I lay in a bed — whose bed I did not yet know — and I struggled through the dim forest of sleep, trying to reach the bright clearing of the waking world. Usually I waken quickly; a man who carries a sharp-edged weapon had better do so. But full awareness seemed to elude me, as if to shield me from the savage truth.
Of course, with that thought, the mists cleared from my mind, and I realized that some of my reluctance to waken was a result of the large amount of drink I had consumed the previous night. I was sure I visited more than one tavern, and I could clearly remember singing a bawdy song while staggering down the street. What I could not recall was the face of the maid who had taken me into her bed, and her body, if I was not mistaken.
That question was answered as soon as I opened my eyes. The shock of red hair told me what I needed to know. My gasp of surprise must have awakened her, for she lifted her head, and looked fondly at me. I was spared the necessity of a reply by a loud rap upon the bedroom door.
“Mistress Raneela,” came a clear voice, quickly followed by the head and upper body of one of the healer’s apprentices. “There’s a Master Jetru what wants to see you,” continued the young girl. “He says he’s lookin’ for his bodyguard.” The girl managed to look both startled and disapproving concerning the man in her mistress’ bed, but she managed to hold her tongue.
Raneela responded with no hint of self-consciousness. “Tell Master Jetru that I shall attend him shortly.”
After the door shut, Raneela turned to me. “I can tell him you are not here, if you wish,” she said with a question in her look.
“No,” I quickly replied, “I will see him.” Apparently I had answered too promptly, for the hurt on her face was obvious. I, however, was completely baffled. Less than a sennight ago, this woman and I had fought, and only two days ago she had forced me from her home. Confused and hung over, I dressed as quickly as I could manage and escaped the bedroom.
When I reached the main room, I herded Qanis out the door, barely giving him time to place his mug of tea on a table.
“I didn’t actually expect to find you there,” Qanis said, as we hustled through Dargon towards Qanis’ house. “Only, that was the last place I knew you were going, so I decided to start there. Quite fortunate you were there.”
As was his usual practice, Qanis continued without waiting for a response. “I did manage to find some work for you only this morning, and because I like you, I only took half my customary percentage.” Qanis flashed a weak smile at me, like that of a child who wants to be praised for doing something distasteful.
“Thank you, Qanis,” I murmured.
Satisfied, Qanis went on to tell me about my new job. It seemed that a minor noble who traded his produce through Qanis had a daughter who was getting married. The marriage had been arranged by the noble’s brother, one Lansing Bartol. Qanis said that this Lansing Bartol was not only a bard, but a confidant of the Duke as well. The implication was that taking care of the needs of this noble would put us in the good graces of his brother, and possibly the Duke as well. I think Qanis was more interested in his own opportunities, but even a mere mercenary can find it useful now and again to know someone in power.
Apparently, the father, Laren Bartol, had been in Qanis’ office, settling his accounts with the trader, and during their conversation had told Qanis that he had a feeling the girl was not entirely in favor of the match. Unfortunately, he had duties at home he could not escape, and would only arrive in Dargon on the day of the wedding.
Qanis, ever alert for opportunity, had offered my services, for a reasonable fee, and all that remained was to convince me to take the job. It seemed that Qanis was overly generous in calling this a job. It seemed more like an errand, but I was in no position to quibble. If I did not accept, I could end up having to ask Raneela for a place to stay, and I was not ready to try to understand *that* situation.
Just before we arrived at Qanis’ office, he told me offhandedly that I would need a horse, but fortunately for me, he had recently acquired one, complete with saddle and tack. I could use the horse for this short journey, and if I wished, we would work out a deal for the animal after I returned. Bemused by Qanis’ thorough preparation, I agreed.
Upon arriving at Qanis’ home, I went directly to the small stable to inspect the horse the trader expected me to buy. To my surprise the horse was a fine specimen, a dark grey gelding. It has been said that gelding a horse makes him docile, but I have always believed it just focuses his attention on the important things.
From the way the horse snapped at my fingers when I reached for its head, it had been through some training for combat. I spent the rest of the day in the stable with the animal, whom I named Flanduil after a mythical Mandrakan monster.
As a child my favorite story had always been the one concerning the death of Flanduil, legendary protector of the House of Mandraka, at the hand of Kess Dragonslayer.
The Slayer’s spear swiftly flew
Across the wide blood-dampened green,
Long would Mandraka keen,
When Flanduil, the Dark Hand slew.
I would dream that I avenged Flanduil upon that foul and hated name. In Mandraka, even today, to be called a dragonslayer is a blood insult.
By the time Qanis’ cook called me for supper, I had acclimated the horse to my presence enough to saddle it for a short journey, and had then brushed and fed him.
Qanis’ staff all went to bed with the sun, and I used the small room I had been in only a few nights ago. I slept soundly, and rose as usual, just before dawn. I washed my face and hands in the kitchen basin, and went to the stable to saddle Flanduil. I had just finished when I heard the clip-clop of another horse in the street. As I left the stable I saw Qanis greeting a brown haired man of medium height. The trader saw me and gestured me over. When I had joined them, Qanis spoke to his companion.
“Milord,” said Qanis, “this is Bren kel Tomis, master swordsman, and a fine bodyguard.”
I bobbed my head at the man, and said, “It is good to meet you, milord. I appreciate the opportunity to serve you.”
Bartol’s voice had an unexpected bass tone. “I only wish it were unnecessary. Be that as it may, we’ll ride as soon as I finish with Master Jetru. We’ll be but a few moments.”
With that, the two entered the building, apparently going to the office. I went to the kitchen and quickly drank a mug of tea, scalding my tongue. I packed a bag with bread, cold meat, and a wineskin full of cider, and placed them in a saddlebag just as Bartol came out.
Several bells later the father, named Laren Bartol, and I were some leagues out of Dargon City, heading southwest, towards Bartol’s lands. Lord Bartol kept to himself, and I am certainly not talkative, so it was a quiet journey. The sun was warm for once, and when we stopped at a small stream to eat our midday meal, I took off my cloak.
I shared my bread and meat with Bartol, who had cheese, and some spicy sausages. We washed it down with the cider, and continued on our way.
Just before sunset we stopped for the night at a tavern whose sign was so faded and worn that I could not make out the name. The platter of food we were served in the common room was not fit for animals, so I ate the remainder of my lunch. I slept in the stable with the horses; it looked and smelled cleaner. From the look Bartol gave me as I left for the stable, I think he agreed.
Early the next afternoon we arrived at Bartol’s estate. It was a small holding, but looked prosperous. The animals were sleek, and the small garden near the manor house was neat and well tended. There was a solidly built stable near the garden, and after I had taken care of Flanduil, I walked around the rest of the area, all of which spoke of a man who took care of what was his. It seemed that Lord Bartol could afford a decent dowry for his daughter.
I ate the evening meal in the kitchen in the presence of a red-faced cook who was less inclined towards speech than her master. She spoke not more than ten words while I ate, but she did cook rather well. I had three portions of the roast fowl, which was smothered in a delicious onion gravy, although the dressing was a little rich for my liking. There was no cider, but the beer was cool and refreshing.
Just as I finished eating, mopping up gravy with warm dark bread, a young servant entered the kitchen and walked up to the table where I sat. He tried to stand as tall as possible, but I guessed him at no more than six or seven years of age. The page, probably the son of an ally receiving his training, finally spoke.
“Sir Fighter,” he said, “Milord requests you come to the hall.”
“Right away, page,” I replied, keeping my voice serious. I could remember how afraid I had been, far from my family, as a young page at the College of Heralds. As we walked out of the kitchen, I leaned over and said quietly, “I am no knight, my boy. Call me Master Bren. If a true knight hears you name a man Sir who is not, there will be trouble.” I ruffled his hair to show him I meant no harm.
We entered the hall, a room I estimated at about fifteen strides deep by ten wide, large enough for its purpose. The walls were covered in tapestries, the usual method used to help keep out the cold. At the far end of the room burning logs crackled and sparked in a large fireplace. A long table was placed across the room not too far from the fireplace, individual chairs on the far side, and a bench opposite the chairs. All in all, a very typical manor hall.
There were three men seated on the left, and two women on the right, but the only person I recognized was Bartol, who sat at the far left, sifting through some documents.
“Milord,” piped up the little page, “Master Bren at your request.”
Bartol looked up from his papers. “Thank you, Reen, see if cook can get you some dinner.” The page, Reen, bowed hastily, and sped back to the kitchen.
“Master Bren, sit here with me,” Bartol said, gesturing to the bench across from him.
“Thank you, milord,” I said, approaching the bench.
My lady wife, and my daughter, Jeleen,” Bartol said, starting the introductions.
“Ladies, it is a pleasure,” I said. It seldom is, but the forms must be followed by all parties in these social transactions, and the two women smiled at me as if they cared what I thought about meeting them.
As I sat down, Lord Bartol went on, “This is my seneschal, Kitron, and Sregon, a priest of Ol, who will bless the marriage.”
I nodded at the seneschal, a thin, frail looking man, and murmured politely, “Greetings, seneschal.” I ignored the priest, as is my wont, and after a moment of silence, his fat, bearded, face went red. I was not concerned, however, for unlike insulting a noble, a priest won’t have you whipped. They usually threatened damnation of some sort, a threat which never upset me. I found it strange that the gods used such fools to be their fleshly representatives.
No one else had noticed the byplay. Bartol had continued, “Kitron and I are riding the borders of our land tomorrow with my neighbor to the west. He has just inherited, and it can’t be put off.”
I was aware of the tradition of riding a common border. It usually occured when a new lord came into his inheritance. It didn’t solve all border disputes, but it did reduce the number of complaints.
“We are due in Dargon in a few days for the wedding,” continued Bartol, “But Jeleen must spend some time with the seamstress, fitting her wedding clothes, which is why I need you to take her there.”
“But Father, I told you I will not marry him!” The sudden outburst from Jeleen surprised me, but not her mother, who quickly turned and slapped the girl full across the face.
“Your father has spoken, and you will obey him,” Lady Bartol exclaimed loudly. “And while you ponder your ill ways, you can ensure the servants have packed your things properly.” Jeleen, the red slap mark clear upon her cheek, was dismissed with a small wave of her mother’s hand.
Outwardly, I maintained a neutral expression. After all, when everyone lives in the same three or four rooms, privacy is a rare thing. It is only good manners to pretend not to see certain things. Otherwise, we would soon be unable to coexist in harmony.
Inwardly, I applauded Lady Bartol’s open support of her husband. It seemed to me that many women sought to strive against the natural superiority of men, and often assumed rights and privileges not their own. The society which succeeded was one in which men and women took on the roles for which they were properly suited.
After Jeleen had left, Bartol turned to me and spoke for my ear alone, “She is a good girl, kel Tomis, although a bit headstrong. After this outburst I am almost tempted to miss my border ride, but I cannot. Watch her closely, and deliver her safely to my brother.”
“On that you have my word, milord,” I replied, as quietly as Bartol.
Just then a servant entered the room with a wick, to light the torches in the hall, as it was now approaching dark. Bartol sent her from the room, announcing to everyone, “It is an early start tomorrow, I suggest we retire.” Bartol and his lady left, and then the rest of us trailed out.
I laid out my bedroll in the common room with the servants. Several were already snoring near the fire, which had been banked for the night. Quickly blocking out the ghastly chorus, I was asleep in moments.
I was up early enough the next morning to step outside and see Bartol and his sons empty their stirrup cups and ride away. To my disgust, however, it was nearly midday before my small party left for Dargon. Jeleen and her maidservants delayed at every turn. I nearly turned the pretty wretch over my knee several times, but forbore from doing so, retaining some dignity, if not temper.
I got my first good look at the girl that morning. She was not the kind to turn men’s heads, but she was pretty enough. Moderately tall, she wore her dark brown hair tied up neatly on top of her head. She was well shaped, and looked to have the hips to bear children without much difficulty. That is always important in a bride.
At long last, we left the mansion. I had the larger of the three male servants ride ahead, and hoped he would not have to draw the short sword which hung awkwardly from his hip. I had spent a short while that morning determining the male servants’ abilities, and I was none too encouraged. Jalosh, riding up front, was the best of the three, and I was sure he’d wet his breeches before dropping his sword and running, in the event of an attack. Fortunately the road was well traveled, and considered quite safe. Jeleen’s two maidservants were next, followed by another man, Jeleen, myself, and the last servant.
We made slow progress, Jeleen using any excuse to call a stop. I made attempts to speed our progress, but I did not press the issue. By mid afternoon I knew we would have to make a camp for the night, and I started looking for a suitable location. About half a bell before sunset, I called a halt, and directed the servants to make their preparations.
As they did so I scouted the vicinity, for I had a good notion about what Jeleen might have planned, and I wanted to be ready to counter her. When I returned to the camp, a small pavilion had been set up for Jeleen, and the bedrolls were in place. After a short meal of bread, cold meat, and hot tea, I chivvied everyone to their respective bedrolls. I had purposely laid my bedroll near the horses so that I would be out of the view of those near the fire.
As soon as it was dark, I quietly rose and moved away from the camp, and took up a post near a trail leading away from Dargon. Soon my scouting paid off. Someone was leading a horse up the trail, someone not well used to either horses or woods.
I waited for the person to pass me by. If it was Jeleen, I knew from my observations that morning that she wouldn’t be able to mount before I could stop her. If I did not stand between her and the camp, she might see me, and retreat, rousing the servants and causing a disturbance I knew neither of us wanted. As soon as Jeleen had passed, for it was indeed her, I stepped out from my place of hiding, and spoke.
“The night air is refreshing, is it not, milady?”
Jeleen, startled out of her wits, dropped the reins and made a strange squeal deep in her throat. The frightened horse tried to bolt, but was between Jeleen and myself. Cursing myself a fool for being unnecessarily dramatic, I quickly grabbed the reins and calmed the horse. I then took the girl by the arm and led both her and the horse back to the camp.
Once the horse had been picketed, I stoked the fire and made a pot of tea. I glanced over occasionally as I worked, and could see by her stiff posture that she was angry. Taking two cups of the steaming brew, I stepped across the camp of still sleeping servants to the log on the eastern edge of the camp where Jeleen sat, pouting over her failure to escape.
At first she refused the cup, but soon the chill of the night airimproved her judgement, and we sat on the log, sipping tea and listening to the night. It was very companionable, and I waited for some time, letting her calm down and regain what sense she normally retained.
I started the conversation by asking, “So, what is his name, then?”
Jeleen’s surprised expression told me that she thought her secret well hid, but she responded anyway. “His name is Oburt, and I love him,” she said, ending with a note of belligerence.
“I’m sure you think you do, my girl,” I replied, “But you have an obligation to your family that supersedes your personal desires and wishes. Your father has agreed a match, for the good of the family. Your responsibility is to your family, not yourself.”
“What would you know about duty?” Jeleen countered, scathingly. “You’re nothing but a common mercenary.”
I paused, trying to decide whether to speak openly to the girl, to help her understand where her duty lay, or just to bundle her up and deliver her as quickly as possible to Dargon.
“I have not always been a mere fighter,” I replied, having decided. “I have been much more, and fallen from a greater height than you know.” I hesitated again, ashamed, but then I continued, realizing that my own failure to my duty spoke more clearly than cliched platitudes. “I once held high rank in the service of my king,” I began. “It was a position of great responsibility, and duty was my god. One day, however, not much more than a moon ago, I met a woman. I became lost in her, her manner …” My voice trailed off as I recalled Kira, who has used me so badly. Even now, I ached at the thought of her.
“Was she beautiful?” asked Jeleen, sounding caught up in my tale.
“I have never seen any maid who caught my breath like she did,” I replied wistfully. “But her heart was as black as her hair, and that was my undoing. She asked me to commit a wrong, and I did it gladly for her love. It was not until afterwards, when she had no more use for me, that I realized what a grievous wrong I had done.”
I recalled the blow that had cut down Regan kel Bor, and shuddered. “Kel Bor was no more. I had killed a good man, and betrayed my duty, for nothing. I can taste the bitterness of that feeling even now. When I arrived home, my king stripped me of position and honor, and exiled me to this far land, where the rain and cold may well be the death of me.”
“You poor man,” Jeleen commiserated. She placed a hand on mine, and squeezed gently. “You have been through much.”
“You think that the end?” I laughed grimly. “Those punishments are nothing. The true penalty is in my own heart. I now know that I am a mere man, bound to fail, and fail miserably. I have no honor, and so my soul is bereft.” The pain became so intense that I could no longer contain it. Tears ran unbidden from my eyes. From my throat came the whispered words, “Toran! Help me!”
Now undone, sobs wracked my body. I could feel Jeleen holding me, trying to comfort me, and I slowly gained control of my emotions as the moments passed.
“I am sure your god will give you the strength you need,” she whispered to me, mistaking my cry to my slain friend.
“I worship no gods,” I replied quietly. “Toran was my companion, a great friend who fought by my side, and another good man who died because of me. You see, I punish myself, and I see no end to it. I struggle through each day, hoping to make some small step towards redeeming my soul, my honor, my duty. That is the precipice upon which you stand, dear girl. Step away from your desire, and towards your duty, or you will surely regret it, as I have.”
She pulled back from me for a moment, frightened by the intensity in my voice. Then she nodded her head, and no longer appeared afraid.
We spoke for a long time. She opened up to me, speaking of her father, and her uncle. As the bells passed, I could sense that she was coming to the right decision in her mind. Sometime during the night, I retrieved my cloak, and placed it around her, warding her from the cold.
There, in the quiet dark, I examined my soul. I hadn’t spoken to Jeleen about Raneela, but the healer had not been far from my thoughts that night. I could not say that I returned her obvious affection, but I knew that I had again shirked a duty. I had treated her shamefully, and another blot was on me.
I felt the black mood coming on me again, but this time I resolved to fight it. I had admitted my weakness to Jeleen, and in doing so had finally admitted it to myself. I now knew I could fail, and the knowledge made me stronger in a way I did not yet understand. With that thought, the mood retreated, and my heart was less heavy in me. I had reached an epiphany in that moment, as if I had waited my whole life to come to that realization that I could fail, and still yet succeed by persevering.
Just before sunrise, having been quiet for a while, she said, “What about Oburt? I cannot just forget him, even though I do my duty.”
I chuckled out loud, but quickly stopped, seeing the hurt look from the offended girl. “Jeleen, you do not have to forget him. Wait for a time, and then send for him.”
Jeleen looked shocked. “But my duty …”
I interrupted her, “You must never dishonor your husband, and your public face must always be one of love and support. But the nobility are as human as any other; they have the same desires as any other. As long as you do not make a fool of your husband, no one will object; it is done all the time. I am sure your husband will do the same. When you get to Dargon, make friends with some of the other wives, and they will show you how the dance is done.”
We watched the sun break through the floor of the world, and then roused the others. The days’ travel went smoothly, and Jeleen and I spent most of the time talking of inconsequential things. I felt relieved that I could talk to her; we had become close friends in a short night.
That is one reason I despised the priesthood. They wanted your soul, but not your friendship. I remember many long talks with Toran over a mug or three, and cannot recall ever seeing one priest in the tavern. Never trust a man who will not drink with you; it is a good rule to live by.
We made quick time this day, and before the sun was three quarters across the sky, our path joined the Street of Travelers, and Dargon Keep loomed in the sky. At this time of day most traffic was headed away from the keep, so we made good time, and were at the gates well before sunset. I ordered the servants to wait under the stern eyes of one of the guards at the Keep gate.
We passed into the inner courtyard, and I took a moment to glance around. While not as grand as The Breakers, the castle of the King of Mandraka, Dargon Keep was impressive. The three towers protected the keep from the river and the sea, while the steep, winding road leading to the gate would prevent a large scale assault on the landward side.
“Gardener,” I called out, speaking to an old man weeding between the courtyard paving stones. “How do I find Lord Bartol?”
Leaning on his hoe, the peasant paused, and then replied, “Through that door, milord, then down the hallway, to the main hall. There you’ll find the bard.” Casually turning away, he continued his work.
Jeleen and I were reached the corridor the gardener had described, where a clerk took Jeleen’s name, and promised to reach Bartol as soon as possible, although when that be could be hard to say. Jeleen seemed out of her depth here, so I stepped up to the small table.
“Would this help you to locate Lord Bartol?” I asked, laying a Royal on the table.
“Lord Bartol shall be with you presently,” the clerk responded with a smile. I shook my head in resignation. It seemed that every clerk in every castle was cut from the same fabric.
The clerk hissed at a page, and we were escorted to a small chamber outside the Grand Hall. It was furnished only with several chairs, and apparently functioned as a temporary waiting room. Soon there were footsteps in the corridor outside, and the door opened.
“Uncle!” cried Jeleen, who threw herself at the tall, dark-haired man in the doorway. The reunion was over in short order, and when Bartol glanced at me, Jeleen introduced me.
“Uncle, this is Bren kel Tomis, a personal friend who accompanied me to Dargon,” she said, exaggerating our relationship somewhat. Bartol thrust his hand out to me, and in reflex, I clasped his forearm in the greeting of equals.
“Milord,” I said, “The lady is too kind. I was hired by her father to bring her to you. If you wish, I will escort her to your home, and then take my leave.”
“No, Uncle,” Jeleen interjected, “He has done me a great favor. I owe him a debt, and since we are family, you also owe him a debt.” As she said the last, she turned and smiled at me, and I was satisfied that she seemed to understand her duty.
Bartol looked at me again, in a more appraising manner. I did not turn from his inspection, and he spoke. “You seem to have affected our Jeleen, Master kel Tomis. You are from Mandraka, are you not? I seem to recall that style of naming.”
“I am, milord. It is a way of retaining our link to the land. My father was the Count of Tomis. As a noble son, I was allowed to insert ‘kel’ in my name.”
Jeleen turned to me with a piqued look, as if I had withheld information from her. Bartol just smiled and nodded, then spoke, “Well, kel Tomis, I will have a servant escort you and my niece to my home. How may I find you later, if I so wish?”
“A message sent through the trader Qanis Jetru, on Commercial Street, should reach me,” I replied.
With that, we took our leave, and followed the servant Bartol had summoned. We walked through the streets of Dargon, the sky darkening around us. Once we arrived at Bartol’s house, Jeleen wept and held me for a moment. I had never had a relationship with a woman that didn’t involve sex, but it was good to return her embrace without ardor. I said goodbye and left the housestepping into the cool evening air.
Leading my horse, it wasn’t until I was ten paces down the street that I realized I didn’t know where I was going to stay. I didn’t have a home, and I would not impose on Raneela. I paused in the middle of the street, oblivious to all. Maybe a small gift would be a good start for my apology to her. Finally, I turned towards Qanis’ house. I decided that he could put me up for the night. Tomorrow I would find a place of my own, and continue rebuilding my life.