Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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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 unsurprised 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 Council 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 largest 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 the ground, and bent in odd places and alien ways. When in a hurry they would trot on all fours like animals, or leap like frogs and travel great distances.

Those spindly arms held surprising strength. Despite their slim, lanky forms, I’d seen Leth tear lightly-armored 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 armies of men to die in resistance.

In the two decades and more since the Council had imposed their rule, peace and prosperity had settled over the land of Aravath. It was true that many lives had been lost to the Leth, but bringing an end to the constant warfare between our City-States had perhaps saved hundreds more. I had faith that whatever minds lurked behind the milky, white orbs that served as their eyes bore malice only for those humans who disrupted their plans.

In return for the protection and the guidance of the Council, we the nobility now served at their command. By doing so we affirmed our right to sovereignty over our subjects, allowing them to lead safe and peaceful lives.

A summons before the Council could confer a punishment as well as a task, however. The Leth disliked meddling in human affairs directly, choosing instead to send the leaders of misbehaving City-States on suicide missions, assuming that the successor would take notice 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 nothing to anger them in my management of Sufar. Certainly, I had not been openly rebellious or militant, but the logic of the Leth existed beyond the bounds of human comprehension. The most flagrant offenders of the Council’s orders were at times rewarded, while seemingly minor misunderstandings occasionally earned the ultimate penalty.

I recognized the sandy-haired, broad-shouldered man kneeling to my right as Prince Hektor, heir apparent to the throne of Gawayne.  I decided his 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. Idal and Sufar were long-standing allies, and Shara was technically a distant cousin of mine. Her lithe athletic figure sported uncontrollably unkempt red hair, and full lips favored an enticingly direct manner of speech. I had fancied her for years. A fact to which she remained inexplicably ignorant. Regardless, we had established a fairly close friendship, and I could not have chosen a more fitting companion.

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 appraisal of the lady, and causing me to flinch.

 The Leth were able to speak human languages, but only slowly and with great difficulty. This meant that an appearance before the Council was 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 podium. They were raised upon a slight dais, which was rather unnecessary considering their size. Each Leth was dressed in a simple wrap of a single solid color. 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 the Council.”

A useless formality. They knew well who we were. I could tell Shara was struggling against her usual urge to roll her eyes.

We listed our names, titles, and lands. The spokesman nodded in approval.

 “Do you stand before us willing to fulfill your obligations as nobility per the covenant between the rulers of Aravath and the Council of the Leth?” he asked.

“We do,” the three of us responded ritually and in near-unison. Only one man had had the gall to challenge the Council by answering no to this question, and even the most stolid of warriors 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 spread further 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 Council 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 punished accordingly. You are authorized to act as you see fit, in the Name of the Council.”

The spokesman made a motion of dismissal with his baton of office. The Council members themselves had not 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 disposal?”

I winced inwardly. If Council had wished to tell us any more they would have done so. The nobles of Clou would have up-to-date information to share with us when we arrived. His question was a needless one, and it never paid to try the patience of the Council. They were 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 Clou,” 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 King Jordain of Jerus. He had been one of Aravath’s more outspoken critics against the Leth during the period immediately following the Conquest. Needless to say 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 their chambers.

 

    * * *

 

Our journey to Clou proved uneventful, which was not much of a surprise. The Leth had enforced an opening of borders between the City-States, and with no wars to fight against one 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 particularly intelligent. Since he was a few years my elder, he spoke to me as if I were an ignorant younger brother. As a king being addressed by a mere prince, I found 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 seemed 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 it difficult to enjoy our time together. Whenever I tried speaking to her, Hektor would interrupt and correct or expound on what I was saying with his vast 25-year-old’s wisdom.

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 its rough farmland and scattered hovels. It was a relief to reach the castle and get down to business.

The décor of the royal banquet hall was somewhat threadbare and out of style, and if the food provided was hearty, 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 blessed 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 attire. Marrying off a niece or sister to be a queen in Sufar or Gawayne would have 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 remaining siblings were any younger than he was. Thus, even if Hektor and I had been inclined to settle for a hedge wife from here on the periphery, there wasn’t a lady at the table who I would have trusted to be in her childbearing years.

I wondered idly what would happen here in a few years. The noble line appeared in real danger of dying out. What 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 marriage for one of my minor lords or ladies when this mission was over. The king’s cousin Nestor looked barely sixty. He was a widower but might be persuaded to marry again. If I could snare him with a pretty young wife, their half-Sufarian child might very well come to rule over Clou.

A crowned head need always be thinking.

We all made polite small talk over dinner, complimenting Bordis and his relatives on their hospitality and their lovely province. Finally, every pastried layer of dessert had been defeated, and the 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 the subject of our quest, busy as he was recounting a tale of a victory in some tournament melee to Shara and two of Bordis‘ more handsome nieces.

I was all too happy to interrupt his fun.

“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 what 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 words.

“I have little enough to tell,” he complained more loudly. The assembled nobility murmured in agreement. “But I warn you, King Brandon, the term bandits is somewhat misleading. These are not you typical ruffians.

“Their leader seems well educated and well spoken. And while they have been raiding the caravans that travel along the forest between Aravath and her neighbors, one gets the impression 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 knees alone.”

“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 were sighted, but I’ve no idea how many there are now. I suppose it’s possible 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 have been no related activities reported in the other provinces. I did my own checking within the noble community and was told the same. Whoever these people are they 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!” thundered Bordis with a sudden unexpected anger. I jumped slightly, then embarrassedly hoped that no one had noticed. It was a good reminder that this man had been defending the border of our country since my late father was a child. He may have been in his last years, but he was not some fool to be trifled with.

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 were in 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.”

 “You’re 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 quietly.

“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 King Jordain.”

Like the dissident that Hektor had joked about before. The one that the Leth had ordered to his death.

“That’s folly!” objected the prince. “Jordain died bravely, attempting to fulfill his duty. There were dozens of witnesses.”

“All of whom were Leth that were there to ensure that he died even more brutally if he disobeyed,” commented Bordis dryly.

“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 daft, boy!”

Hektor snorted disdainfully.

“Did it ever occur to you that bandits might seem a lot faster to you now than they were forty years ago?”

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 manners.”

The prince sneered, but thankfully had the good sense to keep his mouth shut for once.

Bordis tossed back the last of his wine.

“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 morning; it 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 speak of.”

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 away to gossip about it elsewhere. The final drunken uncle, a man who was a hundred if 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 door. 

Hektor watched him go with a frown, then rose to leave himself.

“I think I’ve drunk enough wine,” he said.

“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 him,” she 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 this.”

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 making 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 consuming our 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 me?”

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 gradually.

“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 company. But then, how could he not, stunningly beautiful woman that you are?”

“Oh, Brandon,” she sighed, leaning out of her chair to give me a hug. I was intensely aware of her body where it 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. “It 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 just feel 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… unnecessarily.”

I did my best to nod sympathetically.

“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 these bandits.”

“You’re right, of course,” she agreed. “I think I just needed to hear it from someone. Thank you.”

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 behind her.

I stood outside it for a moment before returning to my own room, stupidly rubbing my cheek where it still held the memory of her lips. It saddened me to find that she had such feelings for 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 of Hektor was to my advantage. I felt fairly confident that given enough time he would manage to do something sufficiently repulsive to drive her away.

With that thought, and a smile, I fell asleep.

 

    * * *

The morning was hot and humid, made worse by the fact that we now dressed in our full battle armor. From this point 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 Hektor’s response 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 difficulties in 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 disbelief.

“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 had been lifted.

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 warm welcome 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 thinking 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 intended.. “I expect better behavior from you in the future.

“Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is nice, but keep making mistakes like that and you’ll soon find that people quickly stop listening.”

Hektor and Shara glanced over at me in surprise, as if they had forgotten I was there. Hektor seemed to consider 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. They were a ragged sort, even for peasants. The terrain of Clou was rough and rocky, and during the best of years barely provided a surplus of food for the men and women who struggled to work it. To make matters worse, the forest grew with supernatural speed, with new trees constantly springing up and threatening to leach the nutrients from the soil. The farmers spent almost as much time clearing land as they did harvesting it.

Because of this, the commoners were incredibly few in number. They all descended from a dozen local families, each 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 his anger 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 of this 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 crime, and I‘m prepared to mete out proper punishments as I see fit.”

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 for them yourselves.”

The inflection on his words made it quite clear what he thought of the Council. Small wonder, really. Here on the 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 made in 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 his 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 possible 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 first.

My charge took Hektor by surprise and my shoulder caught him square in the chest, but it did little other than disrupt his assault. Like me, Hektor was an Aravathian noble, a warrior of the 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 his death.

The impact bowled him over backwards, but he rolled back onto his feet, and came up swinging. The fool had 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 to 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 large part of me wanted it to happen now.

“Why’d you attack me then!” he barked, gesturing at me with the tip of the knife he had chosen not to put away. I tracked the point with my eyes, ready to dodge aside if he threw it.

“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 their tongues.”

“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 blood would actually get someone talking?”

I fumbled for a response that wouldn’t seem argumentative.

“I don’t think so,” said Lady Shara, 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 oak leaves. Her red hair was matted wildly from wearing it. She looked beautiful and sad.

“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 shadow them.”

“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 advantage.”

“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 there.”

“Sounds promising,” complained Hektor.

Shara had been fastening her helmet in a business-like fashion, but it ruined the effect when she giggled at the prince‘s comment.

We made our way outside and mounted our horses. There was no sign of Pa Cudd working in the fields as we passed. 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 alone.”

“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 behind.”

“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 that easy.”

“I don’t agree with this,” fretted 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 able to 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 fast. 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 sister Jan.

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 will send you to summon individual members of your household for questioning as we see fit.”

Pa nodded silently in agreement, and slowly turned back towards the main farmhouse building. The women walked ahead 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 accord, but 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 trade 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 have been observed. The nation of Aravath would be in your debt for any information that you could provide as to the current whereabouts or strength of the criminals responsible.”

“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. “And they have asked my family to pass on anything that we catch sight of.”

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 carried 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 surprise. It must have been protected by five or six guards, but they didn’t much seem to matter.”

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 seen.”

“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 unattended. And caravan drivers being no fools, prefer to travel during the day.”

“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 about to see them?”

“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 further on to call on you or your lord for shelter?” pressed Hektor, relentlessly.

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 robbing yourselves!” laughed the prince.

“How dare you threaten my family!” screeched Ma.

“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 develop in anxious silence. No one was paying any heed to me at that point, anyway. I 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 cursing now 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 brother-in-law.

“I don’t think he’ll actually kill anyone,” I said, jerking a thumb blindly behind me in Hektor’s general 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 her away 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 Leth have thrust upon me seems to have turned his back on humanity entirely.”

She seemed to relax at this statement; the look in her eyes grew more hopeful. Gaining confidence, I continued.

“Unfortunately, I cannot trust the lady either, so I must place myself at your mercy,” my voice became pleading. “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 small 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 not the 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 conclusion.

“This way,” she said simply, and led me outside.

 

    * * *  

 

The summer sun should not yet have set, but this deep into the Forest of Blackyew the shadows were as dark as the bark on the trees. Even here in a clearing, I could see little by the light cast from the tattered lantern I carried. It had been given to me by the young 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 Shara coming near, so I had not been able to tell them in what direction I was 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 was afraid of what would happen if things went sour. Fleeing in haste, with such a weak light source to guide me, I was apt to lose my own trail and begin running 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 about my lantern, and seeing them trying to crawl inside my armor made me feel itchy. 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 meadow.

I complied without hesitation. I had a number of knives on me, both visible and concealed, that I could kill a man 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, while with the other he bent to retrieve my weapon. His wary eyes never left my face, and he made certain I remained in front of him at all times. Grabbing the sword, he retreated back into the darkness beyond the light of my lantern.

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 the 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 that had been the arms of the late King Jordain. I tried to make out if the armor 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 could not be sure.

“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 hands full battling him alone, and who knew how many of his comrades lurked in the woods around us.

“I would learn more of you,” I told him.

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, albeit a dead one, but you befriend only peasants and hide from the lord of the land.”

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 you’re not 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 forced to obey. Legend tells he never asked for mercy or claimed to repent his deeds, but died bravely, cursing our conquerors with his final breath.”
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 attitude falling 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 line. What 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 of each 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 apparent,” 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 Council.”

“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 moved to meet him in stride.

Half a dozen outlaws poured into the clearing, but these wore mismatched sets of stolen armor, and clearly were no true warriors.

I crossed and uncrossed my arms, leaving throwing knives in the throats of the two bandits leading the charge. The rest skidded to a halt on the damp ground, and then decided to advance with 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 sword, which he now wielded against me. I found him the most concerning, not because of any apparent skill, but because he held a weapon that I knew could pierce my armor.

Just as they drew close enough to surround me, I lunged towards the outlaw furthest to my right. My speed must have surprised him, for he jerked back so sharply that he almost stumbled and 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 already thrusting past me, towards the place I had been standing, and he was left 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 corpse speedily enough, and one of the bandits caught me in the right breast with an axe. The blade scraped along the piridite with a horrid screech leaving a deep 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 to maneuver as quickly, and for the moment he was between me and his companions.

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 drove my knife between his ribs.

I appropriated my blade from his grasp and raised it towards the two outlaws left regarding me. They glanced at each other, then at the bodies of their four fallen comrades, and withdrew into 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 arrayed to 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 towards the back of the clearing.

“Heed my words!” he called to me. “You shall pay for this deception before we’re through!”

With that he too ducked between the trees. Hektor, out of breath from the swordplay, began to pursue.

“Best let him go,” I warned. “It’s dark, and he knows the terrain. You’d probably end up running straight into a trap.”

Hektor stared hard into the darkness after him, and I feared he would ignore my advice in his lust for battle, but 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 informed him. “Where’s Shara?”

“Right here,” came an impudent response from right behind my shoulder. I refrained from jumping a foot in the 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 blood, none of which seemed to be her own, and she looked as pleased as a cat with a mouse.

“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 sources can be believed,” mused Hektor.

“They can’t be,” I reminded him. “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 I was talking to him. There must be more out there.”

Hektor grunted.

“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 by his noble mother. He’s trying to raise an army to start some kind of revolution 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 skeptically.

“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. I was working on a compromise. Maybe it would have come to something if you hadn’t 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 protested.

“Calm down,” Shara urged us both, but we ignored her.

“Of course it wasn’t.” sneered the prince. “If you prefer, next time you’re in trouble I’ll just let them kill you.”

“Fine, do that!” I shouted. “I’m less concerned about protecting myself, than about you interfering.”

Hektor just snorted and didn’t bother with a reply.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said to 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 allies followed behind, clustered close together, their muttered voices not quite lowered 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 enemy.”

“I don’t know,” admitted Shara in a worried tone. “I’ve never known Brandon to act like this. I‘m worried about him.”

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 day and severely reduced their numbers. Unfortunately, our orders were to exterminate the bandits not weaken them, and in a way killing some of them would only make 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 were still a very dangerous fighting force, regardless of the size of their army.

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 moment’s hesitation. “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 another.”

“Don’t fret so, finding them won’t be necessary,” she said.

I turned to look at her. Her smile was confident, teasing.

“What do you know that I don’t?” I wondered aloud.

“Human nature, apparently.” she responded.

“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 most men.”

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 loss,” she 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 would fade away into nothing with it. He would become a man instead of a hero. Worse, the unaccomplished son of a hero, and that he could never stand.”

“And so he will move again in haste, taking risks he should avoid.” I concluded, nodding in agreement with her wisdom.

“And so he will, with a little help from us,” she smiled again, and bewitched by her beauty and her 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 about then?”

 

    * * *

 

It had been two weeks since our caravan left from Clou, and there had been no sign whatsoever of Jordain or his men.

 I remained worried that by traveling openly and not disguising ourselves as normal caravan guards, we were scaring him away. Shara assured me that our presence would only make an attack more likely since Jordain would not be able to resist a chance at revenge. I allowed myself to be convinced but still had my doubts.

The farmland was far behind us now, and we were entering the rocky passes of the disputed land that lay between Clou and the empire of Tzul. The Blackyew still stretched to our west, but it grew thinner as we climbed. If Jordain waited much longer, he would find us safe inside the walls of the Tzulan city of Gomer with all of our goods intact.

Of course, there was always the chance that he would wait until our return trip to strike, but that clashed 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 the forest, and it was past time that I swallowed my pride and put things right.

“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 unfavorably.

This wasn’t starting off at all like I had intended.

“Look,” I said with a shrug, “I just 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 danger, and it was ungrateful for me to snap at you because I was unhappy with the outcome 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 week ago.”

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, and thankfully, part ways, or they will kill you and I will be glad.”

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 the 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 Hektor, and 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 were 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 was stunning, and it was only the skill of my horse that kept me in my saddle.

Hektor was less fortunate.

 Jordain had singled him out as his own, and the golden outlaw’s first pass knocked the prince to the ground. Hektor regained his feet quickly, and appeared uninjured, but being dismounted left him at a significant disadvantage.

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 greater momentum and would soon find he was in for a bit more trouble than he anticipated.

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 shoulder. 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 vulnerable.

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 brought him back towards the forest, and he made to flee. His horse raced along the ridgeline, searching for a break in the wall that would allow him to climb back 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 been a 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. The collision unhorsed him, but not before he left his blade in Julianna’s throat. 

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 scrambled backwards away from Jordain, stumbling over the body of another comrade who had fallen before the gilded warrior.

Just as my horse reared up behind the bandit king, Hektor lost his balance and slipped to the earth, leaving him 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 the grave knowing that he had at least taken with him one more traitorous follower of the Leth.

For who here was real my enemy? The man who fought, in a fashion that can only be described as nobly, to avenge his father, our people? Or the arrogant heel who had expressed his desire for my death short moments ago?

Such a simple act, and Shara was mine.

    * * *

 

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. She would be the most beautiful queen in all the nation. I had no doubt that poets and bards would devote their careers, their lives, to capturing the essence of her allure.

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 waiting for Hektor to prove himself in the eyes of the Council. In time I trusted he would learn to put his own feelings aside, and do what was best for his people. To his credit, he even managed to treat me politely for most of the reception ceremonies.

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 few women from Gawayne who were making me wonder if that might not be true. One of them was Marissa, a daughter of the fifth wife of Hektor’s rather amorous 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 all.

 

 

The End

 

© 2007 by Dan Devine. 

Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night though he'll write anything 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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