DargonZine 9, Issue 7

The Broken Staff Part 1



This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series The Broken Staff

As quickly as that, it was over. His spurs lay in the mud of the road and the two pieces of his broken staff were gripped in his hands. Bren kel Tomis was knight and herald no more. Everything he had striven for was now lost because of a boyish lust for a woman. As he knelt before his king, shorn of honor, position, his life now forfeit, he could not even form a coherent thought. The sword rose high, and sped towards him –

 

Bren awoke with a start. His body was clammy with sweat, not only from the dream, but also from the heat and closeness of the small cabin.

 

He reached down to touch the two long pieces of wood, which were in the bag that held his few possessions. He knew he wouldn’t sleep anymore, so he dressed and went on deck, where the first gray tendrils of dawn were beginning to light the eastern sky. He slept rarely now, and when he did he was often troubled by bad dreams. Each time he woke there was a moment of disorientation, always followed by the crushing realization that his life had gone straight into the cesspit.

 

The crew was familiar with his habits by now. He spent almost all his waking moments in the bow, looking forward, as if he yearned to see his destination. Sailors can gossip well enough to make old women seem like rank novices, but no one knew anything about this passenger except the captain and first mate, who weren’t saying anything, because there was very little to know. After dramatically dumping the disgraced herald on the deck, the soldiers had remained in place, keeping onlookers away, and saying nothing other than shouting at the crew to make ready to sail.

 

The Friendly Lion had left port before the next bell rang.

 

It had become a habit by now for the sailors repairing rigging in the mornings to talk about the stranger. Kodo, the bosun, was the first to sight Bren heading towards the bow. “I says he’s a wizard traveling in disguise, I do. He always keeps that bag with ‘im. He’s prob’ly got spells and such in it.”

 

Blen Sailmaker laughed at that. “Oh, Kodo, you see wizards behind every porthole. It’s obvious that he’s a king sent into exile by his own people, take my word for it. Look at his face; no emotion. That’s the face of a man in command. Maybe he was a general, or somesuch, before he killed the old king.”

 

Frog, the cabin boy, was sure he was a spy sent to ferret out the deepest secrets of the Duke of Dargon, but he shared this with no one. It was only his first voyage, and no one paid him any mind, even when he did speak.

 

“Look at that sword he’s got,” said Blen, his long, nimble fingers patching a tear in a topsail. “That’s a saber, like a horseman’s sword. What would a pissin’ wizard need with a sword like that?”

 

“You wouldn’t know a wizard if he bit you on the ass,” retorted Kodo. “See the broach he has pinned on his cloak? I saw one like that once in Dargon, and it was some wizard what was wearing it. I know that ’cause he was wearing one of those wizard hats; you know, the pointy ones with moons on ‘em.”

 

Blen made a rude noise. “Moons! You’ve gotten too much sun, bosun. Ever’body knows its stars. Anyway, see those boots? Those are a fighter’s boots. He’s got a blade in each of them, and I would be surprised if he ain’t got a few more stashed elsewhere. And what about the way he moves? Like a cat, he is. I wouldn’t like to meet him in the rigging in a bad blow, that’s for sure. He’d have your bollocks off in no time.”

 

Kodo, sensing he was losing the argument, made one last, plaintive effort. “But look at him. Black hair, reddish skin. Tell me that ain’t mystical!”

 

“If you weren’t so afraid of wizards that you got off the ship every once in a while, you’d have noticed *all* those southern people are like that. And they can’t all be wizards, now can they?”

 

Kodo grunted, and pretended to concentrate on his work. Blen gave Frog a satisfied look, and went back to his own sewing.

 

Despite the fact that their passenger hadn’t said three words to the crew for half a fortnight, the sailors didn’t let that hinder them. Further guesses ran the gamut from soldier-for-hire, to the cuckolder of an important man.

 

The object of their speculations stood in the bow, covered with spray. He sent his thoughts back, to his old life. It seemed so long ago …

 

***

 

The youngest son of a minor lord, his prospects were small, but his mother had blood in the court and managed to obtain her favorite son an appointment to the College of Heralds. The Heralds were a group of men who functioned as a combination of ambassador, diplomat, judge, and war-leader for their monarch. The ten highest of these were called by their ranking, from First to Tenth. The Great Heralds, the First and Second, ruled large domains in the name of the King, and were powerful lords in their own right. A landless son could do much worse than aspire to the chair of a herald.

 

About a year after being knighted, Bren became Ten, after Seven died while trying to escape from an angry husband. The infamous Massacre of the Heralds two years later elevated him to Third Herald. Only his lifelong friendship with a bastard son of the king had saved him from being executed by the King’s Guard on that bloody night. The King now looked very closely at anyone selected by the College to be a Herald. Any sign of dissension was dealt with swiftly, and severely.

 

And so, at the age of twenty-three he was the Third Herald. If he survived the death of one of the Greater Heralds, his future would be assured, for he would no longer be required to expose himself to battle on a regular basis, but only on those occasions when the entire kingdom’s fortunes were at stake. It would be a time to accumulate great personal power, perhaps enough to make up for the lack of a birthright. He looked forward to the day when his snooty eldest brother would have to address *him* as Milord, and not the other way around.

 

***

 

As a herald, Bren carried his staff of office wherever he went. It came in handy in any number of situations, from rapping recalcitrant young student heralds on the head, to gaining quick entry through the castle to the King’s court, where he was bound today.

 

Bren didn’t normally attend court, being kept too busy by the business of his position to do much social mixing. This morning, however, a young page relayed the message that his presence was *requested* in court today. The page beat a quick retreat upon seeing the grim look shot at him by the obviously hungover herald. Bren had spent much of the previous night drinking in celebration of his friend Toran’s elevation to Sixth Herald, and was in no mood to attend court. However, a King’s page meant the King, so he must attend, ill or not. He quickly tied up his shoulder length black hair, dressed, and headed to the castle.

 

His heraldic staff passed him through the numerous guard posts, until he finally mingled with the courtiers wandering around the Great Hall. Periodically, a petitioner would appear before the dais, the courtiers would lower their voices, and justice would be dispensed, or not, depending upon the King’s whim.

 

Bren glanced around, and noted with surprise that fewer had attended court today, compared to his last visit several months ago. In fact, the courtiers were almost matched by the group of petitioners in the corner, many of them attempting to bribe the chamberlain in order to receive an audience sooner than the others. At least the chamberlain always attended, thought Bren, a wry smile creasing his handsome face. The smile faded as he realized how few landholders were represented in court.

 

The King ruled his country with a mailed fist, having put down several rebellions by various lords over the last few years. Many now considered it safer to remain on their holdings, pay the always increasing taxes, and make their plans behind closed doors. Bren had gained much of his extensive battle experience against rebel lords and their knights.

 

Even the heralds had their rebellious moment, when the previous Third led four other heralds and their men in a rising. After killing the Great Heralds, they stormed the Hall, unaware that the King was ready for them. That night, blood flowed through the College like a river, as the King cleansed his heralds. Much of the work of the current First and Second Heralds was intended to restore the College to its former glory.

 

A sudden feeling that he might disgrace himself by vomiting on the marble floor brought him back to the present. He grudgingly decided he couldn’t slip out without being noticed, so he was more grateful than he normally might have been when the Lady Kira tel Hon entered the court. Her beauty not only took his breath away, but also his headache and nausea.

 

Being a herald, Bren had the opportunity to bed many women, no small number of them high born, but he had never fallen in love. As a soldier-diplomat he felt himself immune to such emotions, but in reality he was only a young man of twenty-four years, and certainly not able to withstand the rush of lust he now felt.

 

***

 

Even her voice sounded like music to him, as she spoke to the King.

 

“Sire, as you well know, I hold my manor from the estate of my dear husband. I recently learned that Regan kel Bor, who holds land bordering mine had an agreement with my late husband to cede certain lands to our estate in return for services long rendered. I have asked Lord kel Bor to give me my right due, but he has refused, saying that as a woman I have no right to the proceeds of an agreement between himself and my lord. I ask justice, majesty, for a helpless woman.” With those words she dropped to the floor in a deep curtsy, her head bowed to her magnificent chest.

 

“From what I have heard of your recent doings, milady, you are far from helpless”, chuckled the King. “Several years ago, you were a landless woman from nowhere. Today you are the mistress of tel Hon. Now it seems you wish to become the mistress of kel Bor as well. Nevertheless, I shall send a herald with you to deal with this problem.”

 

The King searched the crowd, until his eyes rested on Bren. He spoke to the First Herald in a voice that reached across the hall, “Lord Skel, do you think young kel Tomis is up to this task?”

 

Lord Skel replied, “I think so, my liege. We must keep him busy, or he will soon be in *my* chair!”

 

The court laughed politely while Bren blushed furiously. His dark complexion covered most of his embarrassment and he regained control of his features quickly. He bowed to the king and said clearly, “Majesty, I would be honored to escort the lady to her home, and make a just resolution.”

 

“Very well, herald”, replied the King, “You shall leave in the morning.”

 

***

 

It was a three day ride to the holding of Lady tel Hon. During those three days, Bren grew even more enthralled by the dark-haired beauty. The first evening, as they dined, she shared with him a special wine she had made at her holding. After that, they talked for several bells, and he went to his blankets fuzzy, but quite contented. The second evening was much the same, but on the third evening, after dark, a figure slipped into his tent. Kel Tomis was completely shattered by the pleasure she brought him. Never before had a woman taught him so much in so short a time. When she left in the gray pre-dawn, he lay in his blankets, his gray eyes staring at nothing for quite a time. His mind raced with thoughts of the promised visits to come, if only he would perform a small service for her. He had not hesitated to say yes.

 

They arrived at tel Hon before the sun had reached its zenith, and lunched in the main hall. Kel Tomis was surprised at how small the manor was, and how little land Lady tel Hon actually held. It was no wonder she was eager to have a generous portion of Lord kel Bor’s holding, especially as that portion included a small castle on a well-travelled river. After the meal Bren had a messenger sent to inform kel Bor that the King’s Herald would hear the dispute on the morrow at the second bell after sunrise. That night as Bren held her close, Kira whispered softly in his ear. By sunrise, he would have sold his mother into slavery.

 

***

 

When the second bell rang out, all the principals were in place. The herald sat on a camp chair in a clearing a short distance from the manor. He was dressed in his customary black, his cloak trimmed in silver. His hair was tightly pulled back, and tied, giving his clean shaven face a stern appearance. Behind him were two banners; that of the king, whose power he represented, and that of the College of Heralds, showing his training for such work. A squad of the King’s Guard were arrayed behind the banners. For those who were not impressed by pieces of cloth, the hard-bitten visages of those battle veterans made a powerful argument for heeding the herald’s words.

 

The mistress of tel Hon sat to the left, in an ornate chair taken from her main hall. She wore a dress in the dark green favored by the House of tel Hon, cut conservatively, teasing the herald with remembrances of the lush body now hidden by the heavy folds of cloth. Her servants had gathered behind the chair, quietly talking. Several young men and women, of apparently noble birth, clustered around the chair, competing for the lady’s attention. She sat quietly, paying no mind to the chattering crowd around her, a small smirk flirting with her mouth.

 

To the right stood Regan kel Bor, and his retinue. He wore leather armor, as if he anticipated conflict. His hair was steel gray, cut to a short length. He looked at no one, maybe feigning indifference to the whole procedure, but the men with him made no secret of their ill feeling for Lady tel Hon. Most stared directly at her, venomously. Some few spoke loud enough to be heard by kel Bor, who cut off the remarks with a curt gesture. Behind the nobles stood a large contingent of peasants and servitors, obviously there to support their lord.

 

Bren stood, and the quiet murmurings of the onlookers ceased. “I am Bren kel Tomis, Third Herald of our king. Is there any here who denies my authority in this matter?” The question went unanswered, as it generally did. “This matter concerns the proper ownership of land disputed between Lord kel Bor and Lady tel Hon. All here are warned to speak only the truth. My guards will deal harshly with those who cannot keep their mouths shut unless I request it.” One noble shook his head, and explained to his friends, “Since the Massacre, these young heralds don’t get enough seasoning. I hope this one can conduct a court without turning it into a circus.” At the same time kel Tomis was asking Lady tel Hon to state her case.

 

Lady tel Hon rose slowly, and then curtsied in the general direction of the herald and his banners. She turned slowly, ensuring that every eye was on her before she spoke. “I was not born here, but no one has more love for this holding than I, and no other had greater love for my late husband, Traven tel Hon. When we were wed, I had no inkling of the agreement he had reached with Lord kel Bor some years before. However, on his death bed, even as he was consumed by fever, and wracked by coughs, he made me swear to uphold that pact. He seemed to think that Lord kel Bor had become reluctant to speak on this topic of late, and he told me of the instrument I was to use in case he refused to honor his bargain.”

 

She turned and took a scroll from the chair she had vacated moments ago, and held it high. “When first Regan kel Bor made this offer, he was sincere, and put words down on this scroll to that effect.

 

My lord tel Hon demurred, trusting his friend to make good his obligations, but kel Bor pushed the scroll on him. My lord, not wishing to offend, took the paper, and put it aside, never intending to refer to it again. Until now it has not been necessary.

 

Lady tel Hon faced the herald, and handed him the scroll. “Examine this document, and you will have all the knowledge you need to resolve this matter. Kel Bor’s seal is on it, and it is genuine.” Now openly smiling, she returned to her seat.

 

Lord kel Bor strode forward, jaw jutting, face red. “Herald, this bitch is lying through her overly painted mouth.” A loud gasp went through the crowd, but the lady only smiled the wider. “I agreed to cede Traven tel Hon that land; I make no issue of that. He saved my life on more than one occasion, and I pay my debts. But I did not agree to give anything to that wench, and by all the gods, I never will. Traven and I needed no agreement. I have no sons left, he would have had it all, had he lived.”

 

He now glared at Lady tel Hon with unadulterated fury. “What I think we should be questioning is why Traven tel Hon, never sick a day in his life, until he met *her* that is, suddenly is taken with an unknown fever, dying within four days. I loved that boy like my own son, and I’ll never give his murderer anything but the back of my hand.” He then glared at Bren, stumped back to his place, and resumed staring at nothing.

 

“Why do you impugn the Lady in this manner, Lord kel Bor? What evidence is there to support a charge of murder, especially the murder of a husband?” Bren drew kel Bor’s eyes back with these questions.

 

Kel Bor responded, “She summoned no physician, and even refused *my* physician when he arrived at her manor. Not one other person became sick with this supposed fever. You are a soldier; you know that just does not happen.” He gestured to a mild looking man near him. “Tell him, Master Gondo.”

 

“I must concur with Lord kel Bor in this matter, herald. I have never seen an isolated case of fever, especially in a well kept manor, like tel Hon. The symptoms described to us later by Lady tel Hon coincide with those of many fevers, some of them deadly, but I have no reason to believe that this is true.” The physician paused, and then continued, reluctantly. “Many potions that we as physicians use to cure can also kill, if used improperly. Lady tel Hon has often said that she is a healer of some power, and if she is, she would no doubt be able to cause someone’s death without a great deal of notice. I do not say that this is true, only that it could be.” The thin man, apparently saddened by what he had to say, retreated to his lord’s side. “This is madness!”, broke in the Lady. “Why on earth would I kill my own husband, for land he was already entitled to?”

 

“That is a question I would like answered,” responded kel Bor. “Why did you kill him? Couldn’t you wait? Did you have to have it all right now?” Lord kel Bor seemed close to tears. “I loved him like he was my own flesh, and like my own flesh he will not go unavenged!”

 

“Lord Kel Bor!” The shout from the herald startled everyone. “This will not become a forum for your mad accusations. Control yourself, milord.” He continued, “Milady tel Hon, I am sure you can explain the circumstances of your husband’s death better than anyone else here. It may be painful, but I ask your to recount the circumstances surrounding that incident.”

 

“I admit it was my fault that my lord died.” A gasp went through the crowd, but kel Bor did not respond. “I thought that I was a good healer, but I wasn’t good enough. My lord wanted me to save his tenants, and in doing so, I did not realize that he had contracted the fever. By then it was too late for me to save him.” She pulled a kerchief from her sleeve and dabbed her eyes in a gesture that seemed to impress no one. She then motioned some rather nervous looking peasants forward.

 

“All of these people, and others, had the fever. I know as well as Master Gondo that these things do not come to one person only.”

 

Bren examined the group, which consisted mainly of old folk. They all looked frail, as if recovering from the fever had wasted them, or maybe they were just worn out from a lifetime of work; it was hard to tell.

 

He gestured to the youngest, a young man who’d barely grown his first whiskers. “You, tell me about this fever you had.”

 

The young man, nervously wringing his straw hat, shot a quick glance at Lady tel Hon before speaking. “Well, milord, it’s like the mistress said, it was all hot, and coughing like. I can’t remember much ’bout it, really. But mistress saved us, she did.” He ducked his head at the herald and scurried back to the group.

 

The next recovered victim Bren called forward was an old woman. She recited much the same story as the youth, as if she had memorized it by sheer dint of repetition. The crowd behind kel Bor started to mutter, and one brave soul shouted out, “Liar!” Several guards moved in that direction, and the muttering quickly ceased.

 

“We shall leave that question for a while, I think,” said the herald. “What do you say about this scroll, milord?” He brandished the scroll for all to see. “I have read it, and it does seem to uphold Mistress tel Hon’s claim.”

 

One of kel Bor’s retainers came forward. He took the scroll from the herald, and handed it to his lord, who opened it. Kel Bor examined the seal, and said, “That does seem to be my seal.” He examined the rest of the document, and an incredulous look came over his face. “That two-faced bastard! That lying, scheming, son of a Beinisonian whore!”

 

He threw the scroll on the ground. “The scroll is a forgery, as anyone with eyes can tell. That scroll contained another agreement, and someone has used some sort of magic to remove that, and add these words, and that someone has more power than this hedge witch can gather together. Bastard!” Master Gondo moved forward quickly, concerned about his master’s deep red complexion, but was savagely pushed back.

 

Bren rose, and again quiet descended on the meadow. He looked at the two adversaries, then spoke. “I will now retire to consider my decision. I will return within a short while.” He turned and entered a pavilion that had been set up by the guardsmen. He picked at a lunch of bread and cold meat, and then sat quietly examining the scroll.

 

The scroll had been altered, that much was evident. Whoever had done the work had done a poor job, because Bren felt he could almost see the old words, just beyond his vision.

 

As for the supposed victims of the fever, Bren was sure they had been coached, which was apparently why no children had been in the group.

 

Since Traven tel Hon’s purported murder could be seen as unconnected to the land dispute, Bren decided he could safely ignore the deception about the fever victims.

 

But how was he to use the scroll to make a decision in favor of Kira tel Hon, he asked himself. It was then that he noticed the pattern of his thoughts. He had *already decided*, and was just trying to come up with a way to justify it, without looking a complete fool! Why was he thinking like this? He couldn’t focus, and stumbled to his feet, not wanting to face kel Bor again, but now urgently needing to speak the foul words trying to crawl off his tongue.

 

He walked slowly out of the tent, and had to make an effort to control his features. He had never betrayed himself before, and for a moment thought again of making the correct judgement. But as soon as he started to think of his duty, his mind became confused and cloudy. He paused for a time, attempting to concentrate on the oaths he had given when he had been made a herald, but was unable to focus his thoughts on anything but *her*. When he thought about anything else, he became blinded by pain. By the time he reached his place, he had stopped even trying.

 

He stood before his guards and spoke. “I have reached a decision. Lord Regan kel Bor is directed to forfeit the property in question within one month.”

 

A buzz went through the crowd, and kel Bor leapt to his feet and shouted, “No!”

 

Bren spoke in the penetrating voice taught to heralds, “I direct you, Lord kel Bor, to forfeit the lands mentioned in your agreement. This is my will, and the will of your king.”

 

Kel Bor bellowed, “No, you dishonorable scum. She has bewitched you while you slept with her. I will not do this thing. You are wrong!”

 

Bren blushed bright red at kel Bor’s words, and was stunned by the conviction with which kel Bor had spoken. How could he have known, thought Bren. That thought was closely followed by another; I must get rid of him, it’s the only way. He stepped towards the older man and spoke in a hoarse tone, “I will take your head for that challenge to my authority. Prepare your second, and pray to whatever gods you wish, for you shall meet them soon.” With that he strode to an empty spot in the field, drew his sword, and plunged the point into the ground at his feet.

 

He turned towards the onlookers, and spoke, “Lord kel Bor has challenged my judgement, and therefore the authority of your king. The penalty is death.” One of kel Bor’s men shouted “No!”

 

Bren screamed at the man in a rage, spittle flying from his lips, “Quiet, scum! He has defied me and he shall not go unpunished. At least he shall die with a sword in his hand. I await you, milord,” he said to kel Bor. He stood, breathing heavily and looking into the distance, waiting for his opponent to make himself ready.

 

Kel Bor stared at the herald, stunned into speechlessness. Then he turned and spoke to a man near him, who nodded, and left immediately. Kel Bor then limped to a place ten paces from the herald. He drew his blade. He turned to face the confused crowd and spoke.

 

“You are all witnesses to this travesty of justice and honor. This herald will likely kill me, old man that I am. Do not forget me, and do not forget the man who did this to me.”

 

With that he let out a roar, and charged at the herald. He fought like a maddened bear, hacking wildly, but the herald was young, strong, and talented. The fight was short, and soon the former lord of kel Bor was lying on the ground, his lifeless eyes staring at the sky.

 

Bren looked at the corpse, and a fresh surge of rage rushed through him. “Why didn’t you leave well enough alone, old man?”, he hissed. He kicked the body in frustration, and several of kel Bor’s men, seeing the body of their lord treated in such an insulting manner, made towards kel Tomis, baring their blades as they came. The guards, having not had much to do as yet, gladly interposed themselves between the herald and his erstwhile attackers. Seeing that they would not prevail, the nobles sheathed their weapons, and stepped back, grumbling loudly.

 

Bren looked at the crowd and shouted, “Well, what are you looking at? It’s over! Go!” Seeing the enraged herald waving his sword over his head, his wild eyes moving from face to face, the crowd started to break up.

 

The herald, now disheveled and flushed, dismissed his guards, instructing them to return to the capital on their own. He quickly walked from the field directly to his horse, without looking back. The crowd dispersed into small groups, the buzz of conversation getting louder the further the herald rode away.

 

Bren rode quickly back to the manor house, and waited in the main hall for Kira. She did not return for several bells, by which time kel Tomis was almost frantic with worry and jealousy. “Where have you been, my love?” he asked. “I have been waiting for you.”

 

Kira drew the young man aside and spoke in a purr, “My dear herald, you know that you cannot stay here with me. Your place is in the capital, at the College. You must leave now; you know how the court is.

 

And the King does not pale at killing heralds, everyone knows that. I will contrive a way to see you again, be assured.” She kissed him gently on his cheek.

 

Bren tried to argue with Kira, but she was adamant that he must leave, and leave now. He could see no way to change her mind, and so made ready to leave, his spirits low.

 

He shuffled to the stables, and retrieved his horse. As he mounted, the skies opened up, and the rain poured down on him. No one noticed as he rode away alone. It was fortunate his horse knew where it was going, for the herald paid no attention to the way.

 

***

 

Three days later he approached the outskirts of the capital. He had spent the first day in a melancholy mood, recalling the blissful time spent in Kira’s bed. During the second day he felt his head start to clear, as if he had been in a cloud for some time. By the third day, he was sure he had been used by Kira, and the realization that he had betrayed his calling shocked him to his inner being. And why had the King sent *him* with Kira? What part had the Crown played in his fall? His thoughts became more black and depressing, spiraling down like a whirlpool, into a state of numbness, unable to reconcile himself with his actions. Finally, his mind was blank, overcome. Therefore, it took him a moment to realize that his horse had stopped in a clearing several bowshots from the city wall. There in the middle of the road stood a mounted squad of the King’s Guards. Behind them were the King, and the First Herald, and their personal guards.

 

This shock, piled upon the past several days proved too much for Bren. He sat in the saddle, speechless, and stunned, his jaw hanging open. A soldier reached up and grabbed him by the leg, and pulled him to the ground.

 

“Kneel, scum”, he grated, “And don’t speak, ‘less you’re spoken to.”

 

With that, he drew his sword, and placed the point at kel Tomis’ throat.

 

Bren, his mind screaming in near madness, presented a sorry image, hair straggling over his face, his fine clothes filthy and wet.

 

The King dismounted, and came to where Bren knelt in the mud. He spoke in a quiet, almost ritual tone. “A knight must be filled with honor. You have forfeited your honor, and are no longer fit to be a knight.” He unsheathed his sword and raised it high. Bren’s heart rose to his throat, but he wished to remain strong in the face of death, and so held his head up to face his liege. When the King went behind him, he was puzzled for a moment, and then felt his spurs being struck from his boots, first one, then the other.

 

The King returned to his previous place, and the First Herald stepped forward, speaking in the same low tone. “A herald is impartial, giving credence to that which is proper, not that which is desirable. You have abused your position and authority, and sold yourself like a common whore. You are no herald.” He took Bren’s staff of office, which a guard had retrieved from Bren’s horse, and cracked it across his thigh.

 

He threw the pieces on the ground in front of the disgraced herald.

 

The king approached again, and spoke in a voice filled with loathing, “My first instinct was to kill you out of hand for the insult to my crown and kingdom. But I soon realized that would be too final and quick a punishment for such a crime. I have decided to exile you to live the rest of your life in a state of shame and dishonor. My guards will place you on a ship bound for the north; to let you remain here would have you killed by outraged former colleagues much too soon for my liking, although that may still occur.” He turned to the guards and said, “Take him to the harbor.”

 

***

 

The storm that had sent the Friendly Lion to that far southern land had lasted three days, and sent them so far off course it had taken them two days to find land. No sooner had they repaired the damage done to the ship than a contingent of soldiers had dumped their passenger and a bag of gold on the deck, with orders to transport this man as far north as they were going. The ship was *requested* to leave immediately, with not even a chance to sample the delights of the town. Captain Tennent had planned to return all the way to Dargon this trip in any case. He wanted to lay up in a friendly port, and make sure his ship was in good condition to return to the trading routes. He also had important cargo for several Dargon merchants, so Dargon it would be. A fortnight after leaving that southern port, the crew finally started to recognize familiar landmarks, and knew it would not be too long before they were home.

 

The morning was cool and gray with fog when the pirate ship appeared as if from nowhere. Tennent silently decided to have ol’ Kitley in the crow’s nest swallow the anchor if they survived the attack. He shouted out “Prepare to repel!”, and turned the wheel over to Kodo. If they were lucky, they could steal the pirate’s wind, and so make an escape, as unlikely as that seemed.

 

Shortly, in an eerie silence that fog seems to foster, the pirate craft grappled on, and with a mighty explosion of noise, they swarmed aboard. From the quarterdeck the captain saw his passenger draw his sword, and attack a pirate near the portside gunwale. He fought like a madman, as if he were angry at that particular pirate, hacking away and finally forcing the intruder overboard. As the pirate fell, flailing his arms, his razor sharp sword sliced through one of the three grappling lines connecting the two ships.

 

Looking up at the quarterdeck, Bren shouted, “Captain!” and gestured to the lines with a questioning look.

 

“Yes, cut the lines,” roared Tennent over the din. He made a slicing gesture with his hand.

 

Down in the maelstrom, Bren moved towards the midships grappling line. None of the pirates were especially proficient with their weapons, usually relying on fear to carry the day, especially considering they normally only attacked trade ships. Two pirates, not relishing the thought of attacking a real swordsman, retreated before Bren, allowing him several moments to slice the second line. As he moved to the bow, an order came from the marauder ship, “Stop him, you scum, or we’ll not be able to take this tub!”

 

Now the way to the forward line was a gauntlet of sailors, whipped into a frenzy by their leader. Bren made a step forward, then was pressed back. One pirate raised his sword for a might slash, but with the rusty blade held high, staggered and fell with a crossbow bolt through his head. Looking aft, kel Tomis saw the captain recocking his crossbow.

 

“To the line, now!” shouted Bren at the crew. With a hoarse shout, he attacked, the crew of the Friendly Lion right behind him. Deciding this was now a lost cause, the pirates scrambled back to their own ship over the last line, several dropping in the water. Bren chopped the line free, and the ships started drifting apart. One pirate, who had slipped from the line into the water, started to shout, as several sharks swam closer to investigate. His shipmates did nothing to help as the terrified sailor was dragged under.

 

Captain Tennent shouted out orders, canvas was piled on, and headway was made, just in case the marauders changed their minds.

 

Bren walked back to the wheel, while cleaning his blade with a gaudy piece of cloth previously worn by one of the pirates.

 

“Thank you, milord,” said the captain, “That was quick thinking. It saved us.”

 

“Thank you captain,” replied the dark-haired man. The captain beamed at the supposed compliment. “Yes, thank you indeed,” said Bren. “If you weren’t so inept, those vagabonds might have passed us by. At least I could forget my shame for a moment while killing some of those bloody bastards.”

 

Tennent turned bright red. “Why, you insolent pup, I saved your hide from being punctured and now you want to insult me?” He pulled a large knife from his side, while Bren raised his sword and stepped back.

 

The two men stood there, staring at each other, not moving. The crew stared, waiting for one man or the other to explode into action. While unconsciously preparing to fight, Bren was thinking furiously. He had no friends in this place, there was no chance he could overcome the entire crew. Was he mad? Then, Bren started to smile. Maybe he was mad. When Bren started to laugh out loud, Tennent started to smile. When Bren actually rolled on the deck, holding his sides against the ache of so much jollity, Tennent said in a wondering voice, “Are you gone mad, then, milord?”

 

“Only temporarily, captain,” came the gasping reply from the deck. “How else could I explain attacking the only man who has tried to help me in a long while. It seems like such a long time since there was someone I might try to make a friend, and here I am, trying to stick my sword in his gizzard. What a fool I have been. But, no more!”

 

Bren hauled himself up and held out a hand to the captain. “I apologize for my offensive remark. I am just finding it hard to live with my own failings, so to improve my temperament, I look to the supposed failings of others. Please do not call me lord. I am Bren kel Tomis, and although I have stained my name beyond redemption, it is all I have in the world besides my sword.”

 

The captain hesitated before replying, “Well, you say not to call you lord, although it seems obvious that you are, at least to one such as me. I may be captain on this ship, and proud to be so, but I was born in the Fifth Quarter of Magnus, just like most of this bunch. However that might be, you are one hell of a fighter, and if you wanted to join my crew, I’d sign you on right now. As for any offense, none taken.” He put out his hand and grasped Bren’s forearm in friendship.

 

***

 

The rest of the voyage was without major incident. Bren now ate with the crew, and would even talk on occasion, but never about himself.

 

He spent some time with Tennent, learning what he knew about Dargon and its people, for that city would now be his home. As the ship neared the mouth of the Coldwell, Bren could see the three towers of the castle, and somewhere inside himself he felt a small spark. He reached back in his bag and felt again the two pieces of wood, which, in a way, resembled his broken life. Maybe a new life was possible. Who knew, maybe even redemption. Feeling better than he had for a month, he stepped down the gangplank, and turned to wave goodbye to the crew of the Friendly Lion.

 

Then he turned to face the city in which he would try to remake his broken staff.

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