Jokal des Morest saddled his mare in silence, pondering the events of the previous two days. He remembered the feeling of wonder and awe he felt on arriving at Mathias Rerre’s sumptuous estate. He remembered the joy that registered on Leila’s face when she saw him, and he recalled that smile changing to one of annoyance when Jokal had dared to broach the subject of business on such a joyful day. His sister had scolded him and then proceeded to play the dutiful host’s wife for the rest of the evening.
Jokal had hoped that the night would never turn into day, but when the morning came, he had sought out Mathias Rerre. Jokal had told Mathias that Arran des Morest, Jokal’s and Leila’s father, did not sanction his daughter’s marriage to Mathias and was demanding that she return home. Arran des Morest had disliked Mathias ever since he had discovered that Mathias had been nothing more than a shepherd who had befallen good fortune. Arran’s dream had been that one day Leila would marry a fine, upstanding pillar of society.
Leila’s and Mathias’ elopement had destroyed all hopes of that. Even the fact that Leila was carrying Mathias’ child would not stop Arran from bringing her back home, at any cost. Jokal had delivered Arran’s request and Mathias had flatly refused to accede to it.
Jokal fastened the last strap on the saddle and patted the mare’s side. The early morning breeze chilled his face and Jokal pulled his jacket tighter about him.
The good weather of two days ago had gone, replaced by the slight chill that was all that remained of the dying winter. Jokal had preferred to leave early in order to make the most of the daylight and he had woken just before dawn. After a few menes spent uselessly pondering the situation, Jokal had dressed, eaten and then walked over to the stables to saddle the horse provided for his journey home. Unsatisfied with the light in the stables, Jokal had led the mare out of the stable and saddled her in the open air just outside the stables.
Jokal heard the crunch of footsteps upon dew-coated grass and turned to face his sister Leila.
“Jokal?” she asked. “Are you all right?”
Jokal sighed softly, “No. I’m not all right. I have to go home and tell Father that Mathias refused his request.”
Leila looked at Jokal with an encouraging smile on her face. She said, “I’m sure it will not be as bad as you think.”
Jokal did not have time to say anything before Mathias approached them and slid his arm across Leila’s shoulders, hugging her close to him. He nodded curtly in Jokal’s direction and watched him quietly. Jokal decided not to say anything, and instead, placed his foot in the stirrup and swung himself onto the horse. Jokal said, “I’m about ready to leave. Where are my escorts?”
“They are round the side of the house. All saddled and kitted up and ready to leave. I trust your stay — if not pleasant — has been comfortable.”
“Yes, Mathias,” agreed Jokal, “It has. If circumstances were better I am sure I would have enjoyed the surroundings more. The fields look as though they will yield a strong harvest.
“Until the next time we meet. Farewell, Leila.”
Jokal spurred his mare on and trotted round the side of the house to join his escorts.
The journey home had taken a day and a half so far. Jokal looked at the sky, feeling the first raindrops splatter against his upturned face. The smell and sensation of fresh rain did nothing for him at that moment. Jokal breathed in deeply and then expelled the contents of his lungs out in an angry breath. The rain deepened into a steady torrent causing the horses to slow, lest they lose their footing. Jokal turned to check that his two escorts were still atop their horses. On seeing Darrant and Falris riding behind him, Jokal turned to face the front again. He could barely see ahead far enough to ride safely so he turned his gaze to the ground directly in front of him. It was not long before the rain abated slightly, and Jokal knew that the worst of the abrupt storm was over, but the rain continued to fall. It made no difference to Jokal whether the rain stopped or not as he was soaked to the skin and there was not enough of the journey left for him to dry off. Falris spied the forest that neighboured the des Morest estate and pointed it out to his charge. Jokal scowled in disgust as he realised that they had gone slightly off course; not enough to cause problems but enough to mean a weary end to the ride. The riders headed for the forest.
The soft soil of the forest mixed with the heavy rains to become treacherous ground for the horses. After two bells of slow, torturous riding through the clammy mud, Jokal and his escorts emerged into the open grounds on the north side of the Des Morest estate. Jokal now knew he would not be able to put off telling his father of Mathias’ response. As if embracing what he had to do, Jokal spurred on his mare and his escorts did likewise.
As the party approached the des Morest house, Jokal pulled on the reins to stop his horse. He dismounted and handed the reins to Falris.
“Can you take her to the stables for me?” Jokal asked. “I’d better see my father as he’ll be wondering where we’ve been.”
Falris nodded and watched as Jokal ran over to the door of the house. Jokal hammered on the wooden door until it was opened. Thanking the servant who opened the door, Jokal walked through the hallway to the dining room. The large table that resided within it was empty, save for a few remnants of the last meal. Jokal picked up a leg of meat and took a bite. Realising that he was beginning to shiver, Jokal opened his overtunic, shrugged himself out of it, and let it drop to the floor. Jokal put the leg of meat on the table and pulled his undertunic over his head. Another shiver passed through him as he wrung the water out of the garment. As Jokal pulled it back over his head, he heard the door of the dining room open and close. Jokal looked up and saw his father, who looked small against the closed door behind him.
“What did he say?” asked Arran des Morest, fixing Jokal with his green eyes. “What did that runt say?”
Jokal looked at his father. “What? No welcome home?”
Arran sighed, “If need be. Welcome home, my son. Now, about your task?”
“Mathias Rerre declined your request,” Jokal said, as clearly as he could speak.
“And?” asked Arran. “What of the ultimatum?”
Jokal did not answer.
“You never told him? Damn, boy! The honor of the des Morest name is worth far more than the happiness of a daughter.” Arran closed the distance between himself and his son. “It hurt when Leila chose Mathias each and every time a choice needed to be made. I was hurt time after time by Leila and each time that happened, it was always due to Mathias.”
“She’s still your daughter,” Jokal countered, desperate to make his father listen somehow, but it sounded hollow.
Arran looked away from Jokal and walked toward the door.
“Is all this just because he used to be a shepherd?” Jokal asked, dimly aware that he no longer felt cold or wet.
Arran laughed, a brief harsh sound. “Is that what you think this is about?” he asked. “That man is scum. He aided the Beinison in the war; he made his money aiding those bastards on the eastern side of the Kingdom.
“That bastard was responsible for the death of my friend. *That* is what this is about. I’ve not spoken of it as, despite what you may believe, I don’t want to be the one who breaks my only daughter’s heart. But I’ll not let her spend her life in the company of a traitor!”
Jokal jerked his head up and fixed his gaze on his father. There was nothing in Arran’s stance that betrayed a lie. “But would Leila — could Leila love a traitor?” Jokal thought, now confused and unsure of things.
“You may have heard me speak of Lars?” Arran asked. The anger, Jokal noted, had gone from his voice and was replaced with quiet reflection. Jokal shook his head at Arran’s question. “I thought I had spoken of Lars,” Arran said looking down at the ground, and allowing his train of thought to trail off. He looked up at Jokal and continued, “Anyway, he was a childhood friend and it broke my heart to see him join the army when the recruitment started. The Beinison war ruined a great many friendships, either through death or by changing one friend too much for the friendship to survive. Most of this information was related to me by the other person present at the time of this situation. Lars was patrolling the farms a round here with another member of his battalion.”
Arran walked closer to Jokal almost as if he were reaching out to him but stopped short of contact. Arran explained, “One farm belonged to Mathias Rerre, and the agitation that he showed on being inspected led Lars and the two other soldiers — Iob and Tyrn, I think their names were — to search his barn. Mathias became even more agitated and when they discovered four Beinison soldiers …
Anger began to seep back into Arran’s voice as he continued, “Well, Mathias jumped Lars, Iob and Tyrn from behind while the Beinisons attacked from the front. Iob was able to fight free and reach his horse but Lars and Tyrn were murdered. Iob was found dead some distance away from Jokal’s house but it’s obvious that that is what happened. I have it on authority that is the truth and believe me, I’ve tried to have him hung for treason. That’s the story about Mathias and that’s why I have no intention of accepting him as a member of this family.” Arran turned his back on Jokal and walked over to t he door. As he opened it, Arran quietly said, “And that’s why I have to carry out my promise to Mathias, regardless of whether you told him of it or not.”
Jokal stood alone in the dining room for a moment or two before he realised he had subconsciously clenched his fists tight enough to break the skin of his palms. Relaxing his hands, Jokal thought of Leila and he saw her smiling face. He could not allow his father to harm her in any way and tears welled up as he pictured Leila lying in a field on the Rerre estate, dying or dead. He blinked twice; his mind was made up and he would help Leila.
Jokal left the room and walked through the house until he reached the side entrance. Glancing about to check that no one was watching him, he opened the door and crossed the short stretch of muddy yard to the kitchen. Once inside the kitchen he grabbed a sack from the pile just inside the door and filled it with food for his return to Dargon. He left the kitchen and headed for the well. He filled his water flagon to the brim before letting it hang by his side again.
He ran to the stables for the second time that day, sure that he was going to be apprehended by one of his father’s men who somehow knew what he was up to. No one approached him and as he entered the stables, Jokal was gladdened to see only the stableboy there.
“I need a horse” Jokal said.
“Okay,” replied the stableboy, eager to please, “I have one ready. I just finished grooming him. Do you want me to saddle him?”
“That’ll be fine,” said Jokal. “I can manage.”
The stableboy nodded and walked down the row of stalls until he found the horse — a three year old gelding — and brought him over to Jokal who was waiting with a saddle.
Once saddled, Jokal led him out into the courtyard and pulled himself into the saddle. He rode the horse through the des Morest estate and passed the border without any query. Jokal spurred him on, aiming to reach Dargon within a day: to tell Mathias to take Leila far away.
Jokal arrived at the Rerre estate just as the sun crossed the apex of the sky. The journey had taken little over a day. Jokal was weary, yet alert. A guard rode up to meet him as he approached the main house and Jokal recognised him as Bakson — a guard that Jokal had met on his first visit.
“What is your business?” Bakson asked, his eyes surveying Jokal suspiciously.
“I need to see Mathias,” Jokal replied. “It’s urgent.” Jokal also noticed Bakson scanning the fields around them.
“You’re alone?” Bakson asked, with a hint of incredulity.
“Yes, and I do need to speak to Mathias.”
“The master’s not here. He’s in Dargon, on business.”
“Leila then, can I see my sister?” Jokal asked, almost pleading.
“I’ll take you to the house, and I’ll ask her. Follow me.”
Jokal rode alongside Bakson in silence, wondering just what to do now. His plan had been dashed: tip Mathias off and let him take Leila away from the estate before Arran attacked.
By the time they reached the main house, Jokal had decided on what to do and waited patiently as Bakson rang the bell. The door was opened by Leila who saw Jokal and immediately grabbed his arm.
“Come in,” she said, smiling. “Come in.”
Bakson coughed, prompting Leila to add, “Oh, sorry. Did you want to say something?”
“No my lady, your acceptance of this man is all the answer I need, I’ll return to my duties now.”
“Jokal is always welcome here, Bakson,” Leila said, fixing the guard with a short stare.
As soon as Leila had closed the door and turned back to face Jokal again, he began speaking, “We’ve got to get away. Got to find Mathias and warn him. Father –”
“What’s Father done now?” Leila interrupted, confused by Jokal’s rambling.
“He’s on his way by now, with as many men as he could raise,” Jokal said. “On his way to get you.”
Leila shook her head, “No, he wouldn’t do that.”
“He’s determined to split you both up, one way or the other. Father doesn’t care what happens to Mathias and would rather you remain unhurt, but should something happen …” Jokal couldn’t finish the sentence.
Leila did not speak for a while, but finally she found her voice, “So you think we should find Mathias?”
“Yes,” Jokal said, nodding fast. “You know where in Dargon he went?”
Leila nodded and told Jokal to wait while she went to change. Jokal waited and wondered what he would say to Mathias — “the traitor?” his confused thoughts added — when he finally saw him.
Leila soon reappeared, dressed in trousers and an overtunic.
“Come on then,” she said, leading Jokal out of the house.
Outside, Jokal figeted nervously as Leila waited for a servant to bring them horses to ride.
It was late by the time Leila and Jokal reached Dargon and their eyes had long since adapted to the moonlit night. The streets were silent and Leila heard nothing but the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves.
They rode through the silent streets until they came to Belisandra’s, the inn at which Mathias was staying while on business in Dargon. Leila dismounted and leashed her horse to the post outside Belisandra’s and told Jokal to do the same. Once both horses were secure, Jokal tried the door and was glad to see it swing open. The inside of the tavern was dark; the only light came from a fire that burned in the fireplace. Shadows danced around the walls and Jokal scanned the room quickly. There was no sign of Mathias among the few drinkers left.
Leila had already gathered that Mathias was not in the tavern proper and had walked over to the bar to ask after her husband. As Jokal moved to his sister’s side, he heard the conversation.
“Mathias Rerre, you say?” asked the barman. He was carefully watching Leila with narrowed eyes.
“Yes,” Leila replied. “He’s my husband and I have to speak to him.”
“I think not!” the barman stated before turning away from Jokal and Leila slightly. He picked up a dirty looking, wooden tankard and placed it on a shelf behind him.
“What is it?” Jokal asked, directing the question to the barman. “Do you not like the look of us?”
A grunt escaped from the lips of the barman. He turned back to face them and said, “Mathias *is* here, but he’s asked for me to keep him undisturbed. ‘*No* interuptions’, he said.”
The barman held his hands up as if to say, ‘that’s it, end of story’ but when Jokal leant forward and proferred a Round, the barman’s attitude changed.
“Now, will this loosen your tongue?” Jokal asked, twirling the coin in his fingers.
“Aye,” replied the barman as he reached for the coin. “Upstairs and third on your left. Be quiet, mind you. Others sleep now.” The barman’s fingers closed around the coin and took it from Jokal’s fingers.
“Thank you!” Leila said to the barman before turning to face her brother. “And thank you!”
Leila ran up the rickety stairs to the room indicated. She opened the door, which crashed into the wall, and spied a sleeping figure in the bed.
“Mathias,” she said as she knelt beside the bed. “Mathias, wake up. It’s Leila.”
The sleeper groaned and turned away.
“Mathias,” Leila said again, this time louder and with more urgency. She pushed him in the back.
“What?” he grunted.
“It’s Leila. Jokal’s here with me. You have to wake up, it’s Father.”
“Arran?” Mathias asked, his senses suddenly awaking. “What’s wrong?”
“He’s on his way to your estate — if he hasn’t already reached it — to take Leila back home,” Jokal said, his voice cold and joyless. “I suggest you wake up.”
Mathias rolled over and pushed himself up into a sitting position. “Take Leila back?”
“Yes, by force if necessary,” Jokal said. “I should have told you before.”
“Gods!” Mathias exclaimed, as if he had just realised what was being said. “We have to get back.”
“Yes, we do. We have two horses, do you have yours?” Jokal asked as Mathias gathered his belongings and his saddle.
“Yes, he should be refreshed now. I’ll get the barman to find someone to saddle him.”
Jokal nodded and walked out of the room, leaving Leila and Mathias in there. He went back downstairs and left Belisandra’s. Jokal was standing in the street, petting his horse when Mathias and Leila joined him.
“He’ll be saddled in a few menes,” Mathias said. “Thank you for coming, Jokal.”
“I didn’t do it for you,” Jokal said, almost appending “traitor” to his words.
“Whatever the reason, I thank you for the warning,” Mathias said. “Now, Leila, we’ll take you over to Urvan’s first before continuing on home.”
“No,” Leila said, her tone clearly stating her conviction. “I’m coming with you. There’s no time to spare.”
Jokal said, “Leila, he’s right. It’s too dangerous.”
“He’s my *father*,” she said. “I refuse to believe that my *father* would pose a threat to my safety. I’m coming with you and that’s that.” She turned to face her horse and double-checked the saddle before swinging herself up onto the animal.
They rode for a while in silence and it was not until the moon had started to sink toward the horizon that someone spoke again.
“Jokal,” Mathias asked, “How many men will Arran have brought with him?”
“No idea,” came the terse reply.
“Jokal, you must have some idea?” Leila asked.
“I *don’t* know. I was there and had left in less time than it takes to eat a meal. I *do not* know how many men. Anyway, I wouldn’t –” Jokal stopped short of completing the sentence.
“You wouldn’t what?” Leila asked.
Jokal slapped his cheek lightly, killing a fly that had rested there. “Nothing. It’s irrelevant.”
Mathias looked at Jokal but did not speak. “Nevertheless, you should have some idea of how many men your father can call on. You *live* there.”
“Ten or so, I’d say,” Jokal said quickly.
“But you can’t be sure?” Leila asked.
“No, I can’t, sister,” Jokal replied. “He may have taken only two or three, or he may have hired help for this. I really don’t know. We should hurry.”
“What’s wrong with you?” Mathias asked, skewing the conversation onto a different track.
Jokal looked over at Mathias, thinking of the conversation earlier that day with Arran. He shook his head, “Nothing.”
Mathias looked at Leila and shrugged his shoulders.
“Jokal –” she started.
“I said it was *nothing*, now stop talking about it.” Jokal dug his heals into the horse’s flanks and moved on ahead of his sister and her husband, unwilling to talk any more.
It took the rest of the night and most of the following day for the trio to ride back to the Rerre estate. The journey remained tense but Jokal had calmed down slightly as time passed.
As Leila crested the final hill before the Rerre estate, Jokal and Mathias heard her moan.
“No, no,” she cried. “This can’t be happening!”
Mathias dug in with his heels and urged his horse over the crest. Jokal did the same and as he reached the peak of the hill, he saw plumes of smoke rising from the estate below them. Cornfields raged and burned in the distance.
“Damn you, Father,” Jokal shouted, all the anger he had silently directed at Mathias surfaced. “Ol *damn* you. She’s your *daughter*!”
Mathias joined Jokal in damning Arran but he was cut short by Jokal who said, “Don’t you dare speak out against my Father. You of all people …”
Leila turned to Jokal, “What? What’s he done?”
“Ask him,” Jokal spat before turning to look at the carnage again. “Ask him.”
“Well?” Leila asked Mathias. “What?”
“I have no idea,” Mathias answered. “No idea at –”
“You bastard! The Beinison were our enemies!” Jokal turned his horse round to face Mathias. “You helped the enemy in a time of war.”
Mathias only looked at Jokal.
“You don’t deny it then? See who you married, a traitorous piece of scum who’d betray his Duke for money. Why did you do it, was it *just* for the money?”
“What did Arran tell you?” Mathias asked, breaking his silence.
“You know!” Jokal said, fixing Mathias in the eyes. “You know exactly what he said: That you gave shelter to murdering Beinison, and when *our* side happened to come along the scum, you aided them in murdering *our* soldiers. You make me sick. All your money, all your wealth are the spoils of war; sure is good business for a traitor, am I right?”
“Wrong,” Mathias said. “All wrong, but I would have been more surprised if Arran had told the truth. Yes, I sheltered four Beinison soldiers. They were youngsters; no older than you. They were also badly wounded and tired of war.” Mathias’ eyes glinted with unbridled anger as he recalled the dreadful war and its aftermath.
“Boys, you hear. I couldn’t let them die and therefore sheltered them on my master’s land. I had *nothing* at that time and risked it all. War is ugly, but it’s uglier when boys die for a stranger. That soldier of ours happened upon these boys when he was searching the premises with two of his comrades. He was about to execute them as they slept, so I knocked him over. The scuffle woke the boys and they *saved* my life. Killed them before they could kill me.
“One fled like the whimpering dog he was once he realised the boys still had their spirit,” Mathias revealed. His horse neighed loudly, annoyed at having to stand in one place. “Realising the danger they had put me in, the Beinison left. Bade me farewell and left me their spoils of war. A few trinkets and coins, nothing to shout about. The winter then began to set in and so I sold wool to the patrols that passed from time to time, sold the wool for a good price mind you. Yes; to both sides at times. No one should die in the winter’s cold. I even sold wool to a passing minstrel at one time.” Mathias smiled at his attempt to inject some levity to his tirade, his anger finally subsiding again.
“Gradually over time I built up my wealth, and forged good friendships. One friendship turned out to be a good one and I was offered the estate I now live on. A gamble that I won. A gambling debt that was honoured by a man better than me.”
Mathias paused for breath and looked down at his estate, “And now that estate burns while we argue. I’m done with this conversation. You choose who you believe and let me know when you’ve decided.”
With that Mathias kicked his heels in and rode down the hillside toward his burning home. Jokal turned to Leila, only to see her looking at him with disgust. She, too, turned and rode down the hillside, following Mathias. Jokal des Morest looked down at the burning estate and struggled to resolve his inner conflict. He knew that both men believed that their version of events was the truth but what would happen if he sided with Mathias, or with his father? His horse whinnied and sidestepped, as Jokal looked down the hillside.