The three men rode without speaking. They were nearing their destination, having set off early the previous day. Jokal des Morest, the leader of the three riders, adjusted his grip on the reins of his horse and turned in the saddle to address the men behind him.
“There’s an inn coming up,” Jokal said. “We’ll stop and eat before pushing on to the Rerre estate.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Darrant. His black hair was slicked across his forehead with sweat. Jokal could see from the escort’s red face that the warm sunlight did not agree with Darrant. Darrant gripped the bottom of his overtunic and wiped his face.
“It’ll be good to stop for a while, eh, Darrant?” joked the second escort as he looked across at his friend. “Sit down drink our fill of ale and gorge on venison while listening to a wanderin’ minstrel or two!”
“Shut up, Falris,” retorted Darrant, a little too harshly. Falris had been teasing him ever since the sun had begun to rise high above them and the beads of sweat had started to form on his forehead.
Falris chuckled quietly, “Just think of that ale.”
Jokal allowed himself to smile at the bickering that continued behind him, but his thoughts rapidly returned to the reason why he was riding to the Rerre estate at all. He was to deliver a scroll to Mathias Rerre, the man his sister, Leila, had eloped with, and object of Jokal’s father’s hatred. Mathias had been captivated by Jokal’s sister, and she had been resistant to the tall, dark-haired southerner’s charms for a short while only. Jokal and Leila’s father, Arran, had tentatively approved of the Bitom native, until he discovered that Mathias had been nothing more than a penniless shepherd before he had made his fortune. With that news, Arran’s opinion of Mathias changed.
Arran had hoped that Leila, a striking brunette, would attract the attention of someone of a higher standing: a son of a minor noble or somesuch. Although Mathias had not herded anything for a few years, Arran could not be persuaded to approve of their relationship. In fact, he had expressly forbade Leila to see Mathias, which had only strengthened her resolve. Mathias had run the wool business in which he had been apprenticed. Jokal did not know how the apprentice had become the master at such a young age; Mathias could not have more than five years on top of Jokal’s fifteen.
Jokal had quizzed Mathias as he felt a brother should do and found nothing that gave him reason to worry. In fact Jokal felt that he could grow to like Mathias. The elopement, however, put an end to any blooming friendship. Mathias had taken Leila to live on the estate for which he had exchanged his wool business. From then, almost three months earlier, until the present day, the only time Jokal had heard of Mathias was when Arran had spoken of him and the shame he had brought upon their family, or within the letter that Jokal had received. It was a scroll, bound with the colors of Mathias’ liege lord, Baron Leavenfell. Jokal had untied the blue, yellow and white ribbon and read the letter. Within it, Leila had told Jokal of her marriage to Mathias and that she was with child. Jokal had showed it to Arran, hoping that it would end the bad feeling between their families.
“How wrong could I have been?” Jokal thought sadly.
Arran had become even more enraged and had been talking of using force. Jokal had pleaded for a chance to mediate the crisis and was given it.
“Take this scroll,” Arran had said to him, nearly two days ago. “Deliver it to Mathias. Judge his reaction and report back to me.”
“The scroll!” Jokal thought with a start.
“Darrant,” he asked as the three riders neared the Two Paths Inn. “Hand me the scroll, please.”
“Yes, sir,” Darrant replied before he drew a scroll out from under his overtunic. Darrant urged his horse on until he was alongside Jokal before leaning to one side slightly and handing Jokal the scroll bound in the colors of Arran des Morest, vassal to the Baron of Elmond. Jokal tucked the scroll, tied with a green and white ribbon, into his overtunic as the riders turned into the stables beside the inn.
“Feed the horses and keep them somewhere in the shade, but don’t unsaddle them,” Jokal said to the waiting stable boy. Jokal handed the stable boy two Bits before leading his escorts into the inn.
Jokal ordered three ales and a portion each of the carcass that was hoisted above the fire that could be seen in the kitchen. The barmaid took Jokal’s money and returned with three mugs and three plates heaped with steaming meat.
“Eat up. We leave as soon as possible; I want to get to Mathias’ place by sundown at the latest,” Jokal said as Darrant and Falris began to eat.
The setting sun illuminated the horizon when Jokal, Darrant and Falris entered the borders of the Rerre estate. They rode in single file down a cart track that threaded through the lush fields surrounding them. The fields, given a slightly amber sheen by the oncoming dusk, were almost empty save for a few workers. Jokal could see the main building of the estate, Mathias’ home, in the distance. The colors of Mathias Rerre flapped in the evening breeze atop the house. The flag had blue and yellow checks in the top half with plain white bisected by a black line in the bottom half.
Jokal spied two riders approaching fast from the direction of the house and motioned for his escorts to slow to a stop. They waited for the two riders to catch up to them.
“Who are you and what is your business?” asked the closer and, Jokal supposed, the more senior of the two guards.
“Jokal des Morest,” Jokal replied. “I bring greeting from my father, Arran des Morest, vassal of Lord Elmond.”
The guard nodded curtly before turning his horse and leading Jokal and his escorts toward the house.
Jokal rode along the dusty path that wove its way through fallow fields. The first guard was directly abreast of Jokal, while Darrant, Falris and the second guard were behind them. There were a few houses and buildings dotting the fields. They were obviously houses for workers of sufficient status. The people that Jokal had seen since arriving at the estate had been men of the land: hard working and Jokal had no doubt that they would fight hard and, most likely, unfairly should their homes be threatened.
“It won’t — can’t — come to that,” he thought as they rode to the main house.
A barn to the right of the Rerre house was surrounded by a throng of people, mostly peasants and workers. A few were leaving the barn and heading for wherever they called home. As they milled, Jokal could see a large table — or perhaps row of smaller tables — that was partly covered with breads and meats and soups. A wave of sound came from the general direction of the festival; singing, music and shouting embellished the normal conversation. The festival took place every year and was called Melrin. It celebrated the end of spring planting which would hopefully lead to a prosperous harvest.
Bakson took the lead and directed the party toward the stables where a stablehand offered to take their horses.
The stablehand held the reins of each horse, two in one hand and three in the other as the visitors and the guards dismounted.
They walked to the main entrance of the house. Jokal felt a twinge of envy as he regarded all of which Mathias was master. Bakson opened the door and led the visitors through the house to the room in which Mathias was waiting.
Jokal nodded his appreciation and walked over to the door indicated by Bakson. He opened it and strode into the room. The room was sparsely furnished, having only a large, open fireplace, a large table that was half stocked with food and drink, and a single comfortable chair. Jokal smiled as he spied his sister sitting in the chair.
“Leila!” he exclaimed. He crossed the floor to his sister and hugged her.
“Jokal! Wait,” she cried. “I’m still holding the needlework. Let me put it down first. There. Come on brother, hug me again. It’s good to see you again after so long.”
They broke off the hug and Leila continued, “Why have you come? Has Father relented? Is he –”
Jokal shook his head and said, “No. That is what I am here for. Where’s Mathias?”
“At the feast. This is normally just a waiting room, which is why you were shown here. I came here to rest for a while.” Leila stood up slowly as if her pregnancy were weighing her down. “Now let’s go join the feast.”
“Are you sure?” Jokal asked. “You did say that you came to rest.”
“I’ve rested enough and besides, I want to see Mat’s face when he realises you’re here.”
Leila turned to face Bakson, who had by now entered the room with Junn and Jokal’s escorts in tow. She said, “Take Jokal’s friends to the feast. I’ll go with Jokal in a moment.”
“Yes, my lady,” Bakson said as he left the room. Junn, Darrant and Falris followed him out.
Leila looked at Jokal for a brief moment before clasping his hands in hers and smiling broadly, “I’ve missed you, brother. I’ve missed Father as well.”
“He’s missed you, as have I. No matter how little he expresses it or how it may seem from his hasty actions, never feel that he doesn’t care for you. Now enough about how much we’ve missed each other, let’s eat — I’m hungry.”
Leila looked as if she was about to speak but instead she led Jokal by the arm to the hall in which the feast was taking place.
Flickering torches fixed atop hastily erected poles lent a little light to the hall, adding to the meagre light that crept in from outside. The dusk sky could be seen through holes in the walls and roof that allowed the smoke of the fires to escape. There were three burning stoves in the hall and each one had a boar roasting on top of it. Wooden plates were stacked beside the stoves.
“I’ll grab some food and then we’ll find Mathias,” Jokal said, having to raise his voice to be heard above the clamor. Leila nodded, so Jokal filled two plates and handed one to her.
“I’ve eaten,” she said. “But thank you.”
“No matter,” Jokal replied before pouring the roughly-hewn slices of meat from Leila’s plate onto his own. He placed the wooden plate on a nearby table and began to eat. “Let’s find Mathias,” he said through a mouthful of food. After a brief time, Leila spied Mathias through the crowd and pulled on Jokal’s arm.
“He’s over there talking to Urvan, one of our neighbors. I don’t like him much but as Mathias tells me he deserves respect.”
As the siblings approached Mathias and Urvan, Jokal heard the conversation more clearly.
“– And then I swung the stick down on that foul animal. It squealed!” Urvan said. He realised that Mathias was not even listening to his tale and stopped mid-flow. “Mathias? Are you listening?”
“Yes, Urvan,” replied Mathias Rerre. “I was merely restocking my plate. Now continue with your tale of how you beat a wolf caught in a trap. It must have been a fantastic feat of prowess!”
A round of derisive laughter occurred which Urvan, a tall, wide, balding man, ignored. He waved his hand in the air which had the effect of quieting the laughter.
“Mathias,” Urvan asked, staring at his host, “have you ever heard a wolf squeal? No, squeal is not the right word. Anyway, have you heard a wolf plead for mercy?”
Mathias shook his head, “But then again, I’ve never clubbed a wolf caught in a trap before. I must regretfully take my leave. Maybe some other day I will hear of your astounding bravery!”
With that, Mathias turned to see Leila and Jokal walking over to him.
“Mat,” Leila called as she quickened her step. “Look who’s here.”
“Jokal,” Mathias said with a smile. “When did you get here?”
“Just now,” Jokal replied as he clasped Mathias’ outstretched hand. “I have to talk to you –”
“Oh shut up,” Leila said. “Leave that until tomorrow! For now, eat and drink with friends.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Mathias said, raising the mug in his hands to his lips.
Jokal nodded and lifted his mug to his own lips. “It’ll wait until tomorrow,” he said, forcing a smile.
Jokal rose late in the morning, due to the abundance of food at the Melrin feast, and found Mathias and Leila in the hall along with a few remnants of the party. What was left of the food remained on the tables and served as breakfast. Jokal ate hungrily for a while.
Mathias waited as Jokal sated his hunger before parting from Leila and the small group he was talking with. Mathias walked over to Jokal, who was finishing up his meal.
“I trust you slept well?” Mathias asked.
“Yes, I did,” Jokal replied.
“Now tell me: what does your father have to say?” Mathias asked as Jokal placed his plate on the closest table.
“He is still against your union with his daughter,” Jokal answered as he turned to face Mathias, “and his stance is very unlikely to change. Before we go any further, I would like to make it clear that the words may be harsh but they are my father’s. I only want Leila to be happy, nothing else.”
“And I thank you for that,” Mathias replied. “I, too, want her to be happy. It is your father who doesn’t want her to be happy.”
“That’s not true,” argued Jokal, who still felt that whatever Arran’s faults, he was still his and Leila’s father. “He *does* want her to be happy.”
“You may believe that but it’s certainly not working out that way is it?” Mathias asked. “Now what is it that Arran sent you here for? It wasn’t to tell me that he’s against my marriage to Leila — I know that.” Mathias gripped the younger man by the shoulders and said, “You’d best tell me what it is your father has sent you here for.”
Jokal, not knowing how to broach the subject, merely reached inside his overtunic and brought out the scroll.
“There,” he said as he gave it to Mathias. “Everything’s in that scroll.”
Mathias nodded curtly before walking away from him slightly. He untied the ribbon and allowed it to fall to the ground before opening and reading the scroll.
After a short time in which all Jokal could hear was his own nervous breathing and his rapid heartbeat, Mathias whirled round on the spot.
“Does he *really* think I’m going to dissolve our marriage and just let you take Leila back? The man is *mad*! I approached Arran as soon as I knew I loved her. I asked for her hand; it was refused. Why? Because I made my money through the wool trade. ‘A sheep herder,’ he said, ‘No daughter of mine will ever marry a sheep herder!’. I’ll tell you this, my wealth is worthy of *his* family. Eager to please him — how damn stupid could I have been — I traded my business for the opportunity to serve as a vassal of Leavenfell. To *serve* under another after being in charge of my own destiny for so long. But still he continues!”
Jokal took Mathias’ pause as an indication that he had finished and started to speak, “He’s still our father –”
“That he is … and I pity you both. But Leila is my wife and is carrying our child. We married as soon as we arrived here, on these very grounds. The church is just behind the house. Ol-damn Arran if he wants to be idiotic about it, but he’ll not split us up just like that. You’ll be going straight back home tomorrow. You’ll tell that raffenraker that Mathias Rerre tells him he can go get squirmed.”
Jokal watched as Mathias turned his back on him and walked across the hall. As Leila rushed over to Jokal, he wondered just how he was going to tell his father of Mathias’ reaction.