmhouse building. The women
of him, noses held high in a show of disdain and defiance. My
companions and I
followed behind, doing our best to remain polite.
“Now, as I’m sure King Bordis has
already informed you,” began Hektor, once we had all been
seated on frayed
furniture and given refreshments. “We are here not on our own
acting as agents of the Council.”
I saw Jan sneer slightly at this out
of the corner of my eye, before she remembered to school her expression.
“There has been a great deal of
caravan raiding in this area in recent months, some occurring where the
roads pass along the edges of Clou farmland,” he spread his
hands wide before
him. “So, it stands to reason that some of this activity must
observed. The nation of Aravath would be in your debt for any
you could provide as to the current whereabouts or strength of the
“King Bordis’ men have visited here
many times, my lord,” answered Pa. His tone was formal and
remote, but already
he was showing us more respect than we had been offered by the Cudds.
have asked my family to pass on anything that we catch sight
The movement of his shoulders
dislodged small clouds of brown dirt from his sleeves as he shrugged.
“We don’t hold no secrets from our
king,” the clan leader managed to sound insulted at the
prospect. Ma nodded
firmly in agreement. “And seeing as you have already visited
his court, you
will know that the raiders were bolder when they first appeared, and
out a number of raids during broad daylight.”
He paused in thought, looked up
briefly at the ceiling.
“I was not there in person, but my
sons saw ten or so bandits hit a merchant convoy and take it by
must have been protected by five or six guards, but they
didn’t much seem to
He shook his head glumly.
“Since then, the outlaws have been
far craftier. I admit they’ve attacked merchants at the edges
of our lands, but
never around where somebody was working. They seem to be trying hard
not to be
“The merchants would be the ones to
ask,” interrupted Ma Graal. “If any were being left
alive to talk.”
“The outlaws have been active during
the last couple of months, though, correct?” asked Shara.
“Yes,” nodded Pa.
“I‘m sure my lady
knew that already.”
“And it being the time of the summer
harvest,” responded Hektor, with an accusatory gleam in
lighting his eyes,
“there would hardly be a time when your fields had been left
caravan drivers being no fools, prefer to travel during the
“If you are calling me a liar, sir,”
said Pa, rising up off on the couch on which he was seated,
“then it would
hardly matter what I chose to tell you, would it?”
“Sit down,” barked Hektor,
arrogantly. “You have not been given leave to rise.”
Pa hovered for a moment, forehead
creased and face scowling, then the pressure of Ma’s hand on
his wrist returned
him to his seat.
“My husband meant no offence, your
lordship.” she said. “But he is a plain and honest
speaker, and he would tell
you anything he knew.”
“Then he can answer my question,”
said Hektor, his voice iron. “How is it that these crimes
have not been
observed when they occurred at a time when someone should have been
“Perhaps the bandits came upon the
merchants while they were encamped for the night,” suggested
the man hopefully.
“And what merchants do you know who
would spend a night on the open road, rather than walk less than a mile
on to call on you or your lord for shelter?” pressed Hektor,
Pa stuttered incoherently, clearly
at loss for an answer.
“Besides, if your whole family can
sleep through the sound a sword fight, you’re ripe for a good
yourselves!” laughed the prince.
“How dare you threaten my family!”
“Silence woman! That was not a
threat, and I was talking to your husband,” bellowed Hektor.
“Unless he’s not
man enough to speak for himself.”
“How dare you come into my home and
insult us!” roared Pa, stepping towards the prince, who
suddenly seemed to be
holding his sword.
I took this moment to quietly stand
and skirt around the edge of the room to where Jan sat watching things
in anxious silence. No one was paying any heed to me at that point,
had to tug softly on her arm to get her attention.
“Excuse me, madam,” I said
courteously, my gentle speech at odds with the mixture of angered
occurring behind me. I gestured towards the kitchen. “Might I
speak with you
alone for a moment in the other room?”
She looked at me fearfully. Amused,
I wondered if she thought I planned to carry her burly form off and
have my way
with her on a table. Probably, she was just worried about her
“I don’t think he’ll
anyone,” I said, jerking a thumb blindly behind me in
direction. “But if he does decide to, your being here
won’t stop him, and you
probably wouldn’t want to watch .”
It was the closest I could come to a
reassuring statement. Eyes wide and terrified, she allowed me to lead
through the door and closed it quickly behind us.
“Sorry about that,” I apologized
with a wink. Jan had no idea how to react to this. “But I
sense from you that
we may be on the same side here. And that oafish brute those wretched
thrust upon me seems to have turned his back on humanity
She seemed to relax at this
statement; the look in her eyes grew more hopeful. Gaining confidence,
“Unfortunately, I cannot trust the
lady either, so I must place myself at your mercy,” my voice
“You must smuggle me away from this place so I can meet with
the bandits alone.
You may not recognize who I am, but I am a king in my own right with no
resources at my disposal. And I might be able to find others who are
likeminded, who remember when Aravath used to rule itself, when we were
slaves of ungodly monsters.”
I was afraid that I had poured it on
a bit too thick, but Jan tilted her head both ways and then seemed to
come to a
“This way,” she said simply, and led
The summer sun should not yet have
set, but this deep into the Forest of Blackyew the shadows were as dark
bark on the trees. Even here in a clearing, I could see little by the
cast from the tattered lantern I carried. It had been given to me by
Graal boy who had acted as my guide.
I was not altogether pleased with my
situation. The peasants had managed to sneak me away without Hektor or
coming near, so I had not been able to tell them in what direction I
headed. I’d done my best to leave hurried marks behind me on
the earth and the
trees that we had passed, and I hoped they’d be able to track
them once they
left the commune.
I trusted that I could follow them
myself to find my way back out of the forest if no one showed, but I
of what would happen if things went sour. Fleeing in haste, with such a
light source to guide me, I was apt to lose my own trail and begin
hopelessly in circles.
For the first time it struck me that
Shara may have been right, and splitting up might really have been too
dangerous a move.
I was left waiting for a long time.
As hot as the morning had been, here
beneath the canopy of the forest I was cold. Bugs hummed constantly
lantern, and seeing them trying to crawl inside my armor made me feel
The air smelled of damp earth and moss.
“Unbelt your sword and toss it to
the ground,” spoke a sudden voice from somewhere, perhaps the
trees across the
I complied without hesitation. I had
a number of knives on me, both visible and concealed, that I could kill
with almost as easily.
A filthy outlaw in clothing so torn
and faded that it was impossible to discern its original color
scampered out of
the trees to my left. With one hand pointed a crude spear towards me,
with the other he bent to retrieve my weapon. His wary eyes never left
and he made certain I remained in front of him at all times. Grabbing
sword, he retreated back into the darkness beyond the light of my
I held my arms up away from my
sides, hands outward and extended.
“I have come only to talk,” I
shouted. My voice sounded weak to my own ears, especially compared to
booming one that had just addressed me from the shadows.
A glint of gold at the edge of the
lantern’s light caught my attention. A man dressed in gilded
armor strode into
view. I saw that his breastplate was decorated with the honeybee symbol
had been the arms of the late King Jordain. I tried to make out if the
was truly a noble’s suit of piridite or merely a copy, but
the man stopped
several yards away, and between the distance and the gold coating I
“We are aware of your intent, or you
would not have made it this far,” he informed me, his voice
deep and commanding
attention. “What would you have of me?”
Nestor had been right. The underling
who’d taken my weapon had not concerned me, but this man was
noble in both
speech and baring. If he were a fully trained warrior I might have my
full battling him alone, and who knew how many of his comrades lurked
woods around us.
“I would learn more of you,” I told
He snorted in response, then said
nothing. I found myself a bit annoyed.
“I find you confusing,“ I explained.
“You have the trappings of nobility, yet you hide in the
woods and attack
passersby like a common highwayman. You wear the sigil of a proud man,
dead one, but you befriend only peasants and hide from the lord of the
My words hit their target and the
man howled in fury.
“No true king would serve the Leth’s
desires! They are not our saviors; they murdered our fathers!”
I stalled for time.
“I’d like to believe there were
still those brave enough to resist the Leth, but how do I know that
some lying thief in stolen armor?” I demanded.
“We all know the story of bold King Jordain, the
last of your line, who
spoke out against the Council. He was ordered on a suicide mission, and
to obey. Legend tells he never asked for mercy or claimed to repent his
but died bravely, cursing our conquerors with his final
The man shook his head, but I
could tell this more sympathetic tone had calmed him slightly.
“You do not lie, but you are
ignorant of the truth,” he told me, his condescending
perfectly in line with his claims of aristocracy. “That
warrior did die, and as
honorably as the tales tell, but surely he was not the whole of his
happened then to his family? The stories never speak of it.”
“They squabbled disgustingly amongst
themselves to seize the throne,” I answered. “And
from that day forward came
running like dogs to obey when called by their Leth masters.”
The man spit on the ground.
“Well said. But that only holds true
for Jordain’s cousins and uncles.”
In fact, the throne of Jerus had
been claimed by the line of Jordain’s eldest uncle, Malakar.
His son Malak now
ruled there. But Jordain had had no brothers or sisters. Keeping track
others’ family trees was a favorite pastime among the
nobility of Aravath, and
I would be sure this man was a phony if he claimed otherwise.
“But Jordain had a wife who was
pregnant, though when he was given his orders, her state was not yet
the man made a sad sighing noise. “The Leth tried to kill
her, too, though far
more subtly. Only a relative of her mother’s discovered the
plot and smuggled
her to safety outside of Aravath and the reach of the
“That young wife was my mother,
Queen Chirawa of Jerus. She trained me to fight, that I might avenge my
father,” he proclaimed proudly. “And I have passed
on what I know to those
willing to join my cause.”
He beat a mailed fist against his
chest, the plate rang with the unmistakable sound of pure piridite.
“You know of me now, what say you?
Are you with me or do you die?”
He drew his long sword so fast that
it appeared to leap out of the scabbard and into his hands.
“I see no reason why we need to be
enemies,” I began, but I was cut off by an undulating warcry.
“Traitor!“ Jordain snarled in fury,
and I leapt backwards, barely avoiding the arc of his sword.
Jordain made to pursue me, but then
caught sight of Hektor advancing towards him out of the woods, and
meet him in stride.
Half a dozen outlaws poured into the
clearing, but these wore mismatched sets of stolen armor, and clearly
I crossed and uncrossed my arms,
leaving throwing knives in the throats of the two bandits leading the
The rest skidded to a halt on the damp ground, and then decided to
more caution. This gave me time to find another knife for each hand.
The remaining four fanned out into a
crescent, and approached me slowly. One was the man who had taken my
which he now wielded against me. I found him the most concerning, not
of any apparent skill, but because he held a weapon that I knew could
Just as they drew close enough to
surround me, I lunged towards the outlaw furthest to my right. My speed
have surprised him, for he jerked back so sharply that he almost
went down. The expression on his face was really quite comic.
Fortunately for him, my movement was
only a feint, and I spun back towards the man on my left. His sword was
thrusting past me, towards the place I had been standing, and he was
defenseless. My slash nearly separated his head from his shoulders.
The others recovered well and were
on me quicker than I expected. I did not disengage myself from his
speedily enough, and one of the bandits caught me in the right breast
axe. The blade scraped along the piridite with a horrid screech leaving
furrow in the metal, but it did not pierce it and bite my flesh beneath.
I stepped away again and they
followed. I was nearing the edge of the meadow.
The outlaw holding my long sword was now to my left. I
changed direction suddenly, and darted to that side. My pursuers failed
maneuver as quickly, and for the moment he was between me and his
I threw a knife in his direction,
and he ducked it nimbly, but the dodge gave me time to advance and
clamp my now
free hand over his sword arm. We wrestled, but I proved stronger, and I
my knife between his ribs.
I appropriated my blade from his
grasp and raised it towards the two outlaws left regarding me. They
each other, then at the bodies of their four fallen comrades, and
the shadows between the trees.
A wise decision.
I turned to find Hektor and Jordain
still locked in close combat, swords a ringing blur of metallic motion.
There was still no sign of Shara,
though I suspected she was dealing with whatever archers had been
ambush me if I had attempted to assault Jordain without help.
I ran towards the dueling pair, but
Jordain saw me coming before I could close the distance, and retreated
the back of the clearing.
“Heed my words!” he called to me.
“You shall pay for this deception before we’re
With that he too ducked between the
trees. Hektor, out of breath from the swordplay, began to pursue.
“Best let him go,” I warned.
dark, and he knows the terrain. You’d probably end up running
straight into a
Hektor stared hard into the darkness
after him, and I feared he would ignore my advice in his lust for
he surprised me by nodding in agreement.
“Nestor certainly deserved my
apology. That man fought like the devil himself.”
“He claims to be Jordain’s own son,
raised in the proper noble tradition by his lady mother.” I
“Right here,” came an impudent
response from right behind my shoulder. I refrained from jumping a foot
air for dignity’s sake, but I was glad she was on our side,
or she could have
run me through long before I noticed her. Her armor was covered in
of which seemed to be her own, and she looked as pleased as a cat with
“Looks like your plan worked pretty
well after all,” she said. “I killed five bowmen,
though they were hardly much
of a workout.”
“I took down four, though two more
turned tail and ran,” I told her.
“That’d be all twelve outlaws,
Jordain included, meaning that those are the only ones left if our
be believed,” mused Hektor.
“They can’t be,” I reminded
“Nestor said he battled a few men armored as nobles, and we
saw only one.
Jordain himself claimed to have taught some students how to fight while
talking to him. There must be more out there.”
“What else did he say?” asked Shara.
“Just what I’ve told Hektor already,
that he seems to be the son of the real King Jordain, trained in exile
noble mother. He’s trying to raise an army to start some kind
against the Leth, and this is his first step.”
“Maybe that’s not as crazy as it
seems,” muttered Shara. “The villagers hereabouts
seem to be all for it.”
“Perhaps they’d like to relive the
joys of the Conquest,” commented Hektor dryly.
“Actually, I had hoped to reason
with him,” I told him.
The prince raised an eyebrow
“You plan on joining the
resistance?” he asked.
“Of course not,” I snapped at him,
“I happen to think the country prospers under the Council.
Even if I wasn’t
about to convince him otherwise, I had hoped to talk him into leaving
peacefully by pretending to be on his side.”
“Well that was stupid,” he said
bluntly. “He’d just have attacked again when he
realized you were lying, and by
then he might have been stronger.”
“It might have saved these peoples
lives!” I said defensively, gesturing to the fallen.
“I saw some of the killing
that occurred during the Conquest, and can sympathize with their anger.
working on a compromise. Maybe it would have come to something if you
started shouting and charged out of the woods.”
Hektor gawked at me in disbelief.
“The man drew a sword on you!” he
laughed, but there was no humor in it. “If I gave you any
more time you’d have
gotten yourself skewered.”
“It wasn’t like that!” I
“Calm down,” Shara urged us both,
but we ignored her.
“Of course it wasn’t.”
prince. “If you prefer, next time you’re in trouble
I’ll just let them kill
“Fine, do that!” I shouted.
less concerned about protecting myself, than about you
Hektor just snorted and didn’t
bother with a reply.
“Let’s get out of here,” I
Shara, refusing to even look at the prince.
She nodded and led the way to where
they’d stowed the horses.
Still feeling both foolish and
angry, I rode ahead as soon as we’d left the Blackyew. My
behind, clustered close together, their muttered voices not quite
enough to keep me from hearing their conversation.
“Is his highness out of his bleeding
mind? We save his life, and he treats us like we‘re the
“I don’t know,” admitted
Shara in a
worried tone. “I’ve never known Brandon to act like
this. I‘m worried about
But not so worried that she left the
prince’s company for mine I noted as I pushed further ahead
in sullen silence.
My feelings on the outcome of our
first encounter with the bandits were mixed. Doubtless, we had won the
severely reduced their numbers. Unfortunately, our orders were to
the bandits not weaken them, and in a way killing some of them would
the rest even harder to find.
What made matters worse was that we
had killed neither Jordain nor any of his lieutenants. Which meant they
still a very dangerous fighting force, regardless of the size of their
And now we had to track them down
all over again. I frowned in frustration.
“What troubles you?” Shara had
ventured forth from Hektor’s side to ride up besides me.
“I’m wondering how we are ever going
to locate Jordain and his men again,” I admitted after a
“Perhaps I was wrong not to let Hektor pursue him. The trick
we used last time
will surely not work again, and I seem unable to come up with
“Don’t fret so, finding them
be necessary,” she said.
I turned to look at her. Her smile
was confident, teasing.
“What do you know that I
“Human nature, apparently.” she
“And what, pray tell, does that
mean?” I wanted to know.
“Only this,” she said with a shrug.
“Jordain is man who wants to be a leader and a hero. In this
he is not unlike
Here she stuck her lovely tongue out
at me briefly.
“And while he seems to have some
ability to bind others to him, he has just suffered a major
continued. “Jordain cannot allow his followers to lose faith
in his cause while
the cause is still so young, or it may fade away into nothing, and he
fade away into nothing with it. He would become a man instead of a
the unaccomplished son of a hero, and that he could never
“And so he will move again in haste,
taking risks he should avoid.” I concluded, nodding in
agreement with her
“And so he will, with a little help
from us,” she smiled again, and bewitched by her beauty and
brilliance, I would
have grabbed her
then and there and kissed her had Hektor not chosen that moment to come
trotting up on my other side and grab me roughly by the shoulder.
“So, what’s all this excitement
It had been two weeks since our
caravan left from Clou, and there had been no sign whatsoever of
Jordain or his
remained worried that by traveling openly and not disguising
ourselves as normal caravan guards, we were scaring him away. Shara
that our presence would only make an attack more likely since Jordain
be able to resist a chance at revenge. I allowed myself to be convinced
still had my doubts.
The farmland was far behind us now,
and we were entering the rocky passes of the disputed land that lay
Clou and the empire of Tzul. The Blackyew still stretched to our west,
grew thinner as we climbed. If Jordain waited much longer, he would
safe inside the walls of the Tzulan city of Gomer with all of our goods
Of course, there was always the
chance that he would wait until our return trip to strike, but that
with Shara’s notion that he was a man ready to act. And if
she was wrong on
that point, then this whole plan was likely a mistake.
I felt eyes upon me, and turned to
find Hektor staring at me coldly across the row of wagons.
I decided to break formation and go
and have a word with him. We had not spoken much since the battle in
forest, and it was past time that I swallowed my pride and put things
“Is there a problem, Hektor?” I
asked as I approached.
“There wasn’t until you decided to
leave your side of the caravan,” he replied, continuing to
look upon me
This wasn’t starting off at all like
I had intended.
“Look,” I said with a shrug,
wanted to show you that you weren’t the only one who knew how
to apologize. You
did the right thing to try and protect me when you thought I was in
it was ungrateful for me to snap at you because I was unhappy with the
of the meeting. I would mend this rift between us.”
“Would you?” he spit into the dirt
beside his horse. “Then the time to speak of it was over a
His eyes bored into mine.
“Soon the foe will be on us, and it
will be over one way or another. Either we will fulfill our mission,
thankfully, part ways, or they will kill you and I will be
Surprised by the extent of his
hatred, I found myself flustered, and unable to respond.
And then, as if our conversation had
summoned them, they were there. Like some mystical demon appearing at
voicing of its True Name.
It was my fault, in truth, that we
were caught so unprepared. I had abandoned my post to speak with
tarried there too long.
Their small, sure-footed horses charged
down into the ridge from some hidden path through the forested hills
above. Had I been
at my station, I would have seen
their movement through the edge of the woods, and raised an alarm..
I cursed myself for letting my
boredom and annoyance get the better of me, for not waiting until we
encamped to confront Hektor.
But in battle there is no time for
second guessing. I cleared my head and drew my blade.
There were only seven of them, but
they had timed their charge well, catching us flatfooted.
A man in steely blue armor bore down
on me, his sword battering against my quickly raised shield. The impact
stunning, and it was only the skill of my horse that kept me in my
Hektor was less fortunate.
had singled him out as his own, and the golden outlaw’s
first pass knocked the prince to the ground. Hektor regained his feet
and appeared uninjured, but being dismounted left him at a significant
Well, I had my own problems. I’d
have to worry about him later.
My opponent had wheeled around and
was ready to come at me again. He no longer had the advantage of
momentum and would soon find he was in for a bit more trouble than he
Our spurs dug into our horses.
This time his blade caught me on the
left arm, slicing through my armor, and opening a gash just below my
I would have caught it on my shield, but I hadn’t realized
the extent to which
his first attack had warped it, and my ignorance had left me
He blocked my return strike with
apparent ease, but by the time he’d turned to face me again,
two more riders
had appeared at my side.
“Yield!” I called to him as my
companions raised their weapons high in challenge, but our circling had
him back towards the forest, and he made to flee. His horse raced along
ridgeline, searching for a break in the wall that would allow him to
towards the Blackyew.
Shara and Nestor left my side to run
him down before he had the chance.
The king’s cousin was not the only
warrior there to aid us. Every member of our caravan, man or woman, had
member of Bordis’ court in disguise. By now they had
unhitched their horses
from their carts and entered the fray.
Outnumbered three to one, facing
fighters of equal or greater skill, Jordain’s force was
doomed to failure.
Whether the outlaw leader had
realized his fate or not, he fought on.
I located him across the field, setting
himself to receive a charge from Nestor’s sister Julianna.
unhorsed him, but not before he left his blade in Julianna’s
I urged my horse into a gallop.
Jordain seemed unaware of my
approach, turning instead to stalk another victim.
I recognized the eagle-crested helm
as Hektor‘s. The intervention of others from our caravan had
saved the prince
from the golden outlaw’s wrath thus far, but the two must
have already traded
blows several times. Hektor’s shield arm hung useless and
broken, and his
confidence had deserted him. His eyes were wild with fear as he
backwards away from Jordain, stumbling over the body of another comrade
fallen before the gilded warrior.
Just as my horse reared up behind
the bandit king, Hektor lost his balance and slipped to the earth,
defenseless before his foe.
It was a small thing, then, for my
aim to err on my first swing, but not my second. To let Jordain go to
knowing that he had at least taken with him one more traitorous
follower of the
For who here was real my enemy? The
man who fought, in a fashion that can only be described as nobly, to
father, our people? Or the arrogant heel who had expressed his desire
death short moments ago?
Such a simple act, and Shara was
The wedding took place barely a year
later. Exactly as I had known it would.
Shara was beyond radiant in her
dress of layered white silk. I could not imagine a more perfect bride.
would be the most beautiful queen in all the nation. I had no doubt
and bards would devote their careers, their lives, to capturing the
Her smile that day was worth
everything that I had done.
To be honest, I was just glad that
she had convinced Hektor to invite me to the wedding.
Even after I had saved him from
Jordain, we’d never managed to enjoy each other’s
company. Though I hoped we
now nourished a growing mutual respect.
He was a king now, after all. His
father had abdicated in his favor after our mission; he had only been
for Hektor to prove himself in the eyes of the Council. In time I
would learn to put his own feelings aside, and do what was best for his
To his credit, he even managed to treat me politely for most of the
Not that I was paying him much
attention, standing as he was next to Shara.
Besides, I’d heard somewhere that
most people meet their significant others at weddings, and there were a
women from Gawayne who were making me wonder if that might not be true.
them was Marissa, a daughter of the fifth wife of Hektor’s
grandfather. That made her his aunt, though she was actually younger
than he was.
Somehow the idea of Hektor having to
call me uncle struck me as quite appealing. I didn’t think
he’d fancy it at
© 2007 by Dan Devine.
is a scientist by
day and an aspiring science fiction author by night though he'll write
that pops into his head. For a short time he served as editor of Fools
Motley Internet Magazine, but he recently decided to shut it
down and focus
on improving his own writing. He has since had stories published in Dark
Fire,Afterburn SF, and Flash Tales Magazines. Other
publications are pending.
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