DargonZine 33, Issue 3

Justin Complete

Firil 6, 1019 - Naia 10, 1019

Firil 6 – Naia 10, 1019

     Justin sat hunched over in his seat and inspected the wood grain of the bar top. It weaved and swirled like deep ocean waves. To fortify this image, the detritus of several meals created a sort of beachfront opposite his seat, and a spillage of ale lapped against it in a littoral front. This diminutive surf was less an effect of Cirrangil’s power, and more likely attributed to the sleeve of his uniform which, resting on the bar, had soaked up some of the minuscule ocean and pushed the rest of it forward in a surging tide. He had intended to drink that ale in celebration, but recent news had led him to dump the contents of his mug onto the bar top in protest, thus triggering this observation of natural law in miniature.
     “I don’t know what you’re thinking,” said the man standing next to him. “This is good news.”
     Justin turned his gaze slowly to his right. The waning light from the sun fought bravely against the taller buildings in Dargon and was able to just illuminate the interior of the Shattered Spear. If he had been at, say, the Golden Lion or Spirit’s Haven, the candles would have been lit against the encroaching dusk. But the ‘Spear had a west-facing front, and the unimpeded width of Market Street, to grant daylight in the later bells of the day. Consequently, Bren kel Tomas’ face was easily visible, and the aura of superiority that Justin hated so much was all the more so. He didn’t hate Bren, really. They had fought side by side and saved each other’s lives. He respected him. But that did not mean he had to like everything the man said, and the words he had just heard were not satisfactory at all.
     “Good news?” Justin asked. “I want him dead. You’re telling me to back off. How is that good news?”
     Bren pursed his lips, then spoke. “Count Connall is being dispatched to Winthrop within a fortnight. The duke is meting out his punishment.”
     “And what will that be, I wonder? A few parcels of land and the peasants to work it? Or will he get to tup his lordship’s daughter, the next time he visits?”
     Bren took a deep breath and closed his eyes briefly before responding. “Take some leave, Justin. Go see your wife.”
     “She’s not my wife,” Justin replied. He signaled to the barkeep, who raised his eyes in question. Justin put his hand over his heart, silently promising not to dump the next mug. The bartender nodded and put another ale in front of him to replace the one Justin had dumped.
     “She lives in your house, and is raising the child you made together.” kel Tomas lifted his own ale to his mouth and sipped carefully.
     “Just because I rolled with a waitress a few times doesn’t make her my wife.”
     “And yet,” Bren said after giving an appreciative nod to the barkeep, “you let her live in your home.”
     “She needed somewhere to live. Not even sure the child is mine. And you’re changing the subject. The baron needs killing.”
     Bren scowled, and the natural reddish hue of his skin deepened. “The baron’s impropriety –“
     “Impropriety?!” Justin stood up suddenly, his stool clattering on the floor behind him. “Fellin is dead because of him.”
     “Fellin is dead,” Bren replied as he placed his mug on the bar, “because of an accident. Because Arlan couldn’t control his magic. Your own testimony is proof of that.”
     “But it was the baron’s greed that brought us to that mine in the first place, and put Arlan there.”
     “And it was the duke who sent you on that patrol, knowing the baron had begun the mine. Would you blame Duke Dargon? Or Fellin, for leading the troop to that place?”
     Justin sneered. In a low voice, he said, “Don’t you dare blame Fellin.”
     “Or is it your fault for not protecting her?”
     Justin threw a wild punch at Bren’s head, but Bren’s reflexes were more than fast enough to avoid the drunken swing. He stepped back easily. “Take care, sergeant. Striking a superior officer -“
     “Shove your superiority,” Justin said. “Your damned regalness. High and mighty lords ruling over all of us. No care what happens to the people you’re sitting on top of.”
     “You’re out of line, sergeant.”
     “And you’re despicable.” As Justin reached for the blade at his side, Bren mirrored his movement and rested his hand on his scabbard. They stared across at each other, neither one speaking.
     Suddenly, half a dozen men burst into the bar, laughing and cheering loudly. “He’s back! He’s alive!” Bren and Justin simultaneously turned their heads. A surge of men plowed toward them, surrounding them, oblivious to the tension they had just broken. The men were all dressed in the uniform of the Duke’s Guard with one exception: Ongo stood a head taller than the rest, and twice as wide, and wore a brown monk’s robe that was as large as a tent. Torrin and Dorrin, two guards who called themselves twins even though they were unrelated and looked nothing alike, shoved Ongo toward the bar while they shouted and jostled each other to compete for the barkeep’s attention. “Six ales!” they yelled simultaneously to the barkeep, who just nodded and began to pull on the tap.
     “Ol’s balls,” Justin swore in astonishment. Looking at Ongo, he said, “You were dead.”
     “He was missing,” said Torrin.
     “He wasn’t where we left him,” said Dorrin.
     “So we thought he was dead,” said Torrin.
     “Turns out, we weren’t far from Coldwell Abbey.” said Dorrin.
     “You left me in a patch of berries,” Ongo said in his deep, rumbling voice. The shaggy mane that had been his hair was now cropped tight and short against his skull; combined with his dark complexion, he looked like a spoiled egg. “Monks were making pies. Needed berries. Found me. Took me back to the Abbey.”
     “This is an unexpected fortune,” Bren said. He accepted the mug of ale that was pushed onto him by Dorrin.
     “Lucky, I say,” said Justin.
     “In more ways than one,” Bren replied. He met Justin’s gaze. “Take some time off, sergeant.”
     “I don’t need any-“
     “You’re officially on leave. One month. That’s an order.”
     The fresh beer that was shoved into Justin’s hand did nothing to remove the scowl on his face.


     Justin hadn’t been home in almost a year. It wasn’t because he had forgotten the way – it was the same house he’d been raised in, and that he’d inherited from his father. Nor had he a more comfortable bed – or bed partner – somewhere else; in fact, he’d been sleeping at the barracks even though, as a sergeant, he was allowed his own accommodations. No, he hadn’t been home in such a long time because his home – a small house in the woods southwest of the city – was occupied by what Bren kel Tomas had referred to as his “wife.”
     His “wife,” Dyanna, had been a barmaid at Sandmond’s when he met her. He was drunk and horny and she wanted the extra coin. He visited her a few more times over the course of the next month without her charging him. She’d been a skinny thing when they met, but she filled out well enough once her belly swelled, and next he knew, she told him the baby was his. He’d thought she would use maidenkeep or some other potion – most tavern wenches did when they worked the crowd for extra services – and there’s no telling if she did or not, nor if it was even his child. But Sandmond doesn’t like a barmaid who enters the room belly first, so she was out of a job and needed a place to stay. He let her stay at his home. The child, Alice, had been born in the spring
     That was two years ago. She hadn’t left. Why should she? He was never around to kick her out, and she had a roof over her head. He wasn’t sure what she did to earn money for food, but every once in a while he’d hear from the baker or the milk seller or some other merchant that his “wife” had been in to see them and had bought something. This had caused a brief issue with Fellin when he and she had started spending their nights together. But Fellin had already observed that Justin spent all his nights at the barracks and knew he was unfettered. And yet …
     If you repeat a lie often enough, and it never gets corrected, it can become near enough the truth to be functionally, if not factually, true. And that, unfortunately, was what had happened to Justin. So now he had a wife. They’d never taken vows, and they rarely saw each other, but half the merchants in town called them married.
     And then there was Bren kel Tomas. Arrogant, haughty, annoying. Brave. Loyal. Honest and trustworthy. Part of Justin wanted to spit the man on the end of his new blade – a blade that had previously belonged to Bren, until recently – and the other part of him wanted to thank him for being a good friend. He’d taught Justin more than a bit of swordsmanship, he’d fought alongside the man against monsters and magi, and he was trying to keep Justin from getting himself in trouble. More than one soldier who was promoted through the ranks became a drunkard with his extra pay, or else shirked all responsibility and just ordered others around. Justin wasn’t the latter, and Bren was trying to keep him from being the former. And perhaps – just perhaps – leaving Baron Winthrop to Duke Dargon’s punishment was the right idea. The duke couldn’t possibly punish the baron for Fellin’s death, as it had been his son who killed her. Besides, Justin had had his blood: Winthrop’s son was paralyzed, somewhere, due to a head wound Justin himself had delivered with the help of a handy rock. He needed to let it go.
     All of these thoughts crossed his mind as he made his way along a trail that was little more than a deer path. The crisp Firil air filled his lungs as he strode through the wood. The new buds on trees and flowers burst with shades of white, yellow and purple amidst the fresh greens of new shoots and leaves. Blacks, blues, and reds flew through the air as newborn and adult birds played, hunted, and sang in the branches above him. Ahead of him were the stumps of four oak trees his father had felled decades ago for firewood, furniture, and even the shingles on his roof. The stumps had rotted and decayed, becoming homes to fungus, plants, ants, and small forest animals. And past those, in a small clearing devoid of brush and small trees, was his home.
     He stopped for a moment. There was something different about it. His home looked better than he remembered. The moss that had been growing up the sides of the house had been cleaned off and the stones washed. The front door hung straight in its frame, and the shingles on the roof showed signs of new replacement. But perhaps the oddest change that was visible to Justin was the existence of a wide, wagon-worn path that approached the house from the southeast of the clearing. If it extended long enough through the wood – and there was little doubt it would go that way for any other reason – it would connect to the Southern Road to Connall, Shipbrook, and points beyond. Justin wondered what Dyanna had been doing while he was gone.
     He pulled the handle on the wooden front door and it swung open easily. There was no creaking from dry hinges, and a quick glance confirmed his suspicion that they were greased. The shutters on the windows had been pulled open, and light from the setting sun streamed golden rays into an airy, but functional dwelling. As he stepped into the main room, he glanced around at even more changes to his home: where there was once a small, round table stood a long, rectangular one; a small writing desk sat next to the front door with a ledger on it; and instead of a weapon rack against the far wall there was a set of wooden pegs on which hung several cloaks.
     “Hello?” he called to the house. He walked across the main room toward the door that separated the bedroom – had this been here before? Was this even his house? It looked familiar enough from the outside, and it was in the right place …
     A dark-haired woman with high cheekbones and green eyes came through the doorway he had been walking toward. She stopped mid-stride when she saw him there, her eyes a little wide. Then she glanced back into the bedroom briefly before shutting the door.
     “Muddy boots outside, if you please, I swept the floor this morning and want it clean in case a stage comes through.” She stood stiffly as she said this.
     “A what?”
     “Stage. From Narragan. Or wherever. They come through about once a month, and it’s been a while since the last one, so I’m expecting one in the next few days.” She brushed past him and crossed to the other end of the room toward another door.
     “Why would a stage come here? And where did all these doors come from?”
     She stopped mid-stride and turned. “You haven’t exactly been here to care for our daughter –”
     “Your daughter.”
     “Alice. So I made arrangements on my own.”
     “You’re using my home as a brothel?” he said loudly.
     “Keep your voice down. She’s sleeping.”
     “I didn’t expect you to start rolling with strangers in my home. A stage? They cart them in from far away now, do they? You must be famous.”
     “You’re detestable,” she replied. “You can sleep alone, tonight.”
     “I was hoping to!”
     “And she is yours,” Dyanna said as she opened the door to the backroom. “She’s got your eyes.” Then she stepped through the doorway and closed it behind her.


     Loud knocking woke Justin in the wan light of pre-dawn. His first moments were filled with confusion and wonder – who would be knocking on the barracks door? Officers just entered the barracks and started yelling, and no one else would bother coming in. Then, when he felt the hard surface of the flagstone he’d been sleeping on, and the stiffness of his body after spending the night on the floor, he remembered where he was.
     The knocking sound returned, this time a bit louder. He got up slowly, feeling his bones pop and creak as he did so. He staggered toward the hammering sound and only just remembered to grab his sword from its resting spot before he cracked open the front door. He peered out and saw a young man, poorly dressed but not too skinny, staring back at him.
     “Beg pardon, m’lord, but is the mistress Dyanna at home?”
     “Bit early for a roll, isn’t it?”
     The man looked back in confusion. “Your time is your own, m’lord, but my mistress needs her help. She sent me hither to acquire some medicine for her.”
     Justin heard a noise behind him and turned to see Dyanna. “Let him enter, please, I have the ingredients for his mistress.”
     Two menes later, Justin closed the door on the first customer of the day, then turned to face Dyanna. “So you’re a healer, now?”
     Dyanna folded her arms and stood her ground, staring firmly back into Justin’s eyes. “I mix potions, or supply the ingredients for them. I also stable a pair of horses that stages and couriers can swap as fresh mounts for tired, when needed. And I cook.”
     Justin nodded his understanding, and began to speak, but Dyanna cut him off immediately. “You left us alone, with little supplies and less money. I’ve had to care for the child and this house entirely on my own. At least you gave me a roof – some men might not have done even that much. But you returned to the barracks and found yourself another lover, and I had to make do. So I’ve done so.”
     “But the ingredients … the stage … the horses …”
     “There’s an abundance of wild herbs growing in the woods surrounding this home. I pick carefully and only take what I need. Combined with a fresh stream and a small knowledge of mixtures, I’ve been able to sell a few potions. The first horses were nags and came as payment for a particularly long illness. I’ve traded them up since. We’ve a decent life, here. It’s quiet, our daughter is fed and healthy, and when the duke’s men come through I feed them for free, so they check in on us occasionally.”
     “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
     “How could you?” She spat the words. “You haven’t cared enough to come around and ask. But anyone in town who knows me could have told you. So you don’t care. Well enough for you, you can return to your lover and your life in the barracks for all I care. We’ll happily do without you.”
     “I can’t. She’s … it’s not like that.”
     Dyanna raised her eyebrows and a mock smile lit her face. “Oh! She’s let you free, has she? Come to her senses? Better woman than I thought, then.”
     “The best,” Justin replied. “But no. She’s dead. Killed.” Dyanna said nothing in reply, but the smile was gone, now. “Anyway, I’ve come back to take a break. Wanted to know if you needed anything.” This time Justin cut her off, as she was opening her mouth and about to protest. “And before you say anything else, I did know you were alright. I’ve heard from the merchants in town that you had coin and the baby was well. I just didn’t know how you were earning it.”
     “Well, now you know. I’ve made this a home for myself and our daughter.”
     Justin stood taller and subconsciously puffed up his chest at that statement. “This is my home, woman, no matter how long I’ve allowed you to stay here.”
     “Well enough, but it’s mine as well – I’ve cleaned it out, chased away the rodents, and paid for its repairs. You can sleep here, and eat the food I cook. But you’ll stay out of my business and out of my bed.”
     “Straight, but I’ll not be sleeping on the floor again.”
     “The master bedroom is yours. I only let Alice knap there yesterday because she was playing with your things and fell asleep. You could have slept there last night if you hadn’t passed out on the floor. And one more thing.” She hesitated a moment before the next sentence. Justin could see by the contortions in her expression that she was struggling with what she was going to say. “She’s young enough not to realize she’s not had a father. You could still be that to her. If you wanted.”
     “She has my eyes?” He wanted to ask how Dyanna could be certain Alice was his child, but something told him that would have been the start of a whole new fight.
     “She’s the spitting image of you.”
     “Then I’d like to see her, if I can.”


     That evening found Justin sitting in the small yard behind his house, watching his daughter run back and forth on her tiny legs. Her home-spun dress fit loosely on her and tended to drop at the shoulders when she tumbled and rolled, but it stayed on and had room for her to grow a bit. Justin himself was sitting on an uncut log and drinking a cold mug of water taken from the stream in the woods. He was shirtless and sweating heavily, having just finished tilling the soil of a sizable garden Dyanna was planning.
     Dyanna stood next to him and reviewed the prospective garden. “That’s well done,” she said, nodding at the dug soil.
     “Not the first time I’ve tilled that exact spot,” Justin replied. “Used to be my mother’s garden spot. The soil’s good, we manured it often enough back then, and with the horses in the stable there will be plenty of fertilizer.”
     “Good,” she said as she sat down next to him on the log. “I’d like to grow a bit of food, but my real goal is herbs. There’s plenty in the woods, to be sure, but I have to hunt for them. It’ll save me a lot of time if I grow it here, particularly the chokeweed.”
     Justin raised his eyebrows at that. “Isn’t that a poison?”
     “Yes,” she admitted, “but only the root. And, in small amounts, it’s highly useful as a medicine, with the added side benefit of preventing the patient from yelling. Also, the leaves of it make a good seasoning for food. Sandmond used it all the time. It’s a wonderful herb.”
     “And that’s why you needed me to extend the rows to the shade near the woods,” he said.
     “Straight. The vegetables won’t grow in that heavy shade, but chokeweed should thrive.”
     A cool breeze wafted in from the east, cooling his skin. There was a woodsy, smoky smell in the air. It reminded him of roasted mutton. He looked sideways at her and smiled. “You smell good. What have you been cooking in there?”
     She responded with a quizzical look. “I haven’t cooked all day.”
     “Liar,” he said with a smile “I know that smell. Fresh meat on a wooden fire.”
     She turned her head and sniffed the air. “I smell it, too,” she said. Then she turned toward the stables. “The horses!”
     Justin leapt to his feet and saw a bright flickering light from within the stables. He started running. He jumped over the tools and logs scattered at the edge of the garden and hurtled across the fresh, brown soil he had just dug up. He knew, instinctively, that Dyanna was following behind him. He sprinted toward the stable at speed, noting the smoke billowing from under the eaves and through gaps in the roofing. He pulled the doors open and witnessed a burial pyre in the far corner. The two horses remaining in the stable were lying on a pile of straw and wood that was burning brightly with red and orange flames. Dyanna came up behind him and when he turned to look at her, she threw his sweaty shirt at him. He held it over his mouth as she pulled her apron up over hers, and they approached the horses. When they were within a few feet, he pointed to the horses’ throats. They had been slit, and moved to this spot to burn. She nodded at them, and they turned to leave, but before they could get more than a step, they saw two men in the doorway slamming the barn door behind them. Justin ran forward and rammed the door, but the men on the other side held it firm. They were trapped inside a burning building.
     “Greetings from Arlan Winthrop, Archer!” a man yelled through the doorway. Justin rammed the door again. He felt his shoulder impact the fresh wood of the building, and pain shot into his bones, but the door did not budge. He could hear some hammering on the other side. They were doing something to bar the doors. He shoved his shirt tightly against his mouth again, trying not to breathe in the smoke that was building around them. The fire wasn’t bad at the moment, but the back walls were starting to catch, and the smell of the burning horseflesh – so close, now, compared to earlier – made his throat wretch. His eyes met Dyanna’s, but she showed no fear. She pulled him to the left of the stable and pointed to a section of wall. The wood there was older and he could see small patches of rot. With a few well-appointed kicks he’d opened a hole large enough for them to crawl through.
     When he reached the outside air and the grass, he lay on his back and took deep breaths, but Dyanna threw her apron to the side and ran past him. “Alice,” was all she said. And he was up and running again.
     At the back of the house, the two men who had locked them in the barn stood facing Dyanna and Justin, holding Alice between them. One of them held a knife point to the side of Alice’s neck. Justin and Dyanna stopped in their tracks.
     “This is on you,” the one with the knife said. “You took from him, now he takes from you.”
     “No.” It was a soft sound, a plead, that came from Dyanna. Justin’s jaw set tight. His eyes bored holes in the man with the knife.
     The man without the knife stepped back from the girl and looked at his compatriot with wide eyes. “That’s not … she’s just a girl!”
     “Why not?” asked the man with the knife. He was grinning a sick, malicious smile. Alice was sobbing quietly, trying not to move as tears streamed down her face.
     Justin’s mind was whirling. There was a hoe, two paces in front of him. It wasn’t much, but if the two men could keep each other distracted, he could reach it. And with luck, yank the knife away from Alice’s throat. Dyanna would grab the girl, and then Justin would have the knife-wielder to himself. He took a half-step forward, then another.
     Knife-wielder turned back to face Justin. “Too late,” he said. And then the blood ran out of Justin’s face. He could feel the sick weight of emptiness pressing on his chest; the terrifying understanding that an irrevocable action had occurred. A mistake that could never be undone. The unbelievableness of an action that he simply could not accept. His mind collapsed as he watched the body of his daughter go suddenly lifeless, while simultaneously the blood in her neck seemed to leap forward with a life of its own, spouting from the hole created by the knife that had sunk in to the handle.
     Justin realized he was on his knees, watching his daughter’s inert body eject blood, while Dyanna screamed. He saw the two men sprint into the forest. His heart pounded in his chest, suddenly alive. And then he was moving. He ran, plunging straight into the uncleared forest, not worrying about leaves, brambles, or vines. Barely dodging out of the way of trees as he hurled onward. There was a madness driving his brain forward, and the inexplicable knowledge that his quarry was just in front of him. He could only focus on catching them. He had to catch them. And the pain from the ripping, scratching lesions on his bare chest as blindly pressed forward did not impede him; it was a tonic to drive him ever forward. Then suddenly he was on top of one of the men, the smiling knife-wielder, and he had the man’s head in his hands as they tumbled to the ground, twisting it until it snapped. It wasn’t enough. Not now. Not for Justin. He pulled the man up by that head, and smashed it into a tree trunk, again, again, again.
     Sometime later, he was back at the house, Dyanna kneeling on the ground next to her daughter. Justin realized he still had the dead man’s head – which he didn’t remember separating from its body, but clearly he had – in one of his blood soaked hands, and the man’s own knife in his other. He dropped them on the ground.
     Dyanna looked up at him, her eyes blazing.  Her voice rasped as she screamed at him. “You are a curse! You bring nothing but pain!” Justin had no reply. How could he? The mother of his child had just witnessed her daughter’s murder. She crushed her daughter’s body against her own and held it there, sobbing into her hair. He kneeled down next to Dyanna, and stroked Alice’s shoulder. Dyanna’s head snapped up, her eyes boring into his. “Don’t you touch her. You don’t have the right.”
     “We need to take care of her.”
     “You’ve never done it before,” she said. Her shoulders shuddered, then she spoke again, softer this time. “Who is Arlan Winthrop?”
     “A mage.”
     “Related to Baron Winthrop?”
     “He killed our daughter.” Justin nodded, though she couldn’t see him. “Don’t come back until he’s dead.”
     “I won’t.”
     “And if you can’t kill him, do me a favor and kill yourself.”
     Justin picked up the head of his dead enemy before he left.


     It had been Bren’s idea, really. At least, that’s what Justin told himself. He needed to get to Winthrop without being spotted, and apparently either the baron, or Arlan, or both, knew what he looked like. So how was he to get there? And this is where Bren came in: he had said that Count Connall was going to Winthrop on Duke Dargon’s business. His entourage, Justin believed, would never notice an extra hand. And if Justin was to get to Arlan, he would have to get into Winthrop Castle, preferably without being noticed.
     This caravan – this traveling sideshow of royal decree – didn’t appear, to Justin, to be a punishing exercise. There was too much fussing and pretension and spiffy dress code. He’d been anticipating a military engagement, and had dressed accordingly, hoping he could fit in with the rank and file as a new recruit. But there were only a few score soldiers in this endeavor, and all of them had the look of house troops: well-ordered soldiers, all of them – probably – known personally by the count. So the next best thing was to don some simple clothes, grab a spare armband that indicated he was with Count Connall’s house, and assume the role of a servant.
     Being used to follow orders, it wasn’t much of a change. However, there were some difficulties. He didn’t exactly know his way around a kitchen, and a few eyes looked questioningly in his direction when he couldn’t strip a chicken properly; but, he handled horses well and no one would argue about his stamina when chopping wood. Within a few days, he’d indoctrinated himself into the routine and could shuck corn with the best of them, but still had an issue with chickens. The other servants joked that he’d run “a-fowl” of the livestock.
     All of that had taken place at Connall Castle while preparing for departure to Winthrop Castle. The actual travel time to Winthrop took two days, and that was at a very slow pace. Good soldiering – or a small group of mounted men – would have made it in a single day: it was less than twenty leagues over relatively flat land. Upon arriving at the castle, the retinue was granted entry under the banner of Count Connall, and they proceeded forward without incident. Justin guessed that advanced riders had announced the count and his train, and the formal admittance had already been cleared by the duke days or weeks beforehand. Winthrop might be a greedy, conniving son of a whore, but he wasn’t about to spit in the face of a duke.
     They had arrived at Winthrop Castle as the sun began to set in the west. The count and his soldiers were in the front of the procession, followed by the Lady Connall and her maids, then several wagons, and finally Justin and the other servants. He had positioned himself near the very back of the line so as to remain as invisible as possible. As they passed under the barbican and into the open courtyard, Justin carefully assessed his surroundings. He took notice of the thick walls of the castle, and the armed soldiers at its parapets. He saw a high balcony in the main keep before him, likely part of or leading to the lord’s bedroom. He saw it would be impossible to scale the walls to get to there, so that plan was out. He would have to find his way through the castle, but that actually wouldn’t be too hard, given his experience with other castles and fortifications. No, the challenge would be how to get past all the guards he knew would be in his way.
     There was a wide set of stairs that led to the main hall. There, Justin saw Winthrop and his staff greeting the Connalls and welcoming them to Winthrop Castle. “Who’s that?” he asked of a servant woman standing next to him, indicating a younger woman next to Winthrop.
     “Probably Lady Pecora,” she responded. “Lucky girl. Getting married off to another lord soon, I’m told, go relax in the southern lands and have her servants take care of her. Nice life, eh? I hear tell she had another prince, before this one, but it didn’t work out. Poor girl. Her brother will be the new Lord Winthrop, come a time.”
     “And where’s her brother?” Justin asked.
     “And just how in Ol’s balls would I know?” the servant lady asked. “If he’s not on the stairs, as would befit a young lord greeting a count, then he’s probably out and about, roaming the countryside, looking for wenches. What the blazes do young lords do, anyway? Hunting and tupping, I’d wager.”
     Justin and the rest of the lesser servants were herded off to the kitchen on the north side of the castle. Anyone who wasn’t preparing food was running to catch it, fetch it, or store it. His fellows from Connall knew better than to let him work with the poultry, and the castle’s stable hands would take care of the horses, so he was relegated to runner. Run to the larder, run to the buttery, run to the undercroft. In that latter place, he spied something useful, and snatched a handful of herb and stuffed it in his shirt sleeve. He returned to the kitchens with the herbs he’d been asked to fetch, and made a comment about using the outhouse before stepping out. He was free, and wouldn’t be missed for a while.
     There were guards stationed at the main doors to the great hall, and at various spaces around the castle. A servant moving from one room to the next in a castle was nothing to be worried about; however, a servant with empty hands and wearing the device of a foreign lord would be watched closely. And Justin was no sneak thief: there was no way he would enter Winthrop’s chambers without being spotted. He would need a believable reason to be there as a servant. Spotting a broom outside the kitchen, he picked it up and began walking toward the stairs that would likely lead up to the bedchambers. When he was out of sight of the guards, he removed the Connall device from his arm and stuffed it behind a cabinet.
     He entered Winthrop’s bedchamber confidently, but demurely. He tried to remember he was a servant who belonged here, but also one who was only here to work and then leave. The lord of the castle was not in the room, as Justin knew he would not be, but what if there was another servant awaiting his lordship? There was not. He walked quietly over to a table in the corner, where a pitcher of water sat. Carefully, he reached into his shirt sleeve and removed the herbs he’d hidden there. He placed them into the pitcher and swirled it around, letting the roots soak into the water. Then he picked up the broom he had left on the floor, and looked for a place to hide it. When Lord Winthrop came in, there needed to be nothing out of place. He realized he’d have to hide as well, so he went to the wide balcony doors and stepped behind the curtains. He wasn’t certain how long he’d have to be there, but he was patient. If it meant learning where Arlan was, he could wait all night.


     He awoke to the sound of bells ringing. Was that four or five? He could not be certain, but he knew it was late. This was not the harried pealing of an alert, but the slow count of the time. Probably fifth bell … no country castle would chime the bells all night, keeping people awake. They would use it to tell the nobles the party was over and to go to bed. He had fallen asleep behind the tapestry, leaning against the wall, and propping himself up with the broom. He was stiff, and not very well rested. But he knew his chance to find Arlan was coming soon. Just a few questions to his lordship. And then get out. He wasn’t sure how he would accomplish the latter, or why Winthrop would answer the former.
     Justin heard the door to the bedchambers open, and then heard Winthrop complain. “There are no hidden assassins in my bedroom,” he yelled. “Go away. It’s been a long night.” And the doors shut. Justin peeked out behind the curtains to see Winthrop walk toward his bed, and strip naked. Justin closed his eyes briefly, but he couldn’t unsee that. Then Winthrop walked to the table and lifted the pitcher to his mouth and gulped deeply. Winthrop was startled when he realized there was something in the water, and he peered at it.   He smacked his lips a moment, as if evaluating the taste in his mouth.  Justin knew the chokeweed was neither bitter nor strong, so it might seem to the lord that a flavoring root had been added to his water.  Then Winthrop coughed, and tried to clear his throat.  When he tried again, and still seemed to fail, Justin knew the chokeweed was taking hold.  This was as good a time as any.
     Justin stepped out from behind the curtain. “Your lordship,” he said, and Winthrop turned around suddenly, surprised by Justin’s appearance.
     “Who-” croaked from Winthrop’s throat, and then stopped suddenly. He grasped at his naked neck, panic settling into his eyes.
     “It’s alright, your lordship. I mean you no harm. But I have a few questions for you, and I need your cooperation.”
     Winthrop looked back at the door to the hallway, where his guards would surely still be. He tried to yell out to them, “Guards!” Only a hoarse whisper emerged.
     “That’s chokeweed,” Justin said. “There’s no sense in yelling.” As he spoke, Justin slowly walked around Winthrop, placing himself in front of the doors to the hallway.
     “Poison?” Winthrop hissed.
     “Not enough to kill you, I hope,” Justin answered. He wasn’t exactly sure. “But I need your attention, now.”
     Winthrop’s eyes narrowed as he looked at Justin. “You’re … Archer.”
     “Yes. I was in your prisons, last year, thanks to your son, after he killed my lover. Now he’s killed my daughter.”
     “Arlan … killed … ?” Winthrop stumbled to the floor, holding his throat.
     Justin groaned. How much chokeweed had he put in there? If the lord died, he’d never find Arlan. Not to mention the fact that he would have been responsible for the death of a nobleman – that was a crime for which a commoner like himself would never be forgiven.  He crouched down next to Winthrop. “Tell me where he is,” he insisted.
     “Never,” Winthrop replied, and suddenly sprang to his feet, knocking Justin over. Winthrop ran to his bedchamber, and grasped at his clothing. Justin got up and chased the lord who turned suddenly, a long dagger in his hands.
     “Not my son …” Winthrop whispered, advancing with the drawn dagger. Justin knew enough to recognize that, aged as Winthrop was, he was as well schooled in the use of weaponry as any lord. Winthrop scowled as he probed the air in front of Justin, feinting, looking for a reaction. He had the advantage and he knew it. Justin backed out of the range of that blade. All Winthrop would have to do now is get to the door. Justin had to stay in front of Winthrop to protect that exit, but he had no weapon to defend against that blade.
     Justin saw Winston’s scowl become a smile. He knew what was going to happen next. He would be gutted from side to side by that blade, and it would be over. Dyanna would get at least something of what she wanted: Justin would be dead. But his daughter’s death would go unavenged.
     Then Winthrop grabbed at his throat with his free hand, and staggered. Justin hesitated. He’d been fooled once already. But Winthrop dropped the dagger and stumbled to the floor. “Ol’s balls,” Justin thought. “I’ve killed him.”
     Justin rushed to the man’s side, attempting to prop him up. “Breathe,” he said. “Breathe!” Winthrop looked at him quizzically. “I can still help you. Just tell me where Arlan is!”
     “Dead,” Winthrop whispered.
     “Impossible,” Justin insisted. “He sent two men to my home and killed my daughter!”
     “Arlan … didn’t kill her.” The words barely scratched out of Winston’s mouth. His eyes went wide. “I did.”
     Winthrop rolled over, barely breathing, staring at the ceiling. He was dying in front of Justin. One part of Justin’s mind considered the situation: Winthrop dead in his own room, without a scratch on him. Justin could dump the water, move the lord to his bed, and it would look like he died in his sleep. It was perfect. Then he saw the dagger on the ground, and the other part of his mind took over. Justin picked up the dagger, stared momentarily at the lord, and then plunged it into his chest.
     “That’s for Alice,” he said.


     Justin found himself, once again, sitting at the bar of the Shattered Spear. He was in a moderately better mood than the last time he had been here. Fellin was still dead. Alice was dead. But now, he knew, so was Arlan Winthrop, the magus who had killed Fellin. And so was Lord Winthrop, who had ordered the death of his daughter. He wasn’t happy. He didn’t think he’d ever be happy. But at least he wasn’t angry, or frustrated. He’d done what he could. But something still nagged at him, a sensation inside his chest. He’d have to move on, somehow. But there was an emptiness he couldn’t describe. So he was trying to fill it with ale.
     Torrin and Dorrin sat on either side of him, looking for all the world like a pair of mismatched bookends: same uniform, but different bodies, heads, and hair. Ongo was at the end of the bar, where a man of his size would have all the room he needed. They were all trying to cheer Justin up, matching him drink for drink, but it didn’t seem to be working. He stepped away from the bar and found a table instead. The others left him alone, letting him drink in peace. He didn’t notice the evening sunlight streaming through the windows, or the musician tuning strings in the corner. Nor did he notice Bren kel Tomas enter the bar, order an ale, and approach his table. kel Tomas sat down without invitation. Justin looked up from his mug.
     “Where’ve you been?” Bren asked.
     “You told me to take time off. I took it,” Justin replied.
     “Seen your wife and kid?”
     Justin scowled, but nodded.
     “Thought you’d like some news: Lord Winthrop is dead.”
     “How terrible,” Justin replied.
     “You don’t seem surprised,” Bren said.
     “Someone was going to do it, sooner or later. Was there an investigation?”
     “Some servant was seen leaving the lord’s chambers late at night, holding a chamber pot, so they let him pass. No one recognized him, though, so it’s not likely to lead anywhere. Winthrop was also naked with a knife in his chest, so maybe it was a rendezvous gone wrong.”
     “Too bad,” Justin replied. “Well, have they asked the daughter? Now she’s all wealthy and what not. Getting married soon, too. Maybe her future husband offed him?”
     “Unlikely,” Bren replied. “Lord Mallory called off the wedding, since Pecora doesn’t inherit anything.”
     “What?” Justin looked quizzically at Bren. “She’s the only surviving heir.”
     “No, Arlan inherits,” Bren replied. “He came back from a hunting trip the next sennight. He’ll get everything.”
     Justin just stared at him in disbelief. “But … but, he’s dead!”
     “Says who?” asked Bren. “He’s alive and kicking. So much so, in fact, that he’s sending his sister off to the Ciruzean Mothers for a life of holy worship.”
     Justin swore, and stared down at his mug. Lord Winthrop, the deceased, had lied to him. Now Arlan was back in Winthrop Castle, under the protection of both its walls and his fealty to the duke. Worse, Justin’s actions effectively had imprisoned Pecora. He didn’t know Pecora from the duke’s own daughter, but once again his actions had led to someone else being harmed. Instead of feeling like he would be able to close off that part of his life, the door swung open even wider.
     Bren leaned closer to his friend. “At least Winthrop is dead, and no one has a clue who did it.”
     “Yeah,” said Justin. “But so is my daughter.” And there it was. He wasn’t just feeling hollow. He was incomplete.

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