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    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
    Jul 2009
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    Female

    Default Storytime aka is this any good?

    I write for fun. I have read my stories to my kiddos and they seemed to like them. Now that they are older, they are encouraging me to try to find a wider audience (potentially a publishing one) but I'm not sure they are any good.

    So.... I decided to post from the first story in the series and see if anyone else enjoys it. It's a fantasy tale.

    A Brother's Tale

    Spoiler: Chapter 1
    Show

    Chapter 1: Lost in the Night

    Jerem was creeping through a cemetery, trying not to think too much about it. He’d had enough of cemeteries. Cold useless places. Places where worlds ended. The half-elven boy sniffled in the dark, thoughts of his mother’s funeral flitting through his mind, but he kept moving despite his grief. Away. He was going away, though he still didn’t know exactly where. Jerem sniffled again.

    Gotta be better than here.

    Jerem wove his way through the forest of graying white stones and cracked wooden markers slowly, making steady progress even without a torch or lantern on this cold moonless night. Jerem hadn’t really considered the how much a gift seeing in the dark could be until he’d really needed it, nor how much he would come to depend on it to help avoid pursuit.

    Pursuit, for the moment, seemed to be far away, though he kept looking back every few minutes as if the expected men might suddenly appear in the darkness. Jerem was making one such check when he tripped over a gravestone and fell to the dirt, landing in a pile of freshly turned earth that splattered his face and short blond hair. He lay there for a while, not really hurt by the fall, but worn down to a level of pure emotional exhaustion that made movement impossible.

    Damn it!

    His mother would have been shocked he even knew such words, though his brothers and father knew more. It didn’t matter; Jerem couldn’t find any words that would work. Not now. No words, no explanation, no why.

    Why did it have to be mom?


    With a touch of bitterness, Jerem thought of his life over the last few months, a life that had flipped upside down and inside out in the most painful of ways. Like when Master Fochart’s wagon had collided with that crowd of revelers last All Soul’s Day. They hadn’t let him into Clearwater to see, but for weeks afterward everyone in the town looked so… dead… as they went about their business they might well have had their souls sucked out by some creature in a mad bard’s tale.

    Jerem hadn’t understood, then. He understood now. Oh, how he understood now. In some ways, the bitterness of his thoughts was welcome, knifing through the deadness into some genuine feeling, even if it was anger. It had been barely a month since his mother died and the crying had stopped, yet this deadness remained. No great joy, no great sadness, just…dead. It felt like someone had torn his heart out and forgot to replace it with anything at all. Jerem feared this too, would pass like the sobbing to be replaced by the Gods alone knew what, but…
    Jerem was suddenly aware he was lying in the dirt of someone’s grave and scrambled to his feet in fear. He frantically brushed the dirt from his hair and clothes, as if it were something worse than just dirt. There was a rustle in the brush.

    What was that?


    Jerem stopped still, listening, but heard nothing, not even an owl.

    Got to keep moving. Got to. Not gonna catch me.


    Jerem brushed some more of the dirt out of his hair, which made his arms ache. It made everything ache. He tried to think of something other than the hurt: that it was cold, the white of the snow, the graves. Somehow thinking of the graves just made it worse. Nothing left. Nothing. He wanted mom back, damn it! He cursed again, a soft elven mutter of words that would have surprised anyone, not just his mother this time, sniffling. He just wanted her back. Oh, why couldn’t he have her back…

    Jerem slid down to the ground, only a few steps from the fresh grave, unable to go further after all. His head fell to his knees, pressed tight to his chest. Tears began to fall, even though he’d been sure there were none left. He just hurt.

    Mama, please...


    The tears came harder now, shaking his small form worse than the cold. Jerem remembered when she had finally told him she was ill. Even in his little kid, self-obsessed brain, Jerem had known something was wrong. It had been wrong for a long time, but to hear it spoken scared him. If they had told him, then it was truly bad. Nobody really told him anything—they just treated him like a baby. Everyone except for his brother Janthro, and Janthro wasn’t there anymore. Even his mother had lied. She had told him not to worry—that just because she was sick now, it didn’t mean she would be sick forever. She would be well. It would just take time.

    Lies! Why did she lie to me?


    But Jerem had tried. For her, he had tried. Tried so hard to be hopeful, his own fears growing daily, hidden in an effort not to make her feel worse. Jerem had not known what else to do, but he had been desperate to do something, anything, for his mother. So he repeated the words of assurance he overheard from his father and oldest brothers—that it would be okay, that they would find another healer, one who could do something. Or another, or another…

    What had he really known? Nothing. But he believed. Jerem believed in his very soul that if they just hunted hard enough, fought it long enough, somehow his mom could beat it. He held that hope tight to him, even through the fall, while his mother hobbled around in pain of every step. Jerem could have cried with joy that spring, when she actually looked to be getting better, the pain lessening. His mother was walking again, the dark blotches on her skin disappearing. Even the latest treatment, which made her miserable for days after, seemed tolerable if it bought time.

    Jerem was so certain that his mother would be okay that he began to live his own life again, to think of a world outside of this sickness that had consumed his family. Jerem had eagerly gone back to his duties in the stables and the horses he’d come to love. He’d been willing to wander the family lands for more than a few hours at a time, and lured by the excitement of a trip to nearby Clearwater, Jerem had gone that morning without a second thought. It had been a business trip, traveling with his second oldest brother, Jonander, to check out the breeding prospects on Lord Donagles’ farm. Jerem had been so happy and excited he’d hardly slept at all the night before. When he’d said goodbye to his mother, she’d even laughed a little to see him bouncing from foot to foot so eager to be gone.

    It had been a magical day. Riding beside his brother, like an adult, like someone trusted with a job. Jonander had actually let him in among the horses, to run and explore while he examined them to see which, if any, they would buy. Jerem remembered thinking he had never seen such a glorious day, the sky a cerulean blue with clouds so white they practically glowed. It had been perfect. Perfect weather, perfect company, and Jonander had even let him pick one horse to buy all by himself. Then the messenger came.

    “Your Lady mother has died.”

    Five words with a weight seemed to come out of nowhere, a real physical weight that crushed Jerem to the ground. He nearly fell to his knees there among the horses, only remaining upright because of a sliver of pure doubt.

    They’re wrong! I just saw her this morning. They’re wrong!


    The next thing he remembered was Jonander taking him by the shoulders, and it was only then that Jerem realized he had been yelling at the messenger. He couldn’t even recall what he had said. But Jonander held him back, somberly thanked the messenger, and they rode home. Jerem cried the whole way.
    Father was drunk again when they arrived, sitting in the castle library, whiskey in hand. He was crying, which Jerem supposed was something, but it didn’t matter anymore. Nothing mattered. Jerem just ran for his room and slammed the door, the pain too great for his small body. Everything around him reminded him of his mother, so he curled into a ball on the bed, pulled the blanket over his head, and didn’t move. Jerem didn’t think he ever wanted to move again.

    Finally Kiman, his oh-so-perfect eldest brother, came for him. Kiman opened Jerem’s bedroom door, and walked around to look down on his baby brother. Whether Kiman was grieving or not, Jerem couldn’t tell. His brother’s face was a smooth mask, green eyes cold under perfectly groomed short blond hair. Kiman almost looked ready to go to court. Unfeeling lout or good actor? Did it even matter? Jerem just peered up from the bed as Kiman told him “you are a Telcontur, and you need to be downstairs.”
    Jerem said nothing. He just lay on the bed, his thoughts a shifting mass of pain, anger, and bitterness. He wasn’t going down there. Kiman could go, but not him. Not when all he would be was an ornament for some soul-draining ‘thing’ in a room full of people he’d never met or really cared about. No one down there could understand.

    Mom!


    It was just a small, silent cry for the only one who could have made it better. The one who had always made him feel better. His lip quivered as the realization hit him yet again that she could not ever be there for him anymore. Jerem swallowed hard, trying not to cry. Kiman had frowned down at Jerem’s miserable and immobile form for a few moments more, and then left without a word. Jerem had hoped that to be the end of it. Let Kiman stand down there with the mourners. Jerem started to cry again, when he considered what else was down there, laid out in a flower-decked coffin in the front receiving room.

    He was still crying when the household servants appeared, sent no doubt to be sure he was dressed properly and brought down to the great hall. The blue and green, house-uniformed army surrounded him. Jerem ignored them and remained on his bed. The staff dressed him anyway. Jerem refused to sit up. They lifted him to his feet. The servants even combed and brushed his hair when he refused to do so himself. When they were done, Jerem stood there a moment, before like the dead he felt he was, Jerem followed them downstairs on stiff legs. They left him standing beside Jonander and Kiman in the entry hall, where he spent an eternity being polite to people he had never met, pretending that he was okay.

    Goddess, how could you do this to her! To me!!


    The plea was torn from him as he stood there, frozen on the outside, dying on the inside. Frozen forever. Jerem came back to himself suddenly and realized he had not moved in a very long time. He was still sitting in the cemetery, the cold’s icy fingers shivering him away from his thoughts. He needed to get moving again, or he might very well freeze to death in the night.

    It was unseasonably cold for so early in autumn, the leaves on the oaks among the graves just starting to turn, but there would be frost tonight. Jerem looked about him for some kind of shelter. It had seemed like such a good idea—running away. He hadn’t expected it to be this hard. But he was not going back. His eyes finally lit on the faint glow of a warmed home, probably the local Avatarian priest’s house.

    Maybe I’ll ask for shelter there tonight.


    Jerem didn’t want to sleep outdoors tonight, not in this bitter cold. He tried to stand and found the rest and the cold had stiffened his aching limbs so much that even walking was painful. Remembering the betrayal that caused the aches hurt Jerem even more. Had it really only been four days?

    “Truly, you shouldn’t have interfered, Jerem,” Kiman had told him then, his voice emotionless yet frightening Jerem all the same, “Now you will both need to be punished.”

    And then at a snap of Kiman’s fingers, two of the household guard appeared. At Kiman’s direction, one grabbed him, the other taking hold of the servant boy Jerem had been trying to help. The other boy’s eyes were wide with fear, though he did not resist. Jerem tried to shake himself loose. He might as well have been struggling against stone and not flesh.

    “Hey,” Jerem had demanded petulantly, “Let me go!”

    But the man did not let him go. The burly guardsman just looked over to Kiman and waited.

    “See that he remembers,” Kiman stated coldly, and then turned his back on his youngest brother.

    The finality of it scared Jerem speechless.

    Wait…


    The iron-hard grip lifted Jerem off his feet, and Jerem at last panicked. It had been an accident! It had been nothing! What was Kiman doing?! Jerem cried out for his brother, begging Kiman to stop…to stay…to not do this. But Kiman didn’t even look back as he left. And what happened next, Jerem would never forget.

    He and the servant boy had been dragged bodily out of the kitchen, down the back stairs, and deep into the cellar level of the castle. They finally halted in a large open room that the household guard often used for training. Jerem still struggled desperately to get free, but his struggles had been useless, he so small and the guard so big.
    What was happening? The guards had never ever laid hands on him like this! They’d never even touched him before. Why wouldn’t they let go? Jerem tried again to wriggle free, but in vain. The guard’s grip on his arms hurt!

    “Tem!”

    Jerem now dared to glance over as he called out to the servant boy, to find Tem wasn’t struggling at all, but
    crying, tears streaming down his pale face. Jerem’s panic grew as the heavy oak door shut behind them with an ominous thud. It was only then that he realized there were two more men in the room, waiting. He and Tem were dragged to the center of the room, toward the others.

    “Let me go!” Jerem pleaded to the new guards. “Please! Let me go!”

    Jerem didn’t even see the first blow before it hit, yet it drove him to the floor hard, his face on fire. He didn’t see the next, either, but he was grabbed again and dragged upright. One after another, blows landed on his small body. Punishment? Ha! When it was over, and the men left him lying on the cold, stone floor, Jerem could barely move. He lay there, sobbing, for what felt like hours.

    “Tem?” he finally asked, turning his head the agonizing few inches over to look.

    The servant boy he had been trying to protect did not answer. Tem just lay in a similar heap on the floor, not moving at all.

    “T-T-Tem?” Jerem asked again, afraid.

    There was no answer this time either, and Jerem started to cry once more. He wanted to run away, but it hurt too much to even turn his head back around. He swallowed hard and tasted blood. Jerem cried harder, though the sobs that wracked his body with the movement hurt.

    How could he!


    Jerem didn’t understand how his own brother could have done such an evil thing. What kind of animal would do that to another person? Tem had only been a servant, assigned to the kitchens, but he was just about Jerem’s own age, and the loss of the eggs had not been Tem’s fault. It had been an accident. An accident!
    Why would Kiman do that to him? Why would he do that to me!

    The last wailing question was followed by a thought both startling and alien.

    I hate him!


    If he had been older, Jerem might have acted on this burning fiery emotion which threatened to consume him. Instead, Jerem had just lain on the cellar floor, huddled in a hurting mass, too afraid to even touch the unmoving boy beside him. Jerem feared the boy was dead, beaten to death at his own brother’s word. He feared he might die. It certainly hurt like he would. Jerem sobbed and sobbed on the cold stone.

    Eventually, they had come for him. Silent servants, who gathered him up and carried him up to his room and laid him in his bed. Jerem squeezed his eyes shut tight, tears leaking through his lids in bottomless grief and pain. Where was Kiman? Wasn’t he sorry? Surely he couldn’t have meant for it to happen like this!

    But Kiman never came. Not to apologize, nor to even see if he was all right. And Jerem hated him all the more for it. Kiman should have come. Should have said sorry. Should have said something! Any remorse would have been a salve on his wounds, enabling him to stay. But on that sunny afternoon, everything had been destroyed.

    Nothing left now.


    It was a silent mantra as his wounds had been tended by the household staff. And still Kiman did not come. And still Jerem could not summon the courage to ask about Tem. The servants did not mention him, either, not even when Jerem finally did ask the following evening.

    “We have been instructed that it is not your concern,” one of the chambermaids told him.

    Jerem had not seen Tem again.

    I wish I knew if he lived. Please, let him have lived. I was only trying to help him. Please, don’t let me have killed him. I was only trying to help…


    For two whole days that followed, Jerem had been paralyzed by guilt, pain, fear, and indecision. He did not eat, did not sleep more than a few minutes at a time; he did not do much more than huddle in a ball on his bed, feeling utterly forsaken. Every time his door opened, Jerem filled with a painful mixture of hope and fear, but Kiman had not come to see him. His brother was not sorry. His brother didn’t even care. And father was probably drunk in the library. And he didn’t care either. Jerem had never felt so alone.

    The door did open once or twice later on, the first time to allow a healer to fix whatever had been wrong in his chest that had made it hurt to breathe and the stabbing pain in his arm. ‘A bad fall’ had been the story told by the servant who brought the priest to Jerem’s bedside. That and ‘my master wishes to leave the bruises so that the young lord will remember to be more careful in the future.’ Jerem was too scared to say anything at all about the lie.

    The second time the servants came, it was with orders from Kiman to make Jerem perform his stable duties. The chambermaids and housecarl seemed reluctant to do so, though they saw to it he was dressed and brought to the stable regardless, strangely more concerned about him than what remained of his own family. Not concerned enough to defy Kiman, but still it had been a small crumb of comfort.

    The only man to actually defy the ‘back to work’ order had been Thomas Shaw, the Telcontur’s horsemaster, to whom Jerem had been apprenticed to learn the trade. Master Shaw knew Jerem better than most anyone left in the castle, and had taken one look at Jerem’s hobbling and stricken form, before leading him to a pile of horse blankets in the dark tack room.

    “You sit there today, Lord Jerem. You just sit,” Mr. Shaw had said, his gruff voice softened with uncharacteristic tenderness.

    He guided Jerem to the blankets, watched him lie down, and then left Jerem alone with his broken thoughts. Around lunchtime, Master Shaw returned, to give him some apples and honey, as well as a mug of ale, seeming to understand that Jerem was too afraid to go into the castle and eat where he might encounter Kiman.
    Jerem thanked him, and then Master Shaw was gone again, likely working to complete all the stable tasks before dusk. Jerem, in turn, looked at the mug dubiously. He sniffed at the amber liquid. Ale. His mother had never let him drink ale. He swallowed hard, trying not to cry again as he thought of his mom. With a shuddering breath, Jerem took a sip of the mug, desperate for any task to distract him from his grief. It tasted pretty bad, but Jerem drank anyway because he was thirsty. Eating the apples after helped. And then Jerem was alone again. Too exhausted to even think, Jerem fell asleep shortly thereafter.

    Master Shaw returned and woke him at the end of the day. The horsemaster had another bundle of food, this time some dried meat, a small slab of bread, and water. It wasn’t much, and it was clearly what the servants were offered to eat, but it meant Jerem wouldn’t have to go eat dinner with Kiman. Jerem nodded his thanks and ate ravenously. When he was finished, Master Shaw saw him back to the castle. Jerem fled across the foyer and ran for his room. He locked the door behind him and moved his small desk chair against it. Just in case.

    The next day, Jerem was back in the stable by his own choice, back somewhere safe. The morning chores were comforting, even if he still hurt whenever he moved, and the horses trusted confidantes for his fears. Jerem did not see Master Shaw much as he worked, in fact it was nearly lunchtime before he realized that Master Shaw was moving funny, strangely stiff, as if he were hurt. So Jerem had asked about it, thinking the man injured by one of the horses, to be brushed off with an ‘I just slept funny.’ Jerem didn’t think any more of it, still too wrapped up in his own aches, until an overheard conversation later that night made Jerem realize that Kiman had had Master Shaw whipped for the kindness he’d shown to Jerem the day before. Jerem cried himself to sleep that night.

    I’ve got to stop him! I’ve got to! No one else is getting hurt because of me!


    Jerem was dead certain of that, but the how eluded him. All night his thoughts looped around the problem helplessly. What could he do? Even at sixteen, Jerem was still a child by his half-elven blood, of a size and maturity with his nine or ten-year-old fellows in the village. Kiman was well over twenty years older than Jerem, and even if he was short, still larger than him. Once, Jerem would have thought to ask their father for help, but in the weeks since his mother’s death, his father had descended in to a near-constant drunken stupor. Jerem hadn’t seen him move from the library in well over a week.

    And in the meantime, Kiman had descended into a level of cruelty Jerem would not have believed. It had gotten so he didn’t even recognize his eldest brother anymore. Hell, forget not recognize, Jerem was scared of him now. How could he stop someone with the power of life and death over an entire barony? Kiman had had him beaten. Kiman could order him killed. Would father even stop Kiman? Images of Tem lying still on the cellar floor and Master Shaw limping about the stable haunted Jerem like ghosts. Kiman could hurt or kill anyone left he still cared about. And Jerem still didn’t know what to do!

    Mom would never have let him near me!


    Jerem’s fist clenched in remembered helplessness of the beating. He wanted his mother desperately. He wanted her to make everything right. But she could never make anything right for him again. Yet in that hopeless instant, Jerem knew there was only one person alive who could. He knew who he could run to—Janthro.
    So he was running this night to his brother. The hope of the thought a source of warmth as he walked. Janthro would help him. Janthro was only nine years older, but he had always been the brave one. He hadn’t gotten people hurt or maybe killed. Janthro had stood up to Kiman. It hadn’t worked, but at least Janthro had tried.

    Jerem recalled that final angry showdown between Janthro and their father four years before, which had caused his brother to flee. Jerem had been hiding up on the landing, face pressed against the spindles of the staircase, while Janthro paced across the foyer below and revealed to their father the cruelty he had witnessed in Kiman. Cruelty Jerem might have doubted if he had not just experienced it first-hand. But Janthro had been bold, braver by far than he. Faced with the wrongness of it all, Janthro chose to fight and stood before the only authority higher than Kiman—their father. Janthro laid out each horrific deed meticulously, biting out the words in a low and fierce voice, ending with the death of a man Janthro had befriended. A man he accused Kiman of having killed.

    A ‘hunting accident’ Kiman had explained in calming tones, so different from the anger rolling like waves off of Janthro. A misstep in the paddock—Kiman had an answer for every one of the accusations. ‘Lies all!’ Janthro had yelled. Jerem watched breathlessly as his oldest brother responded, weaving a tapestry of reasonableness around himself that made Janthro look petty, dishonest, and spiteful by comparison. Janthro’s voice rose higher as he rejected the lies, yelling at both his father and brother, now.

    “Do you believe him or me?” Janthro had demanded in the end, and even Jerem could tell they were standing on a knife edge. The wrong answer here would split their family as surely as lightning striking a tree. He held his breath. Thick as thieves with Janthro, Jerem believed him with unswerving faith, no matter how much he had not wanted to think Kiman capable of such things. But who would their father believe? Jerem feared who their father might believe. In his panic, hope struck suddenly.

    Mom can stop this!


    Even though she was ill, his mother would want to know, to stop this, fix it before it shattered. His mother would make it all right again. Jerem got to his hands and knees and scrambled up the remaining stairs. He hadn’t even reached the top when he heard his father’s answer.

    “Janthro. You will submit to your brother’s rule, in all things,” their father ordered in a dark and furious voice. “I will have no more lies in this house.”

    “I will never submit to a kerachi like him!” Janthro had yelled back, defiant.

    There was a crack and a thump, and by the time Jerem made it back to the railing, he could see Janthro sitting on the floor, looking up at their father, green eyes blazing, his hand on his jaw.

    Goddess, father just hit him!


    “You will not disobey me or use that language in my house!” their father shouted, “I will not have it!”

    Janthro stood very deliberately, to end nose to nose with his father, ignoring the tiniest splash of red that ran along his mouth. It startled Jerem to realize his brother, though still thin as a rail, was now a few inches taller than their father. There was a pause, and then Janthro answered, his voice pitched low yet carrying throughout the foyer.

    “You will have no house to speak of, if you let Kiman rule.”

    Jerem saw his father hit Janthro again, closing his eyes as his father’s fist made contact with his brother’s face. This wasn’t punishment, something sinister was happening, and Jerem could feel it. When he opened them again, he saw Janthro had staggered back a few steps, but taken no other action against their father. Kiman, standing slightly away from the pair, was smiling at the interplay. His older brothers and father remained frozen for the space of several heartbeats, until Janthro turned suddenly on his heel and stalked toward the front door.

    “I did not give you leave to go!” their father yelled.

    Janthro stopped dead, looked back over his shoulder, and in an arctic pitch said, “I don’t need your leave to do anything! Not anymore!”

    Janthro continued walking. Kiman got in his way.

    “Back down, little brother,” Kiman demanded, looking up at Janthro, fury in his eyes.

    “To you?” Janthro snorted derisively. “Not a chance in hell!”

    Janthro did punch Kiman, striking him so hard he sent the smaller man sprawling to the floor. Janthro did not wait to see what would happen next, just continued out the front door and into the night.

    “Guards!” their father yelled.

    “No!” Jerem cried at nearly the same instant.

    Jerem remembered running down the stairs, the noise and chaos finally waking their mother. But too late. By then Janthro had gone, and though guards were sent, they never did find him. Janthro didn’t abandon Jerem entirely, though. He sent long letters home. Always in secret—for Kiman, now completely in control of the Barony’s affairs, was hunting him to bring him back, and father, angry at Janthro, had forbade his name to even be spoken in the house. The letters were smuggled in by Master Shaw, who cared enough about them both to risk the consequences of being caught. Jerem shared these secret letters with his mother, sitting at her feet in the library or at her bedside when she was too ill to get up, the words providing both of them comfort that Janthro was alive and well.

    Jerem thought Janthro’s life out in the world sounded very exciting, though their mother seemed to think it more worrying than anything else. Janthro had made it to Windshae and enlisted in the Duke’s service. He finished his training to be a wood ranger, and was now leading his own group of men on assigned tasks. Janthro had always been vague about just what ‘tasks’ those were, so Jerem spent a great deal of time imagining those details, until his brother was as bold as any hero in a Bard’s tale.

    But Jerem did not see Janthro again. Not until when mother’s health worsened enough to leave her completely bed-ridden. Then, Janthro had snuck back for one late night visit before disappearing once more. In the end, Janthro had gotten word of their mother’s final illness too late, and so never returned home again. The last letter Jerem had received, pressed tight to his chest in his shirt pocket said Janthro was ‘doing a little of the Duke’s business’ along the Dagger Mountains before returning to Windshae.

    So that’s where Jerem was going; cold, with wet feet, creeping through a cemetery, to the Ducal Seat at Windshae, to find his only friend left in the world. At least the nearby priory would be warm. Jerem brushed the last of the dirt off his clothes as he walked up the stone path to its door. He spared a glance over his shoulder at his pack, to be sure his swords and anything else that might indicate something other than a simple camping trip were still hidden under its oilskin cover. Yes, everything looked normal. Just a boy with a backpack going camping. He couldn’t hide his bow, tied along the right side of his pack, but hoped the priest would take it as a normal thing for a boy to have for a trip in the woods.

    Jerem took a deep breath, tried to look calm and not scared, and then knocked lightly on the door. A moment later, he heard footsteps approach and was rewarded by the friendly smile of the local Avatarian Priest. Jerem had only met him on a few occasions, mostly harvest festivals and feast days, and even then Jerem was always more interested in the entertainment than the blessings. The priest was a tall, lean, middle-aged man, though he looked about a decade older than he was. His hair was platinum blond, but graying heavily, and his blue eyes were piercing in an almost elvish way. The gods help him, but Jerem had no recollection of his name.

    “Excuse me,” Jerem began, hoping the name would come to him soon, “I’m traveling, and I was wondering if I could have shelter for the night. Anywhere would be fine.” He tried to sound as adult as possible.

    The priest squinted down at him for a second, and then said, “Ah, young Lord Jerem. Welcome. On a camping trip?”

    “Yes, sir,” Jerem replied easily. He had hoped not to be recognized, but since he was, he let the Priest think he was merely exploring. To be caught so close to escape would be terrible. In a way it was true, he was camping—just not with permission and not going back. Never going back.

    “I know it’s gotten rather chilly tonight,” the priest continued kindly. “You can stay here with me and then head back for warmer gear in the morning. Would you like to come in?”

    Jerem nodded his agreement and the priest gestured Jerem into the foyer of his small house. You could have fit the entire building in the audience hall of their castle, but Jerem didn’t mind. It felt warmer here than home, all wood and plaster, not damp cold stone. He let the heat wash over him as he stood there, the fire burning merrily in a small library off to his right and generating warmth enough for nearly the whole of the house. There was a narrow stairway directly ahead that must have led to the priest’s quarters, and a small parlor to his left, which connected to a dining room. Past the stairs he could see the flicker of light from a kitchen of some sort.

    The priest gestured him into the library with the small bow due Jerem as the Lord Baron’s youngest son. Jerem was so distracted he didn’t even notice. Usually having adults bow to him made him feel very strange, but this time he was too wrapped up in looking about the room, every wall covered floor to ceiling with books. All different sizes and colors, though Jerem’s gaze stayed the longest on the comfortable looking armchairs that sat in the room for guests.

    “Please do sit down,” the priest told him, pointing to one of the armchairs. “Would you like some tea?”

    While not all that fond of tea, Jerem was thirsty, so he nodded his agreement and the priest bowed his way out. Jerem watched him turn toward what must be the kitchen, and he was left in the quiet for several minutes. He took his pack off, carefully leaned it against one of the armchairs, and waited some more. Warming up at last while he waited, Jerem’s boredom drove him to pass the time browsing the shelves, finding mostly tomes on theology.

    Ugh, boring. Doesn’t he read anything interesting?


    Yet every once in a while, Jerem stumbled upon a fictional book, probably from the young acolytes who lived and studied here with the priest. One in particular caught his eye. It was a well-known tale about the Red Fox, a wood ranger-turned-bandit to protect the people of an oppressed Barony. Jerem couldn’t help himself, he sat tenderly on the edge of one of the chairs and began to read. He wasn’t sure how long he had been reading, when the priest returned with a steaming teapot, cups, and some small sandwiches. Jerem’s stomach growled softly.
    The priest served the tea from a silver set likely reserved for important guests. It was probably why it had taken him so long to come back—the man had to find it first. Jerem wished the priest would realize he really didn’t care about such things. He just wanted to eat, drink, and then curl up on the floor and sleep until morning. The priest poured for Jerem first, handing the cup over with a bow, then seated himself and poured his own cup.

    “What news of the Barony, my lord?” the priest asked, eyeing Jerem carefully. He seemed to be unsure of what to say.

    Maybe he’s just bad at talking to kids. The Goddess knows I hate talking to grownups.


    “It’s okay,” Jerem replied at last.

    Silence fell for a while. Jerem drank his tea and ate a few of the sandwiches, surprised at how hungry he was.

    “And your family?” the priest asked.

    “Okay.”

    A small smile appeared during the next conversational lull.

    “You don’t say much, do you, young Lord?” The priest finished his drink and stood. “Very well. It’s late and we rise early here. I will take you to your room.”

    “You don’t have to do that,” Jerem put in quickly. “I was expecting to sleep outside, so the floor is fine. You don’t have to kick somebody out for me.”

    “My Lord Kiman would not be pleased to find I had let you sleep on a floor,” the priest said, his hand lifting to indicate the library door.

    “I won’t tell, if you won’t,” Jerem replied lightly, though something about the priest was starting to bother him. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but the mention of his brother had spooked him, and Jerem was very afraid of what would happen if he was caught. He doubted he could survive another beating like the first. The priest gestured again for the door.

    “Please follow me,” he told Jerem.

    The priest waited until Jerem stood up and collected his pack before turning and leading Jerem from the library, through the kitchen and out a small door to a narrow, covered outdoor walkway that led to a larger building. The blast of cold air that hit them once they left the priory was especially bitter after the warmth of the library. Jerem started to shiver again as they walked. But it would be warm again soon and he could sleep.

    The priest also looked cold as he took out his ring of keys and they approached the door to the acolyte’s quarters, the hand holding his keys shaking. The sound fixated Jerem on those keys, a dissonant jangling in an otherwise quiet night, and he froze still for a moment. Maybe the priest was going to lock up the priory after they left, but… The priest cleared his throat as Jerem halted overlong at the doorway of the narrow, low building where the priest’s students slept. Jerem watched the priest unlock the door and gesture him inside

    Jerem swallowed his irrational fear and entered the building. He was just being stupid. The man was probably trying to be nice to him by giving him a real bed. He should be grateful. Not everyone was a spy for Kiman. And it was warm in here. And tomorrow he would move on. Jerem heard the priest shut the door and come forward to lead him onward down the hallway. There seemed to be about twelve rooms in all, six on each side.

    It was only then that Jerem realized that these doors had locks on the outside, like a dungeon. His heart began to hammer in something akin to panic. The priest had stopped now, to unlock one of the rooms to their left. He opened the door to reveal a small rectangular room with a single, simple, bed. There was a desk beside it and a trunk at its foot, but otherwise it was empty. Jerem’s eyes flew to its only window, far too small to climb through.
    The priest gestured Jerem inside, but Jerem was frozen in place with fear. He just couldn’t take his eyes off the Priest’s keys. Being locked in at night might be normal for an acolyte, but he didn’t dare let himself get trapped. Not with Kiman searching for him. Jerem turned back toward the door they had entered the dormitory from, eyes huge in the dim light. It was just so far away. The priest’s eyes narrowed in response to Jerem’s face and he said,

    “In here, if you please.”

    Jerem began to unconsciously shake his head. No. He had to get out of here. Jerem took a step back toward the door to the outside. No. He would not enter that warm room for all the money in the world just now. Jerem swallowed twice and tried to keep the fear out of his voice.

    “No,” he began, fumbling for any excuse to leave in his panic. “On second thought, I’ll sleep outside. It’s okay. Really.”

    Jerem was backing away, but the priest was moved closer to intercept him. By the barest margin, Jerem did not run, instead he kept his pace steady, prattling on as if nothing was wrong.

    “I meant to camp, so outside is better,” he babbled. “I appreciate the offer, but this is kind of cheating.”
    Jerem could tell the priest didn’t believe him, but didn’t know what else to say. He just kept backing toward the door slowly. The exit at the end of the hall seemed very far away.

    “I can’t let you leave,” the priest told him firmly before he had gotten even halfway there.

    The man seized Jerem by the arm then, and Jerem wasn’t sure if the Priest had grabbed just the right spot, or if anywhere would have done as well, but he cried out in pain. The beating last Matrinsday had been severe. The Priest let go at once, but rushed closer.

    “My Lord, you are hurt!”

    “I’m okay,” Jerem gritted through his teeth, still backing away. “I just need to go.”

    “No, come with me to the library and I will tend you,” the priest offered, no longer stern but concerned.
    It didn’t help. Jerem was still scared of him. He didn’t want to turn his back on the priest, so he mostly shuffled sideways until he reached the door. The priest kept pace with him, but did not touch him again.

    “Lord Jerem,” he repeated. “I only want to help. If we go back to the library, I can fix whatever’s wrong.”
    Jerem could say nothing to that obvious lie. No one, not even a priest, could fix his problems. But Jerem also knew the man could help heal him. If he could be trusted. Jerem didn’t want to be in pain anymore. Was that so wrong? Jerem fumbled blindly behind himself for the knob, opened the door, and sidled outside. The priest stayed nearby, silent but concerned. The sudden cold stopped Jerem still in the walkway, torn in indecision. He just didn’t want to hurt anymore. He didn’t want to make a mistake. He wanted to find Janthro.

    The priest merely waited as Jerem looked out across the snowy graveyard and then over to the door to the warm priory. The quiet drew out as they stood there, the priest careful not to touch Jerem nor get between him and a way out. In the end, it was that opportunity to escape that reassured Jerem enough to enter the priory. The priest would not try to hold him prisoner again. Jerem allowed the man to guide him to sit in one of the armchairs.
    The renewed warmth nearly broke Jerem, his emotions roiling about. He blinked rapidly, his throat burning. It wasn’t fair! Why couldn’t he just have one warm, safe night? Why? But the priest had said he couldn’t let him leave. And that meant he knew Jerem wasn’t ‘camping.’ It meant cold or not, hurt or not, Jerem had to go.

    “I really have to go, sir,” Jerem protested, his voice thick.

    The Priest brushed his words aside, kneeling before Jerem’s chair. He lifted back Jerem’s sleeve and examined his arm. Jerem just couldn’t find the strength to resist further. It was all too hard! He collapsed back into the chair and let the priest fuss over him. Why was it all so hard? Jerem instinctively began to curl about himself in despair, his legs drawing up into the chair to press against his chest.

    “It’s all right, child,” the Priest reassured him gently, dropping the ‘my lord’s’ and ‘Lord Jerem’s’ and looking at him with pity.

    Jerem only sniffled in return, letting his head fall to rest on his knees. Jerem didn’t see the Priest’s darkening expression as his examination revealed a rainbow mass of purple, green, brown, and yellow that ran up both Jerem’s arms from all the bruising, but he did hear a word that he never thought he would coming from an Avatarian priest. Jerem’s eyes opened in surprise, to catch the Priest’s brows drawing down sharply upon seeing the scabbed over cuts, where the lash had broken skin.

    Jerem could offer no explanation. Kiman had ordered a healer to repair the broken arm and ribs, but insisted that the rest of Jerem’s injuries be untouched so that they would heal naturally as a reminder to Jerem to ‘always know his place.’ Jerem swallowed and forced down the sob that followed the memories. Know his place? No place deserved that! How could Kiman have thought he deserved that? Jerem didn’t think he would ever find an answer that didn’t hurt as badly as the beating had. But he wasn’t going to cry. Not here. He looked up at the priest with haunted eyes. The priest’s return gaze said it all. The shock and sadness on the priest’s face turned into action and he whispered under his breath. Jerem could feel a tingling and then his arm felt fine.

    The rest, please…


    Jerem stopped the plea before it left his lips. He had to go. Now. He needed to find Janthro. Jerem uncurled from his seat and tried to stand. The Priest seemed to know he was still hurt.

    “Where else are you hurt, Jerem?” He asked gently. “Your face was never good at hiding anything.”

    “Everywhere,” Jerem admitted, his voice cracking.

    The man put his hands on Jerem’s shoulders and closed his eyes. There was some more chanting, and this time the tingling spread throughout Jerem’s body, easing the aches and giving him energy. Jerem knew without looking that his body was as whole as if the beating had never taken place. The other injuries, the ones to his heart, Jerem doubted would ever heal.

    “Now, my son,” the priest asked seriously. “What happened to you? Who did this?”

    Jerem looked at the floor and said nothing. No matter what Kiman had done, he wouldn’t rat on his own family. They’d never believe him anyway. Jerem kept his eyes on the floor until his nerve failed and then looked up. The priest was still studying him, with a frown on his face.

    “Your brother, Kiman, I’d expect.”

    He didn’t give Jerem time to deny or confirm, he just grabbed Jerem’s arm and pulled him to his feet.

    “I’m afraid I may have done you a terrible turn this evening,” the man went on as he led him back toward the kitchen. “You see, you were not my first visitor. Men from your household arrived bearing the message that you had run away. If I saw you, I was to send word so that you might be brought safely home. In my wildest nightmares, I never believed they meant you ill.”

    Oh no! I’m trapped!


    Jerem nearly took off at a run right then, but the Priest had his arm and moved him toward the back door at a somewhat saner pace. The priest was surprisingly strong, so Jerem had no choice but to remain with him.

    “I sent young Colin down to them when I went to make the tea,” the priest explained, still not letting go of Jerem. “There isn’t much time.”

    The priest led Jerem outside and around to the back of the priory opposite the dormitory where there was small barn. The priest released him, opened the wide double doors, and gestured Jerem inside. Jerem looked around to see two cows and some goats in the various pens. He thought he could smell horses, too, though the farthest stall doors were closed. The priest led him past the other animals to the far end of the darkened building.

    “We don’t keep many animals, here,” the priest continued to speak calmly, though Jerem was shifting from foot to foot in his hurry to be gone. “I do however have a green filly that was donated by your father. Given you were training to be his Horsemaster, I think you might be able to ride her. You might not get away, but at least you’ll have a chance.”

    A horse! Goddess, that’s great!


    “Thank you,” Jerem stammered aloud, his panic fading with the Priest’s promise of aid. “Thank you. I can’t repay you….”

    “No need,” the priest told him with a smile. “I’ll tell them that you caught on to me and ran back across the fields.”

    He gestured at the stall to his right, and Jerem opened the door and stepped inside. A mare was standing in the dark back corner, not asleep, but watching him warily. She was a good fourteen hands, and still young enough to grow more, and her thick winter coat was so sleek and black she was almost shining in the faint moonlight. With a shock, Jerem realized that he actually knew her.

    Brightwind!


    Jerem had been training Brightwind before she had been taken away, his first attempt at doing so. He’d seen her born, named her, played with her, and then cried when she had been sent away without warning last spring. Brightwind sniffed the air in turn, as if she too remembered. Jerem cooed at her, whispering soft, kind words to settle her as he slid the bit to her bridle in her mouth. She pulled back at the bit, which was probably uncomfortable and unfamiliar in her mouth, but Jerem rubbed her along her shoulder as he always had back home. Brightwind settled down at his touch and lowered her head. Once the bridle was on, it was time for her saddle. This process went much smoother, as Brightwind seemed to have decided that she trusted him, and even when he tightened the girth, she did not shy back from him. With a gentle tug, Jerem led her out into the night. With another muttered thank you to the priest, Jerem stepped into the stirrup and swung himself up. Jerem doubted he could have stayed on had she not known him since she was a baby, but Brightwind did not throw him, shifting and stepping anxiously under him.

    “Easy Brightwind…” Jerem couldn’t keep her still for long, and she went charging out down the road. “Thanks again!” he yelled over his shoulder, finally getting her to gallop off in the direction he wanted.

    He did not look back. The wind was biting, but Jerem was not feeling the cold. He was healed, he was free, and he was racing the wind itself. He let out a whoop and urged Brightwind on into the night.
    Last edited by jlvm4; 2018-11-15 at 03:02 PM.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  2. - Top - End - #2
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    Celticbear's Avatar

    Join Date
    Aug 2016
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    R'lyeh
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    Male

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    I'll read yours if you read mine. Now then, to back up that promise...


    Kay, just finished reading, and I have very few notes, and I'll get my one hitch out of the way before I start praising it.


    Your story seems to be told in a non linear path, but I think this was on purpose to get across how much of a blind panic Jarem was in during his flight. While I liked at times where the transition was slow, the quick changes I spied were kind of glaring. In my experience with sepia tones, the only way you can pull em off is real smooth like, and I know you can do that because I did see instances of really awesome transitions that were so smooth that I can't believe they weren't butter.

    On the subject of how terrified Jarem was, I really like how you portrayed his thought process during the piece. When Kiman started to do some evil shiz, Jarem still had brotherly attachments to him, and had to be convinced over and over again that Kiman was indeed a total jackass, and that's some good in the mind writing. I loved Jarem as a character, and can't wait to read more.
    Dresden Character Table


    This is what I am called. I am called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am also called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and the Hooded One. I am All-Father, Gondlir, Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows. I am ODIN

    Avatar by AsteriskAmp

    E-A-G-L-E-S SPELLS EAGLES!!!

  3. - Top - End - #3
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    An Enemy Spy's Avatar

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    May 2008
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    Right behind you
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    Male

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    "Jerem was creeping through a cemetery, trying not to think too much about it."

    Your very first line is in passive voice. Try "Jerem crept through the cemetary, tyring not to think too much about it." One small change brings the sentence to life. Now we're in the cemetery with him instead of watching him from afar.

  4. - Top - End - #4
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Hope you enjoyed Chapter 1...

    Here's Chapter 2
    Spoiler: The Hook and Sinker
    Show

    Chapter 2: The Hook and Sinker

    Jerem’s enthusiasm lasted for about a mile, before the biting wind set him to huddle down against the filly’s back, shivering. He let Brightwind run, until finally the horse grew winded and slowed her pace to a saner and safer walk. Jerem looked about more then, but didn’t really direct Brightwind so much as she led him. So long as they were heading away from Kiman, Jerem was content. The terrain grew rougher, the road rutted and frozen, so Jerem dismounted to take her reins and lead her on foot. It would do neither of them any good if she mis-stepped and broke her leg. As they walked, Brightwind nuzzled and butted his shoulder until he reached back to pat her.

    “I missed you, too, girl,” Jerem told her happily. “I didn’t know where you had gone. I’m glad you were okay. I guess we’re both on our own now, huh?”

    Jerem continued northwestward, still talking to Brightwind. Or maybe he was talking to himself. In either case, it made the night less lonely and him less scared. In an effort to avoid his brother’s men, Jerem cut through Darkwood forest instead of remaining on the road. He didn’t go in too far, staying as close to its edge as he dared, because Darkwood was haunted. Worse things than Kiman lived in Darkwood’s depths and even the locals wouldn’t venture deeply inside.

    With a shiver that had nothing to do with the cold, Jerem recalled several such stories from last year’s harvest festival bonfire. No. He was not going in any further into the trees than absolutely necessary. It didn’t matter anyway, because he didn’t dare lose sight of the road: he had no idea how to get to Windshae without it. Carefully and quietly, Jerem walked and walked, Brightwind a reassuring presence beside him. For hours it seemed, until weariness finally overtook him. As scared as he was, Jerem just couldn’t go further. It was time to make camp.

    So Jerem led them both a little distance further from the road until he found a likely spot, a bit more open and less choked with underbrush, but still shielded from the road. Here he tied Brightwind to a tree, took her saddle off, and then began to rub her down and curry her coat with his bare fingers. It was long work, and hard without the right equipment, but she needed to be cared for properly. The black mare seemed to enjoy his attentions after a while, butting up against his side and leaning into his hands. Jerem patted her muzzle and wished he had some treat to give her. When he was done brushing her, he rubbed her dry with the blanket from his bedroll, so she wouldn’t be wet with sweat in the cold.

    “Good, girl,” Jerem whispered, keeping up a running dialog with her as he worked. “Do you know where we are? I don’t. But Windshae’s to the northeast. So’s Darkwood now, so I think we’re too far west, but if we skirt its edge and take the long way round, we should be okay. Likely be safer, anyway.”

    Jerem debated using the saddle blanket as a horse blanket, before deciding to invert it over Brightwind’s saddle in hopes of drying it overnight instead. The blanket was damp and would likely make things worse. No, he was better off trusting that Brightwind’s thick winter coat would keep her warm. Brightwind watched the proceedings dubiously, and Jerem smiled back at her reassuringly.

    “Boy, I’ll bet Janthro’ll be real surprised to see me,” Jerem continued, lifting Brightwind’s left foreleg to check her hoof. “Even more surprised to see you.”

    He checked each foot in turn, and then paused to watch a moment. Brightwind seemed content, but she was chewing on her bit as if it felt strange or uncomfortable. Jerem frowned and bit his own lip in unconscious mimicry. It probably was unfamiliar, what with her not being ridden much. But he couldn’t take it off. Unable to think of what else to do, Jerem reached out and felt around her mouth with his fingers, to check as best he could that the bridle was only annoying his horse, not injuring her.

    “I wish I could take your bridle off, girl,” he apologized as Brightwind tossed her head in annoyance. “But you’ll run for sure, won’t you? I’ll tell you what, I’ll try to make some hobbles for you so you won’t feel quite so bad while we work on teaching you to stay put. How’s that?”

    Brightwind didn’t seem to care one way or another, but she did eventually settle down and stop chewing on the bit in her mouth. Figuring that was the best he could hope for, Jerem turned his focus toward himself. What was he going to do for the night?

    “Didn’t think this through, did I, girl?” he muttered worriedly as he moved over the few feet to a clearer and flatter area where he decided he would be sleeping tonight. “But what else could I have done? Anything more by way of supplies, and Kiman’d know for sure I was running.”

    Jerem pushed the rocks and other debris out of the way and then dropped to his knees to take inventory. He swung his pack off, placed it before him, and then emptied it out on the ground. The resulting pile was not encouraging. His swords remained where they had been stored, wedged along the packs’ frame, but they were pretty useless right now. He wasn’t even sure why he’d brought them, but he’d felt safer just knowing they were there. Just in case. One by one, Jerem sorted the rest of the items, trying to figure out what to do.

    “Food enough to last until tomorrow night. A couple blankets. Clothes. My bow, but only six arrows. Ah ha, my flint and steel. Now we’ll be a bit warmer. I think I can build us a fire that won’t be seen. Promise you won’t tell if I screw this up and it doesn’t light?”

    The comment drew a barrel-chested sigh from Brightwind, which Jerem mirrored as he used his bare hands to dig a small trench in the dirt to shield and conceal the fire he wanted to build. He then spent quite some time gathering up enough twigs and small branches to keep the fire going throughout the night. As Jerem searched, he tried to recall everything his brother, Janthro, had ever taught him about picking wood for fires that would not smoke too much and attract attention. His pile grew steadily, as this area of Darkwood was dominated by hardwoods, with lots of brush near the ground to be collected. Lastly, he gathered up the smallest bits of tinder he could find in the vicinity. Once he was ready Jerem knelt before his pile and built a fire in the trench. He held his flint and steel close and struck hard. The sparks ignited the tinder, but the tiny flame died quickly.

    It took six tries, but eventually the fire was lit. Jerem kept it small, feeding it only a few sticks at a time, so it wasn’t very warm. But it was light on a very dark night and that was something. He huddled close until feeling returned to his numb fingers, before turning his attention to surviving the night. Jerem pulled the blankets he had brought from his pack, grateful to have them, but they were not what he had wanted to be truly ready for weeks out-of-doors. He’d wished again he been more daring when packing, but the fear of Kiman had been more than enough to stop him. Jerem wrapped himself up tight in his blankets, consoling himself with the fact that he no longer hurt all over. That was a blessing to be grateful for, and his mom always used to say darkness was less scary if you held on to a light.

    Mama!

    Jerem curled into a ball in his blankets and waited to see if he would cry. It hurt so much, he wanted to, but tonight the tears wouldn’t come. He lay there numb and miserable until he finally shivered himself to sleep. Even then, he did not sleep well but woke often, always expecting to hear the sounds of his brother’s men beating the bushes for him. Yet the sun rose the next morning, pale and wintry, with Jerem exhausted, cold, but still safe.

    Jerem’s morning routine was simple and quick. Though hungry, he placed what little food he had back in his pack. It might be all he had for a long while. His blankets he rolled and then stuffed inside his pack as well, before heading over to Brightwind to check on her. Brightwind seemed fine, the bit not irritating her mouth too much, and she didn’t seem nearly as cold as he felt. Jerem reached up to hug her neck tight, as she pushed against him.

    “I’m so glad you’re here, girl,” he told her fervently.

    Jerem held on to her a while longer, before letting her go to scout around his campsite now that he could see it better. He left Brightwind tied, still fearing he would not be able to catch her again once she was loose. Even though she could not follow, Jerem continued talking to her as he wandered about.

    “Don’t worry,” he told her, looking up at the various trees that surrounded them, “I just want to get a better look around. I’m not leaving you for good. But I have no idea where we are…you didn’t stop for directions.”

    He chuckled to himself at that, giddy at surviving his first real night alone. He had done it. All by himself. Just a baby…ha! Let Janthro say he was a baby now. With a self-satisfied smirk, Jerem scouted each nearby tree, the frost-covered ground crunching under his feet, before he finally found one that suited him. It was a large white pine that seemed to tower over the rest of its forest brethren. If he could just get to the top, he might be able to figure out where he was. With a running leap, Jerem caught and then swung up onto the lowest branch. He scrambled quickly upward, his small size and slight weight enabling him to reach within four junctures of the top before he was forced to stop. The tree swayed under him as he scanned the horizon on all sides before climbing back down. Once on the ground, he gathered up his things, shouldered his pack, and saddled Brightwind.

    “You know, we’re lucky,” Jerem told her as he gathered up her reins. “I think we can make it to Moondale in another day or so. I’ve never been. Have you?”

    Brightwind didn’t answer so much as took the opportunity to lunge for some grass that peeped out among the browner leaf litter. Jerem tugged her back on track and led her north, closer to the road.

    “Got to find some work,” Jerem continued brightly as they walked, “Something good enough to feed us both. I’m not losing you again, girl. What do you think we can do?”

    Jerem’s conversation meandered on, from all the things he might be able to do, to what Moondale might be like, to what his brother Janthro would say when at last Jerem found him. Finally, they broke through the last of the underbrush to find themselves once again on the main road around Darkwood. With a small cheer at this little victory, Jerem climbed onto Brightwind’s back to ride north and west, heading toward Moondale. He hoped. Jerem sincerely prayed he remembered right from the large Barony map that hung on the wall in the family library. It had been a source of fascination for its beauty rather than its content.

    “What am I going to tell them when I get there?” Jerem muttered to himself as they rode along. “Can’t be me.”

    Jerem fell silent at that, unsure what he could do or say or pretend to be. When it came down to it, Jerem suddenly realized he wasn’t prepared to do much of anything. Being a son of the ruling Baron, even the youngest son and not heir, had meant a childhood filled with activity but none of it useful outside of that world. He could read and write, in two languages no less, but very few peasants could. Actually, he wasn’t sure any of them could, most of the signs in nearby Clearwater being pictures without words. He could fight with swords, but he’d never seen anyone but his father’s most noble guests or guards wear one. He could do sums, recite poetry, sing, dance…the list went on and got more useless from there.

    Jerem shifted his bow higher on his back and snorted. It seemed the only two skills he had that would serve him here were his bow hunting and horse training, which were ironically the same skills that his oldest brother and father had seen as the most worthless and demeaning. If he hadn’t been the fourth son, he would never have needed to get his ‘hands dirty’ is such ways. But it was something he could do, and Jerem held to that tightly. And kept thinking.

    What the kitchen boys did wasn’t so hard.

    Jerem’s willingness to get his ‘hands dirty’ was increasing dramatically the longer he traveled and his hunger grew. By dinnertime, his food was gone, with still no sign of Moondale. Jerem worried he might have been wrong in his directions after all, but he didn’t want to stop. He didn’t want to spend another night out in the cold, not after waking nearly frozen this morning. Yet as it began to grow dark, Jerem resigned himself to having to. And if he wasn’t to freeze to death, Jerem also knew he would need to find or make shelter, which would take time.

    At the next likely spot, a curve in the road at Darkwood’s border, Jerem stopped. The wood came right up to the road here and its underbrush was thick. If Jerem and Brightwind could force their way through, they could set up camp and be hidden without going so far into the wood’s haunted depths as to risk attack from the evil spirits within as he had the previous night. Jerem frowned at the underbrush, then selected what he thought was a good spot and headed into the forest. Brightwind resisted a little as the branches scraped at her, but with a gentle tug and some encouraging words, Jerem kept her moving.

    It didn’t take long before they could move a bit easier, now among the more mature trees, and Jerem scouted for a place to make camp. He tied Brightwind to the bole of a young oak and got her as settled as she could be for the night. It took him until nearly full dark accomplish this because Jerem wanted to get that bit out of her mouth for the night. She didn’t like it, and Jerem feared that if he kept it in much longer irritation would soon turn to injury. In the end, Jerem had had to take the bridle nearly apart, securing it to his lasso with several clever knots, to create a halter for the horse that he thought he could still turn back into a bridle when he needed it.

    Now shivering in the darkness, Jerem set about making his own shelter. He dragged over several larger pieces of deadfall, and used the branches to make the frame of a low, lean-to structure barely bigger than he was. When the frame was complete, Jerem ‘roofed’ the gaps with pine boughs and then fallen leaves. In the end, he was left with what looked like a long leaf pile with a hole at one end. Jerem’s hands were numb with the cold by this time, barely able to undo the knots on his pack and remove his two blankets. Wrapping both around him, he wriggled into his shelter feet first and fully dressed.

    Jerem pulled his pack closer to block as much of the open end as possible and then tried to sleep. As time passed, Jerem began to warm up. In fact, he was far warmer than he thought he would be, buried among the leaves. Janthro had been right. He wouldn’t freeze to death. Jerem wondered as he finally began to doze if Janthro would be happy to see him.

    Jerem woke to the sound of rain, which slowly seeped into his shelter and soaked his clothes. Jerem tried to keep as dry as possible by pulling his oiled cloak over himself and his things, but it was awkward and ill-fitting in his small shelter. By the time the sun rose that morning Jerem was wet and miserable. But the rain had ceased, and Jerem struggled out into the chill. Getting ready to move took far longer than it had the day before, his numb fingers making every task a trial. Muttering to himself, Jerem finally got his gear on Brightwind’s back, led her to the road and then climbed aboard himself to be began the day’s journey.

    The sun was high and thin, barely warming the air, but Jerem was grateful for even the slight change. And the road itself wasn’t too bad, wet but not treacherously so, though Brightwind would need a bath soon. Jerem guessed it to be a good thing as the dirt that now covered her legs and flecked her underside made her look more common than she was. And while he was still wet, his cloak kept out the worst of the wind. So all in all, things were getting better. Maybe. Not really, but… Jerem wrapped his cloak about him tighter and tried not to cry.

    It was also busier today, Jerem realized with a start, with traffic on the road, even though it was wet and cold. After he’d passed the first farmer’s wagon with merely a wave, the sound of the next sent him fleeing into the cover of the trees beside the road. How could he have been so stupid? It could have been Kiman! So every time thereafter, Jerem hid when he heard someone coming. The first few times, he didn’t look back, just rode as deep as he could and hid silent until the sounds were gone. But when nothing bad happened to him, Jerem grew bolder. He still scurried off the trail and hid Brightwind from sight, but he tied her and then crept back.

    He missed the riders entirely the first couple times, but he stayed closer and closer to the road on successive trips and was rewarded to see wagons of goods traveling past him down the road. A farmer alone, loaded down with sacks that might have been food or grain, and then a pair of wagons, with two outriders on horseback, loaded high with baled hay. Jerem grew hopeful. He just had to be getting near somewhere. He just had to!

    But another night arrived with still no sign of Moondale. No sign of any town. Hope waning, Jerem led Brightwind once again back into the woods for the night, shivering. This time, he decided, he would have a fire. If he had no idea where he was, then his father’s soldiers probably didn’t either. Once again, he tried to recall all his brother, Janthro, had ever said or taught him about building a fire that would be both warm but small, and most importantly not smoky.

    The fire seemed to light easier this time, and his shelter built much more quickly. He dried as much of his wet clothing and blankets as he could by the fire. While he waited for them to dry, he set about preventing another wet night by stretching his oiled cloak across the sapling frame before piling on the leaves and other roofing materials. He hoped this would keep the leaves he’d collected for bedding dry. Once again, Brightwind was left to fend for herself. Jerem re-rigged the halter for her and secured her to a nearby tree. He prayed she wouldn’t get loose. He didn’t think he could stand to lose her.

    “You’ll stay, right girl?” he begged as he left to climb into bed. “Please.”

    Brightwind just huffed at him and began to nibble at what food there was nearby. Jerem’s own stomach growled in response. He eyed the green bits that fell from the horse’s mouth to be lapped up again. Was grass edible? Jerem frowned over at a bit of green peeping out by a nearby tree. Maybe tomorrow he’d find out.

    Tomorrow arrived, and Jerem sampled the grass. It tasted pretty sour and he spat it out again. He finished the last of the waterskins he had brought and looked into deeper Darkwood. Would the ghosts eat him if he was only thirsty? With a resigned sigh, Jerem turned back toward the road. No, he wasn’t going to chance it. Jerem went back to getting ready for the day’s journey to Moondale. If Moondale even existed. Once he was packed, Jerem led Brightwind back to the road and rode on. But he had been riding less than half an hour when he came around a wide curve in the road and saw Moondale in the distance.

    “We did it girl!” Jerem cheered, leaning down to hug the mare’s neck tight.

    But his happiness was tempered by cold and hunger. While Jerem might miss an occasional meal by choice at home, if his explorations took him away from home during meal times, Jerem had never been truly hungry before. In the chaos of his departure, he’d miscalculated his supplies, and his last meal had been over a day ago. Worse, his fingers and toes had long since gone numb. Jerem didn’t think he could even remember what warm felt like now. A biting gust of wind set him to shivering harder as its searching fingers seemed to blow right through him atop Brightwind.

    Jerem climbed down from his horse’s back then, to try and use her larger body as a shield. He pressed himself closer to her shoulder as he walked beside her, to block the wind and possibly even steal a little warmth from her large body.

    “This is horrible, g-g-girl,” Jerem stuttered, his teeth chattering. “There’s got to be s-s-someplace here I can find for us.”

    At least Brightwind seemed to be okay in her heavy, winter-thick coat. Jerem huddled closer. He had to take a weird half-step every few paces, leaned in as he was, but it did make him feel better as they walked. They kept to the road as they approached Moondale, the town nearly deserted as dawn broke. There were some flickering lights in the larger buildings, and more and more began to dot the dawn’s dim light. People were moving in the town, not many at this hour, but the day in Moondale was getting started. Jerem saw a flash of silver, almost like armor, and sharp fear drove Jerem once again into the brush.

    The guard!


    How could he have been so careless? After the incident with the priest, he should have known they’d be hunting for him. And days away wouldn’t be much, not to men like them. And…and he was just stupid. Jerem hurriedly led Brightwind deeper into the cover of the trees. What was he going to do? He couldn’t stay here, shivering. His stomach growled loudly again. No, to stay here was the same as being discovered by Kiman’s men—he would be dead either way. He needed to find out if Moondale was safe. He needed to be secret. Like playing capture the standard with Janthro, the only way to avoid losing would be by being sneaky. Jerem looked back the way he had come and then over to Brightwind and then back toward Moondale again. No. If nothing else, riding into town on horseback would draw all sorts of attention.

    “Sorry girl,” he told her with a sigh, “you’re going to have to stay here for now.”

    Jerem led Brightwind around until he found a spot with a fair bit of grass nearby and then tied her to a tree with his lariat alone. Using his lasso was not as strong a tie as if he’d used her bridle, but Jerem wanted to give her some room to graze and the ability to pull free if threatened. He didn’t know exactly when he would be back and there could be bears or mountain lions or he didn’t know what, only that if she was that scared by it, he wanted her to be able to run.

    Though he hoped she wouldn’t, not for anything short of something like a bear. Jerem ran his hand along her shoulder again, feeling her lean her weight into him in response. She nuzzled against him as his fingers moved to rub her forehead. It might have been his imagination, but even after only a few days back together he sensed she wanted to be with him. Brightwind watched him as he moved away to test his contraption, before bored, she began nosing at the dusting of snow to munch on the grasses that poked through.

    “I’m hungry, too,” Jerem agreed and spent the next several minutes clearing away the snow in her range with his boot, to expose more of the grass beneath. At least she’d get some breakfast that way.

    Satisfied Brightwind would be safe while he explored, Jerem sought out a tree to climb. He scrambled up easily, and from its top branches he could see nearly the whole town.

    So that’s Moondale.

    It didn’t seem all that different than Clearwater, the town closest to his family’s home, though it was a good deal smaller. Unlike Clearwater, Moondale only had one road into and out of town, winding from the southeast to the northwest, to skirt the edges of Darkwood Forest. There was another road running parallel to it for the length of the town, farther back toward Darkwood, and several smaller streets connecting the two major roads like the rungs of a ladder. Buildings dotted the streets, with a large town green left empty in the center.

    Even early as it was, there seemed to be a surprising number of people about. Jerem could see figures as they bustled up and down the main street, and among the other, smaller roads that made up the town itself, but he could not make out the details. He would have to get closer before he could guess how easily he might blend in.

    Think it through first.

    His mom’s favorite phrase, especially if she thought Jerem to be doing something he either shouldn’t or couldn’t. As much as he wanted to scramble back down and just ask for food, he needed to plan. Jerem squinted as he tried to make out more details of the town and its people, before laughing aloud as he unconsciously flashed back to playing stalking games with Janthro. Janthro had always said he was part squirrel.

    Jerem studied the buildings once more, noting that everything in Moondale seemed to be made of wood, plaster and thatch, rather than the stone used in Clearwater. In fact, there were only two stone buildings to be seen, one of which was clearly the blacksmith’s shop in the southwest corner of the town. The other stood near the town’s center, one of the largest buildings there, and might have been an inn. The rest of the buildings were arranged along various roads. Based on the wagons of grain, and hay moving back and forth, Moondale was probably a farming town, with few local resident business owners, who plied their trades on the visitors from the ranches and farms that surrounded it. On closer observation, the flash of sliver he’d seen turned out not to be armor, but the blacksmith bringing something metal into a two-story wooden building. He might just be safe after all.

    It didn’t matter, really. Jerem couldn’t feel his toes anymore and he was willing to risk capture just to get warm again. Just ’cause it’s dangerous, doesn’t mean you have to be stupid. Jerem chuckled as he recalled his brother’s advice. This might not be a jump from the roof, but there were still things he could do to make sure that if there were household men in the town, they wouldn’t find him.

    First, his swords had to go. They’d seemed like such a good idea when he was packing, but they were not a weapon of the common class and most certainly not anything a boy his age would know how to use unless he were from a noble family. He didn’t want to leave them, but still he pulled them from his pack and laid them atop his one waterproofed cloak carefully. Jerem’s fingers ran over his gently pointed ears. No hiding those, not with his short hair, and he’d never seen anyone but his brothers and mother who’d had ears like that. But if he pulled his cloak hood high, it might be enough. His glance went down his body and over his clothing. It was a little too fine to be common, but the last few days of sleeping outside had done wonders for its ability to blend in. Who said dirt was a bad thing?

    Jerem carefully went through every possession he had brought with him. Anything that so much as hinted he might come from the upper class or a boy his age would not likely own was placed with his swords in the cloak. His heavy sweater with the Telcontur rearing horse on it, his unstrung ash bow with its string carefully coiled and stashed dry in his small quiver, the quiver, even his brush with the fancy carved handle, it all was laid down to be wrapped tightly and then cached beneath leaves and rocks. He could come back and get it later. After he’d gotten a job and a place to stay.

    Jerem settled Brightwind last. She was his only friend in the world right now and Jerem was strangely reluctant to be out of her sight. But like his swords, owning a horse and begging for work didn’t go together, not even for an adult. A parentless child would draw even more suspicion. Jerem shuddered as his thoughts drifted over his subsequent capture and return home. Never again. He was never going back, not even if they begged him. He hugged Brightwind one last time, the knot of his rope pressing into his shoulder.

    “I wish I could just let you be, but you’ll still run, if I let you,” he told her with a rueful chuckle as he checked the knot to see that it could come loose should something spook her bad enough. “But I promise I’ll be back. And if you get really scared, you can break free.” He stepped back and headed for the road. “I promise,” he told her one last time.

    Jerem pulled up the hood of his cloak up to block the wind and hide his face and hiked back over to the main road. With one last worried glance to the area where he’d left Brightwind, Jerem headed into town. No one paid any attention to him at all, except when he’d gotten in the way of a heavily-laden wagon, and then the man had cursed at him roundly. Jerem ducked away quickly and hid in an alley until the man was gone. There were no other children about at all. Jerem didn’t know if this was normal or not. Maybe the bitter cold had kept them all inside. Maybe there were no children.

    Jerem’s stomach growled loudly, drawing his attention inward. He really wanted to find some food. He stuck his hands in his pockets, jingling the coins there, but knew he didn’t have all that much. He needed more. He passed the blacksmith’s first, the heat of the forge drawing him inside despite himself. It wouldn’t have been Jerem’s first choice, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and it was warm.

    Jerem did not see anyone as he crossed the threshold, though he stood for a long while in the doorway just soaking up the heat. He was standing in a large, open room, littered with various tools and tack, repaired or in the process of being repaired. One whole wall to his right was stacked floor to ceiling with pieces of hardwood, split and ready to be made into charcoal fuel. Charcoal was piled next to it, near an opening that must lead to the actual forge based on the heat coming from it.

    Jerem stood in this first room until his fingers began to hurt as they warmed. Trying to distract himself, Jerem headed over to the opening. He stepped out into a two-walled outbuilding to find the forge itself, bright red coals glowing in preparation for the day’s work. Even open to the air in this chill, the area around the forge was comfortably warm.

    The blacksmith was manning the bellows, pumping the great device to provide his fire with air. The man was large, with burly, thick muscles cording his bare shoulders and arms. He had curly black hair and a mustache that covered much of his face as the smith looked down at his fire. There was a younger boy in the smithy as well, standing a little away with a piece of long metal in his hands. He, too, had curly black hair and dark eyes. Might he be the blacksmith’s son? Jerem didn’t have much time to ponder this, as the boy looked over and spotted him.

    “Mr. Cander,” the boy said.

    The blacksmith looked up, spotting Jerem as well.

    “Can I help you?” he asked.

    Jerem nodded in the affirmative, adding, “Yes sir. I’m kind of new in town and I was looking for a job.”

    The Blacksmith frowned at him a moment, but his arms never stopped their rhythmic pumping of the bellows.

    “How old are you?” the man asked doubtfully.

    “Sixteen,” Jerem answered promptly.

    The boy with the rod snorted a laugh at this answer, but the blacksmith just replied, “Awful short for sixteen. Where’s your folks?”

    Jerem’s chin jerked up, “Dead.”

    Some sympathy came to the Blacksmith’s face.

    “Where’d you come from?” he asked.

    “South,” Jerem answered truthfully, but vaguely. “I’d like a job if you have it.”

    The sympathetic look deepened.

    “Sorry, kid,” the man answered at last. “Harlin here’s my apprentice and there’s not enough work for more.”

    Jerem took a deep, shuddering breath. It had been too much to hope for that the first place he stopped would have hired him. He summoned his courage, dipped his head, thanked the man, and left. Just as he did, he heard the apprentice, Harlan, ask, ‘What’s wrong with his ears?’

    Jerem reached up to touch them. Nope, the hood wasn’t doing him much good. But they were just a different shape. Why was that ‘wrong’? Jerem shook away the distracting thought as the cold hit him once more. He continued down the main street, past two more of what were clearly homes, to stop at the next likely workplace.

    It turned out to be a bakery, whose matron by the counter flat out told him to leave if he wasn’t going to buy anything. She added a couple comments under her breath as he did that implied he would rob her if she took her eyes off him even for a moment. It made Jerem angry, and he stomped all the way to his next option, a building off toward the opposite end of town from the Blacksmith. It turned out to be a harness-makers.

    But he was too small for the harness maker, too. Too weak for the miller and his sawmill. Too dumb for the physicker, though the man had done nothing more than look to Jerem’s ears before declaring that. Jerem didn’t even get the chance to explain he could both read and write. It was late afternoon by the time he made it back to the large building in the center of the town he had seen from his treetop perch that morning, and Jerem was cold, hungry, frustrated, and more than a little scared it would get dark and he still would not have a place to stay.

    The sign that hung above the building’s double oak doors said ‘Hook and Sinker’, though the letters were old, chipped, and barely legible. The picture above, of a man fishing, with the teardrop weight and hook abnormally large, was much clearer, bright with new paint. Jerem didn’t know exactly what the Hook and Sinker might be, but his teeth were chattering uncontrollably as his body shook.

    It could be the inn he’d hoped for, or it could be a fishmongers, but it didn’t matter because Jerem figured it would be warm in either case. He stepped through the door, to find himself in the wide common room of a tavern. He was standing toward the right edge of its longer side, facing a bar that took up three-quarters of the opposite wall. Tables were spaced out throughout the room in between and booths lined what free wall space there was. A great fireplace dominated the wall to his left, burning merrily and making the whole room quite warm. There was a curtained doorway next to the bar across from him, and Jerem guessed it must be the kitchen when a young woman carrying a tray of dirty dishes headed through it. There was another door, which exited from the wall opposite the fireplace which Jerem thought might lead to the boarding rooms.

    Jerem was also not alone in the inn. There were a fair number of people at the various tables, most of whom looked up when he arrived. But thankfully, nearly everyone returned to whatever they were doing shortly thereafter. Only the tall, lanky man at its center kept his eyes on Jerem. He had wispy brown hair, thinning at the top and appeared to be middle-aged. He was wearing a white apron, with a towel tucked into the belt, so Jerem deduced he was the innkeeper. Trying not to look too desperate, Jerem walked over to him. He stopped about a foot away, looked up, and smiled.

    “I’m looking for work, sir,” Jerem began. “And I have nowhere to stay. Could I work here?”

    The man looked down at him a moment, not at all unkindly, and Jerem’s hopes rose. But they were interrupted by a call for ale from a table in the corner and whatever thoughts might have been in the innkeeper’s mind about him working there were shaken loose by the demands of the moment.

    “Sorry lad,” the innkeeper added quickly. “I don’t have any work. And folks are callin’.” He waved in the direction of the door as he moved off to get the requested drink. “Try Pacquin’s or somewhere.”

    “I’ve already been,” Jerem protested, “No one else has work. Please.”

    Jerem hated that he sounded so pathetic, begging like a baby, but he really didn’t want to spend another night in the cold. And he didn’t even know where another town was. And he didn’t know if Brightwind would still be there. And it was snowing. And…

    “I don’t have anything for you,” the innkeeper repeated. “Sorry, but that’s how it is.”

    The man was already back at work before Jerem could even protest further. He just stood there in the center of the room, trying not to cry. Why was this all so impossible? Why wouldn’t anyone help him? He swallowed hard, drew on every ounce of courage he had, and turned toward the door. He hadn’t taken more than three steps, when a new voice said,

    “Gyillian Michael MacCafferty, I’m ashamed of you!”

    It was a woman’s voice that had spoken, full of reproach. Jerem tried not to be drawn in. The longer he stayed, here in this warm place, the harder it would be to leave and the more likely he would just start crying like some sort of baby and… Jerem sniffed hugely, but took another step closer to the door.

    “You, boy!” the female voice continued, “Wait!”

    Jerem did turn around then, to find a middle-aged woman approaching him. It was clear she and the innkeeper were related in some way, as they had similar faces and eyes, though this woman was plump where the innkeeper had been lean. She wore her long, light brown hair in a single thick braid down her back, and was dressed in a simple light blue shirt and darker skirt, all covered with a large bright red apron. She caught his eyes and smiled warmly at him.

    Jerem unconsciously smiled back as she drew near. Without asking, she reached out and took one of his hands, her skin nearly burning hot against his in its cold-reddened state. She squeezed gently.

    “You’re all cold,” she told him as if he didn’t know, tugging him in the direction of the bar. “Come and get warmed up, boy.”

    Jerem followed dutifully, hope rising. Could she actually be able to help him? He sat on the stool as directed. By this time, the woman had had a closer opportunity to look him over. The innkeeper had also had time to come near too.

    “Cerna, you can’t be serious,” he began.

    “Look at him!” she demanded in return. “He’s just a boy! He’s wet, freezing, and you’re going to set him back out there?”

    “We don’t have a job, and that’s what he was asking for.”

    Cerna tsked at him.

    “Gyillian, sometimes I think you got rocks for brains,” she chided. “Can’t you see he has nowhere else to go?” She turned suddenly to Jerem. “Do you?”

    Jerem just shook his head, mute, afraid to say anything lest he destroy his chances. Cerna nodded firmly at him.

    “You can’t just turn a child out in this snow. “

    “I wasn’t going to…” Gyillian protested.

    “I know,” Cerna cut him off. “But go open that door and look outside a moment.”

    That seemed to stop the conversation as Gyillian did as Cerna had asked. He opened the door wide, stuck his head out, and shut it quickly. He returned shaking his head.

    “He can stay,” was all Gyillian got out, before another customer required his attention. He waved at the man to signal he had heard and then waved distractedly back in their general direction. “You deal with him.”

    Cerna turned back to Jerem, with a chuckle.

    “Sometimes I think my brother forgets there’s a world outside this place,” she laughed. “Would you like some hot cocoa?”

    Jerem nearly burst into tears, but managed another nod.

    “Stay right here, then.”

    Cerna disappeared into the kitchen, to return with not only the promised hot chocolate but a steaming bowl full of beef stew and a hunk of bread as well. She placed it in front of him and Jerem looked at it a moment.

    “I can’t pay…” he began, embarrassed.

    “We’ll sort that out in a bit, lad,” Cerna assured him. “Now tuck in.”

    Jerem ate ravenously, not leaving a crumb of food behind. The food and drink did wonders for his mood and Jerem looked about the Hook and Sinker hopefully. The patrons all seemed friendly enough, and no one was looking at him funny. Cerna and Gyillian were taking care of various tables, along with two young women and a boy that looked only a few years older than Jerem. Jerem hadn’t been sitting long, when Cerna came back to sit beside him once more.

    “So what’s your name?” she asked.

    “Jerem,” he answered promptly, trying to make a good impression.

    “And where are you from?”

    “South by Clearwater.”

    It was far more detail than he would have liked to have given, but he really needed this job and ‘away south’ wasn’t going to do any more than make them think he was in trouble. Which he was, but hopefully Clearwater was a big enough town to mask just what kind of trouble he was in. Cerna nodded and continued on much the same path as the other people in the town Jerem had talked to. She asked on his parents, where he was going, and what he intended to do. Thankfully, if she had noticed his ears, she did not comment on them. Another man, of an age with Cerna and Gyillian, arrived while they talked, rolling in a barrel of something, to stop behind the bar and raise his eyebrows at Cerna.

    “Another stray, hon?” the dark haired man said with a laugh. “Gyil says you’ve moved up from cats.”

    “Say hello to our new….” Cerna paused here as if at a loss for exactly what Jerem’s job would be. “…helper.” she decided on at last. “His name is Jerem. Jerem, this is my husband, Cob.”

    “Hi kid,” Cob said with a wave, before he lifted the barrel up with a grunt and shifted it behind the bar.

    “Hi,” Jerem ventured back tentatively.

    Cob just returned to his work and Jerem waited on his stool, hoping for some more direction as to what he was supposed to do. Cerna was no help, leaving him with a brief ‘be back soon.’ Nearly half an hour later, Jerem was dozing against the bar, head pillowed on his arms. He hadn’t even taken his pack off his back, just nodded off where he sat. The next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake by Cerna.

    “Time for bed, Jerem,” she explained.

    Jerem looked about the now-empty common room, blinking and rubbing his eyes. How late was it? Jerem felt a momentary twinge of worry for Brightwind, but knew she was better equipped than he was to stay out in the cold overnight and he had left her in a well-sheltered spot. The twinge of worry for himself was sharper. Where was he supposed to sleep? He had a job, but did that mean he was expected to come back in the morning? Some of his fear and confusion must have been evident on his features, because Cerna spoke again.

    “You’ll have a room upstairs,” she explained. “Work starts before dawn.”

    She gestured Jerem to follow her, which he rose and then did. They walked over to the door opposite the fireplace, opened it, and then walked into the quiet hallway beyond. There were doors to either side as he passed, guest rooms Jerem supposed, and the hall ended at a stairway to the second floor. Jerem followed Cerna up the stairs and across the second floor. There were fewer rooms on this level, and she stopped at one of the last doors on the left, and opened the door.

    Inside was a small room, with a bed, small table, and dresser. A stonework column broke up the wood paneling on one wall, and Jerem could feel a comforting draft of warm air from the shared chimney through the little grate that covered a gap in the stones just above the floor. There were bright yellow curtains on the room’s single, shuttered window, and a matching yellow quilt on the bed. Jerem didn’t know if this was a guest room or staff room, but Cerna gestured him in and he went. He slid off his pack gratefully and placed it on the floor next to the dresser. Cerna sat on the bed and Jerem looked back at her curiously.

    “So what can you do, Jerem?” she asked.

    Jerem’s mind raced through all the things he’d thought of while riding here.

    “I can clean up, sweep, wash, whatever you need.” Jerem paused for breath, and recalled the stable he had seen attached to the rear of the building. “I can take care of horses. I’m real good at that.”

    “Are you now,” Cerna mused. “Well, come down just before dawn and start there, then. We’ve got four guests with animals, and they’ll need to be tended. Ask Marcos where everything is. That’s the boy you saw earlier. He’ll be around. And when you’re done with that, well… we’ll just see.”

    Jerem nodded eagerly.

    “This is your room now, Jerem,” Cerna continued, patting the bed beside her and Jerem sat as directed. “For as long as you work for us, your room is included in the wages. As are meals. So the pay won’t be much.”

    “That’s okay,” Jerem reassured her quickly. “This is better than anything I had before.”

    Cerna frowned at that comment.

    “Where were you going? On the road all alone?”

    “To my brother, Janthro,” Jerem answered honestly, because he couldn’t think of anything but the truth that quickly, “He’s in Windshae…somewhere.”

    “Does your brother know you’re coming?” she asked deftly.

    “Sort of,” Jerem replied, “I think. I didn’t know where else to go.”

    Cerna nodded as if something made sense to her now, before asking, “No family left in Clearwater?”

    The memory of his beating came back quite vividly, making his vehement head shake not a lie but the simple truth. There was no one left for him in Clearwater.

    “Do you have any money?”

    Jerem shook his head again, digging in his pockets to pull out what few coins he had. Cerna looked at them as he held out his hand and chuckled.

    “Well, we can certainly help you with all that,” she said after a moment. “So get settled and go to sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day. The horses should be turned out first thing.”

    His memory jogged, Jerem asked haltingly, “Cerna, ma’am, I do have a horse. That’s how I got here. I left her outside of town because I wasn’t sure if I could find work or if I’d be moving on. But could I bring her in tomorrow morning? If she could stay? She won’t be any trouble. And she won’t eat much, I swear, and you can take what it costs out of my pay, just…she’s all I have left.”

    He tried not to sound too desperate with the last, but he was. Cerna watched him grow more and more agitated, before patting the bed once more.

    “You go to sleep, Jerem, and then get your horse after you’ve done morning chores. We’ll figure it all out tomorrow.”

    “Thank you, ma’am,” Jerem told her as she rose.

    “You’re welcome, Jerem.”

    She shut the door behind her and Jerem didn’t even bother to unpack. He just stripped off his clothes, crawled into bed, and slept warm and comfortable for the first time in days.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  5. - Top - End - #5
    Ogre in the Playground
     
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Checks odd Giant threads I'm in... sees updates on stories

    Right as I'm getting ready for bed too. I'll read this in the morning, but right now I am super tired.
    Dresden Character Table


    This is what I am called. I am called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am also called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and the Hooded One. I am All-Father, Gondlir, Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows. I am ODIN

    Avatar by AsteriskAmp

    E-A-G-L-E-S SPELLS EAGLES!!!

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    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by Celticbear View Post
    Checks odd Giant threads I'm in... sees updates on stories

    Right as I'm getting ready for bed too. I'll read this in the morning, but right now I am super tired.
    No worries. I just hope you're enjoying it.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

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    Celticbear's Avatar

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Indeed I am enjoying, time to catch up...

    Welp, I don't have much to complain about. Other than that Brightwind better not die in the cold. She survived so far, dammit.

    I have a weird attachment to horses, I blame the Wheel of Time XD
    Dresden Character Table


    This is what I am called. I am called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am also called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and the Hooded One. I am All-Father, Gondlir, Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows. I am ODIN

    Avatar by AsteriskAmp

    E-A-G-L-E-S SPELLS EAGLES!!!

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    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by Celticbear View Post
    Indeed I am enjoying, time to catch up...

    Welp, I don't have much to complain about. Other than that Brightwind better not die in the cold. She survived so far, dammit.

    I have a weird attachment to horses, I blame the Wheel of Time XD
    Speaking of Brightwind..... Chapter 3

    Spoiler: Chapter 3: A Horse of a Different Color
    Show


    Chapter 3

    A Horse of a Different Color


    The next morning, Jerem woke happy. It was almost a surprise, to actually be happy. He was warm. He had a job. He could get Brightwind as soon as he finished his chores. Jerem smiled proudly. And he had done it all by himself! Just a little bit here, and he could go find Janthro, and then everything would be all right again.
    Jerem dressed quickly and scampered down the stairs. The Hook and Sinker was quiet, the only sounds coming from the kitchen. Jerem followed the noise through the beaded curtain. Cerna was at the hearth, mixing something in a large bowl.

    “Morning,” she said, pointing with her spoon toward a side door. “Stable’s that way. Marcos is out already.”

    Jerem followed her instructions out into the cold of a small alley. The stable stood opposite and he dashed over. Inside was warmer and smelled strongly with the familiar scent of horses. The young, dark haired boy Jerem had seen last night passed by, leading horses out of their stalls. He looked to be about Jerem’s own age, had Jerem been human, somewhere between nine and ten. Jerem fell into step behind him, to follow the latest horse to a small paddock attached to the stable’s other end. When the boy turned around, he jumped and swore, surprised.

    “Sorry,” Jerem apologized.

    “’t’s okay,” Marcos answered. “Jerem, right?”

    “Yeah.”

    “You know what to do?”

    Jerem nodded.

    “The hay’s up there,” Marcos pointed up to the loft. “The shovel’s over there.” Another point to a small doorway inside the stable. “And the other stuff’s in there.” This time Marcos indicated another door next to the first. “I’ll get the rest of them.”

    And with that, Marcos headed off to retrieve yet another horse. Jerem went to get a shovel and began to clean out stalls. The work was hard, but not all that much different than what Master Shaw had expected back home, and Jerem and Marcos found themselves done, stalls clean and horses turned out, in remarkably short order. By silent, mutual agreement, they went inside to wash up and have breakfast. Marcos showed him where the water pump was outside the kitchen, though Jerem’s hands were numb with cold by the time they were clean, and then led him inside to sit at the worktable to one side of the hearth. Cerna served them eggs with potatoes and sausage, and Jerem was introduced to the remainder of the Hook and Sinker’s staff. Myra and Carolyn were the two waitresses, one tall and blond, the other brunette and shorter, but both nice enough. At least they said hello to him, and he said hello back as they all ate.

    Jerem didn’t say much to anyone as he ate, but listened carefully. It seemed much of the conversation flowed around various people that lived in the town, whom Jerem did not know yet. But there was no mention of Baronial soldiers, not even in passing, and Jerem was hopeful that he might have truly escaped.

    After breakfast, he was sent to work inside getting ready for the lunch crowd. He set out chairs, wiped tables, and got out dishes. He peeled so many potatoes that he thought he might be seeing them in his sleep. But as tired as he was, as hard as this work was, Jerem couldn’t complain. He might have had fewer chores and more playtime back home, but he could vividly recall being hungry and cold and that was good enough reason for him to keep going.

    Jerem left immediately after lunch to go get Brightwind and make sure the things he’d left behind were as protected as they could be. He didn’t have much time before they expected him to begin his afternoon chores and wanted to make sure he wasn’t late, not on his first day. As he walked out of town, Jerem considered what to do with the possessions he had left behind. He debated bringing his bow back with Brightwind, but in the end he decided to keep it hidden with the rest. Hidden with his swords. He had not seen one single person yet who had worn a sword and the way Cerna had looked at him when explaining Brightwind made him uncomfortable. Hard enough for him to have a horse. Swords would give away who he was for sure. And then Kiman would come, a thought that still set Jerem’s heart into panicked racing.

    So Jerem had a plan. Tied around his back, much like a pack, was some canvas. He’d found the irregularly-shaped oilcloth in the stable and was told it had been part of a wagon once, but torn as it was now, trash. It would be a perfect way to protect his belongings, though. He also had some more rope and high hopes of making a more durable cache for his swords and other items. Eventually he would bring them to the Hook and Sinker. Just not yet.

    Jerem’s pace sped as he closed in on where he’d left Brightwind, worried she’d broken free and run. He arrived at the clearing. It was empty.

    She’s gone!


    Jerem’s heart sank, and his stomach twisted, but before he could actually cry, Jerem heard the sound of hooves and was nearly butted to the ground as Brightwind’s muzzle collided with his shoulder. Jerem recovered his balance and straightened to find Brightwind loose but there, and threw his small arms as far around her neck as they would go.

    “Brightwind!” he cried joyously.

    She let him scratch her behind the ears as he took up the dangling end of his lasso. He led Brightwind back to the tree where he had originally tied her and re-secured her rope. She seemed annoyed at this, but didn’t do more than huff her displeasure. Jerem bribed her with an apple from his pocket anyway, which threatened to derail his entire plan as she pinned him against the tree searching for more.

    Finally he squirmed free and retrieved his buried belongings. The outer wrappings still looked good, and when he opened the bundle, the inside was still dry and rust-free. He re-wrapped it carefully and then wrapped it one more time in the oiled canvas he had brought. Finally he tied the whole thing tight, placed it back in the trench, covered it with rocks and leaves, and inspected his handiwork.

    It should be all right, for a couple weeks at any rate. Once he found a good hiding place, he could bring them into Moondale. Jerem then retrieved Brightwind’s saddle. It was a little worse for wear, being left out in the weather as it had been, but Jerem figured it might actually help his cause if it looked a bit shoddy. He put it on Brightwind atop her saddle blanket and then checked her bridle before attaching the reins once more. She bore it all placidly and Jerem promised her hay and water just as soon as he could. Still, it was late afternoon when he finally climbed aboard Brightwind’s back to begin the ride home. His return was quicker, atop Brightwind, so it didn’t take long before he found himself riding into the town proper and passing the blacksmith’s shop. Good. He would be in time for dinner. Even better, he should have just enough time to make up any missed chores after that.

    Jerem had just ridden past the forge when a man he had not met before came out from Pacquin’s store to watch him, and then before he had gone twenty feet more another man joined the stranger. This one, a skinny, hawk-nosed fellow, Jerem remembered from the candle-makers. He had told him to go away. Both men had funny looks on their faces as they watched him ride toward them up the main road, their eyes narrowed like something was wrong. Jerem didn’t think much on it, his attention on the Hook and Sinker beyond them, but then a third man came striding up suddenly.

    “Whoa, girl,” Jerem told Brightwind as the stranger stopped directly in their path. He didn’t want to run the man over.

    This stranger was a bear of a man and one that Jerem wasn’t sure if he had met yesterday. He had curly black hair, a thick beard, and heavy brows. And he did not look at all happy. The stranger reached out and grabbed Brightwind by the bridle.

    “Hey!” Jerem protested.

    “Where’d you get the horse, boy,” the man demanded angrily, not letting go of Brightwind.

    It surprised Jerem, but he answered promptly.

    “She’s mine.”

    The stranger snorted derisively at Jerem’s answer and his grip tightened on Brightwind’s bridle.

    “Not likely. Get down,” the man ordered.

    “No,” Jerem snapped back petulantly. He was already late and going to get in trouble. Besides, who was this guy that he thought he could tell him what to do anyway?

    “Get down or I’ll take you down,” the man warned darkly.

    “Why should I?” Jerem asked hesitantly after a beat, growing frightened by the man’s tone. What was going on here? Who was he?

    “Because I said so, boy!”

    The man didn’t give Jerem the chance to even think of a response, much less give it, as he reached forward, grabbed Jerem by the arm and pulled him out of the saddle. Jerem barely had enough time to kick his feet free of the stirrups and get them back under him before he hit the ground

    “Hey!” Jerem protested. “Leggo!”

    “Where’d you get the horse?” the man demanded again, shaking him.

    “She’s mine,” Jerem repeated, to be shaken hard once more. It made his teeth rattle, and his arm was starting to hurt where the man held him so tight. Brightwind was shifting anxiously at the sudden movements and noise, but the man’s tight grip on her bridle kept her from moving too much.

    There was also a crowd gathering at the fuss, five or six men strong now, with at least one more on the way. The men surrounded Jerem and the large stranger and Jerem heard one of them ask what was going on.

    “I think we got us a horse thief,” answered the man who held him.

    “What!” Jerem demanded, shocked.

    “You stole this horse!” the man snapped back with another sharp shake.

    “Did not!” Jerem insisted angrily.

    “Then where’d you get it?” someone else asked.

    “She’s mine!” Jerem cried yet again, to be ignored this time, too.

    “Take it to the green, we’ll find out where he got it soon enough,” a third man, a thin, lanky fellow in brown put in, “it’s got to have some sort of markings on it. Deal with the thief in a bit.”

    “But she’s mine!” Jerem insisted loudly, but no one seemed to be listening

    “Liar!”

    Jerem didn’t even see who said it, but the crowd sure heard it, a dark rumble following the accusation and masking Jerem’s cry of denial. Suddenly a hand reached out and tore Brightwind’s reins from his grip.

    “No!” Jerem cried and pushed forward to try to get them back.

    “Thief!” yelled someone else.

    “Get him!”

    And then suddenly that large man had Jerem around the waist, pinning his arms to his sides and lifting him high off the ground. Jerem kicked and struggled but could do nothing. He could just see Brightwind’s head above the crowd, being pulled away.

    “Get away from her!” he screamed, fighting helplessly. “She’s mine! I told you the truth! Leave her alone!”

    Someone must have yanked hard on Brightwind’s bridle, for Jerem heard her squeal.

    “Stop it!” he wailed. “You’re hurting her!”

    But he was just too small. His kicks seemed to bounce off the legs of the burly man who held him high off the ground. In desperation, Jerem bit the man, who dropped him with a yell. Jerem made a break for Brightwind.

    “You vicious cur!”

    The man didn’t just grab this time, he hit Jerem hard, knocking Jerem to the ground with a strangled cry. Jerem rolled on his back to find the man about to hit him again. Jerem curled into a ball, lifted his hands to his head, and closed his eyes, hoping to somehow protect himself. But then there was a sound like he’d never heard before, somewhere between a growl, a scream, and some hoarse nightmare, and the blow never landed. Cries of alarm and confusion broke out around him.

    “What the?”

    “Get it!”

    You get it!”

    “Look out!”

    There were several thunks and the sound of rapid hoofbeats closed in. Jerem opened his eyes, desperate. They were going to hurt Brightwind! But as he looked up, his eyes widened in awe. Brightwind now stood before him, rearing and grunting, her hooves and teeth lashing out at any who came close, making a wide circle around them both. There was even a man on the ground, curled around his stomach. Jerem sat up, a wide smile spreading across his features. Brightwind was protecting him! She was amazing! He scrambled to his feet and raised his hand. Brightwind stopped rearing to circle him again, halting only when Jerem’s hand rested against her withers, ears back and snorting.

    “I told you she was mine!” Jerem shouted angrily.

    But the townsfolk seemed to be regrouping rather than listing. Out of the corner of his eye, Jerem could see the big man who’d grabbed him before shoving his way through the crowd. And this time, he had a rope. Panicked, Jerem reached for Brightwind’s mane. But before he could swing aboard, someone grabbed his ankle and he went face down in the mud. Brightwind whirled to protect him, but someone seized her by the bridle. Jerem struggled to his feet even as Brightwind struggled to get to him. Someone got a rope around Brightwind’s neck, and then another, pulling the horse away no matter how she fought. Then someone wrenched Jerem’s arms back which drove him to his knees again. He was going to lose her! Jerem took a deep breath for one last try to break free.

    “Just what in the name of all that’s holy is going on here!”

    The sharp voice cut into the chaos, and the crowd parted to reveal Cerna marching forward angrily, her hands on her hips, her brother Gyillian following close behind. She spotted Jerem, kneeling on the ground, his arms bent back and face bright red where he had been struck, and her face darkened with fury.

    “And what, Jake Lambert, are you doing to that boy!”

    The man who was bending his arm let go instantly and Jerem pitched forward. He was on his feet quickly, but hesitated, torn between running for Cerna and running for Brightwind. Cerna, and her ire, followed his panicked gaze to Brightwind.

    “Michael Dernin, now I know that’s not your horse!”

    The man with the rope stopped dead, to argue, “This boy stole it! I don’t know who it belongs to, but it ain’t him!”

    The other men holding the ropes on Brightwind voiced their agreement, scowling in Jerem’s direction. Jerem couldn’t help Brightwind, and she was tied too tight to even help herself. Jerem ran to Cerna instead.

    “She is so mine!” he insisted, pleading. “Just like I told you! Please! You’ve got to help me! You can’t let them take her!”

    Cerna folded him into the safety of her arms, and Jerem clung to her tightly. She turned back to Michael.

    “You have proof that horse don’t belong to the boy?” she asked mildly, but with an undertone that forcibly reminded Jerem of a mama bear watching a coyote approach her cubs.

    “Cerna, he can’t possibly have a horse of any kind, let alone one this fine,” Michael argued. “I mean just look at him! By himself, those ears, somethin’ ain’t right with the boy. He’s got to be a thief!” Michael’s gaze hardened. “You don’t want to go on harboring thievin’ throwback, do you? Get on back to your kitchen and leave him to us. We’ll get him to fess up.”

    This seemed to meet with the approval of the muttering crowd and the man who’d grabbed him before now advanced on them both. Cerna didn’t move. Instead, Gyillian stepped forward, shielding them both, Cerna’s husband, Cob, now beside him. Gyillian raised his hands for silence, which reluctantly fell. Clearly innkeeper was a more important job than Jerem would have thought. Cerna squeezed him around the shoulders reassuringly and Jerem straightened a bit to listen.

    “Now, from the beginning,” Gyillian asked Michael Dernin, “What happened?”

    “This boy came riding in on a stolen horse!” Michael insisted. “And we stopped him.”

    “Yeah!”

    “He stole it!”

    “Deformed little thief!”

    Gyillian raised his hands once more until the buzz again died away.

    “Did any of you actually see him steal it? Do any of you own it?”

    The crowd muttered a lot after that, but no one spoke up to accuse Jerem or claim the animal.

    “I asked him who it belonged to, and he said it was his,” Michael argued into the silence. “No kid could have a horse like that.”

    “I could so!” Jerem put in angrily.

    “Thief!”

    “Liar!” Jerem shouted back from the safety of Cerna’s arms.

    “Enough!” Gyillian yelled, before it could degenerate further. “Enough of this! The lad’s just a child, Michael. What’s your excuse?”

    That brought order again, and Gyillian continued questioning the people. When they finally reached the point where Brightwind had broken free to protect Jerem, Gyillian halted the story.

    “Let me see if I understand this. You think the lad stole this horse and the horse was so grateful that it wanted to stay with him? Wanted to stay so bad it got violent?” Gyillian shook his head. “Let the horse go a minute, Michael.”

    Michael shook his head vehemently, as did the other men holding the ropes.

    “It’ll savage us!”

    “Yeah!”

    “It nearly stove in Barth’s head!”

    “You’re crazy!”

    Gyillian signaled for silence once more. When he finally had it, he turned back to Jerem.

    “Lad, will that horse hurt anyone, if she gets let go?”

    Jerem honestly didn’t know. But he knew they had to risk it. If he couldn’t get Brightwind to be good, the townsfolk would put her down as savage. And even losing her would be better than getting her killed here. Unable to speak, he nodded.

    “You want to be the one to let her go?” Gyillian questioned further.

    Jerem nodded again and with a deep breath stepped away from Cerna’s side. On wobbly legs he walked beside Gyillian over to Brightwind. The crowd had grown to more than double its original numbers, to include much of the town. Jerem felt like he was going to throw up. But the crowd parted before him as he approached, backing away to give the men and the horse a wide circle of room, just in case. Jerem looked up fearfully at Gyillian.

    “Go on now, lad,” the innkeeper told him.

    Brightwind snorted and tugged at the ropes, still held tight by the men, and Jerem reached out. She did not lunge or bite at him, but let his small hand spread gently across her velvety nose. Jerem swallowed hard.

    “It’s okay, girl,” he told her shakily. “It’s going to be okay. But when they let go, you need to stay put, alright?”

    Jerem’s hand moved to her neck and down along her shoulder.

    “Just stay put,” he whispered, his voice still shaking. “Please…”

    Jerem turned to Michael Dernin, the man who’d called him thief.

    “Let Brightwind go.”

    “Drop the ropes, guys,” Gyillian seconded. “And let’s just see who this horse belongs to.”

    The men dropped the ropes and stepped back in quick succession, recalling Brightwind’s earlier ferocious defense. The horse started to rear as her bindings freed, but Jerem just grabbed her mane and held tight. The mare settled once more without more than a snort. Jerem took the ropes off her neck as fast as he could then, to free her and clasp her reins tightly in his own hand. She did not resist him in the slightest. Jerem finally looked back to find Gyillian beside him.

    “I think this horse belongs to Jerem,” he said at last. “Don’t you Michael?”

    “Then how’d he get it?” Michael argued back. “That kid’s was askin’ all over town for work, before you went soft. He had a horse like that, why does he need a job, then? Answer me, boy, how’d you get that?”

    “She’s always been mine,” Jerem explained after a glance at Gyillian for support. “I saw her born. Father didn’t think she’d be any good, late and small as she was. Said I could have her.”

    It was all true. Brightwind might be a beautiful animal now, but when she’d been born, she’d been given to Jerem to train because she had appeared small and sickly. A horse they would have trouble selling as any kind of war horse. A horse Jerem could train and make mistakes on with no consequence. Jerem just didn’t mention the part where his father had given the horse away for the same reasons and how the priest had given her back. He looked back and forth among the townsfolk closest. They didn’t appear convinced.

    “Always been his?” Jake Lambert growled. “Tell me you don’t believe the half-breed throwback’s lies.”

    Cerna pushed forward at this, to put her arm possessively about Jerem’s shoulders.

    “That ‘throwback’s’ manners are better than yours, Jake Lambert,” she lectured angrily, “and yes, I do believe him. So you leave him and that horse of his alone. Someone comes and tells us different, proves something different, then…well then. But meantime, you keep that dirty mouth of yours shut and you do not touch this boy again. I will stand for him and anything he might do. You got a problem with him, you come to me. You hear me?”

    Jake Lambert looked like he not only heard her but wanted to disagree in physical terms. But Gyillian and Cob were between them, both glaring angrily, and Jake Lambert backed down. Jerem didn’t understand what was passing between all the adults around, but the MacCafferty’s were important here. Respected. Powerful. And they had stood up for him. Jerem nearly burst into tears, weak with relief and moved by their defense of him. Blinking rapidly, he looked up at Cerna, whose stern features softened into a smile.

    “Now you go on and get your horse into the barn, Jerem. There’s chores waitin’.”

    Jerem hesitated, but Cerna put an arm around his shoulders and began to walk with him down the street toward the Hook and Sinker. Cob and Gyillian remained behind with much of the crowd. Jerem kept his eyes on the safety of the barn, but listened for as long as he could.

    “You heard Cerna,” Gyillian was saying to someone, “We take responsibility for the boy. Th’ lad might be a lot of things, but he’s no thief and I’ll challenge any of you to prove otherwise. So let’s all get back to work rather than burnin’ more daylight with this foolishness.”

    “It’s a mistake,” someone, Mr. Dernin Jerem thought, said, “You’ll regret takin’ that boy in.”

    “That’s my problem, now ain’t it?” Gyillian replied.

    And then Jerem could no longer hear anything more. They arrived at the stables, and Jerem settled Brightwind into one of the stalls. Cerna stayed with him, whether to protect him from potential problems with the townsfolk or out of some other concern, Jerem didn’t know. He got Brightwind’s saddle and bridle off quickly and stowed them in the tack room, before returning to make sure she was settled with plenty of fresh water and hay. Her mouth was raw from where the bit had cut at her during the chaos, but she looked otherwise all right. He gave her a quick hug. Cerna waited until he came out of the stall for the last time before asking,

    “Jerem, lad?”

    Jerem turned to her with wide eyes.

    “Yes, ma’am?”

    “That horse yours?”

    “Yes, ma’am,” Jerem repeated softly as she studied his face.

    “Then don’t you worry on anything,” Cerna continued as she knelt down to be eye to eye with him. “You’re both safe here.”

    Her words broke the dam at last and Jerem fell into her arms sobbing. Every fear, every hurt, every betrayal, everything that had happened over the last few months spilling out helplessly as he cried into her shoulder. He was safe here. They would protect him. It seemed like forever before he could get control of himself once more, but when he finally let Cerna go, still sniffling, she told him gently,

    “Sometimes children get asked to lift a man’s load early. But that doesn’t mean they’re grown-ups, nor that they have to be. You’re a good boy, Jerem, with a load of troubles you probably didn’t ask for. But the Lord doesn’t give us more than we can handle—he gives us the help to lift that load. So you go on inside, get your chores done, and remember that.”

    Jerem sniffed again. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you.”

    Cerna rose to her feet and ruffled his hair affectionately.

    “You get inside. And no more worries.”

    And there were no more worries. Jerem made it through the day, Cerna keeping him beside her in the kitchens for most of it, and when he was out in the Hook and Sinker itself, it seemed Gyillian was always nearby. Jerem kept his head down anyway, unable to make eye contact with anyone from the town as he placed their drinks or food at their tables. They said he stole Brightwind. Said he lied. They hated him. It made him want to run away and hide every time he thought about it, which was pretty much constantly. Thankfully, no one really spoke with him as he scurried about clearing tables or bringing out orders.

    At last the common room was empty, the tables cleared, and Jerem felt safe enough to look around as he finished his chores. Only three men remained at the bar, and thankfully Michael Dernin and Jake Lambert were not among them. Jerem’s hand instinctively reached up to touch his bruised cheek anyway. With a sigh and a shake of his head, Jerem got the broom out and began sweeping up. He was nearly done, when Marcos came over during his rounds of wiping tables, like him finishing the chores involved in running the Hook and Sinker.

    “Sorry about earlier,” he said sympathetically.

    “Thanks.”

    “Just so you know, I think she’s yours.”

    “Thanks,” Jerem said again, smiling weakly this time.

    Marcos nodded and moved on to the rest of the tables. Finally, Jerem was done with the sweeping and he sat down at a booth in the corner to rest. He didn’t think this day would ever end, but it had. All he wanted to do now was go to bed and pretend it had never happened. He heard footsteps and looked up to see Gyillian approaching. The innkeeper sat down opposite Jerem.

    “How you doin?” he asked.

    Jerem answered, “Fine.”

    It was a lie, he was miserable, but Gyillian and Cerna had been the only two people who’d been nice to him when it mattered. Who hadn’t called him thief. He didn’t want to risk upsetting them. But he could tell that Gyillian didn’t believe the lie in a glance, even before the innkeeper added,

    “Been a rough day.”

    Jerem just did not have the energy to keep up the subterfuge.

    “They hate me.”

    Gyillian’s voice softened, “No, lad, they don’t hate you.”

    Jerem’s throat was burning by this point, so rather than risk crying, or sounding like he was about to, Jerem kept quiet. But finally the silence became too much.

    “Yes,” he insisted, “They do. They think I stole Brightwind. They all look at me funny now.”

    Gyillian paused and considered this a while.

    “Jerem, this is a small town. People talk. It’s their way,” he said kindly. “But that’s all it is—talk. There ain’t much that happens here that doesn’t get talked to death. Who’s doing what with whom until you’re about ready to pull your hair out over it all. And they’ll talk about Brightwind and you and what you do. But…” Gyillian emphasized, lifting a finger, “it will pass. We’ve got to go on living with each other and for a long time at that. So you can’t just hide out or not see people. Not gonna happen, not here, so’s the best you can manage is to keep you head up and keep doing what needs to be done. Lad, no matter what people think, they’ve got eyes. They’ll see what you do, and take their opinions from that.”

    Jerem nodded back, even though he didn’t really believe or want to take Gyillian’s advice.

    “It’ll blow over,” Gyillian repeated. “And you’ll still be standin’ here when it does.”

    Gyillian rose then, to continue on with the business of running the Hook and Sinker, serving the one or two men that remained and otherwise leaving Jerem to consider what he had said. In the end, Jerem returned his broom to the kitchen and headed upstairs to his room. Though he didn’t think he could, he finally did fall asleep, still worried about tomorrow and what would happen then.

    But tomorrow came and went and nothing happened. So did the next day, and the next, and then a week had gone and no one had called him thief again. Jerem hadn’t left the Hook and Sinker during that time, save to exercise Brightwind, and everyone sure seemed to whisper a lot behind their hands when he was around, but true to Gyillian’s word, he survived.

    Gyillian had been right about people accepting him, too. Marcos kept talking to him and two other local boys, Brian, whose farm was one of the closest to Moondale, and Harlin, the blacksmith’s apprentice, both came by regularly and often went with him to explore. Even the adults eventually stopped looking at him like a stranger but a member of their community.

    Jerem didn’t realize it, not until he and Brian had been caught shearing designs into Mr. Bair’s sheep, that he wasn’t just a scullion, but Gyillian and Cerna’s boy. Jerem had feared to be discharged, when Mr. Bair had sent for the innkeeper, surprised to find both Gyillian and his sister arrive. Jerem watched helplessly as a furious Mr. Bair angrily pulled forward a sheep to show the star newly sheared into its back, gesturing forcefully as he insisted ‘someone’s got to pay for that.’

    Mr Bair ranted for quite some time at Gyillian and Cerna while Jerem and Brian cowered in the corner wondering what was going to happen next. Brian eventually grew brave and whispered that his dad was going to kill him when he found out. Jerem just shook his head back, eyes wide and mute. He didn’t know what was going to happen to him. He had nowhere else to go. Finally, the rancher wound down and Cerna turned to Jerem.

    “You did this?” she asked simply.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Jerem answered softly, his eyes on the floor.

    “What do you do now, then?” she pressed him.

    What do I do now?


    Jerem didn’t answer at first. He was expecting to be told to leave. He was even expecting to be beaten. Kiman had done that to the servants a lot when they’d gotten in trouble. But Cerna wanted to know what he was going to do. Jerem took a deep breath. Out of nowhere, he heard his mother’s voice: say you’re sorry and make it right. Jerem’s head lifted.

    “I’m sorry, Mr. Bair,” he said softly.

    Cerna nodded firmly once, like she approved, and Jerem stood a bit straighter. His eyes traveled to Gyillian. The innkeeper met them seriously, as if sizing Jerem up. Then Gyillian turned back to the sheep rancher.

    “Can’t speak for Brian’s Da, but we’ll send Jerem around to help you with the shearing, when it comes. And for the next four weeks,” Gyillian frowned at Jerem. “you’re to head over here and do whatever Master Bair tells you. After your usual chores.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    Gyillian’s gaze expanded to include Brian. “Did you boys keep the cut wool?”

    Brian nodded. “Behind the barn.”

    “Go get it.”

    Jerem and Brian raced out of there as fast as they could. They exchanged relieved but nervous chuckles. They hastily collected the wool bits and brought them back to Gyillian and Cerna, and in a measure of how well they now knew him, they made Jerem give his word he would not to do it again. He was just heading out with Cerna when he saw Brian’s father walking in. Jerem hoped Brian’s dad would let him off easy, too.

    Now Jerem hadn’t escaped completely unscathed. Gyillian had switched him twice for that once they were back at the Hook and Sinker. Not beat him, not like Kiman had done, not even like he’d seen the chandler do to his apprentice just a week ago. The punishment had felt like what his father would do when he’d gone too far at home. Back when things were okay, before mom died. In fact, it was that realization that drove Jerem to run and hide in his room, sobbing uncontrollably for what felt like an hour. It wasn’t that Gyillian and Cerna cared, it was that Gyillian and Cerna weren’t who he wanted to care just then. He wanted his mother back. He wanted his father back. But they were never coming back again.

    In desperation, Jerem searched his things for his brother’s precious last letter. The one thing he had that implied someone in his family still cared for him. He read it over and over again the next few days, a crumb of comfort in what felt like a sea of sadness. Gyillian and Cerna both knew something was wrong, but Jerem was still too scared to explain. They might ask him to leave. So he dealt with it alone.

    One of the first things Jerem did, in an effort to make his past feel less lost, was to sneak back to his woodland cache to retrieve the belongings he had hidden there. He didn’t think he would get in trouble for it. But he hadn’t thought Brightwind would have caused the fuss she had, either. So for now, Jerem would try to keep his stranger things secret. So he rode out one afternoon after chores, heading south. He found the cache sooner than he expected, the landmarks he had marked on his journey to Moondale much easier to recognize than he thought they would be. The bundle was damp, dirty, and cold when he dug it out, but otherwise seemed all right.

    He did not open the bundle because it was easier to handle and looked less suspicious if it remained wrapped. Instead he carried it over to Brightwind and looked up dubiously. She seemed to be eying him with impatience as he tried to figure out how he was going to get the bundle and himself aboard. It had been so much easier when this had all been in his pack. In the end, Jerem just gave up, and with the bundle held awkwardly under one arm, tried to grab the saddle horn with the other and swing his way up. It took three tries, Brightwind bearing it all patiently, before Jerem was mounted and riding toward home, the bundle balanced on his lap.
    He swung wide around Moondale, leaving Brightwind to graze in the wood while he snuck his things in the back door and up to his room. By the time he returned to gather up Brightwind and put her back in her stall, it was time for the dinner rush. No one even asked where he had been.

    That night, his door shut tight, he unwrapped the few reminders of his past life and stared at them wondering what to do. He would not need his swords, not in Moondale, nor the fancier clothing. His bow he would want to leave out, to show he could help with more than just dishes and stable work. Jerem sorted through everything, placing it either with his swords or his bow, depending on whether he thought he could use it here.
    The smell of balsam as he moved a sweater to the ‘hide’ pile caused him to clutch it suddenly to his chest, his heart breaking. Every winter, his mother had used to embroider sachets filled with the aromatic needles and place them in his drawers and for a moment it was like she was right there in the room with him. He held the fabric up to his face, to inhale deeply.

    Mom!


    And with the scent, the past weeks fell away as if they had never happened, and the wound was suddenly fresh and raw as it had been for her funeral. The tears came again and Jerem was helpless to stop them. But eventually they did stop, leaving him exhausted. Would it ever stop hurting? Would his life ever be normal again? Jerem tossed the sweater away angrily. This was just stupid. Crying over a smelly sweater. He sorted the rest quickly, angry, wrapping the bundle back up and then tying it to the rope frame under his bed. No one should find it there.

    Jerem climbed into bed after, tired and physically ill, wondering how long it would take for the sick feeling to go away. He woke the next morning, still feeling off-balance and out of sorts. He fell into the distraction of his chores gratefully and in the end, to his surprise, things did return to normal. The queasy feeling disappeared and Jerem began to find comfort in the simple fact that he was loved. Wherever his father or brothers might be, he had people here who cared about him. He had friends.

    Jerem had never had friends before. He had brothers, all but Janthro too old to be anything but another set of adults. He had tutors, who always called him ‘young lord Jerem’ and were no fun at all. Even the servant children weren’t confidants or true playmates, ever aware that he was ‘Lord Jerem’ to them.

    But Harlin, Marcos, and Brian were friends. Jerem laughed with them, fought with them, got into trouble with them. He didn’t think there wasn’t a place in Moondale and its surrounding farms that the four of them had not explored. And so Jerem lost a winter to ice fishing, skating, snowshoeing, and snowball fights. The spring flew by with hikes and horse races and fishing trips. It startled Jerem profoundly to wake one weekend morning to find nearly six months had passed since he had run away from home.

    That night he lay awake, wondering. Could he have a real home here? He wasn’t really a scullion, stable boy, or whatever else they might call the work he did. Jerem knew Cerna, Cob, and Gyillian loved him as their own. He could stay. He could have a life here. He could…

    The imagining spread out before him, growing up in Moondale. He could see himself doing for the next several years everything he’d been doing the last six months. And the next six years after that. He could be like Gyillian one day, a respected member of the town. But even as Jerem dreamed, other memories crept in like a draft of winter air through a crack. His brother, Janthro, all alone in Windshae. To never see Janthro again. How would his brother even know that he was all right? Would Janthro risk going home to make sure he was okay, only to be captured by their brother, Kiman?

    Jerem lay silent for much of the night, vacillating between staying safe in Moondale and continuing on to Janthro in Windshae. It had been six months. He could stay here, safe, but…

    No.
    Jerem didn’t understand the certainty or the urgency, but both were there. It’s time to go. I need to find Janthro.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  9. - Top - End - #9
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Jul 2009
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    And now we finally get to meet Janthro.....

    Spoiler: Chapter 4: Duke Andron
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    Chapter 4
    Duke Andron

    Janthro scratched his head as he approached the Duke’s tower leading his horse, idly wondering if the bugs from the straw pallet he’d slept on had taken up residence on his head. They would have been better off sleeping in the wood, rather than that Inn, but the Duke had been insistent, that when duty permitted, his men stay and spend their coin in such places throughout his Duchy. Janthro would rather have thrown his bedroll in with their horses. Oh well, he really shouldn’t be grousing about an easy assignment that had gone off without a hitch.

    Janthro was not at all sure why Duke Andron had sent them along in the first place. His unit, while able to perform caravan guard duty, had been created to deal with specific tasks where a small unit could act in ways a much larger company of soldiers could not. Missions of skill and stealth, that was where the ‘Duke’s Left Hand’ excelled. Andron needed someone brought secretly to a meeting in another Duchy or city? The Hand got the job. Raiding and sabotaging across enemy lines? That could be them, too. Hell, anything out of the ordinary, strange, dangerous, or important—the Duke had probably asked them at least once.

    But simple escort duty was a rarity, especially traveling in the comfort of inns and main roads. They could all fight. In fact, all five of them had been selected from the regular corps. However, combat alone was not where their training lay. Penjuana and Janthro were Rangers by trade. Penjuana, dark and imposing with ebony skin and deep brown eyes, had trained on the brutal Plains of the Sun, a desert land where any mistake now matter how small could be fatal. Janthro, tall and lean, with long russet hair and the angular features of his mother’s elven people, had honed his skills in the fastness of Darkwood forest. Janthro’s elven-green eyes were still scanning carefully, even in the heart of the Duke’s capital, ever wary for something out of place.

    Also scanning, but perhaps looking for different things, was Jack Karras. The short compact man had once been a thief, spared the gallows in return for service. Even now, the liquid movement of his gait belied his old trade, where things might change to the deadly in an instant. He, like the rest of the party except for Terreen and Praden, had chosen only minimal armor. He had a leather chest plate which covered his torso, but his arms and legs were bare. He wore his hood up, hiding his dark hair and deep set eyes as he followed a pace or two behind his Captain.

    Terreen Sheveson, their cleric, was perhaps the one who looked most like a traditional soldier. Older than the rest, thick-set with a heavy blond beard and moustache, Terreen’s bulk almost dwarfed them all, although Penjuana and Janthro were among the tallest in the Duke’s service. He carried himself with calm authority, even when wielding the large war mace that currently hung loose from his belt.

    Lastly, there was Praden. Quiet, nearly sinister, Praden. No one was quite sure what Praden’s background was, but he had the tendency to come up with some of the nastiest tricks and ordinance surprises Janthro had ever seen. Not so much misfits as atypical, soldiers all, capable of facing the most complicated tasks and succeeding against the longest odds.

    Janthro pushed his long, russet hair back behind his pointed ears, the only real visible sign of his mixed-blood. Otherwise he could, and often did, pass for human. His elven blood brought with it other advantages, less visible, including his night vision and better hearing. Hearing which now caught dark-haired Karras’ whispered plans to find a tavern. Karras, it seemed, would need to stay with him. The tavern could come later. He turned back to Praden, the wiry, mouse-faced man far behind and acting as rearguard.

    “Praden,” Janthro ordered, “you and Terreen take the horses to the stables, get cleaned up, then report to me in the tower.”

    Praden threw him a quick salute, before picking up his pace to collect Karras’ reins. His eyes scanned the area before the gates rapidly, coming to rest on a youth wearing the Duke’s scarlet and sable. An off-duty servant.
    He waved and shouted, “You, boy! Here!”

    The boy looked up and his face fell as he recognized the men who had called as soldiers. He approached quickly enough, though, and Praden set him to work leading two of their five mounts along, collecting Penjuana’s reins himself as they passed. Terreen followed after more slowly, with his and Janthro’s mount. For whatever reason, Terreen was the only other member of the company that Dawntreader, Janthro’s buckskin, let touch him without a specific command from Janthro. The train of horses marched off northwest, along the outside edge of the inner bailey wall, toward the Duke’s stable.

    After they left, Penjuana and Karras closed with him to head for the inner bailey itself. The inner wall was broken by an iron portcullis gate, currently raised but guarded by two men with polearms. The one on the left spotted them, saluted and stepped aside to let them pass. Janthro acknowledged the salute, exchanging ironic shrugs with the man as they were waved through without comment.

    Finally.


    Janthro’s thoughts were amused now, rather than his usual frustration, because he was at last becoming familiar enough around the inner bailey that his rank and position were known and the access due him granted as a matter of course. It had only taken two and a half years. Janthro knew it was his age. Despite his imposing height, he still couldn’t hide his youth. At least they didn’t understand exactly how young a Captain he was. Even at his physical age of twenty-five, his rank raised eyebrows. During first year or so of his promotion, it even raised fists, until Janthro proved beyond doubt that messing with him was far too hazardous a risk.

    But Janthro couldn’t be considered as old as his physical years, not being a half-elf. His mixed-blood, something not commonly known and even less commonly understood, meant when he’d first joined the Duke’s service, he’d still been a youth just shy of adulthood. His size had masked that, as had his reserved and taciturn attitude. Janthro had grown quite adept at hiding things since he’d fled his home. What he was thinking, what he was feeling, his age, his experience, all were carefully controlled now and shielded from outside view.

    Janthro also knew from the tales his father and his father’s men used to tell that this was exactly how good commanders should be, aloof and separate from the men they commanded. He got along well with his unit and the other soldiers under the Duke’s command, but he had been careful since his arrival to never let them see him lose control. Even off-duty and drunk at some tavern, if he was with soldiers, Janthro was still Captain.

    As such, the sigh of relief as they crossed the courtyard was entirely internal. It was no less real, but carefully hidden. He was home. Or as much of a home he had known in the last few years. It was a kind of comfort. Duty nearly done, they just needed to report in and he could release the men for a much needed two-day leave, which meant for Janthro a brief respite from responsibility. Janthro planned to use his time to play and get drunk, preferably in a section of the city where no one knew him as Captain or even a soldier. Find some pretty barmaid. Who knew what could happen then?

    Janthro growled at himself. He was getting as bad as Karras. Work before play. They still had things to do. The trio crossed the wide bailey courtyard and entered the keep proper at this point. They used the soldiers’ entrance along the northern sea wall. It, too, had a duty guard, but the hassles of protocol were far fewer than at the main entrance. Janthro shed Penjuana in this hallway, releasing his Lieutenant to give their report to the Battalion commander. Outside of any real chain of command, the Hand often had two layers of reports to give: true ones to the Duke or the Duke’s Chancellor of War, and usually much blander false ones to the Battalion commander of which their unit was supposedly a part. Janthro wondered if that commander thought the reports as useless a diversion as he.

    Karras remained with him as they traveled away from the soldiers’ sections and deeper into the actual rooms and halls of the Ducal court. Neither commented about the nobles they passed, who looked at them as if they were some form of rodent or insect that just crawled in. Janthro suspected Karras actually enjoyed the reaction they usually got, dressed as they were in plain clothing and leather armor. Janthro was more ambivalent, only disliking it in the sense that it meant they’d taken notice of him at all. Janthro would much rather have passed unmarked by anyone.

    Janthro wove his way through the maze of corridors until he reached the outer hall of the Duke’s formal audience chamber. The Duke’s major domo was stationed outside this final door, as were two House Guards bearing spears. Janthro stepped up to the Major Domo.

    “Captain Janthro Diadrem reporting as ordered,” he stated.

    The man nodded an acknowledgment and waved him to a parlor chamber that adjoined the hallway to his right. The small but well-appointed waiting room was usually for visitors, not them.

    Great.


    This was going to take a while. He and Karras exchanged bored glances before both entered the room and sat down for the duration.

    “Think he’ll tell us why we got the duty, Boss?” Karras asked quietly.

    Janthro confirmed no one was in earshot before replying, though he knew if Karras had spoken, it had already been checked.

    “Doubt it. It doesn’t make sense, but it doesn’t have to for us. ‘Ours is not to reason why’,” he quoted, though he doubted illiterate Karras would get the reference.

    Karras snorted anyway, then propped his boots on the low table in front of him. Janthro leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees and chin on his hands while he waited. It seemed like an inordinate amount of time that they sat there. Janthro stifled a yawn. He would much rather have been sent to the barracks to await the Duke’s convenience. At least then they could have passed the time more easily, either in discussion or play. Hell, he would even rather continue slogging through the reports on the Battle of Carriage Water he’d borrowed from the archivist.

    Janthro had been slowly but surely working his way through the records of every major Westland conflict for the last hundred years. It had been a response to the first man he’d lost while in command, a way to assuage the guilt and go on. It had been his own careless mistake that had put the man in that place at that time, and Janthro vowed he would never let such a thing happen again.

    Janthro blinked a few times, realizing he had dozed off in the warm waiting room. He hadn’t moved from his propped position, thankfully, but damn he wanted this day over. He cocked his head to find Karras outright snoring next to him. Janthro allowed himself a chuckle at this. Sleep when you can, the first rule of soldiering. He elbowed his subordinate to wake him. Karras could sleep as much as he wanted shortly. Their guarding mission, while easy, had built up quite a sleep deficit, as they’d only had the five to guard on the way out and the trip back had been rapid. Karras shifted in his seat and they waited some more.

    At last, the Duke’s Chancellor of Protocol himself entered and bade them to follow him into the hall. The Ducal Audience hall was deep but narrow, with a central arched aisle supported by stone pillars that ended twenty-five yards ahead of them at a stepped dais. Centered atop the dais was the ruling throne, gilt in gold but carved of wood for the current Duke’s father. The central aisle itself was braced by rows of stone benches for supplicants and courtiers, half of which were filled today.

    Stained glass windows along the walls allowed the afternoon light to filter in, and candle chandeliers hung at intervals over the main aisle to further brighten the space. In between the windows hung wide tapestries that depicted the history of Winshae and her rulers’ conquest of Westland. Above their heads hung colorful banners representing the thirty-two lands that the Duke’s ancestors had gathered together under his rule. Janthro did not look up at them as he and Karras approached the Duke, though he could tell when he passed his family’s blue and green one about halfway down on the left side.

    The Chancellor directed them to the first few rows to sit and wait some more. Janthro was tired of sitting, so he walked past the directed seats to stand with Karras against the far wall. The Major Domo could still see them, and he was less likely to fall asleep this way. Janthro’s glance strayed to the dais and his Duke.

    Duke Andron was a wiry, hard-eyed man of middle age. He had a sharp voice and a taste for plain speaking which Janthro had no idea how he could have acquired given what he typically heard when he was in this room. Andron’s narrow face was frowning, not a bad sign as that was its usual position, and he watched the petitioner before him intently. Janthro listened long enough to determine it was a merchant guild issue and sighed. It explained the long wait in the other room and implied a still longer one here. Damn but merchants could go on forever, as if by sheer volume of words they could drown the Duke and make him do their will. Janthro stilled himself in a position of parade rest and waited to be called.

    “Captain!” Karras hissed some time later, the urgency in his tone drawing Janthro’s gaze to follow his subordinate’s even as Karras drew a dagger and advanced. He saw the movement a second later, the ripple of a tapestry in a windless room.

    “My Lord!” Janthro cried, running up the lowest steps of the dais, to place himself between the movement and his Duke. Karras, in the meantime, had charged the tapestry directly. The guards seemed stunned, swords drawn quickly but moving in the wrong direction, toward Janthro.

    “Get the Duke!” Janthro ordered angrily. “Assassins!”

    That word got them going and they halted immediately to retreat to either side of the Duke to guide him out of the chamber. The ripple behind the curtain shifted and suddenly a small black-clad man forced his way through a previously unnoticed slit. He had daggers in both his hands, one of which he threw and the audience hall fell into panic.

    In a maneuver he doubted he could have repeated with all the practice in the world, Janthro threw his buckler and intercepted the dagger mid-flight. Both objects crashed down the dais steps, the dagger stuck fast in the wood. Janthro was close enough now to hear the assassin curse, and then Karras was on the man, rolling around the floor, each trying to get his knife somewhere vital. Janthro could hear shouts and shrieks from all about the hall, and he prayed it merely panic and not another assassin. He glanced back toward the Duke, to confirm.

    “Get Andron out of here!” Janthro yelled again as there were no other threats, wishing the guards would move quicker.

    At that moment, a glass ball rolled out of the assassin’s hands. It stopped a few feet away. Janthro had time for just two steps before the ball exploded, knocking him off his feet. He struggled back up to a seated position, his head throbbing, to find Karras down and the assassin heading for the door. Since the assassin was heading for the double doors at the main entrance to the audience chamber and not the smaller side door next to the dais the Duke had gone through, Janthro made a brief detour to check on Karras. He was stirring even as Janthro reached him. Janthro pulled him to his feet.

    “Come on!” he yelled, and ran for the main doors himself, not even waiting to see if Karras followed.

    His glance darted left and right from the entranceway, before taking a chance and heading straight down the hallway. If the assassin’s plan had been blown, he was likely trying to get out as quickly as possible, which meant right out the front door. The occasional bystander on the floor or screaming voice led him onward. His blood pounding in time with the pain in his head, Janthro made it out the main doors to see a black shadow disappear around the residence.

    Damn it!


    Janthro put on more speed running hard for the spot where the man vanished. He skidded around the corner to find the assassin scrambling up a rope over the inner bailey wall. Janthro leapt and caught the rope, yanking it out of the assassin’s hands as he tried to pull it up behind him. The assassin paused for the briefest moment, as if contemplating whether or not to cut the rope, but then disappeared on the other side. Janthro felt the rope jerk under him and looked down to find Karras right behind him. He reached the top and pulled himself over the wall. Then he realized why the assassin hadn’t cut the rope. It had been looped, not tied, around a merlon of the wall and hung free on both sides. If the assassin had cut the rope on Janthro, his route down the other side would have vanished as well. Janthro and Karras rappelled down after the assassin.

    “Track him,” Janthro ordered Karras, falling back to let the thief take the point.

    They could no longer see the man they were chasing and Janthro needed Karras’ skills to have any hope of finding him again. Karras didn’t hesitate, just ran off in an eastward direction, along the wall. Janthro had no idea what cued his subordinate to go this way, but he trusted Karras implicitly. They ran through the tight streets, dodging this way and that a seemingly random intervals. Only once did Karras stop, at a noisy and populous farmers market.

    Here Karras climbed up a butcher’s stall and from its roof looked about. He dropped to the ground and they were running again. There was a crash and scream from somewhere behind them, but Janthro followed Karras without looking back. They must have run over a mile now. Breathing hard, Janthro kept telling himself the assassin must be just as exhausted as his pursuit. The streets began to get narrower as they headed deeper into the oldest and poorest section of the city.

    Janthro froze the moment Karras’ closed fist came up. At another slight hand gesture from his subordinate, Janthro moved quietly to the side of a building, concealing himself, and watched still as a statue as Karras crept forward and disappeared down a side street. Janthro began counting in his head. He had just reached two hundred and fifty when he spotted Karras returning down the street. Janthro gestured him into a broken doorway.

    “Report.”

    “I found where he went,” Karras told him. “Tavern called the Five Ravens. He’s in there, drinking. Two ways out, front door and back. Otherwise he’s pinned. It’s Guild, so no civilians. I think I can cover both exits from the roof there.” Karras pointed across the street and to his left at a three story building of stone. “At least ’till you get the Hand back here. I’ll leave the usual signs if he leaves.”

    Janthro frowned at Karras’ assessment.

    “You think we can’t take him ourselves?”

    “Couldn’t see much inside, boss, but he’s not alone at the table. Figured this was something you’d want done real certain-like. Just us, he might slip out.”

    “Okay,” Janthro agreed. “I’m gone.”

    He left Karras in the doorway and headed back toward the nearest post station of the guard. He was running again, hoping to find a post messenger at the guardhouse that he could send the rest of the way. He did not like the idea of leaving Karras alone doing surveillance. No matter how good Karras thought he was, with two exits to keep an eye on, there was a slim chance the assassin still might escape. Janthro wanted to return before his Duke with a body, not excuses.

    As he neared the Post Station in the Carvassas neighborhood, movement got more difficult, unusually difficult. There were people everywhere, most milling about, but as Janthro tried to thread his way through the crowd, he began to feel uneasy. It was nothing definite, just the sense these young men were not merely aimlessly loitering. In a hurry or not, Janthro slowed his pace to a less attention-grabbing walk. Still, he felt the eyes of the men on him as he moved.

    What’s happening here?


    Janthro could practically feel the wrongness, the crackling energy of violence to come. He could also hear snippets of conversations as he passed. After the third variation of ‘almost time,’ ‘not him, he’s no soldier,’ and ‘just wait,’ Janthro knew he had much more to deal with than a simple assassin’s capture. He took an abrupt turn to the south, away from his destination, but closer to a larger, manned garrison of city guards. Something sinister was about to go down and Janthro figured they would need every man there to keep whatever it was from exploding to engulf the entire city. Once he’d gotten a few more blocks, the streets thinned of bodies and Janthro ran once more.

    It’s local, then. Goddess hope we keep it that way.


    Janthro was gasping by the time he reached the garrison house. It was unmistakeable for anything else within the city, three stories tall and stone, with iron-barred windows and thick walls that protected even a small stable. It took up its whole block in the city. Janthro burst through the double, iron-bound, oak doors and skidded to a halt in front of the watchman waiting by a desk inside.

    Janthro’s sudden arrival caused a stir, the three men about the main room all drawing weapons as the doors swung hard against the walls before rebounding closed. Unable to get the air to speak properly after his hard run, Janthro held up his open hands in a gesture of peace. The men eventually lowered their blades, but did not sheathe them, their eyes still hard upon him.

    “We’ve got a problem,” Janthro declared bluntly, still breathless.

    He brought his left hand up slowly to his neck then, knowing his words would not be enough. The guards moved closer at the movement but were thankfully trained well enough not to attack outright. Janthro fished out a golden ring fashioned in the shape of a rose, with a falcon entwined around it its top and held it up before the startled men.

    It was the signet of the Duke of Windshae, to be honored in his city and his realm without question. It was the only identification members of the Hand ever carried, if they carried identification at all, and it was enough to gain them whatever help they might require by its sight alone.

    As expected, the lead guardsman’s eyes widened at the ring, but he processed Janthro’s rise in status from crazy person off the street to Ducal Officer quickly, bracing to attention and saluting. Janthro waved him down.

    “We don’t have time for that, man,” Janthro snapped. “You need to get every soldier you can muster and head for the wharf district and the Carvassas neighborhood. Spread them as far as you can around both areas. There’s trouble brewing…a riot I think.” Janthro’s voice was back to normal now, but still clipped and urgent. “Keep the key junctions clear and do not engage them or go inside. Let it burn if you have to, but your men get pulled in, they die and we all lose.”

    The soldier’s eyebrows raised at these orders, but he appeared to be following what was said. He also seemed to understand the danger of the word, riot, at least. Janthro hoped he was competent.

    “This is planned,” Janthro emphasized. “They want it to spread, so we can’t give them that chance. If we can get around it, we might be able to keep it tied to where it starts. Your garrison isn’t big enough for more than that.”

    The man was nodding unconsciously with his words now, processing what he needed to do. Janthro re-caught his attention before he could get too distracted. The riot also meant he now needed one more thing.

    “I’ll also need your best city man,” he ordered.

    The guard station commander paused for a moment at this request, and then called out, “Grayman!”

    There was a buzz behind him, as more people arrived to see what the commotion was about. Two disappeared back within and returned a short time later with a young, brown haired man in a chain hauberk. He drew himself up to attention before them both and saluted.

    “Sir?”

    The guard commander returned the salute. He then gestured at Janthro.

    “You are to follow this man’s orders to the letter, Grayman. Report to me when you are released.”

    “Yes Sir!” the guard responded and the commander turned to the rest of his men and the duty at hand.

    “Sound the alarm, Credon!” the commander snapped, “I want every man here ready to move in five minutes!”

    It was like someone had poked an ant mound, the guards suddenly boiling into a riot of activity. A bell started clanging somewhere deeper in the garrison. Janthro dismissed the guardsmen from his attention, all but Grayman. He had done what he could here, it was time to make sure his assigned mission did not fail. He didn’t dare leave Karras alone for much longer, not with what he now knew. A planned riot to cover a planned escape. That had to be it. He had to get back to Karras, but he also needed the rest of the Hand. That was certain. He had to send a message that would not be ignored.

    Janthro briefly scanned the room he was in. It was bereft of any furniture, except for some low benches lining the walls. There was a half-wall toward the center, dividing this outer public area from the more private guard areas within, but it too was spare and lacked any means of communication. Janthro knew there must be some form of parchment or ink somewhere, but he didn’t have any more time to go find it. He did, however, notice the iron stove, which would have to serve.

    Without explaining anything to the man waiting beside him, Janthro ran over and opened the stove. As it was late afternoon, the fire within had burned low and not yet been rekindled against the evening chill. Janthro reached inside to gather some cold charcoal from its edge, singeing his hand in the process. He returned to Grayman, dodging the guardsmen who now were heading out into the streets in small groups of three to four at their commander’s orders.

    “Show me your arm,” Janthro ordered.

    Confused, the soldier complied. Janthro pushed up the man’s sleeve and then proceeded to draw a geometric pattern down his arm with the charcoal chunk. It wrapped around from the elbow to the wrist and Janthro rubbed hard to be sure the ash stain would stay. By the time he was done, the soldier was looking at him as if he were crazy. Janthro ignored him. Penjuana would recognize the plainsmen markings for what they were, and that was what mattered.

    “These are your orders,” Janthro snapped, “You are to go straight to the main guard barracks at the Tower of Avaintar. Do not stop for anything and do not get captured. Tell the guard you must see Penjuana.” Janthro paused. “Repeat that. Who are you reporting to?”

    “Penjuana,” the man replied promptly and Janthro nodded.

    “When he arrives, show him your arm. If he is not there, find him. Tell him to gather the Hand and go to the sign of the Five Ravens on Makfish Street. South edge of the Warf district. Got that. The Five Ravens. Makfish Street.”

    “The Hand. Five Ravens. Makfish street,” the soldier repeated dutifully.

    “Go!” Janthro ordered and the man disappeared out the door.

    Janthro followed him into streets that were already showing signs of the unrest nearby. Shops that would normally be open at this hour had their doors closed and windows shuttered, merchandise moved inside from the street. People were milling about. Janthro could tell in a glance whether they were innocent bystanders or rabble-rousers based on the direction they were moving. The innocent were moving away from the area. Even if they didn’t know what was to come, an aura of fear was driving them away from the wharfs and the poorer neighborhoods with the clarity of animals fleeing a forest fire they could not see. The rest remained, either to be part of the upcoming chaos or to take advantage of it.

    Janthro ignored them all and headed quickly northwest, back toward the Five Ravens, trying to balance the need to get to Karras quickly with the desire not to get caught up in the riot and trapped. He could smell fire before he had even made it two blocks. Somewhere, the city was already burning.

    Not my problem.


    Janthro reminded himself of that several times as he changed course to avoid the danger. His problem was the assassin. He made it to the Five Ravens as a smoky haze was starting to fill the streets, to spot his subordinate still perched on the roof across the way, a small spyglass in hand. A few moments later, Karras spotted him and silently descended. They regrouped in an alley.

    “You’re back early,” Karras commented laconically.

    “We’ve got bigger problems,” Janthro explained with a shake of his head. “There’s some planned violence going down. I’m betting it was supposed to come after the successful assassination of the Duke. Since that got screwed to hell, it’ll be good cover for an escape.”

    “And us?”

    “We wait for the Hand,” Janthro explained. “Unless we’ve no choice. Then we go in, get him, get out—I’ll take him dead if necessary.”

    “You want the back or the front?” Karras inquired with a raised eyebrow.

    “Front.”

    Neither spoke another word. Karras disappeared to find the back exit and Janthro crept to the end of the alley to take up a position that was both hidden but could also see the front of the entire building. He settled himself on a barrel and threw his cloak over himself as if he were a drunk or a heathin addict, just sleeping it off. With his cloak’s hood high and askew, Janthro could just see the building’s front through his slitted eyes. Janthro settled in for the duration, trying not to get anxious as the time passed.

    Logistically, it was an easy watch, as the whole front of the building was mostly solid stone. It was like someone had built a warehouse and decided to turn it into bar as an afterthought. There was one small window to the right of the door, and a sliding panel in the top center of the door itself, but that was it on the main floor. Even the sign was not obvious, a small wooden square affixed directly to the building’s side rather than swinging free from a post.

    Janthro frowned. Even though the building’s design made his watch easier, he couldn’t help but wish it were otherwise, because there was no easy way to know what the inside looked like, or what awaited them, in a building like that. It was probably the home of all sorts of illegal things for just that reason. Which again, was not his problem but the Municipal Guard’s. Regardless, once the Hand arrived it would be Karras who entered first, to recon the inside and report back. Janthro pondered what they would do if it were truly a Guild operation, with its accompanying secrecy and passwords, before dismissing the worry. Karras had been close enough to see their target once. He could get in again.

    Janthro was tempted to edge closer. He could. He could even find a spot that would allow him to be in a position to hear what might be said at the door. All he had to do was move a few feet, to a position more directly across from the building. The temptation was squashed ruthlessly, however strong, because it was also stupid. No one had entered or left since he had taken his current position. Were he to move to the more exposed position, and have to remain there for any real length of time, he would draw the attention of everyone nearby. They would know he was there.

    So Janthro remained at the alley’s edge ‘sleeping it off.’ People passing by treated him like the street debris he was pretending to be, and no one entered or left the target building. Not one single person in what he suspected was nearly an hour now, and Janthro grew more certain that this was a protected site. Which meant getting in would not be pretty. Janthro frowned in deduction at the building.

    Whose protection was this assassin under? He was obviously Assassin’s Guild because Janthro couldn’t think of even a single report of someone working ‘free-lance’ in the city, though Karras would know for sure. And the Munis had been hunting Assassin Guild lairs since the dawn of time. With little success, too. This place was too obvious to be them. More importantly, that Guild had no compunctions about killing anyone who failed and fled back to them. And Karras had reported their target was most definitely alive in there. So it wasn’t the Assassin’s Guild.

    Closely related, but not the same, would be the Thieves’ Guild. They fit better with what he had seen here. Covert safe houses masquerading as normal businesses. Safewords and passwords and other means to tell apart the members from the riff-raff. But again, the Guild would not take kindly to the assassin having led pursuit to them. Which meant the assignment itself was dangerous enough to warrant protection from pursuit, or the assassin felt certain that he had lost Janthro and Karras in the chase and the Guild’s doorman believed him. The assassin had to believe this location to be secure enough to hide him until he could be smuggled out of the city for a while.

    Either way, or even if the assassin were protected by some third, unknown power, it meant the Hand was in for it once they made it inside. Janthro continued to study the structure, making what deductions he could about what to expect inside as well as who and how to counter it. Time ticked by, and Janthro waited.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  10. - Top - End - #10
    Ogre in the Playground
     
    Celticbear's Avatar

    Join Date
    Aug 2016
    Location
    R'lyeh
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    Male

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Brightwind chapter!

    ...

    HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO THE HORSE ;-;

    Also I like Janthro's direction, it seems like he's a badass
    Dresden Character Table


    This is what I am called. I am called Glad-of-War, Grim, Raider, and Third. I am One-Eyed. I am also called Highest, and True-Guesser. I am Grimnir, and the Hooded One. I am All-Father, Gondlir, Wand-Bearer. I have as many names as there are winds, as many titles as there are ways to die. My ravens are Huginn and Muninn, Thought and Memory; my wolves are Freki and Geri; my horse is the gallows. I am ODIN

    Avatar by AsteriskAmp

    E-A-G-L-E-S SPELLS EAGLES!!!

  11. - Top - End - #11
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
    Jul 2009
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    Female

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by Celticbear View Post
    Brightwind chapter!

    ...

    HOW COULD YOU DO THAT TO THE HORSE ;-;

    Also I like Janthro's direction, it seems like he's a badass
    The horse was okay in the end :)

    Glad you like Janthro, too, because we're sticking with him for a couple chapters.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  12. - Top - End - #12
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    And now we learn why the Left Hand is the one the right is not permitted to know...

    Spoiler: Chapter 5 Part 1: Riot
    Show
    Chapter 5(Part 1) : Riot!

    It felt like hours later, but Janthro finally spotted Terreen. It wasn’t hard. Even though his subordinate was dressed appropriately, like a citizen rather than soldier, he still stood out based on his size alone. On the plus side, his cleric had disguised himself in the best possible way, as what he really was, an Avatarian Friar. He was wearing a coarse, travel-stained, robin’s-egg blue wool Cossack, his war mace hidden somewhere under its bulk. Terreen moved about the street, stopping at every person to pass along blessings or a coin or two, making his way surely closer. He reached Janthro’s lookout spot, and Janthro signaled him with a low whistle. Terreen continued on for a while, before weaving his way back in seemingly random fashion. He entered the alleyway and headed all the way to the back, to remain out of sight.

    “Still in there?” Terreen asked quietly.

    “Yeah,” Janthro answered without taking his eyes off the door.

    Terreen fell silent after that, not reporting anything about how difficult it had been to arrive, so Janthro assumed that no matter what violence the riot inspired, it was not sufficient to stop the Hand. Janthro resumed his watch, but did not see Praden before the man was nearly in front of their hiding spot. Praden had chosen to disguise himself in an oversized wool cloak, grey wig, and limping, stooped gait. Its hood was pulled up and Praden’s behavior so effective that Janthro’s gaze passed over him several times assuming him to be a beggar. He too, discreetly entered the alleyway and joined Terreen in the shadows.

    Penjuana was the next to arrive. Like Terreen, he was hard to disguise. His dark skin and shaved head identified him as a plainsman even at a great distance, and folk from that far east were not common in Westland. But also like Terreen, he had chosen common clothing, the white, tight-sleeved tunic and bound leggings of a dock worker or sailor. His outfit was realistically stained, worn and torn, as if he had just come from a shift manning the loading ropes along the cliffside docks. Janthro could see eyes following Penjuana, but after his Lieutenant ambled into a nearby building, to return with a bottle of liquor, the curious eyes became less so.

    Penjuana’s path to Janthro was also less obvious. He disappeared up the street, to return to the alley through an establishment on an adjoining street which connected to it through a rear door. He did not speak, but joined in his fellows in hiding. A minute or so more, and Janthro mimicked a raven’s cry. It was echoed shortly thereafter, and Janthro left his watch to join his men, confident that Karras had returned to a position that would let the thief cover both exits.

    “Captain?” Penjuana inquired softly as he drew near.

    “We’ve got a mission,” Janthro answered. “There was an attempt on the Duke’s life this morning.”

    Penjuana nodded as if he had already heard, as did Praden. Terreen looked surprised but remained silent.

    “Karras and I tracked him here. We are to return him to the Duke’s justice.”

    They all nodded.

    “Praden,” Janthro ordered, “I want you and Karras to get me a report on our target and that building. Penjuana, relieve Karras in the rearside watch. Terreen, take the back of the alley.”

    Praden and Penjuana disappeared through the back of the alley and Janthro returned to his watch to wait. He didn’t see Praden again, though several minutes later he did see Karras approaching from farther up the street. Karras stopped at the building and rapped on the door. Janthro could just barely see the panel in it slide back. It shut quickly after a few low words from Karras and the door opened. Karras went inside.

    The thief did not return for nearly half an hour and Janthro was getting anxious. Less because Karras was taking so long and more because the streets themselves were becoming more unruly, a sign of the riot to their north. Janthro had no doubts they were going to have to make a hard attack: messy, loud, and bloody. The only way of making sure the mess affected the Guild more than the Hand was to make sure they had surprise on their side. And the growing populace in the street wasn’t helping.

    “Psst.”

    Janthro turned back at the noise to find Praden had returned and had snuck back into the alley. It wasn’t five more minutes when the Five Ravens’ door opened once more and Karras left as if on some sort of assignment. He headed rapidly past their position, turned a corner, and disappeared. Karras reappeared shortly thereafter from the back side of the alley. Everyone regrouped in the shadows.

    “Wish I could say the news was better, boss,” Karras began. “We’ve got about fifteen men in there now, all Guild. Two story structure. Bottom level all set up as either gambling or drinking. Top level guarded. Didn’t go up, but it’s probably Guild business. I’d add 10 or so more guys from there to our totals.”
    “At least,” Praden seconded quickly. “But there’s only one way down to the main level, and that’s the stairs. We take the bottom fast enough, we could isolate the top.”

    “Suggestions?” Janthro asked his two best city men.

    Karras gestured in the general direction of the entrance. “I think I can get some of us in without a fight. We’ll need a distraction inside, so secure the guy first and go from there, boss. You and I know the target, so we go in the front.” Karras took in Janthro’s rising brows of inquiry. “Boss,” he countered the unspoken question, “if he was gonna recog us, he would have spotted me when I went in last time. We’re clear.”

    Janthro gestured him to continue.

    “I’ll take care of the assassin, you take the rest.”

    Janthro just snorted at this. At which point Praden took over the directions.

    “I’ll take Penjuana and Terreen with me ’round back,” he said quietly. “They’re too easy to spot. You set off the distraction.” He reached into one of his pouches and handed over three glass balls. Two went to Janthro and one to Karras. “Don’t look when you throw those,” he advised. “We come in the back. Penjuana holds the stairs until we’re done.” He handed the Plainsman a small bottle, this one with a wick hanging out its top. “This will stick, so only use it when you have to, and be very careful where you throw. I’m assuming the Captain wants the building intact for defense.” Janthro confirmed this with a shallow nod as Praden went on, “Terreen can guard the back, you the front, and the rest sweep up top.”

    Janthro nodded his approval. He glanced once more at the street, which was getting steadily busier as the chaos caused by the riot spread and darkness fell. Still, no one was entering or exiting their target building. By chance or design, it was being left entirely alone.

    “Okay,” Janthro ordered, “I’ll give you a hundred count to get set, then we’ll go in and say hello.”
    Praden dipped his head in acknowledgement and then he led Penjuana and Terreen deeper into the alleyway to swing wide around and come to the back from another part of the opposite street. Janthro looked to Karras.

    “You take the lead inside,” he ordered. “We need him alive, if we can, so be quick.”

    “Got it boss. You going to be okay with the rest of the room?”

    Janthro spun the glass balls on his palm in answer and kept counting. Soon it was time.

    “Let’s go.”

    Karras led them out of the alley and headed directly to the front door. Janthro stayed a step or two behind. Karras approached the door and knocked. Twice, then three rapid taps, then a one more after a pause. The panel in the door slid aside. The hard eyes that stared through narrowed, but the man did not speak.

    “The raven picks the bones,” Karras said quietly.

    The panel slid shut. There was no sound for long enough that Janthro mentally began to move on to his next contingency plan, but then there was the scrape of a lock and the door opened.

    The man by the door was dressed in a black jerkin and breeches and armed with two daggers. Janthro guessed there were more, hidden in the folds of his loose clothing, but did not pause to find out, his eyes darting quickly about the room. There were nine men in all. One behind the bar, the rest in groups of one or two at tables. Janthro spotted their target, but let his eyes pass quickly. Unfortunately, the target was seated with a partner. Fortunately, Karras would be dealing with that situation.

    “Who’s he?” the guard demanded, jerking his thumb at Janthro and drawing his attention back.

    “Help,” Karras answered calmly. “Getting noisy out there.”

    That seemed to satisfy the man, who stepped back to let them pass. Karras handed over a small pouch as he stepped into the room. Probably proof of whatever ‘task’ Karras had agreed to in order to be able to reenter without trouble. The man took it as he shut the door, sitting once more on a stool that stood beside it. Karras stepped forward, with Janthro close behind, carefully watching his subordinate for the slightest cues as to their next move. And so Janthro caught the slight inclination of Karras’ head toward the bar. Janthro split off then, to take up position at the bar and wait for Karras to ‘contain’ their target.

    “Whiskey,” he told the bartender.

    The man poured and Janthro slid a coin across. Janthro held his drink as he scanned the room, half his attention on Karras and half on planning how to take out as many as possible once the combat started. Karras was approaching the table with the target. The dark haired man looked up, but didn’t start in recognition, another good sign. Karras sat opposite the man, his left hand lowering to his side and his index finger straightening. The signal.

    Janthro didn’t hesitate, but threw twice in quick succession. The first of Praden’s glass balls to a spot near the opposite corner, where there was a cluster of occupied tables and the second toward the front door, just in front of the guard. Janthro ducked and twisted as he moved, the bar now a shield against the bartender. His eyes closed just as the first sphere shattered with a loud bang and flash of light. A second later, there was another bang and Janthro opened his eyes.

    He was moving instantly, drawing his sword and swinging it over the top of the bar as he rose. He caught the surprised bartender mid-draw and the man fell. Janthro charged forward to strike down the blinded door guard before he could offer resistance. He threw the bar from the main door then, lifting it free and tossing it into the closest mass of men. Janthro was hard pressed then, as the remaining patrons, stunned though they were, were starting to move. He continued moving forward, away from both the door and their target, hopefully buying Karras the time to secure their man.

    He was stymied near the stairs, as three of the men had recovered enough to draw weapons, attacking with daggers. Janthro swung wide and somewhat recklessly to keep them at bay. He felt a knife tear his clothes, but twisted in time to prevent any serious damage to his chest underneath. A quick swing around of his blade, and the attacker fell. Janthro turned back about, retreating toward a wall, trying to protect his flank from the attacking men.

    Where’s Praden, damn it!


    As if in answer, he heard the loud crash of a door collapsing, and a couple of his opponents split off to deal with the new threat. A glance toward the stairs, revealed several men descending and Penjuana with weapons out charging up to meet them. It was loud and bloody, two men dropping quickly to Penjuana’s daggers, but then the Plainsman was surrounded. Janthro tried to move to help his subordinate, but was pinned by his own enemies. When he finally had time to look again, Penjuana had the bottle in his hand, wick lit. Janthro stabbed out and ducked to one side, as Penjuana threw his burning bottle into the nearest clump of opponents. The glass shattered and the honey-like liquid spread all over them, igniting. Their agonized howls momentarily stopped everything in the room, as the burning men screamed and ran down the stairs in a desperate attempt to outrun the flames. Janthro’s eyes flew forward.

    “Terreen, the door!” Janthro shouted over the din.

    His cleric looked up from his own fight and over toward the front door, understanding in a glance. He reached out quickly and yanked it open, just in time for the hurtling, burning, forms to barrel past him and out into the street howling. Terreen slammed the door after, shutting out whatever chaos might be generated by the sight, and swung his mace hard into the chest of one of his attackers. This bought him enough time to grab and place the bar. Now all they had to do was clear those that remained. Terreen swung his mace about again.

    Karras moved after the first flash, his dagger swinging about quickly and instantly killing the Guildsman at the table with their target. In the same motion, he swung back and hit their target hard in the jaw with its hilt. Karras then grabbed the stunned man and pulled them both under the table, just as Janthro was moving forward toward the door. Once on the ground, Karras wrapped his arms and legs about the prisoner and kept him there, pinned, disarmed, and as protected as possible from outside attack. Karras knew he couldn’t aid the rest, bodily wrapped around the assassin as he was, but he hoped to remain out of sight and therefore out of mind until the numbers became more even.

    The stunned man started to squirm in Karras’ grasp, so the former thief took a moment to pound the man’s head into the floor. That bought him enough time to make sure the target was disarmed and to stuff a foul rag deep in his mouth. The man still struggled, Karras’ lacking the leverage to truly knock him unconscious, but Karras had a tight enough grip so he could not get free. Karras’ hoped that his first victim’s body, still draped across the tabletop would camouflage any unfortunate jostling.

    Unable to do much else from his obscured vantage, Karras held his opponent tight and watched as his comrades merged together in the room’s center, to better defend each other against the larger group of attackers. The Hand fought in a loose circle, backs to each other, as slowly but surely more and more guild bodies fell to the floor. Finally, there were only four sets of boots upright in the room. The table moved away and Karras looked up into Praden’s narrow, grim face.

    “’Bout damned time,” Karras pointed out.

    Praden took it in the spirit it was offered, reaching down to help pin the still struggling assassin’s hands so that Karras could detach himself and rise. Karras used the opportunity to bind their target’s wrists and ankles before climbing upright. Praden bent down and together they hoisted the prisoner to his feet and shoved him back against the booth’s bench. Janthro joined them to examine their prisoner, but Terreen remained where the fight ended, treating Penjuana, who had received several minor wounds from the desperate skirmish to secure the stairs.

    Their target was a smallish man, dressed in the same black tunic and breeches he had been wearing for the attack. Karras held the man down against the seat, while Janthro started his search for more weapons or identification. Karras doubted very much his Captain would find anything. The man was a professional, after all. Any information they might get would require darker, harder methods, he was sure. The prisoner had worked the cloth from his mouth, but as he was still held immobile, remained silent as they searched. Suddenly, Praden stepped closer and punched the prisoner hard across the face. The man’s head rocked back sharply, blood flowing from a now-split lip. Both Janthro and Karras started with surprise at the attack.

    “Praden!” Janthro snapped harshly.

    “What?” Terreen demanded, pushing forward to see what had caused Janthro’s tone.

    But they were both too slow. Praden followed the punch with an immediate wrenching of the prisoner’s head against the wall, his thumb and fingers on either side of the bleeding jaw, prying the mouth open. Janthro held up a hand to stop Terreen, who reluctantly obeyed. Meanwhile, Praden reached back to his belt and pulled out a narrow knife. He laid the tip against one of the prisoner’s lower teeth.

    “Praden,” Janthro repeated warningly.

    “Just one more thing, Captain” Praden answered quietly.

    He then levered the tip under the tooth and twisted. It popped free with a stream of blood and a scream. The prisoner struggled, but Karras held him fast. Praden reached down and lifted the tooth. He held it before Janthro. It was clearly not a real tooth, but a replica.

    “Poison,” Praden explained

    Janthro nodded shortly.

    “Good job,” he told Praden. “Keep that for me. Karras, he going to live?”

    Karras chuckled.

    “He’s none too happy on it, but he will. Where to, boss?”

    Janthro took a look around. At his silent gesture, Terreen returned to his station at the main door and checked out the window again. The cleric’s return signal let Janthro know they had not been discovered yet. And whatever men had escaped in the chaos, they had not returned with reinforcements. The streets were clear. They had best move now. Otherwise, they would be trapped here and have to wait until the whole neighborhood had been secured by the Duke’s forces. Any number of unpleasant things could happen before then. Janthro turned back to their prisoner and debated the best way to get him to the Duke.

    Awake, he could move, but he could also cause trouble. Unconscious and he would be no trouble but surely an awkward and attention-grabbing bundle to carry. And it wouldn’t be long before the hunt was on for them in earnest. Janthro shook his head sharply. Unconscious, it was.

    “Karras,” he ordered. “Knock him out.”

    Karras obliged, swinging a sap around to club the prisoner on the head. He eased the man to the floor, then looked back at Janthro.

    “He’s going to be noticeable, Boss.”

    “Not really,” Janthro answered. “Praden!”

    “Captain?” Praden replied as he appeared at Janthro’s side.

    Janthro dipped his head in the direction of their prisoner.

    “Got it,” Praden acknowledged with a smirk.

    Praden then began to search the room at a rapid pace. He disappeared into the back, and reappeared. This time he was carrying what looked like a large sack. Praden dumped his bundle on the floor, a messy pile of burlap and rope. With Karras’ help, they folded in the prisoner’s arms and legs, wrapped him in the burlap, and tied it closed. By the time they were done, the bundle might have been large and awkward, but it did not look anything near human in shape.

    “Now what?” Karras asked.

    “You and Praden, get him back to the Duke,” Janthro explained. “We’ll stay here. Act as a distraction. Give you as much of a head start as we can.”

    “Got it, Boss,” Karras answered with a lazy, salute-like wave.

    Praden said nothing, merely levered up the body. Both men moved to the rear exit, currently guarded by Penjuana. The Plainsman opened it and they disappeared into the alley. Janthro expected they would acquiring adequate transport for their burden shortly.

    “Captain, what next?” Penjuana asked.

    “We set up the welcoming committee,” Janthro responded with dark humor. “Bar the door and let’s get started.”

    Janthro returned to the main room, to be joined shortly thereafter by Penjuana. Terreen checked the bar on the front and did likewise.

    “I’m guessing we have at most an hour,” Janthro explained. “We need a way out, and a way to take out as many guests as possible before we go. Every minute we hold this place is one minute the Guild doesn’t know where their man is and one minute that Karras and Praden can use to get him home. Ideas?”

    “I will set up the withdrawal,” Terreen volunteered, and disappeared up the stairs at Janthro’s return nod.

    Janthro was unsurprised. Avatar might not forbid his servants to engage in combat, particularly if it was in the defense of someone or a greater good, but he certainly would not approve of actively setting lethal traps either. Janthro turned to his Lieutenant. Plainsmen had no such reservations.

    “Penjuana, you work from the rear forward. I’ll take the front.”

    Silence fell as the men bent to their tasks. Janthro moved the bodies of the men killed in the tavern to prop them beside the few windows using whatever chairs or wood he could find. He tied them in position to make them look as if they were alive and peering out as lookouts for incoming trouble. Janthro also rigged the two crossbows he found with strings on their triggers, so that they could be fired remotely to further the illusion that there were men still inside the building and draw fire. Janthro then laid what quarrels he could out on the floor nearby, should he get the chance to reload the bows.

    Terreen was working on the upper level, focused on one of the windowless side walls. He took out his war mace and with four heavy swings, the bricks of the wall collapsed, to reveal the adjacent building in the resultant hole. There was foot-wide gap between the buildings and then the wooden wall of the neighboring building. Terreen stuck his head into the gap and looked right and left. His blond head pulled back, before widening the hole and leaning out to press his ear to the other building. Janthro joined him, attracted by the noise.

    “Well?” he asked his subordinate.

    “Not sure what’s next door, but it’s quiet.” Terreen lifted his mace once more. “Now or later?”

    Janthro stuck his own head out and looked down. Two story drop. The gap was just wide enough for them to sidle downward to the ground, assuming they were not hard-pressed by the enemy. But if they were in a hurry, they would be sitting ducks. Which meant going across. Janthro frowned at the wood.

    “Now,” Janthro advised. “We might be discovered, if that building is busy and occupied, but we won’t have time later.”

    Terreen nodded and set to work. Janthro remained nearby, sword out and ready to cover his subordinate if there was trouble. The wall cracked after the second hard blow and shattered at the third. There were no answering cries from within, so Janthro sheathed his sword and bent to help Terreen remove the pieces and clear a hole. The room beyond was a bedroom, occupied at some point recently, but empty now. It had a large bed, probably for a family, a chamberpot and a couple trunks. There was a door opposite their hole, which was shut. Janthro decided to leave it be. If there was anyone next door, the less time they had to interact, the better.

    “Stay up here,” Janthro ordered as he headed for the stairs. “We’ll come to you, as we need to.”

    Terreen nodded back, took up a position near the hole, and Janthro returned to the ground level. He met Penjuana there, trailing a puddle of liquid back from the rear entrance.

    “We are departing from the upper floor?” he asked.

    “Yep,” Janthro confirmed, stepping over the liquid to approach the front door. Careful not to disturb any of the tripwires across it, he slid the panel in it back slightly. The streets were chaotic and crowded, with small knots of people moving about. Their burned victims still lay in the street, though the bodies had been looted of anything that hadn’t charred. Nearby windows had their waxed paper panes torn out and Janthro could see smoke rising from a building down the street. A scuffle broke out among a couple toughs in the street, and another body joined the charred ones before it was over, but no one was approaching their building.
    Janthro was unsurprised. It was a Guild operation. Attention when it finally came would be serious and lethal, not this riff-raff. He closed the panel.

    “Penjuana?”

    “Yes, Captain?”

    “Is there enough to burn the front, too?”

    His Lieutenant paused to consider. Penjuana made a side trip back to the bar and then returned with bottles in hand.

    “Survivors?” Penjuana asked.

    “No,” Janthro answered. I want it to burn when we leave, with no one left to tell who or how many we were.”

    Penjuana nodded and Janthro stepped out of the way. While Penjuana used the liquor to cover key portions of the walls and floor, to engulf the entrance once it ignited, Janthro checked his tripwire-rigged crossbow by the only ground floor window and then went to deal with the stairs. He set three more tripwires at random intervals on the stairs, set with the last remaining crossbow and the ignitable contents of two more liquor bottles, the fine lines hopefully unseen until they did their work. Further up, he weakened the wood of several more steps, to be destroyed as they retreated, or by the weight of their pursuers. At the top of the stairs he looked to Terreen, who had hopefully come already equipped for this mission, and asked,

    “Terreen, you have any dragon fire?”

    “Ja, Captain,” he agreed. “Two bottles.”

    “Get them out and be ready at the stairs.”

    Terreen nodded at this. They both jerked about at a crash from below.

    “Lieutenant!” Janthro barked.

    “They’re here,” Penjuana replied unnecessarily.

    Janthro turned and jumped the stairs over the rail, to land with a thud on the bar below, but safely dodging their assembled traps. He leapt to the floor and swept his hand across the remote trigger wires for the crossbows. There was a satisfying ‘thwack’ as they fired, echoed as Terreen set off the ones above. A solid thunk hit the front door, but both bar and door held. Penjuana slid low to the floor and began reloading a crossbow. Janthro pulled up another, raised his head briefly to aim, and fired. A dark cloaked form dropped to the ground. There were about twenty men, Janthro guessed, based on his brief glimpse. He opened his hands, fingers extended, twice to Penjuana. Penjuana just shook his head in return. But his crossbow was reloaded, now and he slunk back toward the stairs, hand on its firing string.

    Janthro followed shortly thereafter, just in time to dodge a smoking brand. The wood had been treated with something, what he wasn’t sure, but rather than igniting, it was spewing thick, acrid smoke which filled the room. Eyes tearing, Janthro ran for the stairs. There was a loud thump from the direction of the rear door. Another hard blow struck the front door, followed by a crack as the iron-bound wood finally split. He followed Penjuana up, carefully avoiding the booby-trapped steps. The smoke was making it hard to see. Terreen was waiting by the hole.

    “Anything?” Janthro asked as the door shattered below.

    Janthro gestured and Penjuana ran back to the stairs. He lit a small brand and held it aloft. Turning the plainsman picked up the first of three rag balls, which had been placed on the floor there, waiting. He lit the first quickly and dropped it over the rail to the floor, igniting the path toward the back door. They could hear Men were scrambling through the smoke below, searching for them. The second flaming ball quickly followed the first, this one landing to block any retreat out the front. Finally, Penjuana threw the final ball at his feet, igniting the top of the stairs. He then fell back to join the remainder of the Hand beside the hole.

    “Follow me,” Janthro ordered, and then ducked through and across to the next building.

    The smoke was getting thicker, as were the shouts from below, but no one made it up the stairs by the time their last man, Penjuana, made it through and into the other building. Janthro set one more fire at the opening for good measure, before the trio raced across the room to the opposite door, opened it and ran through. They came face to face with a startled man on the stairs. Since he was unarmed, Janthro simply pushed him out of the way and they ran past.

    Down the stairs and out the ‘back’ door, they hit the street and kept moving. There were three more Guildsmen here, all in dark clothing, obviously guarding the rear of the Guild building, but not expecting their opponents to exit behind them. Janthro, Terreen, and Penjuana fell upon them viciously. Terreen’s war mace brought his man down quickly. Janthro and Penjuana were a few moment’s longer, forced to rely on daggers rather than swords, but soon they were alone in the alley.

    Janthro led them off again. They swung wide about the rioting areas. It was tempting to try and help out, but dressed as they were and without knowing if their prisoner had made it to the Duke, Janthro pushed onward. They made it to the inner bailey gate without incident. The gate was closed and guarded by two men with pikes and swords. They were obviously on alert, even more so as the Hand approached, weapons coming forward at their smoking, smeared, and wild appearance.

    Janthro came up short, saluted, and then fished out the gold signet ring once more.

    “Captain Janthro Diadrem, to report to the Duke.”

    He paused to gesture at his companions.

    “Lieutenant Penjuana, Terreen Shevson.”

    The men returned the salute and one stepped closer to examine the ring. At his nod, the other stepped to one side, and the three men passed through to the inner bailey. Janthro led them on across the greensward toward the barracks. Here he stopped and turned to Penjuana and Terreen.

    “Dismissed,” Janthro told them. “If you get new orders, or see Karras or Praden, find me. Otherwise you’re at liberty to get cleaned up and get some rest.”

    Both men dipped their heads in answer and then headed into the barracks. Janthro headed opposite, toward the basement of the keep itself and the Duke’s personal gaol. If Karras and Praden had made it home, this is where their prisoner would have ended up. The entranceway was a small darkened alcove that led immediately to a descending stairwell. It was also guarded, but by a man Janthro knew, who let him pass at Janthro’s stated ‘official business’ as soon as he’d gotten a good look at his face. The stairs were deliberately narrow, allowing for better defense from either end should there be trouble. Torches placed at intervals along the walls allowed for just enough light to see. The stairs wound down, and Janthro passed another guard less than a half flight later, also on alert. He waved as he passed, showing his empty hands. At the bottom level, he found a small space opposite a barred doorway.

    “Name and Business,” a voice called from behind it.

    “Captain Diadrem. Checking on a prisoner.”

    A face appeared between the bars, squinted, then opened the door. He gestured Janthro inside and then shut the door behind them both. Once clear of the door, the hall they were in widened dramatically, revealing half a dozen of the Duke’s Gaolers and barred cells to either side stretching out into the darkness ahead. The man who had let him in, a smallish soldier with a mousey face, asked,

    “What news of the city?”

    “Riot seemed to be confined to Carvassas,” Janthro offered, based on his observations on the way here. “Still peaceful outside. Did Praden or Karras bring our man down?”

    The gaoler nodded with a slight frown.

    “Dropped him not too long before you showed up. Brought word of the riot too, which set off the alarm.”

    “Where is he?”

    “This way,” the man gestured Janthro further down the passageway.

    Janthro followed along as it grew darker and quieter, leaving the cells that were mostly filled to those that only held a man here or there. They finally stopped outside a wooden door to one of the questioning rooms. There was a man slouched against the wall nearby, and Janthro recognized Karras immediately.

    “Report,” Janthro ordered.

    “I brought our prisoner down. Praden stayed topside to let the Duke know what was going on. They woke him up once we arrived.”

    Karras’ thumb jerked in the direction of the door. Janthro followed the gesture, but did not ask to enter the room. He could hear the low buzz of voices, punctuated by a silence and then a scream. Apparently the Duke’s Gaolers were already at work trying to figure out where the assassin had come from and why. Karras uncurled from the wall to offer a lazy wave that might have been a salute.

    “We acquired transport for the package shortly after we left you, boss,” Karras continued as they made their way back to the stairs to the surface. “It made life easier, but we still swung wide around, so I’m guessin’ we only got here a bit before you. Checked the dude in here fast enough. Been waitin’ since. Figured you’d want one of our eyes on this guy until you saw the Duke.”

    Janthro nodded his agreement.

    “Any news?”

    “Not from them,” Karras answered with another jerk back toward the cell. “Not expecting much, unless they get a Questioner in to cast the right spells. Not saying they won’t work around to it, but they’re starting the old-fashioned way first. And the guy was a professional. Maybe even magicked to deal with Questioners, too.”

    Karras shrugged here to indicate it wasn’t their problem, whichever way it turned out. But it was a problem, at least for the Duke. Damned professionals. Janthro had hoped to report in with more than this. But it couldn’t be helped. Guild operatives assumed that Questioners could be called in for any captured men and compel them magically to spill their guts. So low level people were kept in the dark about most things, so if one were captured there would be nothing much that could be told about the why’s and how’s of their assignment. Specialized members, like the assassin, had been equipped with ways to kill themselves before capture and protect the Guild. In addition, the Guild often used magic themselves, to make it impossible for one of their people to be compelled to speak. Most of these protections resulted in the death of the Guildsman should Questioners try, but it was a requirement for Guild advancement, so captured Guildsmen above a certain level and type had to be assumed to have that protection. Which meant more physical means of persuasion to gain any valuable intelligence, and so it became a gamble of how badly did the Duke need the information and whether he was willing to risk using his Questioners to get it.

    No matter, the information they already had was all they were going to get for a while. Janthro considered as Karras followed him up the stairs. They were nearly out of the gaol when he finally spoke.

    “Good job,” Janthro said. “Take the rest of the day off, and then I want you back out there hunting to see if you can connect our friend to anyone else. He went to ground at the Five Ravens, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was where he came from. Report back as you can.”

    Another half-salute and Karras headed off. Janthro sighed and turned his attention and direction toward the Tower of Avantair and the Duke’s Audience Hall. He wished he could follow his subordinates and get cleaned up and rest. The adrenaline he had been running on for the last several hours was wearing off, bringing with it real exhaustion and pain. As he checked himself over to be sure that anything that might have been bleeding from the combat had stopped, Janthro noted that most of his injuries were not serious. They were, however, annoying and distracting. He had best get his report done before distracting turned into dangerous.

    Janthro picked up his pace. He was stopped at the main entrance to the Audience Hall proper by the duty guard, who verified his identity before directing him straight inside. The door closed behind him with a muffled thud that still seemed to stop everything in the hall dead. There were about ten men inside, standing in an arc around the Duke’s throne. Janthro recognized a few of the faces and quickly deduced the Duke to have been taking reports on the riot in the city. Janthro marched up the aisle in the resulting silence and fell to one knee before his Duke.

    He kept his head down until he heard the Duke order him to rise. He didn’t need to see Duke Andron to know his narrow face was wrapped in a scowl, nor that he was likely to be leaning forward hawk-like in his chair as he looked down on him. But what he had to say should be good news. Of a sort.

    “I can now report,” Janthro said in a calm voice at odds with his wild look.

    “Do so.”

    “The assassin has been caught,” Janthro informed him. “Alive. Penjuana has brought him to the dungeons where he awaits your justice. Karras is in the process of determining if the nest of them we uncovered is the last.”

    Duke Andron leaned back against his throne assimilating the new report. Today’s was the fifth attempt on his life in as many months, with little to go on as to who was behind it all. As to why, that was easier for the Duke to understand. His efforts at preventing lawlessness on certain trade roads from Westport through to Windshae, as well as the more aggressive enforcement of his anti-hallucinogen edicts had brought clear displeasure among the various underworld Guilds affected. He had been enduring the more obvious of their efforts for months in the form of envoy Earl Aspiter. The Earl’s gentle lobbying and wheedling was beginning to wear on the Duke. The Guild’s less obvious efforts could include the man who had attempted to kill him today, but of course, there was no proof. And almost no Duke, but for the keen eyes of the man before him.

    “Captain, at ease,” Duke Andron ordered, and then paused. “Bring him a chair,” he told his major domo, who snapped his fingers and sent a page scurrying. “I wish to speak at some length.”

    A stool was produced in short order, and Janthro sat with a brief head dip.

    “His highness is too kind,” Janthro told the Duke and waited.

    The remaining men in the hall also took the hint and used the pause to find seats of their own on the various benches to await their Duke’s pleasure. Andron’s scowl in the meanwhile shifted over the room in general. He steeped his fingers before him as if the gesture might redirect his thoughts as well.

    “As to the matter that originally brought you before me this morning?” Duke Andron asked Janthro.

    “The men are in Glenhaven as you wished. There was no trouble on the roads.”

    “Good. And Good Work today as well.”

    Janthro nodded his acknowledgment and decided to use his Duke’s pleasure at his capture of the assassin to find out more about their original assignment. Its circumstances still left a strange taste in his mouth. If the Duke was ever in a mood to clarify the orders, it was likely now.

    “My Lord,” Janthro asked carefully, “may I know why we were sent?”

    Normally, the Duke would have been shocked by such impertinence. Yet, he’d grown used to the tendency of the commoner before him to deal with his Duke almost as an equal. Janthro was never rude or reckless about it, one of the reasons it had been allowed, but if it affected the Hand, he would ask what needed to be asked. And he took whatever punishment the Duke might hand out with stoic silence—willing to pay for having taken the risk. The Duke could respect, and even on occasion reward, such dedication to duty. This time, however, he was not willing to share.

    “No, you may not.”

    Andron watched Janthro’s face settle into a hard line, but his youngest Captain said nothing more. The Duke turned to the topic of most interest to him.

    “What were you able to discover about the assassin?”

    Janthro’s face took on an even angrier cast.

    “Nothing yet, my Lord. We found no identification on them or in their lair. Whoever’s giving the orders is being very careful. If not for Praden, we would not have even the one we do. They were equipped to suicide on capture.”

    “That would have been unfortunate. Your men will be commended.”

    “Thank you, sir.”

    “You and your men may have a two-day leave,” Andron added with a wave of his hand. “After which we will hopefully have more for you to do.”

    Janthro bowed low.

    “Dismissed.”

    Janthro executed a smart about-face and marched quickly out of the hall. He went immediately to the barracks and passed along the good news to his men. They dispersed shortly thereafter, leaving Janthro to contemplate what he would do for the next few days. He yawned and decided that first on the list would cleaning up and getting a couple hours rest. After that, well after that he was going to see what the night brought.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  13. - Top - End - #13
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Jul 2009
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    And because Chapter 5 was apparently too long to fit in one post...


    Spoiler: Chapter 5 Continued: Riot Part 2
    Show


    * * * * * *
    Janthro was drunk. Otherwise, he would never have picked up the letter. He sat on the bed in his room, spartan as a monk’s cell, the half-empty whiskey bottle still on his desk. He looked at the words blearily, unable to focus on the letters, but no longer needing to.

    ‘Jan, I don’t know what to do. Mom is dead.’

    Two sentences of a longer letter that Janthro knew by heart now. Janthro took another pull from his bottle. Maybe it would help with the pain or the guilt. Anything had to. He should have gone home more, no matter what the risk. He should have been there. There was so much he needed to tell her. Hell, he still needed her, though he hadn’t realized that until his brother’s letter had arrived.

    Damn it all to hell, anyway!


    He threw the glass he’d set out, but not been using, into the wall. It shattered into glittering pieces. He picked up the bottle next, started to throw it as well, then put it back down on the table. He punched the wall instead, a stupid move but he was too drunk and angry to care. His knuckles split as they hit the stone, blood and pain covering his hand.

    “Damn it all,” he muttered aloud this time, sinking back down onto his bed, cradling his injured hand.

    You are very much like me, you know.

    Those had been his mother’s very words, and Janthro had no idea why he recalled them now. He hadn’t seen it at all. He was nothing like her. Nothing like anyone, it seemed, not fitting in with his brothers or father, either. He had told her so then, which made her smile.

    You need to be alone, too, she had explained. And when you care about something, you care about it down to the bottom of your soul.

    That was crazy, he’d argued.

    She’d asked him to picture Darkwood and repeat that. And he couldn’t. While he didn’t fit in at home, he melded perfectly with the forest. Its quiet and its noise, its life and depth: everything just worked when he was out there. It was joy. He looked back at her and knew he didn’t need to say more. She understood. It was the elf in him, she had said.

    If she understood me so damned well, then how the hell could she leave like that!


    Janthro knew in his mind, it hadn’t been his mother’s choice, but it still hurt his heart as if it were. It had hurt beyond measure that her death had taken away everyone he’d cared about. No. Not everyone. Even in his drunken state, Janthro corrected the thought immediately. There was still Jerem. There was another flash of memory as he thought of his brother. Jerem creeping up to a deer, so close that he’d actually touched it before the animal had fled, and then bounding back to ask Janthro if he had seen. As much as his baby brother had driven him crazy at times, Janthro had come to truly miss the little bugger in the years he’d been alone.

    Janthro looked at the letter again. His brother was lost. He could tell. Just from the words on the page, Janthro could hear Jerem’s underlying fear and uncertainty, his own betrayal at her loss mirrored by his brother. Jerem needed a friend, and there was no one at the castle to help him. Damn, but Janthro wished he could, could just go home and make sure Jerem was all right. But no, he could never go home again. He was home. It was not a comforting thought this night.

    Janthro looked down at his bleeding hand, wondering if he’d broken anything. Wondering what he would say to Terreen, should it need the cleric’s care. It might well be broken, the way it hurt, and if that wasn’t a metaphor for his life at this moment, he didn’t know what was. When at last he slept, when the bottle finally slipped from his uninjured hand to shatter on the floor, it was empty.

    The second night of his leave was spent seeking another kind of oblivion. Janthro left his room early the next day, his hand still untended and swollen, to disappear among the taverns and bars of New Windshae. In the Harried Watchman, a pretty brunette named Pheobe had caught his eye. Janthro spent the rest of his leave with her. When he left her bed that morning, to return to the castle, he wondered if he was lying when he said he would see her again. As pleasant as it had been, he was still miserable. He frowned down at his hand and resolved to see Terreen at the first opportunity. Fix that first, then himself. He had to pull himself back together because he was running out of time. The Hand, and whatever their next mission was, deserved a Captain with his eyes on the trail and his head on the task.

    Janthro arrived back at the keep, entering the inner bailey once more with a nod instead of a salute with his broken hand. He crossed the grass of the courtyard and entered the barracks proper, stopping at his Corporal’s door with a knock of his off hand. Terreen opened it moments later.

    “Captain. A bit of a surprise. What brings you here?”

    Janthro held up his now mostly purple and yellow hand. Terreen gave a low whistle.

    “Do I want to know how?” he asked.

    Janthro replied with a quelling, “No.”

    “Very well.”

    Terreen gestured Janthro to sit in the room’s only chair by his desk. It was nearly the mirror of Janthro’s own, sparsely furnished with the same standard-issue bed, table, and iron-bound trunk for Terreen’s possessions. The only difference was the small Avatarian Dove which hung above the table by the wall and the prayer book open on its surface. Janthro had little use for prayers.

    “Sit, Captain,” Terreen said, gesturing him to a chair.

    Janthro sat and laid his injured hand on top of the desk. Terreen carefully straightened the fingers, Janthro swearing occasionally in pain, so that it had the rough alignment it should and then laid his own callused hand atop it. At a series of chanted words, Janthro felt a tingling sensation pass through the bruised area. When his cleric lifted his hand, Janthro’s hand was straight and perfect and pain free. He flexed it a few times.

    “Thanks.”

    Terreen nodded back, frowning. The man was not stupid. Janthro knew his subordinate had realized in a glance that the injury was days old. Days old and Janthro had not asked for help before now. So Janthro was unsurprised when Terreen asked,

    “When do we leave?”

    Janthro shrugged.

    “Not sure yet. I’ll get our orders this morning,” Janthro answered carefully. “Probably following up with the assassin. Pass the word we’ll meet in the tower at the second bell before noon.”
    Janthro rose to leave.

    “Thanks again,” he said.

    Terreen nodded and watched him go. Janthro turned his attention outward once more. He returned to his own room, dressed more appropriately for the Tower and his upcoming audience, and then looked out his window to guesstimate the time. Not enough to do much more than go to the Tower of Avantair and wait. With one last check in a small mirror to make sure he looked presentable, Janthro left for his audience.

    It had to be the assassin. Nothing else made sense. Though Janthro was damned if he could figure what they were to do. The prisoner had talked, no doubt, but Janthro also knew the Duke suspected the Guild which should make it an internal problem, the Duke’s Inquisitors or the Municipal Guard’s duty. But since the Hand’s job description was essentially ‘whatever you are told,’ Janthro supposed they could be assigned the work of tracking the culprits and cleaning out the city. If so, he wasn’t looking forward to it.

    Janthro arrived in good time. The Duke’s major domo acknowledged his arrival with a small head dip and a gesture to take a seat in one of the pews in the audience hall. Janthro sat towards the rear, observing until the Duke was ready. The audience hall was about half filled, mostly with courtiers Janthro recognized simply because of their frequency in this hall. Currently standing before the Ducal Seat, a noble of some sort was requesting favors. Janthro sighed and settled in for the duration.

    Two more men were heard by the Duke before Andron finally signaled his major domo. The man walked before the assembly, thumped his staff four times on the stones and intoned,

    “Court is adjourned until the first bell.”

    The courtiers and guests rose to clear the hall. Janthro remained seated. Once the hall was emptied, the Duke looked up, saying,

    “Captain Diadrem.”

    Janthro rose in acknowledgement, walked to the throne, and dropped to one knee.

    “My lord.”

    “Rise, Captain,” the Duke ordered and Janthro stood. “My Inquisitors were able to get a basic location as to a possible ‘nest’ of assassins. You are to gather the Hand and go to Karine. Find and eliminate this ‘nest’ such that it cannot be rebuilt.”

    “Restrictions?” Janthro asked.

    “None,” the Duke replied simply, yielding the handling of the matter entirely to his subordinate. “Complete the task.”

    “Yes, my lord,” Janthro answered, executed a smart about face, and left the room.

    Janthro ruminated on the assignment as he traversed the castle. Karine. He hadn’t expected that, he had expected something closer to home. But then again, maybe he should have. Karine was in the far western end of the Duke’s realm, a former ‘Great City’ that had failed to survive the goblin wars five hundred years earlier. It’s most notable landmark was Karine’s Keep, the ruined remnants of its former ruler’s castle. The town nearby was of a fair size, about half that of Windshae, but the populace had never returned to its pre-war heights and its environs now certainly had enough cover to hide any number of bandits and villains. Janthro’s thoughts diverged from there to the logistics of the trip itself and by the time he reached the Tower of Iasin he knew pretty much exactly what equipment he wanted to bring and had the bones of a plan for once they arrived. He briefly looked up at the tower as if he could see through its stone walls to where his men waited, then entered.

    The Tower of Iasin was taller and far narrower than the Tower of Avaintar where the Duke held court. It had a spiral staircase that wound up its walls, with a door on each floor which opened on a single large room. At its top stood a great fire pit, which was always lit during poor weather and at night to act as a beacon to nearby ships of the city and the cliffside docks below. When the city was in danger, a special powder was added and the flames would burn red. The two floors below the topmost platform were kept filled with wood and oil, to supply its fire even during torrential rain. The lowest room on the ground floor housed the flame keepers whose duty it was to maintain the flame and the remaining rooms had been intended for storage.

    Whatever the intention, the Hand had secretly converted the third floor storage room for their personal use shortly after Janthro had been named Captain. Karras and Praden altered the door’s lock and they had added five chairs and a small table. The Hand now used it to store their personal weaponry, as well as anything acquired on previous assignments that they thought might come in handy for the future. It was where Praden made Dragon Fire, Karras smoke bombs, and where the five men practiced a ‘no holds barred’ version of hand to hand combat that made them one of the most lethal forces in the Duke’s command when unarmed.

    When Janthro opened the door this afternoon, the rest of the Hand was already inside. Karras and Praden were playing cards at the table. Penjuana was throwing knives at a target against one wall, and Terreen was fussing over a smallish wooden box. A second glance revealed some creature in the box, whose small, furred hands would periodically take the grapes offered by Terreen. All four men looked over as he entered.

    “What’s the good word, Boss,” Karras asked.

    “We’re going hunting,” Janthro answered, taking a seat of his own. “There’s a potential nest of Guild problems somewhere around Karine. We find it and destroy it. Prisoners optional.”

    Tereen put a lid on his box and then both he and Penjuana joined the rest around the table.

    “Where is Karine?” Penjuana asked, his history and experience more from the lands to the east.

    “It’s nearly as far west as you can go in the Duke’s lands,” Janthro explained. “Will probably take us a week to get there. Terrain is similar to here…rumor has it there are lots of underground caverns and caves. It’s just north of Coldvale.” Janthro added, for his foreign-born subordinates benefit, “so you know how much fun this is going to be.”

    “Lots of places to hide,” Terreen agreed grimly.

    Janthro nodded back before turning to Karras.

    “Is this a known Guild operation?” Janthro asked, “Do they share resources across cities?”

    Karras shook his head. “Nah. Guilds might work together if it was something big or important enough, but this isn’t as big a rumor as it should be, happen that were the case. Did the Duke say why he figures we’re chasing Guildsmen?”

    “No.”

    “I’ll go find out before morning, then,” Karras advised. “We might be able to use the locals, if they’re not working with our Guilds.”

    Janthro nodded once, Karras rose and left. Janthro took in the remainder of his men.

    “We leave in the morning. Notify me if you need something. Dismissed.”

    The Hand dispersed from the room to arrange for their morning departure.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  14. - Top - End - #14
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Jul 2009
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    And... We're back with Jerem. In two parts, because the Chapter's too big.

    Spoiler: Chapter 6: Windshae (Part 1)
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    Chapter6:
    Windshae
    Part 1



    Jerem wriggled under his bed to pull out the bundle wedged under it and tied to its rope frame. He hadn’t touched it, these indications he was not a peasant, since bringing them here secretly that first week of his arrival. The bundle lay before him now just as he had left it, an elongate shape wrapped in his oilskin cloak. Cerna had not found it, not even when she’d been cleaning. Well, he’d have known if Cerna found it, first thing. She would have had plenty to say to him about the swords inside.

    Yet, he might need the swords. Out on his own, in Windshae. He might need a lot of things. He carefully unwrapped the bundle and removed both sheathed blades from the belt itself. He then slid them down into his pack, one on each side, right where the frame came up his back. They just barely fit inside, with the pommels making two dimples in the cover when he tied the whole thing shut.

    He opened the pack once more to finish loading, now that he knew that his weapons would fit. No, he wouldn’t borrow trouble, but if it came, he would be ready for it. His remaining gear was scant. First, into the bottom he laid everything he thought he might want, but was unlikely to use immediately like his sword belt and fancier clothing. Then the things Cerna and Gyillian had given him. His bedroll he tied on the frame beneath the pack at his waist. By the time he was finished, there was only a little room left, probably enough to pack food for the journey.

    There was a knock on the door, and Jerem turned to find Cerna in the doorway. He smiled up at her and clambered to his feet. She gestured at his bed and he sat where directed. Cerna came over and sat down beside him. For a while, neither said anything, but then Cerna reached over to take his hand and pat it.

    “You’re happy here, Jerem,” she said, her voice somewhere between a statement and question, “aren’t you?”

    Jerem nodded, “Yes, ma’am”

    Cerna ruffled his hair affectionately.

    “Then you know you could stay.”

    Jerem shook his head. “I have to find Janthro,” he insisted. “We’ll come back after, I promise.”

    “But it’s so dangerous,” Cerna protested, and even though she didn’t say it, Jerem still heard the ‘and you’re so small’ that followed.

    “I’ll be okay,” Jerem reassured his foster mother. “Jan works for the Duke. I just have to get there and we’re done.”

    “We could send a letter,” Cerna offered carefully. “Master Pacquin can write, and we know some people who could get it there. Someone in the Duke’s Army must read and write, too. They could see he knew. That way you wouldn’t have to go. Your brother could come here when he could.”

    Jerem could tell in a glance that’s what she wanted him to do. He felt terribly guilty for causing that worry in her eyes. What was more, he half wanted to stay, too. Yet he couldn’t adequately explain even to himself why he was also certain that he must go. Why as each day passed, he grew more anxious. Because what if Janthro got the letter and still didn’t come? Cerna smiled and put a comforting arm about him, as if she had read his mind in his face.

    “Jerem, he will be glad to see you, boy.”

    “I know,” Jerem answered, still worried.

    “Have you thought about how you’re going to get there?” Cerna asked, changing the subject to something less fraught.

    Jerem frowned and pursed his lips. He’d been thinking about it a lot, actually. He just didn’t like any of his thoughts very much. But it was clear Cerna wanted an answer.

    “I guess so. I don’t think I should take Brightwind,” he said immediately. If the folk of Moondale had thought him a thief, he could only imagine what might happen in a city like Windshae. “So I… Um… Guess I’ll walk there.”

    Cerna smiled knowingly.

    “All right,” she told him, almost businesslike, “you remember our rules about your little adventures?”

    Jerem nodded then added promptly, “Tell you where I’m going and don’t go alone.”

    “Good,” Cerna agreed. “And that holds, maybe even more so, when you go so far away. So you know you want to go to Windshae and soon. Which means all we need to find is someone to go with you.”

    “You?” Jerem piped up hopefully.

    Cerna sighed, as if she were sad.

    “Sorry, child, I can’t leave the Hook and Sinker for that long. But I do know that if you would wait another week and a half, Mr. Bair is heading north to sell his spring wool. John said you could ride with him, at least as far as Whitehall. Whitehall’s within a day’s walk of Windshae and you’d be safer traveling with someone…”

    Cerna trailed off as if this still wasn’t what she really wanted, but Jerem jumped on the idea. He wouldn’t have to travel alone!

    “That’s okay…. That’s great!” he cried excitedly. “I’ll help Mr. Bair, too! I won’t be any trouble!” He paused and drew breath. “I’m really going to find Jan!” he said, almost disbelieving, “I’m really going!”

    Cerna looked more troubled than happy, but still found herself smiling helplessly in the face of her boy’s enthusiasm.

    “You will be careful now,” she admonished.

    “Yes, ma’am,” Jerem agreed eagerly.

    “And you’ll pay a scribe to write us that you’re safe and found him,” she added.

    Jerem nodded again, not thinking to correct her that he could write his own letters just fine. The help of a ride and company buoying his spirits to make every other danger or problem recede to a background thought.

    “And come home as soon as you can,” Cerna went on firmly.

    “I’ll be back so fast you won’t even notice,” he offered cheerfully.

    Cerna hugged him tight.

    “Good boy,” she said into his hair, not letting him go.

    But finally her embrace loosened and she stood.

    “I’ll see you at dinner.”

    “Yes, ma’am.”

    As he washed, served, and cleaned up after patrons that night, Jerem grew more and more excited about going to Windshae. The next day was worse, as was the next, and as the day of his departure neared, Jerem couldn’t keep his mind still. His thoughts kept running wild between anxiety and excitement so that he could barely focus on his chores. His friends were no help, alternating between tales of him returning a hero and tales of him being eaten by something, maybe even a dragon, while on his trip. Still, Jerem could tell Brian and Marcos were mostly excited and maybe even a bit jealous that he was going to have a grand adventure while they were trapped at home, rather than certain of disaster. Jerem promised to bring them something when he came back, which brightened their moods.

    In the meanwhile, Gyillian had taken to peppering Jerem with advice during cleanup or in the mornings. So much advice that Jerem only took in six out of every ten things his foster father said, his mind wandering whenever Gyillian talked too long, but it did make him feel more confident. Stay in groups of folk as much as you can. Divide your money, so it’s not all in one place. Never keep your gold and silver in your pouch, when you open it people should only see the bronze and tin that will keep you safer. Sit in a place and watch before talking to anyone or even taking a room. Look at the floors and tables first. If the inn isn’t clean, you don’t want to stay there. Stick to family run places. If you wouldn’t have done it that way here, it ain’t a good place to stay there. Don’t take work that puts you by yourself, kitchens and the like are better. The non-stop advice covered an anxiousness that Jerem could sense, but did not understand. It was just a trip to Windshae. Townsfolk like Master Pacquin did it all the time.

    But the one thing both Cerna and Gyillian stressed—over and over again—was to go straight to the Duke’s castle as quick as he could and find his brother. And once he found him, not to leave his side. If they needed help getting home, Gyillian said firmly, they were to send word to the Hook and Sinker and Gyillian would help. Even if he couldn’t find Janthro, he could come home. He should come home. All he had to do was send word and they would come get him. No questions asked.

    Finally, it was the morning of his actual departure, and everyone in the Inn was in some form of nervous chaos. Carolyn and Myrna both hugged and then kissed him on the cheek as he came down, making him flush red. Cob shook his hand firmly, as though he were an actual adult, which made him feel somewhere between uncomfortable and proud. He also passed Jerem a small pouch with a quiet ‘don’t tell Cerna’. It clinked as Jerem slipped it into his pocket.

    Cerna got hold of him after, and didn’t seem to want to let him go. She was on the edge of tears as she hugged him tight, kissing his forehead and whispering to him to come home safe. She too gave him a pouch with the admonition to ‘not tell Cob’. Jerem was about to object and explain Cob had already given him money, but before he could, Gyillian approached and guided Jerem toward the door, saying,

    “It’s time, lad.”

    About the only person not in an uproar was Mr. Bair. He was a stolid as ever, standing beside his wagon as Jerem left the Hook and Sinker. The wagon was piled high with bound bundles of sheared and cleaned wool. The sheep rancher’s own gear sat just behind the riding board, and he was saying goodbye to his wife in the pre-dawn dimness. Neither Master or Missus Bair seemed overly concerned, which was a marked contrast with Gyillian and Cerna’s fussing. Finally Jerem was able to join Mr Bair at his wagon, his foster parents following behind. Gyillian caught him up by the shoulder.

    “How much money do you have son?” he asked quietly.

    Jerem showed him his money pouch, adding quietly to prove he had listened to Gyillian’s advice about money, “That and I’ve got a bunch more in my pack. I’ve got over twenty in silver and even a whole gold piece!”

    Jerem thought that was a lot of money—it was all he had been able to save since arriving here—not to mention Cob’s and Cerna’s gifts, but Gyillian frowned before nodding like he had expected this. The innkeeper’s hand went into his pocket, returning with a small maroon bag that jingled. He turned Jerem around, lifted the flap of his pack, and shoved the pouch deep down toward the bottom. If he felt or saw the hard swords bracing the frame, he didn’t say. He simply closed the pack and turned Jerem back around.

    “Don’t spend it all in one place,” Gyillian advised, “but that should see you through until you can find Janthro. In case there’s trouble.

    Jerem hugged Gyillian.

    “Thanks,” he said, muffled in Gyillian’s shirt.

    “You be good now, lad,” Gyillian said in reply, letting him go. “And come home soon.”

    Anything more Gyillian might have wished to say was halted as his place was taken immediately by Cerna, who through an equally breath-stopping hug and a few tears, also wished him to be safe and return soon. Then she handed him a wrapped bundle of food for the road, to share with Mr Bair. A little more disconcerted than he’d have liked to admit by her tears, Jerem simply nodded back and took it before scrambling up onto the wagon when she let him go. Mr Bair climbed up opposite and with a shake of the reins and a click of his tongue, the mules plodded forward. Jerem turned back, kneeling on the seat and waving, until they passed the wide curve that cut Moondale off from view.

    Jerem turned back around to watch the scenery as it passed. It was still quite familiar, as he had explored much farther than this on his days off. He spotted Brian, waving madly, at the end of the lane that went to the Ashdown farm. He waved back.

    “Good Luck!” Brian shouted. “Bring me back something good!”

    “I will!” Jerem returned happily, as the wagon passed by.

    And then it got quiet again. Mr Bair wasn’t much for talking, which made Jerem uncomfortable. But actually trying to get the rancher to talk made Jerem even more uncomfortable, so the miles passed in silence. The weather was nice, no spring rain on the horizon, not for a while if what the clouds indicated held true, and the temperature was moderate. It got chilly at night, but warmed up enough during the day. They shared food from what Cerna packed for both lunch and dinner, stopping at a nearby farm each time to get water from its well. Mr Bair seemed to know the farmers well, trading some of the wool for other supplies like oats and the promise of vegetables on his return journey.

    Their first night was spent in Durness, a small town similar to Moondale. Jerem helped Mr. Bair secure the wagon in the stable of the Wellspring Inn. It appeared Mr Bair was a ‘regular’ this time of year, exchanging familiar greetings with the stable boy and innkeeper while they got the mules and tack settled. Jerem had a moment of panic upon entering the inn itself. Where was he going to sleep?

    “One room,” Mr Bair was saying to the innkeeper.

    “Follow me,” the man answered and led them down the hall.

    They stopped at one of the doors and the innkeeper left them.

    “What about me?” Jerem asked then.

    Mr Bair opened the door and gestured inside.

    “I promised Cerna I would let you sleep on the floor.” He paused then, as if it just occurred to him that Jerem wasn’t a sack of wool to be left on the floor and might not want to stay in the room with him at all. “If you wanted,” he added with as shrug. “I suppose you could stay in the stable loft, if not. Not sure what that would cost…”

    Mr Bair trailed off as he considered, but Jerem did not want to spend any of his money sooner than he had to and interrupted.

    “The floor will be fine.”

    Mr Bair shrugged and they went inside. Jerem put his pack down by the window and rolled out his blanket bedroll nearby. Mr. Bair was not very talkative as he climbed into the one bed and went to sleep. He snored a lot too, and Jerem spent an uncomfortable night on the floor, trying to sleep. But he reminded himself that this was certainly better than his journey from the castle to Moondale had been, and resolved to help Mr Bair as much as he could.

    The remainder of the week passed in similar fashion, though the scenery began to change. Eventually, they traveled far enough north that the Darkwood border fell away, leaving farms, ranches, and fields on both sides. The land was also dotted with large oak trees and stone walls, but the only time Jerem saw more than a tree or two at a time was when they approached a stream or river. The grasses also grew thicker and lusher as they traveled northeast, until they reached an area where even the road was quite muddy and marshy. Farms had grown sparser as well, the soil very spongy and almost bog-like.

    The road swung wide around this area, moving directly east for quite some distance, even though Windshae lay almost due north now. They finally swung north again and arrived as the sun was setting in Whitehall, a town named for its main landmark, the great stone castle of the local Baron. The building’s stone was nearly white, mined from the cliffs of Windshae and dragged to this spot over the plains. It stood on the highest ground available and some distance from the town proper, a white beacon gleaming as the sun’s rays struck it.
    Jerem gawked at it in the distance as they continued on to enter into the town proper, and Jerem soon found himself among streets filled with more buildings than he had ever seen before in his life. Even Clearwater, the town closest to his father’s Baronial Castle, had not been this large. With a frown, Jerem realized that somewhere in the last day or two, they had left his father’s Barony. He was now farther from home than he had ever been.

    Whitehall was an orderly town, organized around a large common green at its center. Roads diverged around it like spokes on a wheel, including the one they now traveled, and most buildings were made of timber, and none were more than two stories tall. There were many people in the streets, not just men, but women and children as well, going to and from shops and other buildings. Unlike Moondale and the more familiar smaller towns, the buildings in Whitehall actually had signs on them. They were mostly pictographic, their images representing what lay within. A saddle and bridle for the leatherworker, a candle for the chandler, a quill and ink for the scribe, and the silhouette of a sleeping man that marked the inn that was their destination tonight. More shops than Jerem thought could exist. There was even the saw and bottle that declared this town was actually big and wealthy enough to have an actual Physicker to tend to their ill and injured. Though not magical in their healing, Physicker’s were guild-trained and the best alternative to an actual cleric.

    Mr Bair paid for their room and they headed up. Jerem wanted to explore, but Mr Bair didn’t seem interested in more than a drink or two in the common room after dinner. Too afraid to go out by himself, Jerem stayed in the room and planned for tomorrow, when Mr Bair would stay here to sell his wool before continuing east, and he would have to make final day’s journey to Windshae. Alone. Jerem wondered whether he should make a point to go out and explore Whitehall, scared or not. If he couldn’t do that, how could he be expected to handle Winshae? Jerem’s gaze strayed to the window and the growing darkness beyond. Not tonight he resolved, relieved. Windshae. He would wait for Windshae to be brave.

    Jerem took his leave of Mr Bair and headed out early the next morning, eager to arrive in Windshae before nightfall. He wasn’t the only one. Several wagons joined him on the road as well as half a dozen more people on foot. Jerem tried to stay with this group, but even the walkers were moving too fast for his short legs and he fell behind by lunchtime. Jerem ate a picnic lunch, hidden in the tall grass just off the trail, feeling exposed and nervous for no reason he could name. Maybe it was because all the adults back home had been so anxious about the trip, or maybe it was because he was alone. All Jerem knew was that he didn’t feel safe.

    Once Jerem was moving again, he felt a little better. He turned down two offers of a ride, but accepted the third. It was a covered wagon, with a boy riding on the wagon’s back step. A family, just like Gyillian advised. The boy scooted to one side, and Jerem hopped on. They eventually turned off to the east, but saved him a couple miles of walking. By late afternoon, he could see the faint outline of Windshae’s two towers, one blue, one white, rising on the horizon as a vague shadow. They became more pronounced as he grew closer, as did the city itself, a wide shadow of buildings covering an astonishing amount of land.

    The road was growing busier too, carts, mule trains, and people moving into and out of Westland’s largest city and governmental seat. Jerem was forced by his size and pedestrian status to the edges of the road lest he be trampled or run over. In a way, it was scarier than being alone, all those people and animals. Too many people and animals. The city rose higher and became more defined, as buildings began to dot the landscape more and more frequently until Jerem felt he had entered a village before he had even reached the city’s wall and main gate. He couldn’t even see the main gate, or much else, with buildings packed tight on either side of the road.
    Is this even the right road?

    Jerem stepped out of the main street and onto one of the smaller side streets, but soon moved again to the shadow of a chandler’s shop to avoid being in the way and think. Should he stay here? Go on into the city itself? How much farther was the city anyway? Had he somehow missed the entrance? Jerem looked at the sun, now settling in the sky toward the horizon. With an anxious nod to himself, Jerem continued on down the road. Somewhere a bell tolled. But it had not tolled again by the time he at last reached the city gate.

    He almost missed it, even though the wall was two stories tall, because the buildings ran right up against it, but once he was nearly there, Jerem could see the wall arching over the roadway, broken by an enormous gate over two wagons wide. It had two wide oak and bronze doors on huge metal hinges which stood open to either side of the roadway and in front of each door stood a man dressed in a black-edged scarlet tabard emblazoned with a falcon clutching a many-thorned rose in its talons. The men themselves looked utterly bored at their duty, their eyes drifting lazily over each wagon and the people as they passed.

    Jerem stepped to the roadside again, wondering if he should ask these guards about Janthro. After all, Janthro soldiered for the Duke too, but Janthro’s letters almost never talked about the city. He was always somewhere else. Someplace strange and exotic. His brother only spared the barest bones of what he was actually doing those places, but often wrote about the flora, fauna, and strange cultures and people he encountered. So did that mean these men wouldn’t know Janthro? Or would they, being all one army? More people streamed past. Too many. He needed help and soon.

    Resolved Jerem left the safety of the buildings and headed for the man closest to him. The man’s gaze caught Jerem’s as he neared. It was not friendly.

    “Pardon,” Jerem began anyway, “I’m looking for my brother. He works for the Duke.”

    The Guard sneered back at him for a while, but when it became clear Jerem was going to just stand there and wait, said, “Whocher want me to do about it? Scram.”

    “His name is Janthro,” Jerem pressed on undaunted.

    “You some sort of half-wit? Janthro? That’s all you got? Go peddle your problems somewhere else.”

    This time the guard shoved Jerem backward, sending him tumbling into the dirt. Jerem climbed to his feet and looked back to the guard, but any intentions he might have had of trying again were dispelled by the rock the guard threw to follow his shove. Jerem dodged this, but got the message and ran through the gate, anxious not to be trapped on the outside of the city. He could hear both guards laughing. He stopped running, angry and embarrassed.

    “Out of the way!” a voice shouted and Jerem just had time to jump to the side before two enormous draft horses pushed past drawing a wagon. The wagon driver followed his warning with a string of curses that sent Jerem scurrying farther into the city. There were buildings everywhere, shoulder to shoulder like people lined up at a gristmill waiting for their turn at the stones and each street ended in another without pause, a tightly-packed assortment unlike anything Jerem had ever seen before.

    When Jerem finally managed to escape this urban river, he was in an alley ‘eddy’ of some kind and totally lost. And still there were people everywhere. And the noise. So much noise by so many people. Jerem couldn’t think in such noise. He just stood pressed against the wood slats of a building, covering his ears, unable to move.

    How am I going to find Janthro in here?


    Carts rattled by, someone jostled him as they tried to get by. Jerem turned about full circle and still could find no solid landmark to guide him. Even the two great towers were hidden by the buildings. Jerem closed his eyes and tried to pretend he was somewhere else. Anywhere else.

    This was stupid. I’ll never find him.


    Jerem opened his eyes and took a deep breath. It was getting dark. Too late to do much more than try and find someplace to sleep. And he could try again in the morning. If he could find an inn, then the innkeeper might even be able to turn him right round again. Jerem looked in his small purse, moving the few lonely coins about in it. Even with the rest hidden amongst his things, they seemed too few coins, now that he’d seen the city. He pulled the strings tight and returned it to his pocket.

    It took more courage than he would have thought to get moving, but once he did, the city began to look less frightening and more exciting. There were shops everywhere with carts and wagons of food and creatures and things of every description. If not for the growing darkness, Jerem would have yielded to the distraction of it all and looked about more. But his first priority was finding a place to sleep. Eventually he found it; however, an inn that had rooms.

    It was a large two story structure called the Night Watchman. It looked even fancier than the Hook and Sinker back home, but it was the first place Jerem had seen with any indications that it might let rooms. He entered to a sudden burst of heat and noise and quickly slid to one side to wait for his eyes to adjust to the flickering dimness within.

    It was crowded, not unexpected given all the people Jerem had seen that day, but not completely filled, with some empty seats to be found around the common room and fire. There were tables and chairs everywhere, with the tightest cluster around the large fireplace along one wall. Jerem stayed by the door, just off to one side, trying to gather his courage to go in and amongst all the people to figure out who was in charge and how to get a room.

    He finally spotted the man he thought was the innkeeper, bustling in from further back. Jerem went up to him quickly, so that he wouldn’t disappear again.

    “Sir?” he asked when he finally got the man’s attention. “Do you have a room I could stay in?”

    The innkeeper looked Jerem up and down, frowning but not commenting when his gaze stopped on Jerem’s ears. It was all Jerem could do not to reach up and cover them. Finally he said,

    “Just you?”

    The tone was strange, but Jerem didn’t know what to make of it, so he replied, “Yes, sir. Just me.”

    The frown deepened.

    “2 silver for the night.” A pause. “In advance.”

    Jerem’s mouth fell open in astonishment. Two silver? That was well more than they ever charged at home! Was the man trying to cheat him? Jerem looked about quickly as he fished out his purse to buy a bit of time to think. The inn was clean; well kept and much fancier than the Hook and Sinker. And it was the city. And it was dark now and he had nowhere else to go. Jerem took a deep breath and counted out the coins to hand to the innkeeper. Tonight he didn’t have a choice, but tomorrow there had to be someplace less expensive he could stay.

    The innkeeper counted the coins again, to check he hadn’t been shorted, but Jerem knew his sums and after a brief pause the Innkeeper called out, “Kander!”

    A young boy about Jerem’s own age showed up, with a prompt, “Yes, Master Taw?”

    “Show our guest to his room. Top end blue.”

    The boy nodded quickly and led off, with Jerem following. They exited the common room through a large door, went down a hall, up some stairs, and finally arrived at a blue-painted door. The boy gestured him inside.

    “Thanks,” Jerem answered and the boy scampered back downstairs.

    The room was large, larger than his at home, with a thick feather comforter on the bed. It was also blessedly quieter and let him be alone. Jerem was rather desperate to be alone right now. He dropped his things, stripped off his clothes, and burrowed into the bed. After a while, the panicked undertone that had dominated his thoughts since seeing the city began to slip away but he was still anxious. What was he going to do? He mentally compared the money he had to the cost of the inn and realized he didn’t have a lot of time to find Janthro, not if all the inns were as expensive as this one.

    Jerem tried to redirect his thinking. It wasn’t so bad. Just because those first soldiers were jerks, didn’t mean they all were. He just had to find out where they all stayed and go there and ask. And hope they knew more than he did. He didn’t even know what name to use. Janthro wouldn’t have kept their last name, it would be recognized. And he couldn’t have gotten away with no last name, not working for the Duke. Jerem fell asleep with his thoughts still looping between hope and helplessness.

    He woke the next morning early and asked the inn keeper for directions to where the Duke’s Soliders were. The man looked confused, but suggested Jerem try the castle. He then spouted off a series of turns and landmarks, which Jerem tried his hardest to remember for later. A quick, but most importantly cheap, bun purchased from a cart vendor on his way provided breakfast. And within ten minutes, he was lost.

    He reoriented himself as quickly as he could, asking at the first safe place, a bakery cart run by a matronly woman, for better directions. These he followed precisely and was rewarded to find himself at the gate of the inner wall near lunchtime. If the innkeeper was correct, the Duke’s soldiers without family in Windshae, were housed somewhere inside. The gates were open, but there was an iron portcullis blocking access inside. There was a smaller door among the iron bars, welded on its hinges and just large enough for a man to pass through. To either side of this locked door, stood two more men in the Duke’s sable and scarlet. They watched Jerem approach, curiously cautious.

    “Name and Business,” one asked in a bored voice.

    “Um…” Now that he was here, Jerem didn’t know what to say. He took a breath as the guard motioned for him ‘to get on with it’. “I’m looking for my brother, Janthro. He’s a soldier.”

    It sounded stupid, even to him, but he didn’t have any other information to go on.

    “Don’t know any Janthro,” the man replied laconically.

    “He’s tall,” Jerem pressed. “Red hair.”

    The man shook his head again, frowning at Jerem’s ears.

    “He deformed like you?”

    Jerem blinked a couple times. Deformed? His ears weren’t that different from everyone else’s. It wasn’t like they stuck out or anything, they were just a different shape in one part. Why would…. Jerem shook himself free of the distraction. It didn’t matter.

    “Yes,” he answered. “His ears look like mine.”

    “Ain’t got no deformed soldiers here,” the man told him. “Scram.”

    “But…” Jerem began, upset and fearful.

    The other guard seemed more sympathetic, and put in,

    “You got any more about him? Last name?”

    Jerem shook his head.

    “Tom is right,” he said then. “We don’t know him. But that don’t mean he’s not here somewhere. You might try checking back tomorrow, or at the 8th bell when we get relieved.”

    Jerem nodded vigourously.

    “Thanks!”

    He hurried off, resolved to return later that afternoon. In the meanwhile, he hunted for someplace less expensive to stay. He finally found a place he could afford. It made his hair stand on end, like it wasn’t entirely safe, and his room was tiny with a slanted ceiling that would have annoyed an adult, but it was a quarter of what last night’s inn had asked. Jerem decided he would be safe in his room by dark, regardless.

    He returned to the main gate, only getting lost twice, shortly before the 8th bell rang. He asked the new guards, but they didn’t know Janthro either. Not without more information than Jerem had about him. He didn’t have much time afterward to do anything but run back to the inn and lock himself in for the night. It was still loud and noisy and frightening given the curses and chaos he could still hear break out occasionally down below in the common room.

    The next day, he repeated the process with similar results. This time, he didn’t get lost, but he did notice that some pretty unsavory looking people had followed him through the city. Thankfully, he made it back to the inn before they caught up to him. He sat on his bed that night, sorting through his money and considering. How was he going to find Janthro if no one knew where he was in all these people?

    The next day, he summoned the courage to ask one of the guards where soldiers went when they weren’t working for the Duke, in hopes of finding more people to ask that might recognize his brother’s description. This brought with it directions to a neighborhood to the west and the name of a couple taverns. Jerem followed the instructions into rougher and rougher sections of the city. He asked every soldier he saw, but no one recognized his brother’s name or description.

    Worse, the soldiers were getting meaner. Some demanded money. Some threw things at him or dumped their drinks on him. One even threw him bodily out of the tavern, at which Jerem picked himself up and fled at a run. Luckily no one followed. But at the end of his flight, Jerem looked about to find himself totally lost.

    Why is this so hard!


    Jerem turned completely around again, his fists clenching in frustrated anger and his heart falling in depressed doubt and fear.

    What if he’s not here?


    “Get out of the way!” someone yelled, and Jerem had to move aside or be run over by a cart. The man pushing it cursed at him some more as he passed. Jerem saw a rickety bench a short way off, and sat on it. His head fell to his hands, hopeless.

    What should I do!


    Jerem wallowed in his hopelessness for a long while. Wondering if he should give up and go home. Cerna had said he could and it was more tempting now than it had ever been. But that would mean abandoning any hope of seeing Janthro ever again. He felt like he was going to throw up as his thoughts went back and forth between the options without stopping.

    Jerem was still sitting on the bench when he heard the cry. It was kind of a shriek, cut off suddenly, but definitely a person. Jerem’s head came up quickly as he looked about. No one else seemed to have noticed or heard. Even the people on the streets nearby continued about their business as if nothing had happened. Maybe he was hearing things. Jerem’s head lowered once more, wrapping himself in his despair, when he heard another noise.

    “Help!” the strangled voice cried out.

    Jerem looked around once more. Again, no one else seemed to hear. Or care. But Jerem found himself moving toward the noise, as if on instinct. Regardless of what everyone else was doing, someone needed help. Even if he was too small to do anything, he could certainly see what was wrong and find someone bigger. He skidded around the corner to face an empty alleyway between the buildings. He stopped here, but then heard the cry again. He followed the sound, down the darkened alley until he found himself in a small space behind the buildings of the street he had come from. More buildings, likely from the adjacent street, blocked his path forward. Jerem glanced left and right, to find his path there blocked by debris and another wall short distance in either direction. There was no sign of who might have screamed.

    Jerem turned back to try a different path to find five youths now standing the alley, between him and the way out. They ranged in age from young boys like him to what might even be adults. They were arranged in a loose arc across the opening as they slowly advanced. There was nothing friendly in the way the older ones smiled at him.

    Fearfully, Jerem backed away, his eyes searching for some way out, any way out. But any doors he could see were shut tight and the walls unclimbable, not with pursuit so close. No one drew a weapon as they closed in, Jerem wasn’t even sure anyone had a weapon, but his heart was hammering and he was starting to panic. The only thing he could do was run through them and hope. Jerem tried to shift closer to the side with the smaller kids, somewhere he might have a chance to break through to the street.

    “Wotcher look at that,” one of them, the tallest one said, “Got us a mouse.”

    “Looks like a fat mouse,” the other older one added.

    This drew a laugh from the one who had just spoken. He waved his hand at Jerem. Jerem took a breath and readied to run.

    “Get him, mongoose,” the young man ordered.

    The youngest urchin, the one Jerem had hoped to push past, leapt at the comment, sending them both to the ground. It knocked the wind out of Jerem, but the boy was up in moments, pummeling Jerem about the head and shoulders. Jerem tried to defend himself, but just as he managed to roll away, two more joined the pile, pinning him. They held him down as they rifled through his pockets, taking his money pouch and Jerem didn’t know what from the top layer of his pack. Jerem punched out, with little result, panicking as his mind flashed back to the beating that had made him run away from home. The boys pummeled him mercilessly, as Jerem could do no more than try to protect his face and head.

    My swords!

    The thought struck like lightning. He could stop this if he could get to them! Jerem tried slip out of his pack, taking a ringing blow to his head because he had to move his arm away to get the strap off. Jerem nearly blacked out as he was hit again, his vision going white then gray. It suddenly occurred to Jerem that these boys could kill him. And there was nothing he could do to stop them, there were too many. Another fist got through and the world greyed again.

    Suddenly, a sharp two toned whistle sounded nearby, stopping the gang of thugs mid-blow, though Jerem didn’t know why. It sounded again, closer, and the boys hitting him jumped back, leaving him on the ground.

    “The watch!” one cried, “Run!”

    They scattered in seconds. Jerem tried to roll over and found he could, though it hurt a great deal. He sat up and prodded at his face tenderly. The Watch! He had been saved by the Watch—whatever that was. He looked around eagerly but no adults came to his rescue. No one came. Jerem was just climbing to his feet in order to replace the scattered items from his pack when he heard a voice.

    “You all right?”

    Jerem whirled in terror at the sound, fearful the urchins had come back to finish the job, but finally spotted the source. A young boy, he guessed about his own age, stood against one wall of the alley entrance. Unlike the boys that had robbed him, this boy was dressed as a member of the upper classes, in a clean, fine-spun, dark blue tunic, and black hose. The boy’s black hair was neatly combed and he was smiling.

    “Sorry I couldn’t get them off sooner,” the boy went on in a cheerful but apologetic voice. “But I needed the kid standing watch on the street to leave, or the trick wouldn’t work”

    In explanation, the boy pursed his lips and whistled again. The whistle of the Watch. It was the boy that had saved him. Jerem relaxed and ran a hand through his hair in sheer nervous relief. He held out his hand to the newcomer.

    “Jerem,” he offered.

    The boy came closer and shook it solemnly.

    “Telivorn Grey,” he replied. Telivorn made a little flourishing bow. “At your service.”

    Jerem laughed despite himself at the absurdity of it all. But his joy was short lived as his hand patted his pockets, their emptiness reminding him that the beating had cost more than a few bruises. His face fell. Without even looking at Telivorn, Jerem dropped to his knees and began to search his pack for his other money pouches. His panic grew as he only found two of the three. Half his money gone! How was he going to be able to find Janthro now? Something of his despair must have been visible because Telivorn knelt beside him.

    “Hey,” Telivorn said, drawing Jerem’s attention. “What’s wrong?”

    “Nothing,” Jerem lied back, unable to explain the growing jumble of fear, despair, and panic that was roiling inside him. Telivorn frowned at him a minute, then stood, holding out his hand once more.

    “Come on,” he told Jerem. “I know somewhere safe we can talk.”

    When Jerem simply stared at Telivorn’s hand like he didn’t know what it was for, Telivorn shook it for emphasis, and finally Jerem grabbed it and was helped to his feet. Then Telivorn lifted up Jerem’s pack—stumbling a bit at its surprising weight—before helping Jerem get it on his back. Jerem winced a lot during the process, the adrenaline wearing off and the bruises from the attack becoming much more noticeable. The bruises strangers had given him, strangers just like Telivorn. Jerem started to shake his head, wanting to run away someplace alone, even if he didn’t know where, but Telivorn punched his shoulder lightly and interrupted,

    “Won’t take no for an answer,” he insisted. “You deserve a proper welcome—not that crap. Trust me.”

    Trust him? He hadn’t even been in Windshae a few days and he’d already been beaten, robbed, cheated, and dismissed. Who did this kid think he was to ask that? The smart thing to do would be to leave. Now. The corner of Telivorn’s mouth crooked up wryly as if he could hear Jerem’s thoughts.

    “Your choice,” Telivorn added. “But looks like you could use a friend.”

    Oh to hell with it! It not like this day can get any worse.

    “Lead on,” Jerem finally answered.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  15. - Top - End - #15
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Jul 2009
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    The rest of Jerem's first week in Windshae.

    Spoiler: Chapter 6: Windshae Part 2
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    Chapter 6: Windshae Part 2

    Telivorn nodded firmly and led them back out into the main street. He turned immediately to the left, though where he was going Jerem had no idea. As they walked, Telivorn slowed his pace to match that of Jerem’s injured and stiff stride. A block or two later, he asked,

    “What happened?”

    “I heard someone call for help,” Jerem explained. “No one else was doing anything, so I went. I knew I could go get better help, even if I couldn’t do anything myself.”

    Telivorn shook his head grimly, “Geez, you aren’t from around here, are you?” The question was clearly rhetorical, because Telivorn continued without pause, “You don’t go chasing rabbits like that. Not here. Someone needs help, get the watch first, don’t go looking yourself.”

    “But they sounded like they were being hurt,” Jerem argued ruefully. What kind of place was this that people just stood by and watched?

    “I know,” Telivorn commiserated, “But there’s a lot of hurt ’round here, and when you’re alone… Safer to stay out of it. How are you here alone anyway? Where’s your folks?”

    “Got no folks,” Jerem replied. “Trying to find my brother.”

    “Oh.”

    They walked in silence for a while after that. Telivorn seemed to know his way around the city quite well, leading them through and around any overly crowded areas and toward what even Jerem could tell was a more well off section of the city. The buildings were better kept here, too, with fresh paint or freshly cleaned, an assortment of shops on the street level with living quarters above. Telivorn stopped looking around as much, as if he were less fearful of an attack, and they passed a green grocer, stable, fletcher, dressmaker, leatherworker, and more. Jerem was grateful for his new friend, feeling very lost. He couldn’t even see the towers, his only certain landmarks, blocked from view by the buildings, and Jerem doubted he could have found his way anywhere in Windshae without help.

    “So what do you do?” Telivorn asked curiously. “Where’s your master?”

    It took him a couple seconds to parse this. Of course. If he didn’t have parents, he had to have someone. No kid would be stupid enough to go to the city alone. ’Cept him. Jerem sighed.

    “I’ve got work at an Inn in Moondale—the Hook and Sinker. But my brother works for the Duke. Came to let him know where I am.”

    “Hey, I work for the Duke too!” At Jerem’s shocked reaction, Telivorn flushed a little. “Kind of. My master’s one of the Duke’s Bards.”

    Telivorn sounded awfully proud of that, so it must be a big deal. Jerem tried to look impressed. But Jerem was now hopeful too; Telivorn might know how to find Janthro. Could he be that lucky?

    “My brother, Janthro, he’s a soldier,” Jerem offered, “Could you help me find him, or find who to ask?”

    Telivorn shrugged. “I guess. I could try at any rate.” He frowned again at Jerem’s halting steps. “You got somewhere to stay?”

    “Not yet,” Jerem answered. “Just arrived.”

    It wasn’t like he could go back to where he had stayed last night, not with half of his money gone. The silence that followed lasted for another two changes of direction. Telivorn seemed to be thinking hard about something.
    “Can you climb?” Telivorn asked, sounding like he now had a plan.

    “Not sure,” Jerem answered honestly. “Climb where?”

    “There’s a spot I’ve got,” Telivorn explained. “Up on the roof of the Iasin Church. Someone built something all wrong, ’cause the church doesn’t fit right against the buildings next to it. The roofs come together strange and there’s this hole... I hide up there when Master Telicol sends me out and I don’t want to go back right away. Or when I want someplace safe outside the castle. Nobody knows. It’s pretty sweet.”

    Jerem looked upward and frowned.

    “I don’t know if I can,” he admitted.

    Telivorn threw up his hands and laughed.

    “Nothing but to try then,” he said.

    And with that he took a sharp left, into a small alley that ran between buildings. It got narrower and narrower, but ended in a stable gate. Telivorn slipped through and Jerem followed. They entered the stable and climbed the ladder into the loft. Telivorn moved around the stacked hay toward the loading window, somehow keeping his clothes mostly hay-free. Jerem tried to help where he could.

    “This is the worst part,” Telivorn explained at the window ledge. “Let me go first. Got any rope?”

    Jerem nodded, removed his pack, and produced his lariat.

    “Great.”

    Telivorn took the rope from him and tied it around the pack. The other end in hand, the bard’s apprentice climbed out of the window and onto the beam above that held the pulley and rope used to bring hay into the loft. From there, he reached up to the roof line and with a leap and a pull, scrambled up onto the stable roof itself.

    “Give me the pack,” he called softly.

    Jerem held the pack out the window and Telivorn pulled it up by the rope.

    “Now you.”

    Jerem peered out. Any other day, it would have been easy, but his arms and body ached. With a determined bite on his lip, Jerem swung up onto the beam. The pain was ferocious but he managed to scramble atop it. Blinking back tears, he looked up at the roof. How the hell was he going to get up there? It was a bigger jump than the beam had been. Telivorn was sitting on the roof, his feet braced on its edge. After several moments of waiting, an enlightened look appeared on his face. He quickly turned around and untied the pack before dropping the rope down to Jerem.

    “Bide a bit,” he told Jerem, before scrambling farther up the roof with the other end of the rope. He reappeared once more, rope no longer in his hand but trailing up and out of sight. “Okay, try it now.”

    Jerem wrapped the rope around his body and with Telivorn pulling from above, managed to make it the last few feet. He lay back against the thatch panting.

    “Thanks,” he said finally.

    “No trouble,” Telivorn answered. “Can you make it a little farther?”

    Jerem nodded and put his pack back on. Telivorn led him farther up the roof and over to its edge where Jerem could see the wall of a church rising two more stories. The walls met in a hodge-podge, with a corner of the church intersecting their roof at an illogical angle. Thatch had been piled to cover the disconnect, rising in a mound that looked much like a haystack. Telivorn approached the haystack and disappeared suddenly from view. Jerem followed Telivorn around to find that the ‘haystack’ was hollow. Once inside, he could see that wooden slats formed a floor below them and thatch bundles a roof above, much of it appeared to have been added after the initial construction. Had Telivorn done all this?

    The domed space was small, with barely enough room for the two of them. But it was protected from the elements and hidden. Jerem doubted anyone outside could even see it, unless they came right up to the wall. Telivorn scooted to one side of the small space and lit a lantern, which he placed on a homemade shelf anchored to the church wall. It glowed merrily in its holed tin box. Jerem sat beside Telivorn, shoving his pack further alongside the thatch like a bolster. He leaned back against it and took a deep breath, feeling safe for the first time since entering the city, even though he was with a complete stranger. Jerem reached around and pulled out the last of the dried meat and fruit Cerna had packed as well as his canteen. He held the bundle out to his new friend.

    “Want some?” he asked.

    Telivorn nodded, and broke off a piece of the jerky. They ate in silence for a while. Finally Telivorn spoke.

    “I’m gonna have to get back soon. Master Telacol is pretty strict.” Telivorn made a face. “He’s a horse’s arse, actually, but I can’t do anything about it. He’s got the Duke’s favor, and…” Telivorn’s cadences changed to mimic what was obviously an adult. “…you couldn’t ask for better in terms of skills and connections, so shut your trap and don’t waste this.”

    “Ouch,” Jerem commiserated.

    “One day, you’ll see,” Telivorn declared, “They’ll all see. I’m going to be better than he ever was!”

    “Sure,” Jerem agreed, not knowing what else to say.

    “How about you?”

    “Don’t know,” Jerem answered honestly. “I want to find Janthro, but don’t know past that.”

    Telivorn paused in thought before declaring, “Then that’s what we’ll do first thing tomorrow. I’ll be back in the morning. Make yourself at home.” He started to leave, but turned back with a smirk and a vague gesture outside the thatch. “There’s a bucket outside if you need it. Just check below before you dump it.”

    And with that, Telivorn was gone like some miraculous wood sprite. City sprite? Some mythical creature at any rate. Jerem half expected him to magically reappear, but Telivorn remained gone. After a while, Jerem set about making the room comfortable for the night. He certainly was in no shape to climb down, aching all over from the beating. Jerem pulled out some of the thatch and laid it on the floor to form a pallet, rolled out his blankets atop it, and was asleep pretty much immediately. Thankfully the lantern simply burned out, rather than set anything on fire while he slept, and Jerem awoke to darkness. Between the dim moonlight and the night vision imparted by his elven blood, Jerem had no trouble navigating without the candle. He snacked on some more of the food, drank, made much needed use of the bucket outside and then settled back in for the night. The cold on his brief trip outside led him to wait for morning before exploring further.

    He slept fitfully, but ultimately peacefully, undisturbed for the remainder of the night. The aching seemed to be worse this morning, to be expected Jerem supposed, but he still struggled upright and gathered up his things to leave. Once everything had been packed, he dozed some more until several hours later he woke to scrabbling outside. Afraid, Jerem grabbed his knife, not sure if he could bring himself to use it on another person, even if it was an attack. But before he could consider his dilemma more than a moment, Telivorn popped around the thatch and into view.

    “Yo!” he called brightly.

    Telivorn was dressed less neatly than he had been the previous day, in a dark blue jerkin and breeches that were clearly not something he would be expected to perform in. They were still worlds more formal in their styling and cut than anything Jerem owned; however, and Jerem wondered if the mismatch would attract attention. He waited for Jerem at the door, adding after a moment,

    “You can leave your pack here. It will be safe.”

    Jerem nodded, grateful. He had not wanted to lift that load and carry it around all day, especially with his aches and bruises. He followed Telivorn back out onto the roof, then out onto the beam, into the loft and down to the street. Down was easier that up, and Jerem suspected he would need the ropes help to go back tonight if his body remained so painfully stiff all day. But Telivorn was matching his pace, leading off at an easy walk through the city. After a few blocks, Telivorn asked curiously,

    “Tell me about your brother, what’s his name?”

    “Janthro,” Jerem answered. “Sometimes he goes by Jan.”

    “Last name?” Telivorn pressed.

    “Uhh…. I… I’m not sure,” Jerem admitted finally.

    That got a strange look from Telivorn.

    “So how is it you don’t know your own name?” he asked incredulously.

    Jerem didn’t know how to answer, there really wasn’t a reason that made sense for the lapse other than the truth. And he knew he couldn’t say ‘because we’re on the run’ from our family.

    “Just don’t,” he said finally.

    Telivorn made the face Jerem felt his answer deserved but did not press. Instead he asked, “So what’s he look like?”

    “He’s big,” Jerem described, raising a reaching arm as tall as he could. “Taller than this. But skinny. Long red hair, green eyes like mine. Almost ten years older than me. Not sure what else I can tell you…”

    “Good enough for now, I suppose,” Telivorn put in. “If his eyes are the same color as yours, that will be odd. Should help. His ears weird too?”

    Jerem’s fingers went up to touch his own slightly pointed ears. Deformed, the guard had said. After a pause, he nodded. Telivorn merely frowned at this, then reached out to mess up Jerem’s hair a bit. Jerem jerked away, uncertain and confused, just as Telivorn stepped back and cocked his head.

    “Not sure how useful that’s going to be. If his hair is much longer than yours, they’ll be hidden.”

    Oh. So that’s what he had been doing.

    “So where are we going?” Jerem asked at last.

    “The castle,” Telivorn answered. “I know some pages there who hang out with the soldiers a lot. And do other things. Between them all, I bet we can get this sorted."

    “Do you think we can get in?”

    “I know we can,” Telivorn replied with a sly smirk. “Let’s go.”

    Jerem followed him toward the castle. After several blocks of travel, Telivorn made a detour from what Jerem thought was a direct route, based on the top of a blue tower he could just see over the buildings. The side trip turned out to be a bakery.

    “Hi, Gennie,” he called to a girl moving loaves of bread into baskets. He pointed at two already filled ones on the floor. “Is that for the castle?”

    “Oh Telivorn,” she said, flushing a little. “Yes. For tonight’s dinner.”

    Telivorn’s smile broadened, causing the girl to blush redder and return the smile. Jerem wondered what was going on. But without looking away from the girl, Telivorn lifted a basket and passed it to him. Surprised, Jerem took it. Telivorn lifted the other.

    “I could save you some time,” he offered. “Bring these over on my way.” He paused to dip his head at her. “Maybe come back to return them later?”

    The way the girl looked to the floor then with a slight giggle made Jerem think he had missed a turn somewhere, but quickly enough she said breathlessly, “I’ll be waiting.”

    Telivorn sketched a bow at her, still holding the basket against one hip, which made her giggle behind her hand and then headed for the door. Jerem followed, carrying his basket.

    “What was that about?” he asked.

    “Just watch,” Telivorn promised.

    The two boys continued on side by side, and when they reached the gate, Jerem felt sure they’d be stopped, but the guard merely waved at Telivorn who spoke up before they could be questioned.

    “Hi, Harry. We’re just bringing the bread in for dinner. Can you let us in?”

    ‘Harry’ simply nodded and opened the gate. Jerem didn’t dare make a sound until they were well inside and crossing the inner bailey green.

    “Act like you belong,” Telivorn explained, “and you can get in nearly anywhere.”

    They delivered the bread as promised, and continued on with the empty baskets along a side corridor which, when they passed a window, Jerem could see ran along the cliffside. A few twists and turns and a flight of stairs later, Telivorn stopped before a door that looked much like the last four doors they had passed. He knocked hard, and a voice within called, “Enter!”

    Telivorn opened the door to a fairly large room. The center was taken up by a huge table, and bookshelves lined one wall behind it. Two large ledger books lay open on the table and more sat on the shelves beyond. Jerem frowned at the bindings, squinting as he tried to make out what they said. Near as he could tell it was years and names like the Rose Battalion, Falcon Battalion, or Red Hawks. He glanced down at the open books to see columns with names to one side and numbers lined up next to them. There was boy sitting at the table opposite, quill in hand, who had a pile of small scraps of parchment next to him and was entering information that had been marked on them into one of the large books.

    “Hey, Telivorn,” he said without looking up.

    The boy’s quill kept scratching out numbers on the page. Jerem deduced he must be a scribe, but not why Telivorn had brought him here. He gave his friend a look of inquiry. Telivorn acknowledged this with a nod.

    “Hey Chaden. Need your help.”

    “No. I’m not sneaking into the kitchens again,” Chaden argued pre-emptively. He still hadn’t looked up from his work.

    “Not that,” Telivorn countered. “We just need information.”

    That got Chaden to stop writing and look up.

    “What information?” he asked suspiciously. “And who’s he?”

    He,” Telivorn emphasized with a jerk of his head, “is Jerem. He’s trying to find his brother, who happens to be a soldier for the Duke.”

    “And….”

    “And you have the pay records. His brother’s got to be in here somewhere.”

    “I don’t have time to read…”

    “You don’t have to,” Telivorn interrupted. “Let me do it.”

    “I’ll help,” Jerem volunteered to be met by two equally surprised glances at his admission of literacy.

    But Telivorn brushed it off to beg, “Please… I’ll owe you….”

    “Fine,” Chaden relented, “but I’m getting back to work.”

    True to his word, Chaden began entering more slips of paper in his big book. Telivorn pulled the other open one across the table and turned to the first page. He pointed at the first column, where the soldier’s names were written.

    “I’ll take the page on the left,” he told Jerem.

    Jerem focused on the ledger’s right side page, his finger running down the names, looking for anyone named Janthro. When they finished one page, they turned to the next. And the next. They made it nearly all the way through the first book before Telivorn cheered,

    “Got him.” He pointed to a name a third of the way down. “Janthro Diadrem”

    “Really?” Jerem asked, looking over himself.

    Janthro Diadrem, Captain, Red Hawk Battalion. There was another name following, which Jerem memorized, likely Janthro’s commanding officer. In an effort to be thorough, even though Janthro was an uncommon name, they took the time to finish the book and bribe Chaden with a candy Jerem didn’t even know Telivorn had to quickly look through the second. No other Janthros were found, so with a thank you to Chaden, they left.

    “Who’s Lord Reeve Otes?” Jerem asked, repeating the name in the ledger.

    Telivorn frowned at this. “He commands the Red Hawks,” he explained somewhat distractedly. “But he’s also a nobleman. Touchy, too.”

    Telivorn fell silent as he led Jerem through the castle, back the way they had come, but along a slightly different path. This time he stopped at a plain door off a corridor in one of the larger buildings. He opened this door without knocking, and Jerem followed him into a very small narrow room. He gestured Jerem to sit on the bed, currently the only furniture in the room aside from an armoire against the wall. Jerem sat.

    “This is my room,” Telivorn explained. “I think I’d best go ask about your brother alone. I’m supposed to be here, and you’re not dressed right to see nobility.”

    Telivorn skinned out of his jerkin and into a much fancier one. He then opened the armoire to pull out a dark blue vest and shrugged it on. He settled the new clothes on himself and looked in the small mirror nailed to the inside of the armoire door.

    “I’ll be back soon. Don’t go anywhere.”

    Jerem watched his friend dart back out, closing the door behind him. Jerem actually fell asleep while waiting, waking when the door opened to find the sky outside the narrow window darkening quickly.

    “What did you find out,” Jerem asked as he struggled to wake up.

    “Lots,” Telivorn answered, swinging by the armoire to change back into his clothes from earlier.
    Jerem managed to wait nearly two whole minutes before he asked,

    “So where’s Janthro?”

    “Not here right now,” Telivorn replied. “I told Lord Otes that I was tasked with passing along a message to Captain Diadrem from his brother, who was here to visit. Lord Otes then allowed Janthro was under his command, but not here.”

    “Did he say where he was?”

    “He finally said Karine. I think he was trying to get me to go away. He said you should come back in a month.”

    “A month!” Jerem cried shocked. “I can’t stay a month!”

    Telivorn took in Jerem’s distress, and after a thoughtful pause, put in, “Maybe you wouldn’t have to stay the whole month. Maybe you could leave something in his room.”

    “We’re allowed in his room?” Jerem asked in surprise.

    “Allowed is such a narrow word,” Telivorn laughed. “No, we just go in. We know he’s part of the Red Hawks, which means we know what floor of the Barracks he’s in. I bet I could get someone to tell us which room. And we just go in. I run errands all over the castle all the time. Come on!”

    Jerem followed Telivorn back out into the castle. They made their way to the barracks, and true to Telivorn’s word, a few careful inquiries resulted in them both standing in front of Janthro’s door by the time it was full dark. Telivorn gestured open palmed at the door.

    “I have to report in. I’ll pick you up afterward. Don’t leave the room, and lock the door behind you.”

    Jerem nodded, took a deep breath, and entered the room. He locked the door behind him and turned around. It was a very simple room, only slightly bigger than Telivorn’s had been, with very few possessions to even hint he was in the right place. Jerem searched the trunk at the bed’s foot first, since there wasn’t much else in the room. Inside he found some clothing, a few old letters from his mother and himself, tied with string. And very little else. Within the hour he had only turned up a few scraps of parchment with incomplete notes scribbled in Janthro’s hand. Enough to know he was indeed in Karine, but not necessarily why he was there or when he would be back.

    I can’t stay here a whole month!


    Jerem mentally counted his money. He had some, but not a whole month’s worth of food and lodging, maybe not even enough to last if he stayed in Televorn’s rooftop hidey hole. And what if Janthro was late? He remembered how hard it had been to find a job when he had arrived in Moondale. What would he be able to do here? He was sure Telivorn would know, but Telivorn had done so much for him already that Jerem was feeling guilty about asking for much more.

    But if I go after Jan, I bet I could make it to Karine. I made it to Moondale. I made it here. And then money wouldn’t matter. And I could stay with Jan once I found him…


    By the time Telivorn returned, Jerem had decided. Since he didn’t have money to do both, he was going to follow Janthro. He was going to Karine
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  16. - Top - End - #16
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Hope everyone is enjoying the story so far.

    I did have a question, though. What age do you think this story is aimed at? Young adult? Adult? I'm curious because I don't really know myself what age my writing is appropriate for.

    Thanks
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  17. - Top - End - #17
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Okay

    This is where it gets complicated. When I write, I don't write linearly. So while stories are overall plotted, and I know what happens, I write the scenes that speak to me first. Which leaves me with 14 books, none of which are entirely finished.

    So we have now officially reached one of the 'holes' in this story. I have parts before which you've seen and parts after, which you haven't, and an outline of what happens in between. So sorry for the long delay in posting, plus the likely rough writing of the work itself as I try to fill in the 'holes'.

    Anyway here is the first part of Chapter 7.

    Spoiler: Chapter 7: Karine's Keep Part 1
    Show


    Chapter 7:
    Karine’s Keep

    Jerem only remembered his agreement to write Cerna and Gyillian the day before he was about to set out. Thankfully it was while he still had some money because even though Jerem could read and write the message himself, he could not deliver it. And the scribes whose business it was did not offer to discount their rates. So in the end, the note was very short. Just ‘Got here safe,’ ‘Hope to find Jan soon,’ and ‘Back after.’ It still cost a fair bit and Jerem wondered how Janthro had sent all his letters home. Janthro may not have written often, but when he had the letters were in his own hand and pages long. Maybe he would ask when he finally found his brother. But Jerem hoped even the short message that would keep Cerna from worrying. As for himself, he was feeling better and better about the journey the closer it got. Telivorn had helped him find the shopkeeper who sold dried goods to travelers at what he said was a fair price. And staying in Telivorn’s rooftop hideyhole meant Jerem had saved a great deal of his remaining money and was able to spend it on supplies for the journey.

    And by the time Jerem started out, he had spent nearly all of it. The largest expense had been the food, more costly because it was specially prepared to survive for weeks on the road. His pack seemed far too heavy with the new additions, but Jerem felt better knowing he would not have to worry about food on his way there. It meant he could travel cross-country and so avoid encountering more people than necessary. The attack during his first week in Windshae had imbued him with a fear of strangers. The wood would be safer. At least in there, he knew how to deal with the threats. Jerem snorted as he tucked his most expensive recent purchase, a detailed Westland map, into his pack.

    When did bears become less dangerous than people?

    Jerem wasn’t sure he liked the implications of that thought, though it was no less true. You could predict animals. Jerem knew how to avoid bears, how to hang his food to avoid it being ‘stolen’ while he slept, as well as deal with any number of natural hazards. While some animals might be mad with disease, most did what you expected them to, and you could stay safe. Jan had showed him how. He never should have been afraid of being alone in the woods. Come to think on it, Cerna and Gyillian were afraid of him being alone, because of the people he might meet, not the animals.

    So while Jerem began his journey this morning on the road, he had no intention on staying on it for long. He followed a caravan of wagons loaded with barrels for much of the first day, to avoid the boggy ground around the city. That night and the next, he earned a place sleeping under their wagons by helping them with their animals. But by the third day he was on his own and cutting cross-country. He really couldn’t complain about anything about the journey. The weather was holding, with no rain on the horizon, and it was still spring-like enough that walking wasn’t too uncomfortable.

    Each night Jerem set up his small camp, as sheltered as he could find in the area. He checked his location using the stars and his map, hung his food after eating, and camouflaged his campsite with branches and leaves from any casual passersby. He didn’t see any of the two-legged variety, but he woke once to find a fox sniffing him. His sudden movement startled them both and the fox ran away. Each morning, or whenever the opportunity presented itself, he checked his map against any visible landmarks he could see. He crossed the road twice more as the days passed, both times rejoining it to traverse watercourses at a safe spot.

    The terrain itself was growing more and more hilly as he drew west, some of them quite high, with jutting rocks and boulders dotting their surface. The rough terrain slowed him down, but so long as he was making steady progress, Jerem was happy. His pack was getting lighter too, a dubious blessing, as it meant his foodstocks were running lower. But water wasn’t a problem, the hills dotted with streams and rivulets where he could refill his waterskins. There were farms and ranches where the terrain permitted, some sloping quite steeply as they grew up the hillsides.

    Cresting one of the larger hills, Jerem stopped and checked his map again because he could see the lights of a village or town in the distance. The sun was setting but if the map was right, it was Karine. Jerem cheered despite himself at his success. He did it! It was still several hours away, if Jerem had to guess, but he had done it! All he had to do was follow the slope downward along the river that formed the valley and he should be there by tomorrow evening. And Janthro might be waiting.

    But Jerem’s attention was immediately drawn to some stone ruins that peeked out through the forests between himself and Karine. Something huge must have been there once, to leave all that stonework behind. Janthro might just as easily be waiting there, too, on some strange assignment or other. The duty guard had only said Janthro was on an assignment in Karine. It was Jerem’s search of his brother’s room that had revealed more, fragments of notes that didn’t sound like Jan was going to the town itself at all. The lanterns and oil scribbled out as needed items implied an underground journey. As had the fragments that said ‘old kingdom’ and ‘hidden.’ Those ruins certainly looked like they might provide plenty of old hiding spaces.

    In fact there were broken stones of what might have been a castle perched along this very hill that climbed above the tree line, and looked to Jerem’s eye as if a giant child had knocked the structure down the hill pell mell. Even more remains were visible at intervals along the ridgeline, two wall sections and a tower for certain, hinting at an overall structure that might have even been greater than the Castle at Windshae at one point. Not to mention whatever village bits that were still hidden by the trees.
    ‘Old kingdom’, indeed.

    Jerem sat down for a moment on a fallen log to consider. Where should he go and in which order? Was Janthro’s assignment to explore the ruins or the village? And if he was in the ruins, why? Jerem knew the safest option was to go into town and wait for his brother, but what if Janthro never went into the town? What if he did whatever he was supposed to in the ruins and then returned home, and Jerem missed him? He didn’t have enough food to get home, nor the money to get more. So if Janthro wasn’t in the village, he would have to come back here to check right away, just to be sure, and that would cost him nearly two full days.

    But if he poked around now…

    Well, if he poked around now, he would find Janthro if he was there and if his brother was not, he could go on to the village, knowing he wouldn’t miss Janthro. Yes, he should check the ruins first. A twinge of doubt rose with the conclusion, an edge of danger from just looking at the eerie ruined rocks, but it was quickly suppressed by Jerem’s pride in his getting here at all. He had done that himself. And aside from that one bad day, things in Windshae had turned out pretty well. So if he headed a bit north now, he could search the ruins on his way. And if things got too scary, he could always leave off the ruins and just head in to town. Even without going inside anything, his tracking skills would let him know if anyone else had been in the area recently. He could do this.

    Jerem rose to his feet, checked the sun again, and then struck a more northward path, climbing. He crossed the ruins of the ancient keep’s outer wall just as the sun was setting. A line of tumbled stone that rose and fell like monster teeth in the grass.

    That’s kind of creepy…

    In growing unease, Jerem took off his pack and retrieved his swords. He hadn’t felt the need for them before, his bow being more than sufficient in the wood, but here... Here there might be bad things, and if he didn’t have his swords at hand it might be too late. Once Jerem buckled on his sword belt, he felt better. He walked around in circles a bit, getting used to the sudden new strangeness and size. Jerem even drew one and mock fought a tree with his pack on, just to be sure he could.

    Take that!

    The tree eventually lost and Jerem laughed. He was feeling much better about the general eeriness of the ruins now that he was armed, and Jerem strode onward with a determined stride. Wouldn’t Janthro be surprised. Just like Jain Farstrider, he might even find lost treasure. That would show them. Bard’s tales dancing in his head, he crossed deeper into the ancient ruins. More stones began to jut up through the grass and trees; walls of buildings, the remains of a well. Jerem became fascinated with each new structure, imagining what its purpose might have been in the old city.

    The sight of a hoof print, plain as day in the grass to his elvensight even in the darkness, stopped Jerem’s excited explorations with a surge of new fear. Not just one, but several, Jerem determined with a more detailed search. At least four animals, mules probably, had passed by recently.

    Janthro?

    He tracked the animals further into the ruined city. Jerem was moving carefully now, silently like his brother had taught him. Tracking with all his senses. He heard and smelled the animals before he actually saw them. Four mules, picketed in a small grove, divested of gear, but penned in a rope-made corral. They alerted to his presence, raising their heads from their grazing, their ears flicking up, but decided he wasn’t a threat. Jerem didn’t enter the corral, but counted the droppings. The animals had been here for a couple days at the least. His path around the animals found more tracks, people this time, leading away and back.

    Could Janthro have made these? Jerem followed the tracks in hopes of reaching their source. But the prickly feeling of fear, that it might not be his brother but something else, made his advance slow and silent. His ears straining for the slightest sound, his eyes searching for any sign of a campsite or people moving about, Jerem crept forward. Several yards later, Jerem found another corral. This one with two horses and three mules. Just the animals, no gear and no people, but still that trail of boot prints leading deeper into the forested ruins. A hundred yards after that, the path ended in what looked like the remains of a tower.

    Jerem halted here, fascinated and a little scared. He circled the ruins twice in the dark, finding no one outside and no other tracks to or away beside the path he came in on. No people either. If this were something dangerous, like bandits, surely they would have a guard stationed. But if the Duke had sent Janthro on a treasure hunt, everyone would be inside hunting. Jerem entered the empty tower ruins to find nothing more than a narrow stairway leading down, badly concealed by some brush that had been pulled over it. The stairway was old, probably as old as the tower around it, its cracked stones descending into darkness. The brush was new, however, likely left by those below to hide the opening.

    Jerem listened carefully at the top of the stairs. No one below. Step by careful step, Jerem started down.

    *****

    The Hand arrived in the village of Karine near nightfall. The groom of the The Broken Tower, one of Karine’s two Inns, took their horses into the stable, while the Hand brought their gear around to the front. In short order two rooms were paid for and their gear stowed. The men then returned to the common room, where Janthro, Karras, and Terreen spread out amongst the tables to gather whatever gossip they could. Karras joined a card game, Janthro sat along the bar, and Terreen at a table by the fire that was near to several others that were already filled by locals. Penjuana and Praden disappeared into the night, to take up similar stations in the town’s other main establishment where visitors and locals might gather. It was after the second day of their reconnaissance that the Hand discovered their first clue. As expected, it had been Karras that found it. He debriefed the others that night.

    “There’s something up in the ruins,” he informed them bluntly. “Not sure what, Guild for sure.”

    “Do we know how ‘big’ of a something?” Janthro pressed.

    “No, Boss,” Karras answered. “That’s what’s got my hackles up. If Guild is hiding stuff from itself, it’s big or something we’d be pissed about. I think it’s our target.”

    Janthro nodded. “Anything more?”

    “Not without twigging them to us.”

    Janthro took in his team. Given they were strangers, it was only a matter of time before word of their mere presence spread. And not long after that before any chance of surprise would be blown.

    “This is what we’re going to do,” he said, taking them all in by eye. “Penjuana and I are going scouting tonight. See if we can find out more about our target. Tomorrow at first light, we go clear everything out. So prep what you need to for a close and dirty underground fight. We don’t come back up until the ruins are clear.”

    The Hand nodded back, and then Janthro rose. Penjuana followed him out into the darkness. A quick look up at the moons, now rising over the horizon, and Janthro knew Penjuana would have enough light to navigate by. They headed northeast. The road out of town sufficed for the first half mile, but then they finally found what they had been hoping for—signs that riders had left the road.

    Tracking rapidly, they followed the trail in a more northerly direction. Penjuana’s hand came up in silent warning and Janthro froze before creeping to his side. He cocked his head in inquiry. Penjuana pointed to the dirt. Janthro crouched down to examine the track. It was clearly not human. Nor animal. And shod.

    Orcs. That makes things interesting.

    Janthro nodded to Penjuana and they resumed their hunt. The orcs explained why the Guild here was being so secretive. No one, not even their own fellow members, would appove of using orcs, no matter what their purpose. So what was their purpose? Janthro ruminated on this for a bit, as they began to approach the ruins proper. He signaled his Lieutenant closer.

    “Let’s split up here. Circle wide to the right. I’ll take left. Meet back here before moonset, even if you can’t cover everything.” Janthro patted the horn hanging over his shoulder. “If it all goes to hell, signal and run. Meet back at the tavern.”

    Penjuana acknowledged with a nod and silently disappeared in the undergrowth. Janthro began his search in the opposite direction. An hour and a half later, he was back at their meeting spot waiting. Just before the allotted time had run out, Penjuana appeared. Since the plainsman did not look alarmed, Janthro led them silently back toward town. Once he felt certain they were well away from any chance of being discovered or overheard he said quietly,

    “Anything?”

    Penjuana nodded. “Yes, Captain. There were signs of at least a dozen men, similar numbers of orcs. The orcs don’t seem to leave the area of the ruined castle, but the humans go to and from the road with some regularity. I found some animals, including mules. As well as a entrance downward in a ruined tower.”

    “I found similar on my end,” Janthro replied. “Though the entrance I found was much bigger. They seemed to have set up outside the ruined castle itself. Multiple lookouts. Mix of humans and orcs. Not sure what they’re planning.”

    Silence fell once more as they made their way back to the inn. On arrival, they returned to their room to catch a few hours sleep before dawn. They gathered in the larger of their two rooms to ready for the day. Praden and Karras were in the process of laying out and dividing the results of their work last night, several bottles lined up and divided into groups of five. Dragon Fire and smoke bombs, if Janthro had to guess. Terreen was checking their aid kits, to be sure the needles, sinew, linen strips, and the potions he had added were ready for any trouble they would encounter. Penjuana and Janthro consulted over their map, marking the details discovered in the night on its surface and discussing the direction of their approach. Finally they were all ready, and Praden, Karras, and Terreen joined them around the map.

    “So,” Janthro began, tapping the map with his finger. “This is their main entrance. It was guarded. Two men, one in an elevated hunting blind. It looked like it was the main keep entrance back in the day, so it’s too wide to effectively block. The second entrance,” Janthro paused to point to the tower stairway Penjuana found. “Is smaller. It’s also not as active. If we have to leave one, I would leave this one. We should be able to track any escapees, if needed.”

    “We go in the front. I’ll take out the man in the blind, Penjuana will take out the other man. Karras and Praden, you will silence anyone in or near the entranceway with as little fuss as possible. The longer we keep our presence secret, the more enemies we take down before they can gang up on us.”

    He turned to Karras and asked, “Any idea of how many to expect?”

    Karras frowned judiciously. “The Guild here isn’t one of the larger ones, Boss. But the fact that they’ve recruited orcs makes it…” Karras halted for a moment and muttered. “Based on what we know of the ruins….," he continued finally, "Could be as many as fifty. More than that and they’d be in town as a rumor if nothing else.”

    “Unless there are more levels underground,” Terreen observed.

    “One problem at a time,” Janthro cautioned. “So we start at the top and work our way down. Anyone who looks like they might be able to answer questions, we should try to capture alive. The rest, the Duke wants dealt with extreme prejudice. Secrecy is our top priority until we know more about what we’re dealing with. Let’s go.”

    Janthro rose and they headed out. Though it would be a long walk, they left their mounts in the stable and took to the woods as soon as Praden and Karras declared them clear from anyone who might be following. Janthro and Penjuana led the way, cutting across country to the ruins and keeping as concealed as the terrain would allow. They halted only twice. Once around noon, so the rangers could recon the area and make sure they had not missed any pickets. And the second time as they approached the main entrance to wait for the best time to strike. Then they split up to reach their assigned targets and await the signal.

    The Hand took the main entrance without raising a single alarm. Janthro’s bow shot took out the sentry in the trees just as Karras struck down the picket on the ground. Moments later, Penjuana and Praden swarmed up from the grass to remove the two other men present, all without a sound. They regrouped in the ruined stone maw. The remains of the main gate widened after this bottleneck, to cross a small and empty green to the keep beyond.

    The keep’s roof was gone, and its walls fragmented, but it still protected some rooms inside. The Hand crept up rapidly and silently, to listen and scan at every corner. Once inside the keep, they found two more enemies, one human and one orc. Neither had the chance to react as Praden and Penjuana silenced one and Janthro and Karras the other. This room was clearly once the main hall, though more recently used as storage, with crates stacked along one wall. A quick detour revealed their contents to be a mix of food and weapons. Another pile contained what looked like stolen caravan goods.

    The Hand did not stop to examine further, Janthro loping ahead with Karras close behind to move on to the next room. Terreen and Praden followed, while Penjuana acted as rear guard. The remaining rooms off this main hall were all in various states of decay, no contents remained and vegetation had taken over. This was clearly not where the Guild had set up operations. Room by room, they rapidly cleared the surface, before fetching up at a wide stairway down.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  18. - Top - End - #18
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    And the rest of Chapter 7.

    Spoiler: Chapter 7 Part 2: Karine's Keep
    Show


    Penjuana silently signaled for the lead. With an acknowledging nod, Janthro let him take it, and down they went. This level was darker, but torches had been lit, indicating people somewhere nearby. The corridor itself was rough-hewn, hacked directly from the stone and not finished, but reinforced against potential collapse and probably dated from the castle’s original construction. It also went on out of sight in the darkness, likely connecting to the surface entrance Penjuana found somewhere. There were side passages and rooms at various intervals, and the Hand methodically checked out each.

    At one such door, Karras’ hand few up. The remainder of the group froze in place. Karras silently placed his ear against the door. After a few moments he raised two fingers, which then became three. At least two men lay beyond the door. Janthro signaled Penjuana to the other side of the door beside Karras, He closed in on the near side with Praden. Another gesture and Terreen took the handle and pulled it wide.

    They charged in one after the other, to find themselves facing an assortment of foes, none of whom were prepared to face armed men. Most were seated around a table, playing cards, but two moved quickly to intercept the Hand, drawing the knives from their belts. In the lead, Penjuana and Janthro engaged them immediately, while the others charged the table. Terreen and Praden flipped it over into the men, knocking everything to the ground while Karras took advantage of anyone who tried to push back. He stabbed out twice, and one of their opponents remained still on the floor. A chaotic scuffle followed as the remaining men scrambled away as best they could, pursued by Terreen, Praden, and Karras.

    Most were dispatched quickly, save for Terreen’s opponent, who was merely stunned. The cleric held his captive tight until his comrades dealt with the rest. It did not take long. Janthro counted the bodies on the floor, keeping a running tally. They were over halfway to the fifty men Karras had estimated, but still no orcs. Where were they? With a shake of his head, he turned back to the prisoner.

    “Bar the door,” Janthro ordered, upon seen the man too dazed to answer anything for a while.

    Praden did as ordered, barring the door. He then rejoined the group.

    “So what now, Boss?” Karras asked.

    “You mean besides him?” Janthro answered with a jerk of his head for their prisoner, now tied to a chair. “We try to figure out what’s going on. The goods upstairs imply they’ve been raiding caravans, but you don’t need orcs for that. Once we know their plan, we can clear this nest of them out. Thwart whatever they intend and head home. If whatever this is is big enough, we’ll need to see that a warning goes out immediately.” Janthro turned to Penjuana. “That will be your job.”

    His fellow ranger nodded at the assignment. While they waited, Karras searched the prisoner, turning up nothing of particular note beyond he appeared higher up in the Guild than the average thug. Soon enough, the captive stirred and started muttering. Not long after that his eyes opened and stayed focused. Terreen withdrew to take up a guard position at the door, in case someone heard or stumbled on to them. Penjuana joined him. Their prisoner looked up sullenly, not talking. Upon finally registering his captive status, he opened his mouth wide. But Praden was quicker, sticking a gloved hand between the man’s teeth before they closed.

    Poison again?

    Janthro couldn’t believe it. Asking a Guildsman to suicide on capture wasn’t uncommon. What was uncommon was them actually doing it. Self-interest and no honor among thieves, after all. But here was the second man in this plot willing to try. The first Janthro understood. The punishment awaiting the assassin was dire and fatal and suicide would be far quicker and less painful. But this was just odd. Their prisoner had no idea yet who had captured him. Praden levered the false tooth free, to leave the man sullen and glaring.

    “Who are you?” Janthro asked.

    The man remained silent, prodding the new hole in his mouth with his tongue. Janthro debated how to proceed, opening his hand in silent question at Karras, who had the most experience in whether or not the prisoner was likely to talk and by what means. Karras was standing behind the prisoner, which meant his return hand wiggle wasn’t seen, but that didn’t mean it was any better news. The guy was likely going to hold out, either for rescue or on principle, and hope that any noise generated by the interrogation would simply speed up the process. And damn it all, but the Guildsman was right. Any force-based solution couldn’t help but be noisy and they still hadn’t cleared the ruins. Could they leave him here, gagged, and then return to interrogate him later, after they had gotten any remaining enemies? Did he have information critical to what they would face in the lower levels?

    While Janthro internally debated, Praden came up beside him. He opened his hand to reveal a small vial of clear liquid. Jantrho frowned at it a moment, correctly deducing it was some sort of potion, but not what kind of potion it was.

    “Try this,” Praden suggested.

    Janthro’s frown turned to his subordinate. Praden was infamous for just ‘showing up’ with some very unique, and usually very destructive, surprises. He never said how or where he would get them, but they usually worked. Sometimes they worked a little too well, turning out to be methods Janthro would have disapproved of or forbidden if their purpose had been made completely clear beforehand. He turned his own back on their prisoner and whispered,

    “What is this?”

    “It will make him talk,” Praden answered simply.

    “Will it kill him?”

    “No.” There was a pause. “I don’t think so. Wizard said it was new though.”

    So Praden was ‘testing’ this for someone. A wizard, too, so it might do nothing at all. Unlike Clerics, gifted their magic whole from the Gods, Wizards with the ‘Talent’ were self-taught. And after the Purges, there were very few true Wizards left, and plenty of Charletans and wanna-bes. But sometimes, just sometimes, their magic still worked. Janthro weighed the possibilities in his mind. He held out his hand. Praden handed over the vial. With Karras holding the prisoner’s head, the man was made to drink.

    “How long?” Janthro asked Praden as nothing appeared to be happening.

    “Give it thirty more.”

    So Janthro counted to thirty silently in his head and tried again.

    “Who are you?”

    Initially their prisoner looked as sullen as ever, but then a slightly panicked gleam came to his eyes as they widened. Looking absolutely befuddled that he was actually speaking, the man answered.

    “I’m Ulric from Candlewood.”

    “Why is the Guild here?”

    The man seemed to struggle with this, as if resisting his mouth’s desire to speak, but in vain.

    “We’re here to rob Highbirch and Rothmore”

    Those were the ruling Barons around here. Why? Rob and not kidnap? If they were in it for money, kidnapping would be more profitable.

    “Toward what end?” Janthro asked after considering.

    The prisoner shrugged.

    “Not too sure. We’re to rob anyone rich on the Tower Road, looking for the Baron’s family specifically. We could kill anyone but the Baron’s kin…only scare them.”

    “And the Orcs?”

    They were to be used at the end, and only on the main targets. Same rules. Can’t let the orcs eat anyone important. But they’re our ‘protection’ money. Boss says if the Baron’s aren’t afraid of robbers, they’ll definitely bleat for help over orcs.”

    “And then what?”

    The man shrugged again. “Not my business. My job was keeping the orcs in the keep ’til we need them and robbing the road.”

    It was likely true. He wouldn’t need to be in on the whole plan. In fact, better if he wasn’t from a Guild perspective. So rob rich people, including the ruling Barons, to get them to ‘bleat for help.’ Help to who? Well the Duke, no doubt. But why? Janthro’s thoughts drifted over why they would want the Duke involved, and once he heard what his Lord would likely do.

    “How many orcs?” he asked, still considering.

    “Group of 10. All one clan. We keep ’em all below.”

    “And Guild?”

    “We got four on the gate, six or so upstairs, maybe two with the mules. Most on the road.”

    Janthro did some quick mental arithmetic based on those they had already encountered. If Praden’s potion truly worked, and what their informant had said held true, the Hand should be able to finish the job here without detection. All they had to do was clear the levels below starting from the stairs. Any remaining members of this plot were not be due back for days, more than enough time to round up everyone here, and then go find them. And once that was done, so was the threat to the Duke. Good.

    Janthro turned toward his men, and inquired, “Anyone want to ask anything else?”

    Various heads shook in the negative. At Janthro’s signal, Karras’ sap snaked out, knocking the man unconscious again. Karras checked the man’s bonds and then gagged him. They left him in the room with the bodies of the other guildsmen. When they were done clearing the ruins, they would come back for him. Karras secured the door as best he could behind them as they left, to prevent someone easily entering the room and discovering the carnage.

    The Hand spent the remaining evening hours making sure no one else was on this level and by the time it was cleared it was also late enough to be thinking about rest. Janthro led them on, looking for a safe place to hide for a few hours before descending once more and clearing the next level. According to their informant, the orcs kept mostly to themselves and this final level, in hiding until the plan was called for them. Food and supplies would have been brought down to the creatures, so that no one near Karine would even chance to see them. A bit of good fortune Janthro was very thankful for. They could wait until morning to deal with them.

    Janthro finally found what he was looking for toward one end of the tunneling level: an abandoned room with a solid and undamaged door. Neither he nor Penjuana saw signs that anyone had been inside for a very long time. It was closer to the stairway down than Janthro would have liked, but it had a bar on the inside, which meant it was as safe a location as they were going to get. The Hand followed him inside and Karras set the bar.

    “So what’s the plan, Boss?” Karras asked as they arranged themselves on the floor.

    “These ruins are clearly more extensive than we thought,” Janthro answered, “but things seem to be going as that Guildsman said they would. Which means tomorrow will be ugly. We should rest while we can.”

    The Hand spread out around the room, to lay down or sit as each preferred. Terreen went around with some dried meat and Janthro gratefully took a piece. He dug out his map of the area and laid it out on the ground to study. Praden looked over.

    “Whatcher lookin’ for?” he asked.

    “The best place to lay an ambush,” Janthro replied. “If this is a plot to convince Andron to intervene, there has to be a reason. The only thing I can say with certainty would happen is he would send his own men to secure the trade routes and send them heavily armed. So who would he send?”

    It was an opened-ended question that sparked a brief debate among the men, who finally came to a consensus that it would likely have been Earl Aspiter who would be assigned. In fact, the only reason he had not led his company out already was the Duke suspected him to be connected to the Guild in some way, especially in terms of trading some semi-legal hallucinogenic mushrooms. But orcs… Orcs would be enough to override those suspicions. Even the Guild supposedly wouldn’t work with Orcs and Orcs were known to eat people.
    So we know why. On to how.

    How were they going to ambush the ‘right’ and only the ‘right’ people? Or more appropriately, where? Janthro spoke again, moving his torch so everyone could see the map he laid out clearly.

    “What I’m looking for,” he told them, “is where the Guild set their trap. There has to be a spot. Somewhere they can ambush the right class of people to make it urgent. To get a reaction. Peasants wouldn’t be enough. It has to be nobles. Hence the orcs. To make it terrifying. To make it need to be dealt with now. But where….”

    Praden crouched down to study the map more closely. After a long silence, Praden’s hand reached out, his finger tapping where the Tower road crossed the River Lyne.

    “There,” he said laconically. “It’s a bottleneck. All traffic from three Baronies has to funnel through because of the river. Timing’s right too. There’s a big tournament in Ravenfell in a few weeks and the Duke holds his spring Read soon too.”

    Janthro nodded in agreement. Yes. Two opportunities that would give the Guild what they wanted. And if the Hand could clear the ruins here in the next few days, they could make it to the bridge in a week, and maybe shut this whole thing down. Wouldn’t that be a nice package to present the Duke: the Guild plot thwarted, his enemies dead, and a rat exposed all at once. He waved his hand to get everyone’s attention.

    “Agreed,” he declared, tapping the junction on the map. “So we rest here for a few hours. Penjuana and Terreen—first watch. Karras and Praden—second. I’ll take third. If the night is quiet, I’ll do it alone, if not I’ll keep Karras up.” The men acknowledged his orders with various gestures ranging from nods to lazy half-salutes. “Then we take the final level tomorrow before heading out to finish the task. So get some sleep.”

    The rest needed no further urging. Praden and Karras settled down to sleep, as did Janthro, his eyes closing to the quiet sounds of Penjuana sharpening his sword. He woke for his watch, to be told the night had been uneventful and silent, and at his wave Karras settled back to sleep. Janthro sat by the door in silence, planning out the remainder of the mission. He didn’t know how long he had been sitting there, when he thought he heard a noise. It wasn’t quite footsteps, nor voices, but something. Janthro rose to his feet and pressed his ear to the door. There it was again. Like something being dragged, but distant. Then silence fell. The noise did not occur again.

    What’s going on out there?

    Janthro looked over his sleeping men. Was anything going on out there? He didn’t want to let any enemies past them and out to escape. But he also could have imagined it. Long and lonely watches were breeding grounds for ‘ghosts’ of all sorts. Most of them imaginary. Janthro debated whether or not to wake anyone before deciding he was one of the people who would have gone to investigate regardless, so it was not necessary. Especially since if he went alone, he would not need a torch; something that would give away their position for sure. Until he determined whether the noise was real, and if it was, what it was, he was safer alone. But the Hand should not be unaware.

    Janthro crept over to where Karras lay and touched his shoulder. The thief woke with a start, but settled back silently as he realized there was no threat. Janthro moved his head close and whispered,

    “There might be something happening. I’m going out to take a look, because I can see in the dark. Stay here. I’ll be back as soon as I figure it out. I get into trouble, I’ll sound my horn.”

    Janthro’s left hand patted his horn where it was attached to his belt. Karras nodded understanding, and sat up, taking over the watch. Janthro then headed for the door. He left nearly all his gear where it was on the floor, taking only his sword and shield. With a final silent wave toward Karras, Janthro silently lifted the bar and opened the door. He closed it behind him and heard the slight scraping of Karras re-setting the bar. Janthro crept toward the stairs using all his ranger training and the advantages of his elven blood to avoid detection.

    The noise sounded again. Yes, it was coming from below. Janthro advanced carefully certain he had heard the sound of something solid being dragged. He peered into the dark opening, but there was nothing in view. He continued down. The room at the base of the stairs was wide, wider than most they had seen. It was completely dark, no torches lit, so either no one was nearby or they weren’t human. Janthro could see more crates stacked up. A quick survey revealed various dry goods and food stuffs, plus some items clearly robbed from local trade caravans.

    So this is where they're storing the loot.

    The food was clearly for the orc allies, but Janthro wasn’t sure whether the stolen items were payment for the orcs or the Guild. The room had three exits: one directly ahead and one on each side. Janthro remained frozen, listening. He was there for quite some time, before hearing the noise again from the leftmost corridor. He crept down it, intending to observe and report back to his men without engaging.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  19. - Top - End - #19
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
    Jul 2009
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    Female

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    On to Chapter 8. I did have some questions about whether or not to include something in this part of the story, but will wait a bit to ask.

    Spoiler: Chapter 8: Broken Down to their Foundation
    Show


    Chapter 8:
    Broken Down to their Foundation


    Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Jerem found himself in a circular room approximately the same size as the tower ring he had just left. It was rough-hewn, but supported all around and roofed by timbers, probably to avoid collapsing under the structure above. Some of these timbers had cracked and the roof sagged in a concerning manner toward one end. Jerem resolved to keep well clear of it.

    Trash of a more recent era lay about the chamber floor. Rinds of fruit, bones of what were probably once chickens and some broken crates all indicated someone had been here more recently than a hundred years ago. More recently than a hundred days, even. Jerem crept around, looking for signs of passage and any indications of whether people were still here. Several men in boots had traveled in both directions, both to and away from the stairs up, most exiting by a doorway about a third of the way around. This door was broken and pushed back. The only other exit on this level was blocked by a cave in. Jerem approached the clear exit and listened at the opening, but all was silent. He hiked onward.

    He lost any ambient light here, as no torches filled the sconces on the walls, so Jerem stopped and waited for his eyes to adjust. Everything grew duller and duller until everything now appeared only in flat shades of black and gray. As strange as his night vision was, Jerem knew no one else could do it. No one he had ever met, save his brothers and mother could. A gift from his elven heritage that would aid him here, because normal men needed torches to see, which meant no one else was down here with him. He would see them and their torches coming long before they saw him. Feeling confident in his belief, Jerem’s pace picked up. He explored down the passageway, checking every room that crossed its path. Some rooms were locked, others empty, but every once in a while, Jerem found one that contained a strange assortment of modern items. Bolts of cloth, barrel staves, strings of horseshoes, it made no sense, this wasn’t ancient treasure it was a general store. And a bad one at that. Maybe Janthro hadn’t come down here, not for things of so little value, not on assignment for the Duke.

    Despite his doubts, Jerem hiked onward in the darkness, eventually losing all sense of time and occasionally direction. It was hard to keep track when every passage and doorway looked essentially the same. He finally took to marking doorways, moving a rock or article from inside to its edge to indicate he had passed by there before. Finally and hopefully back on track, Jerem found a stairway down. No torches on this level, either, but he must have walked nearly a mile from where he first came down from the tower. He couldn’t have gotten that mixed up.

    What if I can’t find my way out? Jerem shoved down the queasiness of fear with logic. No, I marked things. I can get back. The real question is should I get back.

    Jerem was slowly giving up on finding his brother here. Or finding anyone here. And even with his sense of time screwed up by his underground journey, it had to be getting late. Maybe it was even night already outside. Jerem turned full about in a circle once more. The passage continued on, but Jerem thought he could just see a doorway ahead. The path back was still quiet and dark

    Which way?

    The crash caught Jerem up short, and with a stifled cry, he hid himself flat against the limited cover of a wall.

    What was that?


    Jerem stayed against the wall as several more loud crashes and collisions sounded from further down the corridor where he hadn’t explored. Jerem’s heartbeat sped as he registered what he was hearing. Steel on Steel.

    Someone’s fighting!

    The memory of the beating he’d received his first day in Windshae flooded back, bringing with it a strong desire to run back the way he had come. He had even taken a few steps in that direction when another panicked thought stopped him.

    What if it’s Jan? What if he needs help?

    An equally terror-inducing imagining followed that thought, his brother being cut down and killed because he didn’t have help…all while he ran away safe. While he could have helped. More sounds of chaos, but not moving chaos. Whatever was happening, wasn’t getting closer. Jerem froze in indecision, before that horrible image of Janthro being stabbed into the floor and killed crossed his mind again with vivid clarity. Jerem took a shuddering breath.

    They can’t see me. Not in the dark. I… I can… I can go look.

    Jerem turned back toward the noise and forced himself to step forward. He drew his swords for the first time ever with real purpose and took another silent step. His hands were shaking, but Jerem kept moving.

    If it’s not Jan, I can leave. If it’s not Jan, I can leave. If it’s not Jan, I can leave.

    He was nearly there now, the passageway ending in a large room, filled with the confusion of battle. Jerem kept to the edge of the doorway and peered at the knot of creatures fighting. A mob of monsters and one man, writhing as if dancing, flashes of silver colliding as they met and disengaged.

    If it’s not Jan, I can leave. If it’s not….

    “Jan!”

    Janthro’s head whipped around in disbelief.

    Jerem?

    He blocked one orc but nearly got stabbed by another in his distraction. Janthro swung his sword back around, and charged forward cursing. How the hell was Jerem here? But here Jerem was, standing and staring just inside the room, mouth open. The orcs spotted him too.

    Damn it!

    Jerem was going to get killed if he didn’t do something! Janthro charged forward, crashing bodily into one of the orcs that attempted to close with his baby brother, using his shield to throw the monster back and to the ground. His blade swung about after, stabbing down, to kill it before it could rise. Two more steps and he was between Jerem and the rest of the creatures, slashing about in wide arcs to buy his brother some time to move.

    “Get to the Stairs, Jerem!” Janthro yelled.

    Jerem heard but seemed rooted to the spot in fear. Janthro cursed again, unable to help more directly, his hands full merely keeping the enemy at bay.

    “Stairs! Now! Get your ass moving!”

    That got Jerem going, sidling backward toward the stairwell. He had both his swords out, held defensively in front of him, which was something. So Janthro turned back to his own troubles, hoping to end this quickly. He counted five more creatures, all orcs based on their size. He dared another glance to see how far Jerem had gotten, but a cut along his arm reminded him there was only so much babysitting he could do.

    Janthro again brought his shield around to parry, before stabbing under it to catch another orc in the groin. It dropped to the floor with a howl, writhing, but did not get up. Janthro turned about quickly to engage two more, stepping side to side as he attacked and parried to keep any enemy from getting by him to Jerem. Jerem should have a clear shot to the stairs, and then it was only a short corridor more before he would reach the rest of the Hand.

    Something rippled the air nearby, like looking at the battle through a heat mirage. Janthro instinctively stabbed at it, and the blood that suddenly appeared on his blade as it hit resistance shocked him, but not nearly as much as the small dead form that appeared on the floor as he pulled his blade back. It was an elf, but like no elf Janthro had ever seen. Its hair was common silver, but its skin was ebony black.

    Magic! There are more of them!

    He instantly turned to Jerem, all the while keeping himself front of the enemy to protect his brother, swinging his sword and blocking with his shield. Jerem had made it to the stairs, but had not moved further. Jerem took a half step toward him, his swords rising.

    “Stay back brother!” Janthro ordered sternly. “Get to the stairs and run! You’ll get to my men pretty quick. Bring them here!”

    “But…” Jerem protested in a scared voice.

    “Run!” Janthro roared making his brother shrink back at the raw sound.

    Janthro didn’t have time to see more, as his enemies took advantage. His opponents swarmed in en masse, forcing him to retreat back toward the wall. Suddenly, Janthro realized he now stood behind Jerem. But while his brother was exposed, there were no enemies on the steps. Janthro knew that if he could just hold their attention on himself for a few moments longer, Jerem would be able to flee and bring back the Hand. There were only three orcs left. They could do this. Janthro lashed out again, blocking and pushing at another orc with his shield, trying to keep the enemy’s focus on him. His hand swung up, as another orc fell, but at that moment his head was suddenly pulled back from behind as the Gods alone knew who, grabbed him by the hair. Something cold and sharp ran along his neck as he tried pull free to turn to face the new foe.

    There was no one there!

    Janthro stabbed out anyway, where he could feel the pulling on his head. He hit resistance just as he registered the wetness on his shoulder. Then his pulse beat again and took all his energy with it. Janthro fell seated to the ground with his next heartbeat, sword falling from his now numb grip to land beside him on the ground. A second elf appeared nearby, holding tight to his stomach, bleeding.

    Janthro’s heart beat again, and he moved his hands to his neck, to feel the hot, sticky flow of his own blood pulsing beneath them. He couldn’t move, trapped on the floor, holding back that horrible flow. He had to warn Jerem about the elf!

    Jerem!

    He tried to cry warning, but couldn’t get out a recognizable sound. His sight darkened as he turned with his cry, but then cleared enough to see his brother was still standing upright, the last orc lying in a heap at Jerem’s feet. Jerem was just staring at it shocked. The elf was moving now, vanishing once more, dagger in hand.

    “Jerem!” Janthro cried in warning, though only a clotted jumble came out. His throat burned like fire.

    Jerem turned to him at the noise, his eyes widening in desperate horror, any triumph from defeating the orc wiped clean from his face. Jerem’s swords lowered in shock. All the while, there the elf was still out there invisible—somewhere.

    Where’s the elf!

    Janthro began to panic. He had to reach Jerem! He had to stop the elf! He had to warn him! Janthro tried with all his failing strength to move, but at that moment the elf appeared behind Jerem and struck.

    His brother didn’t make a sound as the dagger entered his back. Jerem just straightened as tall as he could, then fell limply to the ground. Janthro was the one who screamed, though a gurgling groan was all that came out. He tried to move to Jerem, even though his whole body felt as if it were part of the rock in the floor. He fell forward instead, his vision failing. The last thing he saw was a pair of boots, then all was darkness.

    The darkness brightened and resolved itself into a campfire. Janthro tried to move, but he still felt extremely weak. His whole neck burned like fire, and he reached up to touch it.

    Where am I?

    His fingers felt the bandage and then made a careful exploration of the ridged flesh beneath. Janthro swallowed and the pain was nearly unbearable.

    What is this?

    He lay back again, exhausted from the effort.

    What the hell is wrong with me?

    His disorientation was momentary, for memory came back with a surge of real panic.

    The elf! Jerem!

    His yell came out more as an inarticulate gurgle, pain erupting from his throat again. Janthro forced his way through it, making it to his knees to try again. He saw Penjuana and Terreen, running over from their seats at the fire. They were trying to soothe him back down.

    “You need to rest,” Terreen told him. “You were badly hurt. Don’t talk.”

    It took three separate, deliberate, painful tries, but Janthro spoke again. Another try, all filled with clotted vowels and more pain, before Janthro finally got out an understandable word. “Jerem!”

    Penjuana looked at Terreen and something passed between them. Might it have been confusion? Where is my brother!

    “Rest,” Terreen repeated. “Don’t make me cast a spell on you to make you sleep.”

    Grimacing with the effort, Janthro spoke again, “Jerem!”

    Penjuana tried to push him back down to rest, so Janthro began to fight them in earnest. Why am I so weak? He just couldn’t seem to find the strength to throw them off. I’ve got to find Jerem!

    “Captain, you’ve got to lie down!” Penjuana insisted, “You’ve lost a lot of blood. It’s over. We’re outside. The one you were trying to rescue is dead. Lie down.”

    Janthro fell like a puppet with his strings cut. No! No! He can’t be dead! No! His pain came howling out of him in an inarticulate yell. I must stand! I have to see!

    Terreen’s craggy face became almost panicked.

    “Penjuana, what’s happening? I could swear he had no other wounds…”

    Penjuana frowned, and then grabbed Janthro under the arm, starting to lift him.

    “He’s hurt,” Terreen protested, “you can’t…”

    “I think we can either help him, or watch,” Penjuana said bluntly, “either way he is determined to rise. I will help.”

    With a regretful sigh, Terreen pulled Janthro’s other arm across his shoulders. Together, they lifted Janthro to his feet.

    “But why?” Terreen asked Penjuana.

    Penjuana shrugged and looked toward Janthro, his dark eyes sympathetic.

    “Where, Captain?”

    A few more painful swallows. “Jerem.”

    “I understand,” Penjuana said at last, finally looking like he really did. He turned to Terreen, explaining, “He needs to see the body.”

    With an expression of frustrated bewilderment, Terreen conceded the point. There would be no arguing with the Captain until they had done as he’d asked. They hobbled together around the fire. Praden and Karras both had been watching from the beginning, but neither had yet moved. They followed the trio’s wobbling progress off away from the fire. Janthro’s gaze refocused on the path in front of him. All the talking had been painful, but Janthro couldn’t help but fear the worst was to come.

    They said Jerem was dead, they must be mistaken. They have to be… Then he saw it, an oblong, blanket-wrapped bundle just outside the fire’s glow. He can’t have been that small.


    Janthro shook his way free of his friends, trying to run the rest of the way, but collapsed on his knees. He actually crawled the last foot or so, desperate and shaking with more than exhaustion. Penjuana joined him, his dark hands slowly, deliberately, unwinding the blanket. He had no idea who the boy had been, nor why he was so important to the Captain, but Janthro was in no condition to do the work himself.

    Jerem’s cold, lifeless face was revealed when the last layer lifted free. A knife might as well have stabbed Janthro in the heart, such was his pain at that sight. No! Jerem! No! Janthro reached out to touch his brother’s cheek. No! The face was still and empty. Little brother!

    The scream was silent this time, torn from someplace deep inside. For only the second time his life, Janthro found himself crying uncontrollably. His whole body shook as he looked helplessly down on that cold, masklike face. Suddenly, Janthro’s head was in his hands.

    You can’t be dead! I have to save you!

    Janthro couldn’t look at his brother anymore, the guilt and pain driving away any pretense of adulthood, stripping his soul down to the youth he actually was. Once his walls had cracked, they had shattered to their foundations. His brother was dead and it was his fault. His kid brother was dead. Jerem was dead. Jerem had counted on him. Jerem had needed him. Jerem was all he had left…

    Janthro’s silent anguish brought Karras, at least, to his feet. He walked over with an air of curious concern. Praden remained at the fire. What was one more death, more or less, to him? Sad, that Janthro knew the kid, but not really any of his business. Penjuana lifted a dark hand to Janthro’s shoulder, still unsure of what was going on.

    “Captain?” he asked, hesitantly, but received no response. He crouched there a while longer, then embarrassed, walked a short distance away to intercept Karras.

    “Do you know what this is?” he asked.

    Karras shook his head. “Damned if I know. I’d swear we were chasing mostly orcs yesterday. No kid in any orders I ever heard.”

    “Could this have really been a ‘hostage rescue’ not a secure and arrest mission?” Terreen theorized. “The Captain doesn’t usually keep things from us, but the Duke might have ordered him to.”

    Penjuana looked back at Janthro’s shaking form. He shook his head. “Whatever this is, it is more than a failed rescue. I will talk to him.”

    He motioned the others back to the fire. Karras frowned as if he would have liked to stay, then shrugged and joined the others. No matter what happened now, it was not going to be good. Janthro ignored them all, unable to see anything in his pain but his brother lying before him. Hesitantly, he reached out and took one of Jerem’s cold, lifeless hands.

    He’s all I have!

    The repeated plea was almost a prayer, blessed with the water of tears that just would not stop. Memories flooded into his mind, like from a cracking dam. Jerem riding a horse for the first time, cheering loudly, so proud. Their races to the edge of Darkwood and back. Sharing secrets and stories on woodland explorations. Teaching him to hunt. Jerem trailing him everywhere like a two-legged puppy. Not near enough memories.

    He’s my baby brother. I was supposed to protect him!

    He sat there for a long time, the buzz of his men’s voices faint in the background. He didn’t know how long, maybe forever, when Penjuana returned to his side to try again. The large man knelt next to him, looking almost monk-like in his solemn sadness.

    “We must bury him and move on.” Penjuana’s voice was soft, but firm. “Our mission here is not done.”

    Bury him? No! Deep in his heart, Janthro rebelled against the notion, giving up his last vestige of hope. I cannot leave him so alone, so cold. Almost of its own will, his mind fell back to the long-discarded religion of his childhood and began Melikki’s prayer over the dead:

    Oh Goddess of the wood, mother of the trees,
    Enclose the fallen in your circle.
    For it is not our lot to choose the time of our departure, but yours….

    His thoughts stumbled to a sudden halt.

    Melikki’s choice! She could save him!

    It is a wild thought, an insane thought. A chance in a million, but he hadn’t been too much of a sinner, despite his doubts. Surely Jerem was innocent, even if he was not. She had to care about him. Someone had to. No matter the odds, it had to be tried.

    Jerem can’t be dead, not while there’s a breath in my body to change it.

    It was that slim chance which brought his control back, hope brushing across his face, rebuilding what had been destroyed by the sight of Jerem’s lifeless body through sheer will alone. He could fix this.

    Whatever change began to show on his features, Penjuana merely continued solemnly, “There is nothing more to be done. I will help you find a spot.”

    “No.” Janthro’s voice was louder than intended and returned to its typical Captain’s certainty, drawing the eyes of the others.

    “Our mission requires a quick burial for your friend…”

    “Brother,” Janthro corrected instantly, angry, the pain at speaking making his voice a growl.

    Penjuana paused, realization finally dawning on his features. Janthro could see the sympathy that appeared there.

    “What do you wish to do?” he asked at last.

    Janthro frowned, his thoughts rapidly trying to figure how he could get Jerem to someone powerful enough to help before it was too late. Karine wouldn’t be big enough… He would need to buy Jerem time.

    “Terreen, come here,” Janthro ordered. His throat still burned, but it was nothing against the hope of his heart and the greater pain to come should he fail. He’d bear any pain to save Jerem.

    Terreen stood, more than a little puzzled, but grateful that Janthro sounded so normal now. He rifled in his greatcoat as he walked, looking for his Book of Avatar.

    He expects to preside over a funeral. Not tonight.

    Janthro’s expression was intent as he asked, “Do you know any preservation spells?”

    “Preservation?” The confusion was clear in Terreen’s voice, quietly puzzled. But being a Priest, he made the connections. “Janthro, death is a part of life. We’ve lost men before, and what you embark on is dangerous.”

    Janthro hand slashed down to Jerem’s body, practically shaking with anger and hope.

    “Look at him! He’s a kid, Terreen! He should never have been out here! This isn’t a part of his life!” He stepped nose to nose with the Priest, daring him to say something, anything, different. “Do as I ask, and leave the rest to me.” Janthro was shifting slightly, as if only by the thinnest margin was he not grabbing Terreen and making him do it.

    The staring contest was brief and unequal, and it was Terreen that turned away. He lowered his eyes and he nodded once. Without any more words, he knelt down beside the body and started to chant slowly. Janthro could not make out the words Terreen spoke, nor did he care, so long as it is the correct spell. A pale blue glow began to envelope Jerem. It started at his head and worked downward until he was completely surrounded by it. It tightened and tightened until it was absorbed into Jerem’s body. Janthro could only still see it where flesh was visible, on Jerem’s unwrapped face. When Terreen looked up again, exhaustion was written all over his face. He breathed deeply, looking troubled.

    “It is done.”

    Janthro nodded his thanks and reached down to help his cleric to his feet. Terreen waved him off as he rose, looking at him with a weird mix of compassion and worry.

    “It will not last long,” he said carefully.

    “How much time do I have?” Janthro asked.

    “A week at most,” Terreen told him. “I cannot tell you where to go…”

    “I’ll figure it out,” Janthro interrupted.

    Penjuana was watching the discussion with dismay. He did not understand what they spoke of, but he did understand duty. He touched Janthro’s arm.

    “Captain, our mission.”

    “Hang our mission!” Janthro snarled, yanking his arm away. “I’m leaving.”

    “But the Duke needs this area cleared and the remaining Guildsmen arrested,” Penjuana reminded reasonably. “You can’t.”

    Praden and Karras now joined the conversation.

    “Let him go,” Karras advised, taking a somewhat grim stance behind Janthro. Janthro was grateful for the support, Karras always had his back.

    “The Duke could hang him,” Praden countered, “Desertion”

    Furthering Penjuana’s discomfort, Janthro merely said, “Let him hang me.”

    Terreen put in, “He thinks he can save his brother. Won’t the Duke find that a compelling cause.”

    “Not if what he’s asked isn’t done,” Penjuana pointed out.

    The arguing began in earnest, and Janthro made no move to stop it. It was odd. Normally we are such a tight group. Penjuana and Praden are right, though. I have responsibilities.

    “Silence!” Janthro ordered, and to his surprise everyone listened to the command.

    “This is not a discussion!” he told them, angry and firm. “This is what will happen. Anyone objects,” Janthro drew his sword, a sound loud in the silence. “We settle it here and now.”

    No one moved. Janthro lowered his blade but did not sheathe it.

    “I am leaving tonight. I do not have time to argue with any of you. If you try to stop me, I will kill you.” His eyes went to Penjuana after this flat statement. “Penjuana, the mission now falls to you. You know what we need to do, and we have the information we need to accomplish it. You are in command.”

    “Praden. Terreen. Karras. You are to stay with Penjuana until the job is done. I am going alone.” Janthro spared a special glare for Karras to make certain he would not follow. “This task is mine, alone. Report to the Duke when you are done. Let him know I will report in when I can. Whatever punishment he cares to mete out is also mine alone. Am I clear?”

    They returned an assortment of nods and assents.

    “Dismissed.” Janthro really didn’t want to talk anymore right now.

    They dispersed at the order, gathering back at the campfire. Janthro sat where he was, too exhausted to even move, his throat on fire. A short time later, Karras returned to his side.

    “You going to sleep on the rocks?” he asked.

    Janthro snorted. “Help me up. I have to get going.”

    Karras shook his head, and took Janthro’s arm. When they both were standing, Karras began guiding Janthro back to his bedroll.

    “Karras, I need to pack, not sleep.”

    “You are going to sleep. I’ll pack. A few hours won’t make any difference and Terreen might be able to help you more in the morning. Let him spell you to sleep and heal you again in the morning. That way, you’ve got a shot.”

    “No tricks?”

    “Nope.”

    He gave Karras a single nod, and was led to his bedroll. Karras left him there to get comfortable while he retrieved Terreen. Terreen walked over, and when Janthro signaled he was ready, cast a sleep spell on him. Janthro slept, blessedly dreamless, for eight solid hours.

    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  20. - Top - End - #20
    Halfling in the Playground
     
    HalflingRogueGirl

    Join Date
    Jan 2019
    Location
    at my house
    Gender
    Female

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Dude, this is awesome. I have stuff to do today and instead I'm sitting at my desk getting totally sucked into this. So in answer to the thread title, yes, it's good.
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

  21. - Top - End - #21
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
    Jul 2009
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    Female

    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by TrashTrash View Post
    Dude, this is awesome. I have stuff to do today and instead I'm sitting at my desk getting totally sucked into this. So in answer to the thread title, yes, it's good.
    Thanks. I hope you like Chapter 9.

    Spoiler: Chapter 9: The Price of a Life
    Show
    Chapter 9:
    The Price of a Life

    Janthro’s search took nearly the entire week Terreen had promised. At first, Janthro did not even know the right question to ask. ‘Can you raise the dead?’ was not something that was taken well, even among the priests. Worse, most seemed to think his quest fruitless, a vain attempt to thwart the will of the Gods rather than a goal worthy of help.

    His exhaustion, a lingering result of all the blood he had lost, slowed his pace and clouded his mind. Twice Janthro found himself lying on the ground, unaware of how he had gotten there, with only Dawntreader’s aggressive vigilance preventing him from being robbed or worse. Janthro kept searching.

    It was on his way to Windshae, hoping that the Capitol would be large enough to contain a priest willing to help, when it finally struck him. Actually, it had been the ground that had struck him, as he fell from Dawntreader’s back in a dead faint from pushing himself too hard after his injury. When Janthro came to, he was looking up at a now-darkened sky, utterly alone.

    I’m looking in the wrong place.

    He shouldn’t have been looking for many people, or even any people. His Goddess was one of the wood, and likely none of the other Gods would care, not about Jerem. But she would. And if he wanted to find her, it had to be in the biggest forest in Westland. He needed to look in Darkwood.

    Darkwood took up much of central Westland, covering parts of three separate Baronies, with his own father’s lands making up most of it. Legend said it was both cursed and haunted. Janthro had been in and out of the forest often enough to know the legends false, even if the locals still wouldn’t venture more than an hour or so into its depths. It was also too big to be covered in the time he had left. Janthro looked out over the darkened sky anxiously.

    Where?

    He frowned. He would have to guess. Mentally Janthro went over the terrain. The southern reaches were mostly flat, with rolling hills covered in oaks, elms, maples, and beech. To the northwest, it grew rougher. He couldn’t call it mountainous, not having seen the true mountains that formed Westland’s eastern border, but certainly much higher than anyplace else. The ground here was also darker, older—primarily hemlocks, pines, and other evergreens. So… The young or the old? The emerald or the moss? The hills or the mountains? It came down to a gut feeling and a prayer.

    Janthro headed northwest.

    He entered the forest and headed directly to the highest point. For the next day and a half he kept moving, stopping only for brief periods of rest when he physically could not go further. It was all new and strange to Janthro, as he had never traveled this section of Darkwood before, and the overwhelming gloom of the hemlock forests depressed his spirit. He pressed on. It got quieter, unnaturally so, with none of the usual bird calls and creature noises. Janthro ignored his growing anxiety and suspicion, hoping he was on the right track. He checked Jerem regularly, the blue tint to his skin that represented Terreen’s shield nearly transparent now. He didn’t have much time.

    Come on! It has to be here!

    Janthro didn’t know what he would do if there wasn’t a sacred grove at the top of this mountain, but he kept moving anyway, because if there was, the priestess there was going to help him, whether she wanted to or not. He had gathered everything he could of value as payment and was willing to find a way to get whatever more might be asked. And should he still be refused, Janthro was prepared to demand help at knife point. Not strictly appropriate, to threaten the servants of one’s Goddess, but Janthro didn’t care. He was going to save Jerem.

    The grove, when he stumbled upon it, was a surprise. It didn’t even look like it should be there. Thick, old hemlocks as far as the eye could see, and then a few steps later, a wide clearing ringed with trees. At its empty center, sat an old woman on what looked like a long bench made of boulder and stone. There was nothing else, yet Janthro knew instinctively this was what he had been seeking. He dismounted, pulled Jerem’s wrapped body down off Dawntreader, and then settled his brother better in his arms.

    The woman looked over at him before rising to her feet. The bench, without her presence, became clear to Janthro’s eyes for what it was. It was a bier, or a sacrificial altar. Either way, it was not comforting. The elderly woman stood silent beside it, waiting. Even without her speaking, Janthro knew what he needed to do now. He carried Jerem’s body toward the bier.

    The old woman merely watched as he approached, making no move to help him with his burden. Nor did Janthro expect her to. All was how it should be. Janthro needed to complete this mission alone. Jerem wasn’t that heavy, though the fear that Janthro would be refused this last prayer was. He pushed the fear down deep, to be dealt with later. He had a task to complete. Janthro approached a low stone bier at the old woman’s feet. Gently, Janthro laid his brother’s body down on the stones and stepped back.

    “What is it you seek?” the woman asked. Her voice sounded even older than she looked, which was a pretty impressive feat.

    “A life,” Janthro answered steadily. He got down on his knees and bowed his head, making himself as small as he could. “My brother’s life.”

    “Remove your weapons,” she intoned flatly. “They have no place here.”

    Fair enough. Janthro drew his sword and laid it on the ground. He followed the weapon with his boot dagger and then his bow and quiver. He placed his shield on top, burying his oath to the Duke with his weapons. From this moment forward, his allegiance was with his brother. If given a second chance, Janthro swore he would do whatever it took to see Jerem safely into adulthood and beyond. He shifted back a foot or so, never leaving his knees nor looking up.

    Janthro saw her feet come into his restricted field of view, uncertain of what to do or say next. The feet shuffled over to the stone bier, and a trailing edge of the cloth that had wrapped his brother’s head fell down and touched the ground as the priestess unwrapped Jerem’s body. Yet Janthro still could not bring himself to look at his little brother.

    “Rise,” the woman said finally. Janthro stood, his eyes locking with hers. He waited silently.

    “The price?” she asked him, though she did not hold out her hand.

    “Anything,” Janthro replied in simple honesty.

    He didn’t have much, but whatever she asked, he would find a way. He just wanted his brother back. Money, duties, blood, it did not matter.

    “So be it,” she declared.

    Her hand darted out suddenly, outstretched fingers hitting his forehead and pushing him backward. She was surprisingly strong, and the instant she made contact, Janthro felt himself falling. Down he went to the ground, though it didn’t hurt when he hit, it just went suddenly black as pitch. Even his elvensight would not work.

    Am I dead?

    It was a strangely logical possibility. He’d had nothing to offer except his life.

    The blackness vanished suddenly in blinding white light. Janthro’s eyes teared at the brightness, and he rubbed them hard. When he opened them again, he was in a lush green meadow, covered in wildflowers. It was light and warm and most definitely not the darkened, aged, hemlock grove. Janthro looked down at himself to discover, to his surprise, he was naked. He knew he should be feeling embarrassed about this, but for some reason he could not muster any real emotion at all.

    Where am I?

    Janthro climbed to his feet to explore. As he looked about, his eyes lit on a cascade of thick vines near a crystal clear pool just off to his right. He headed in its direction. The plants framed what resembled a giant, natural amphitheater, with water cascading down rocks into it from the ring of cliffs that surrounded both the pool and what could only be a living tree throne at its center. And sitting on that throne, wearing a dress of living plants and white flowers was the most beautiful woman Janthro had ever seen. Janthro waded the shallow water to the island throne. He stopped still at the water’s edge, directly before it and looked into the woman’s eyes.

    Oh my Goddess… he muttered, awed, and with a shock, realized he had spoken correctly.

    Janthro fell to his knees then, head bowed. Her voice suddenly appeared in his head, musical and lilting.

    “You requested a boon?”

    The voice resonated in his heart like a tolling bell. Jerem. Yet, now that he was here, Janthro was dumbstruck, unable to answer and unable to move from his knees. It didn’t seem to matter, for she continued to speak.

    “You wish this young one returned to you,” she stated emotionlessly.

    As she spoke, she pointed across the pool beside her to a meadow on its far side, where Janthro could now see his brother sleeping peacefully under a tree. Jerem was curled on his side, his face no longer the cold blue he’d last seen, but a warm pink and utterly serene. Janthro cried out for the first time, speaking his brother’s name. But Jerem continued to sleep. Janthro turned back to his Goddess, tales of her mercy and warring with tales of her capricious callousness in his head. His hopes and fears were found in the single-word answer to her question.

    “Yes.”

    It took him a long time to say just that one word, but it had his heart and soul in it.

    I want him back!

    “There will be a cost,” she told him. “A choice you must make.”

    “Anything,” Janthro answered immediately, just as he had to the old priestess a lifetime ago.

    She seemed mildly annoyed at him, now.

    “No bargain can be struck without understanding.”

    “Name your terms, then.”

    Janthro was finding it easier to think and do the longer he was in the Goddess’ presence. He still couldn’t really feel anything, not even fear, which he suspected being brought before one’s Goddess ought to cause, if nothing else. Yet if she needed him to hear what he would have to pay, fine. It didn’t change the fact that he would pay it.

    “First, if I do this, you must serve me.”

    “Done.”

    “Still too hasty,” she corrected. “There is much youth in you which needs to be tempered by the wisdom of age. My service will not be easy. If you choose to serve me you will have to sacrifice for me.”

    Sacrifice? Janthro felt that, if she asked, he would open his veins right here on the grass, just to see his brother wake. He would follow the forms, though.

    “What?” he asked.

    “Better. First and foremost, I will have your total allegiance. There are two paths before you. If you choose to serve, the one you will walk, you will walk alone. Only on the other path will there be peace and family for you.”

    “My brother?” Janthro asked. Would saving Jerem require losing him?

    “No,” his Goddess explained calmly, “he will be with you, or not, by his choice. It is his will which determines how long your paths align. To walk alone means that for you, there will be no life-partner. No soul mate with which to share the joys and burdens of this life. You will belong to me.”

    “Done.” What did he need with a wife anyway? She’d said nothing of friendships, nothing of sex when it came down to it. He could live with that. “Second, you will now fight my battles with this.”

    A wooden staff appeared in her hand. Janthro frowned at it as she held it out to him. After a long pause, he took it from her. It felt awkward, almost wrong, compared to the ease of his sword. Janthro felt he was at last beginning to understand what she was asking him to do.

    “Am I to become a priest, then?” he inquired, his voice neutral, even if his thoughts were not. His middle brother, Jonander, was a priest. Janthro doubted a solitary life of peaceful contemplation would so suit him.

    “Not precisely,” his Goddess went on to explain. “You are to be my Hunter. As such, you will not have all the gifts of my chosen priests, nor will you have all their restrictions. You may still use a blade until you have learned your assigned weapon, but only at the most extreme need thereafter. You will be my servant, and this is how I wish you to fight.”

    Janthro laid the staff on the ground before his knees.

    “Done.” He cocked his head at her. As long as they were talking about limitations, he really should start asking questions. “My bow?”

    “The bow is a hunting weapon. I have no objection.” She smiled, perhaps pleased he was taking more of an active role in his fate.

    “Anything else?” Janthro asked.

    So far, Janthro felt he was getting off easy.

    “Yes, my young Hunter. Your first duty will be to me from this day forward. If I ask, you will go. No question, no release, and no refusal. Ever. What is your choice?”

    Janthro bowed as low as he could.

    “Save him.”

    There was a sudden flash and he was flat on his back, fully dressed in his travel-stained clothes, with the old priestess standing over him. Janthro blinked twice and sat up. He looked quickly to his brother. Jerem was no longer blue, but still not breathing. He frowned at the woman.

    “Call to him,” she responded calmly. “He will not come back for me.”

    “Jerem!” Janthro cried.

    Jerem’s chest began to rise and fall. Hope cresting like a wave, Janthro grabbed his brother’s hand.

    “Jerem, wake up!”

    Jerem opened his eyes, closed them, and opened them again. He seemed to be having trouble focusing. Wild with joy, Janthro turned and handed the woman all the money he had. She had not asked for it, but it didn’t matter, he had prepared everything of value he had at the time, just in case it was needed to bring his brother back. It was a token of his gratitude. Jerem was alive!

    “Janthro?” Jerem sounded so small.

    Janthro turned back and fell to his knees next to his brother. He threw his arms around Jerem.

    “I thought I had lost you,” he whispered, his voice breaking.

    “Lost me?” Jerem asked. “Where did I go?”

    Janthro laughed at his brother’s confusion.

    “Nowhere. Can you stand?” He would carry Jerem if he had to.

    Jerem’s eyes grew more focused. He squeezed them shut as he looked at Janthro, opened them again, and his face fell.

    “What’s wrong?” Janthro asked.

    Jerem reached his hand out and touched his brother’s neck, his small fingers brushing the ridges of the darkening scar. His hand recoiled as if Janthro had bit him.

    “Oh Goddess!”

    “Jerem?”

    “I’m sorry.” Jerem started to cry. “I’m sorry.” He repeated it over and over in tears. Janthro had no idea what was wrong.

    “Jem, Jem,” he comforted, embracing his sobbing brother. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”

    Jerem didn’t seem to hear, he just clung to Janthro tightly. So Janthro held his little brother until he felt Jerem get control of himself. Janthro waited some more, letting Jerem decide he was all right and sit back.

    Janthro watched his brother closely as he asked, “Why are you sorry?”

    “I did that to you!” Jerem wailed.

    What? Janthro’s hand touched his neck. Oh.

    Janthro rose then, to set Jerem on his feet. He knelt before Jerem and waited until Jerem met his eyes.

    “Little brother,” Janthro explained, his voice kind, but firm. “A dark elf did this. A creature already in the room when you arrived. Nothing that happened in that room was in any way your fault.”

    “But they cut your throat,” Jerem protested, sniffling. “If you hadn’t been helping me…”

    “Then it would have been when I was alone,” Janthro countered firmly. “I still had to reach the stairs. Jerem, look at me.” Janthro waited until he was sure he had his brother’s full attention. “The only thing you did was find me. I’m not sure why you did, but that’s it. Everything else that happened was already destined.” Janthro climbed to his feet and ruffled his brother’s hair.

    “So why are you here?”

    Jerem shuffled in the dirt, head down.

    “I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I ran away.” Jerem’s blond head moved a bit, and Janthro could see him peeking up through his bangs to gauge his reaction. “Don’t send me home,” Jerem begged softly.

    Janthro crouched down again to be eye to eye with his brother, laying a hand on Jerem’s shoulder.

    “Why did you run?”

    “Kiman.” Jerem paused as if that answer might be enough, but not for long. He had to be sure Janthro would not send him home. He told the whole of the story. “He beat me and I think he killed Tem and it’s all my fault.” The tears began again. “And I couldn’t stop him, and I was scared and I…”

    “Shh, Shh,” Janthro interrupted when Jerem finally stopped to breathe. He folded his little brother into his arms. “It’s okay. You’re here now, and I promise I won’t send you home. You are home.”

    Still sniffling, Jerem smiled. “Really? You’re sure?”

    Janthro nodded, and Jerem seemed to regain some of his more normal composure with Janthro’s promise. Jerem straightened, rubbed his face and nose, before looking up eagerly. It was disconcerting, Janthro thought, to have that much hope aimed at him. But he wouldn’t dare complain. Or admit to doubt. He had been given a miracle here, and he would not waste it. Janthro scanned the forest, noting it was late afternoon and growing chill. The priestess had also vanished, the clearing empty as if she had never been there at all. Where had she gone? Nothing remained here, save Dawntreader and his pile of gear. Janthro frowned at it. Had the last hour even been real? No matter. They had more urgent priorities.

    “Come on, we’ve got to get moving.”

    Janthro gathered his things quickly, while Jerem darted over to greet Dawntreader. The stallion huffed at him initially and Janthro dropped his armor as he moved to stop Dawntreader from attacking, But the command had not even left his lips before Jerem had his arms around Dawntreader’s neck, hugging him tight without more than an ear flick of protest. Janthro remained frozen in shock as Jerem reached up to scratch Dawntreader behind his ears and pet his nose. With a shake of his head, Janthro reoriented himself to his original task. Jerem and horses. He should have known.

    “Can you walk?” Janthro asked, unsure how healed his brother actually was, “Or would you like to ride?”

    “Ride!” Jerem answered, scampering to him and tugging him back to Dawntreader.

    Well that answered that question. Jerem was fine. So how was he? Janthro took a deep breath and inventoried his own aches. His throat burned and he was exhausted. Yes, riding was the right choice here. Janthro looked up at the sky. They would be camping out tonight, but a couple hours would see them to a lower and more hospitable elevation. If they got moving now.

    Janthro cupped his hands, a signal his brother acknowledged by stepping into them and was boosted aboard Dawntreader. Janthro motioned him to scoot back and then mounted himself.

    “You going to be okay back there?” Janthro asked, still queasily worried about Jerem.

    Jerem just rolled his eyes. Janthro shrugged and turned back to the trail ahead. Jerem seemed okay, so all he had to do was get there himself. He spent much of what remained of the day, listening to Jerem chatter on and rebuilding his own self-certainty. Ironically, Jerem’s mere presence helped immensely. It was far easier to be the adult he needed to be with a job to do that required it. And the longer he went without being allowed to wallow in what happened and its aftermath, the easier it became to relegate to the dark corners of his mind which Janthro never explored unless he was seriously wounded or very drunk.

    Jerem’s story as they rode was long and winding, but ultimately hopeful. Janthro was impressed that Jerem had even been able to come find him and said so. The way Jerem puffed up joyfully at the praise made Janthro happy and queasy at the same time. How was he going to live up to that? But surely if he could infiltrate and rescue a man from a Thyattin prison, he could keep one kid out of trouble for the next five years, right?

    Don’t answer that.

    They camped that night in a beech grove about two miles from Darkwood’s eastern border. Janthro stopped early to make sure they had time to set up a proper camp and he watched, amused, as his brother demonstrated his shelter-building prowess. The messy, but effective, leaf-covered lean-to would certainly provide them with enough warmth, especially when Janthro quickly built and lit a fire nearby. A scavenged dinner of hard tack and tea and it was time for bed. Jerem chattered on for what felt like an hour to Janthro, before he dozed off sometime during Jerem’s fifth constellation identification and story.

    Janthro woke after his brother, and after a brief moment of panic at the empty leaf pile beside him, he spotted Jerem over by Dawntreader, petting him and running his fingers through the Buckskin’s coat to work out any burrs and twigs. Unreasonably comforted by the sight, Janthro fell asleep again, this time waking at full light to find his brother cracking nuts on a rock nearby.

    Where’d he get those?

    As exhausted as he was, Janthro almost left Jerem to his mysterious nuts and went sleep again but forced himself to sit up. His mission wasn’t done yet. There was still Windshae. There was still the Duke. Janthro idly wondered how the Hand had done in his absence. Had they completed the mission? Reported back? Still hunting in the woods about Kerine? Should he try to find them and help? Janthro frowned as his gaze took in his brother once more. No. He could not risk Jerem again in this. Windshae. He would take his chances in Windshae and hope his Duke would be merciful.

    There had been tales in barracks. Dark tales of men executed on the field of battle for refusing to fight, or worse fleeing. It was made crystal clear what kind of crime desertion was and what awaited those who chose that path. But was this desertion? The mission was still underway, maybe even complete, and he was coming back. At the same time, his clear duty had been to bury Jerem and finish the mission. Duty he had run from. Janthro let the sound of Jerem’s babbling voice wash over him as he prattled on about life in Moondale. Yes, he may have run, but he had no regrets.

    It was the right thing to do.

    There was a comfort in that certainty. The Duke might punish him for this, but had he not chosen to act as he had, Janthro knew he would not have much liked the man he saw in his mirror each morning. Still, right or wrong, he had to prepare for all possibilities. As they rode, Janthro began planning for where Jerem would go with every potential outcome of his report to the Duke. If he were condemned to death, he would ask Terreen to find somewhere safe for Jerem in Windshae. If imprisoned, maybe the folk Jerem talked of from Moondale would suffice until he was released. Terreen could bring Jerem to Moondale, even if he couldn’t. If forgiven…. Ironically, that was the hardest outcome to plan for. Should he stay in the Duke’s service? If he left, what could he do to support them? Janthro’s thoughts continued to wander in circles, occasionally diverted by a question or attempt at conversation by Jerem.

    By the time they rode back through Windshae’s main gate a week later, Janthro had the bones of a plan. If the Duke let him, he was going to resign his commission and try to find enough work to get by on his own. He was still hashing out the details of ‘on his own,’ but was resolved his best odds of successfully raising Jerem were not Captaining the Duke’s Left Hand. If the Duke didn’t let him go…. Janthro shook himself free of that chain of thought. What was going to happen was going to happen. Delay would serve no one.

    So Janthro rode straight to the Tower and found Terreen first thing upon entering the inner bailey. He knocked on the door to his subordinate’s quarters, and when Terreen opened it, Janthro gave him no opportunity to do anything but back into the room as Janthro pushed Jerem in ahead of him and shut the door.

    “Captain!” Terreen cried, obviously delighted. Terreen turned to look down at Jerem who was shifting uncertainly from foot to foot. His eyes widened in shock, before an amazed and awed smile took over his features. “You did it!”

    Janthro nodded.

    “Yep. Thanks for the assist in that.” Janthro caught his brother’s attention and gestured to the cleric. “Terreen. Jerem. Jerem. Terreen.”

    Terreen smiled at the boy, Jerem ducked his head tentatively in return, and then Terreen gestured Jerem to sit on the bed.

    “Go on,” Janthro prodded his brother. “It’s okay. You’ll be staying with Terreen while I take care of something.”

    Terreen’s brows rose. “Captain?”

    Janthro moved them away from his brother and spoke softly.

    “I haven’t reported in to the Duke, yet. That’s next on my list.”

    Terreen looked suddenly enlightened.

    “I see.”

    “I thought he could stay with you while I did?”

    Terreen nodded. He also knew how badly this meeting between his Captain and Duke could go. “And…”

    “And if it turns for the worst, I would like your help finding someone to take Jerem in. I don’t want him sent to an orphans home or just dumped into an apprenticeship. I want him to have a real family. Would you be willing to find one?”

    Terreen looked over to Jerem who was staring out the window at something oblivious to their conversation, a kindly and sympathetic expression on his face.

    “Ja. I can do that for you. Hopefully it won’t come to that. We obeyed your orders to the letter, Captain. He knows the mission is done, and you had other business, but nothing more.”

    “But…”

    “What my Lord Duke does not know, will not hurt him,” Terreen explained. “The mission was completed to his satisfaction, you have returned. No lies were told.” The smallest of wicked-edged smiles appeared on Terreen’s face. “It is not our fault he never asked the right questions. Confession may be good for the soul, Captain, but the Duke’s position does not require it from you.”

    For the first time since entering the inner bailey, a matching scimitar smile appeared on Janthro’s face. This might just work out after all.

    “Thanks,” Janthro told Terreen, “I’ll keep that in mind.” He turned to leave then, only stopping to snap his fingers to get Jerem’s attention. “Listen to Terreen until I get back,” he told his brother. At Jerem’s return nod, Janthro opened the door and stepped into the hall.

    “I’ll be praying for you,” Terreen told him as he left.

    Janthro didn’t look back, just headed for the Duke’s audience hall. If he was lucky, he might not even need the prayers either. He arrived in good time, to dip his head in the direction of the Duke’s Seneschal who waited at his station outside the main doors. The middle-aged man acknowledged the gesture, lifted a quill to write something on a parchment on his podium, before turning and entering the hall proper. A few moments later, the Seneschal returned and held wide the door.

    “You may enter,” he said neutrally.

    Janthro marched forward without looking back. He heard the door shut behind him as he glanced briefly about the hall. His Duke was surprisingly alone for this hour and day. His scribes sat silently off to one side, but otherwise the hall was empty. Janthro didn’t know if that boded well or ill. It didn’t matter, because he had arrived before the throne. As he always did, Janthro fell to one knee, his fist rising to cover his heart, and waited.

    “Rise.”

    Janthro stood to attention.

    “Report.”

    Janthro couldn’t tell whether the Duke was angry. He supposed it didn’t matter either way. He may as well get this over with.

    “I have returned,” Janthro said.

    “You did not report in with your men,” the Duke observed.

    “No, my lord, I did not.”

    “They would not say where you had gone, only that the mission was complete and you would be returning later.”

    “I was called away on some urgent business,” Janthro explained. “Since news of our mission was also urgent, I felt the best way to accomplish both goals was to split up.”

    “And your other ‘urgent business?’” the Duke asked.

    “Completed to my satisfaction, as I hope the mission was to yours.”

    “Yes,” the Duke agreed, pausing to study his subordinate.

    Yet, the Duke did not press for more details of Janthro’s ‘business.’ Janthro was grateful but suspicious. He hadn’t expected that issue to be left alone.

    “I have it from the Battalion commander that you have asked to be released from service,” the Duke continued.

    Another surprise, though perhaps a bit of explanation as well. Janthro had requested his discharge only that morning, fully expecting it to take several days to pass through the proper channels to the Duke and this issue resolved by the time that it did. Maybe the Duke didn’t ask about the ‘urgent business’ because he was about to release Janthro from duty. Janthro squashed the hope that appeared ruthlessly and answered.

    “Yes, my lord.”

    His simple reply was clearly not what Duke Andron wanted. Janthro imagined he often had the same face his Duke now wore, when given only orders when he wanted detailed explanations. Janthro watched the Duke carefully, trying to determine if his lord was angry or the face merely frustrated curiosity.

    “It seems rather abrupt,” the Duke went on, “Will you explain why before I pass judgment?”

    Here at least, Janthro could speak truth. The Duke deserved to know.

    “My younger brother, my Lord,” Janthro explained. “He is still a boy, and I am the only family he has left now to look after him. I wish to leave your service to care for him.”

    Janthro left the ‘why’s’ to Duke Andron’s imagination. As expected, the Duke seemed to assume that a parent or parents had recently died. From the softening of the Duke’s normally hard face, it also meant he’d also created a palatable explanation for Janthro’s ‘urgent business’ as well. He might just understand. And let him go.

    “I see. What will you do?”

    “By your leave, things similar to what I have been doing for your highness,” Janthro answered with a shallow dip of his head toward his Duke. “My woodcraft skills are substantial. I had hoped to make my way as a Ranger Guide.”

    “In Westland?” Duke Andron prodded further.

    “Yes, my Lord. Though the work would likely take me into Eldrath at the least, I will base out of Westland.”

    Silence fell once more as the Duke studied his Captain, his face neutral. Janthro met his stare steadily and waited. As the quiet drew out, he tried not to pick at his bandaged scar. The Duke seemed to be studying it, too. Finally Duke Andron shifted, straightening as if he’d come to some sort of internal decision. In unconscious mimicry, Janthro straightened too.

    “I am loathe to lose your services,” the Duke told him, frowning.

    Janthro held his peace, though inside he felt like an overdrawn bowstring. Which way was Andron going to jump? Would he insist that Janthro serve out another term? What would he do with Jerem if that happened? But Janthro’s thoughts had not yet begun to loop when the Duke spoke.

    “So I will not,” he insisted. Andron held up a hand as Janthro opened his mouth to protest. With a great effort of will, Janthro closed it without speaking. “You may have your discharge from service, but I will be calling on you for other work in the future. The ‘guiding’ you wish to continue. Please make a point to ensure my Guards-marshal knows where you have settled and how to contact you in the future.”

    Janthro bowed low, profoundly relieved.

    “Thank you, my Lord.”

    “You are officially released from my guard, Captain Diadrem,” Duke Andron continued, formally granting Janthro’s request. “Good luck.”

    Janthro bowed again.

    “Thank you, my Lord.”

    A moment later, Janthro executed a crisp about-face and marched from the hall, feeling strangely adrift. He was a free man.

    Now what?

    It was a question he did not really have an answer to. But the first step, regardless, was to retrieve Jerem from Terreen’s care. He left the Tower of Avantar and headed immediately to the barracks. Terreen opened the door at his knock.

    “Well?” he asked.

    “I’m not hung,” Janthro answered ironically.

    “And our next mission, Captain?”

    Janthro shook his head and gestured at Jerem, who had bounced off the bed to dash over.

    “Won’t be a next mission, old friend,” Janthro explained. “I turned in my resignation.”

    “What!” Terreen looked beyond shocked. “But it went well…”

    “Jan?” Jerem piped in doubtfully at the sudden shift in the adults’ tone.

    “Terreen, I never explained before I left you, but Jerem is my responsibility now. My first responsibility. The Hand will go on, under Penjuana if the Duke takes my advice, and I have no doubts. For myself, I’m starting over. See if I can’t make a go of it on my own.”

    Terreen’s gaze traveled to Jerem, understanding taking over his expression.

    “Ja, Captain,” he said at last. “You are a good man.”

    “Some times,” Janthro parried wryly.

    “Sometimes,” Terreen agreed with a chuckle. “But in this case, I wish you all the blessings Avaintar can provide. Do check in when you return to the city, yes?”

    “I will,” Janthro assured his friend. “Time to go,” he called to Jerem.

    Jerem followed him out and back to Janthro’s quarters where they spent an hour packing up his belongings. Once he was packed, Janthro led his brother to the stable loaded his gear onto his horse, and they left the inner bailey perhaps for the final time.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  22. - Top - End - #22
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

    Join Date
    Jul 2009
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    A quick story based question. As you can see, the narrative is sticking with Jerem and Janthro. Do you think I should include what happened with the Hand's mission? It felt like it was unnecessary but curious to know what you guys thing after finishing chapter 9.

    Thanks
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  23. - Top - End - #23
    Halfling in the Playground
     
    HalflingRogueGirl

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    at my house
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    I think that you should stick with Janthro and Jerem's storyline. Adding in the Hand's mission could create an awkward pause in the dynamic of the brother's plotline.

    As an amateur writer who has an almost-obsession with fantasy stories (blame Tolkien), I think your story is amazing because of the plot, the execution, and the way you paint a scene with your words. Don't get discouraged, writing seems to come very naturally to you. Keep up the good work!
    Last edited by TrashTrash; 2019-03-27 at 10:55 AM. Reason: formatting fails
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

  24. - Top - End - #24
    Dwarf in the Playground
     
    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by TrashTrash View Post
    I think that you should stick with Janthro and Jerem's storyline. Adding in the Hand's mission could create an awkward pause in the dynamic of the brother's plotline.
    Thanks for the feedback, it helps to get an outside look at things when you're writing. I'm glad you're enjoying it.

    So without further ado, the rest of the story.

    Spoiler: Chapter 10: Telconturs Together
    Show

    Chapter 10:
    Telconturs Together


    “So where we goin?” Jerem piped in from Dawntreader’s back, as Janthro walked his horse through the city gate on their way out of the city.

    Janthro shrugged in response. He wasn’t all that sure himself, now that he was free. Behind Jerem, effectively keeping him in the saddle and not wandering, were all of Janthro’s worldly possessions. It didn’t come to much, just a few bags secured behind and hanging from the saddle. A saddle which his little brother was now kneeling on and making an effort to stand.

    Janthro glared at Jerem, but his still-injured neck prevented him from actually yelling. With a sharp downward motion, he signaled Jerem to sit. With a sigh, his little brother obeyed. Janthro shook his head, wondering how long it would be before Jerem was up again.

    “Come on,” Jerem chirped brightly. “You’ve got to have some idea. How ’bout Moondale? Cerna said I could come back. Can I come back? It’d be fun.”

    Janthro sighed again. No, it would not be ‘fun’. But it might just be the best plan, all things considered. Janthro put his hand in his pocket, to play with his money pouch one more time. It was fuller that it usually was, but not full enough for what they needed. Janthro didn’t know how difficult setting out on his own would be, or whether it would provide enough to live on, or even if the Duke had been honest about employing him now that he was a free man again. The money in that pouch might need to last them a long time, until he found another job. Janthro settled his looping thoughts angrily.

    He’d commanded men on missions with less information than this, damn it, so he needed to pull it together. Tomorrow. Tomorrow was his mission. Jerem was his mission. Janthro’s thoughts traveled back to that brutal night when he had woken to discover his throat cut and Jerem dead. That would never happen again, not even close. He would never again be so unprepared that that happened. So what did they need? They needed a place to stay.

    “Moondale,” Janthro answered Jerem at last, with another glare to put his little brother back into a sitting position.

    Janthro didn’t understand. Dawntreader gave every rider trouble, sometimes being so ornery as to buck, bite, or kick. So why was his stallion being so indulgent of Jerem? Janthro watched his brother start to play with the buckskin’s mane, drawing no more reaction from Dawntreader than an ear-flick. The corner of Janthro’s mouth twisted at his horse. It was probably because it was Jerem, and Jerem and horses got along like plants and water. But the prospect of going home, and Janthro could see that’s how his brother thought of Moondale from his face alone, was enough to settle Jerem down into the saddle with an eager face.

    Janthro led them onward. He headed cross country, through the boggy Windshae plains, which would cut days off their journey. Ironically, even with the dangerous terrain, it was still safer than the road, as few men had the skills to safely navigate it and bandits were not usually included in this number. They camped out that night, hidden under their cloaks to prevent being eaten alive by the mosquitos attracted to the wet ground. The next morning, they were off again early, neither wanting to stay even a minute longer than needed among the voracious insects.

    They cleared the plains and took to the road again, taking each day in easy stretches until nearly dusk. Then Janthro would lead them off the trail, to more secure places to spend the night. Sometimes it was in the middle of a farmer’s field, other times the wood. Very occasionally, they would stay in an inn, though Janthro did not like to spend the money.

    As they traveled, Janthro began to train Jerem more intensely in his woodcraft skills, teaching him how to scout an area for enemies and animals, set up a hidden camp, and whatever else came to his mind as they walked. Jerem nodded eagerly at pretty much everything Janthro showed him, more than once surprising Janthro when he could replicate the task almost immediately. His quick study often revealed another story about what Jerem had been doing since Janthro had left home—some incident where Jerem had learned from experience how to do it on his own. It was probably a good thing, all in all, as Janthro still found talking for any length of time difficult.

    Jerem more than made up for his silence, not only explaining in detail any woodcraft lessons learned, but all his adventures. The priest who had given him Brightwind, that first bitterly cold, wet night before he figured out how to protect himself from the weather, arriving in Moondale. While reluctant, Jerem even told his brother about being accused of stealing Brightwind. How scared he had been until Cerna and Gyllian had defended him. How he had feared not just the punishment for the theft, but that Kiman might hear and take him back. But that dark tale was not enough to dampen Jerem’s overall good mood, and he excitedly moved on to Moondale itself. Its people, its places, and it wasn’t long before Janthro was pretty sure he had heard every minute of his brother’s last eight months.

    And the more Janthro heard, the more certain he was that their future happiness depended on them remaining hidden from what remained of their family. Janthro had no doubts Kiman would come ‘collect’ his wayward brothers, and if that happened, they would never be free again. Hell, they might not be alive again. So their last name would remain Diadrem and they would speak to no one of anything that might link them to the Telcontur Barony. Janthro made it a game for Jerem, to be someone else, like Taren Willow in disguise among the citizens of Partha. An adventure to be had rather than a threat to be feared. No, Kiman would not find them easily if he could help it.

    They would settle down for a while and be quiet as church mice. And then… Janthro shook himself free of that trail as soon as he could. Then would just have to wait on more information, hopefully tonight when they reached Moondale. As expected, it was nearly sunset before they finally reached the southwestern edge of Darkwood and Janthro saw the town appear around the bend in the road. Jerem saw it, too.

    “Come on!” he cried, dropping off Dawntreader’s back like an apple and scurrying forward.

    Jerem reached out to grab Janthro’s arm as he passed and tugged his sleeve in an effort to make Janthro move faster. Janthro kept is pace measured and shook himself free. He did let Jerem dash ahead though, eyeing the sturdy building that was clearly Jerem’s destination. So this was Moondale. Janthro was sure he’d passed through at least once before, but couldn’t recall much beyond that. But he did know that inside were two people he needed to turn into his allies: Cerna and Gyillian MacCafferty. Jerem had chattered on about them the whole journey here from Windshae, along with running ahead, fooling around, and half a dozen other things that, while normal for a boy Jerem’s age, annoyed the hell out of Janthro. Janthro would have yelled at him more over it, but his neck injury continued to make talking quite painful. It was getting better, but still eliminated Janthro’s ability to use the sharp growl that in the past had always gotten his brother to shut up and behave.

    Gyillian and Cerna would be needed, not just to provide a break from his little brother’s incessant ‘little brotherness’. There was no way Janthro could take Jerem with him while he worked. Even simple guiding missions could prove fatal to the untrained. Karine’s Keep was case in point of that. Jerem needed a safe haven for weeks or even months at a time.

    Jerem had reached the door now, and darted inside. Janthro approached at a more deliberate pace, his eyes assessing the building. It was well cared for outside, even the stable yard tended and clear of filth and debris. The construction was good, the stonework solid and new thatch on the roof. It spoke well of its owners. With a deep breath, Janthro reached for the handle, pulled the door open, and entered.

    It wasn’t too crowded inside, maybe a quarter full with a dozen or so people, though Jerem’s arrival had clearly caused a stir. There was a small knot of people surrounding his brother, with Jerem held tight at its center by a matronly woman who could not be anyone but Cerna. There were a couple younger boys and girls, perhaps a few years older than Jerem, also clustered in close and chattering excitedly. Mostly it was questions about where Jerem had been and what he had seen. Only Cerna herself seemed so overwhelmed to see Jerem back safe that she could not speak.

    Which was more than Janthro could say for the middle-aged man who stood slightly off to one side of the happy group. That man, the innkeeper Gyillian based on how he was dressed, had turned to Janthro as he entered and not looked away. In fact, Gyillian’s eyes stayed far too long on the bandages that still covered Janthro’s neck, his genial face sliding into a suspicious frown. Best to get this over with quickly, before the innkeeper made some logical, but wrong, assumptions about him.

    “Gyillian MacCafferty?” Janthro said as he approached and held out his hand.

    Gyillian still eyed him, and his sword, suspiciously but his duties as host eventually compelled him to reach his own hand out and shake.

    “And you are?”

    “Janthro Diadrem,” Janthro answered promptly. “Jerem’s brother.”

    For all it seemed that Cerna had her attention on no one but Jerem, she still turned as he said this, looking him over with shocked pauses at his sword belt and neck. She might have had something to say about one, or both, of these things, but Jerem swung around with her, grabbing her arm and pulling her toward his brother and Gyillian.

    “That’s my big brother,” Jerem announced proudly. “I found him.”

    “Yes, you did,” Cerna replied absently, as she looked up at the new arrival.

    “Cerna. Ma’am,” Janthro answered, extending his hand once more.

    She shook it and looked him up and down more carefully. Janthro bore it steadily. Finally she asked, “Just how old are you?”

    “Old enough,” Janthro answered laconically.

    He was a bit surprised. Very few people questioned his age. They knew he was young, that couldn’t be hidden, not being in his late-twenties as he was. But no one had looked at him like Cerna had in a long time. Like he might still be a young man, barely an adult. Like he might not be old enough to care for a child. Like he needed parents, too. Like she knew the truth of his half-elven blood. The corner of Janthro’s mouth crooked up wryly.

    “I’m twenty-eight,” he amended, a truthful answer that had led to the desired false conclusion before.

    Cerna nodded at this as if it confirmed something for her, looking briefly at his baby brother. But her smile when she turned back was genuine, and Janthro suspected she would put up with him to keep Jerem close. Gyillian seemed less convinced.

    “What do you do?” the innkeeper asked carefully.

    “Kind of between jobs,” Janthro admitted. “Expect that to clear with time. I’m a guide.”

    “Guide?” Gyillian pressed.

    “He was a Captain!” Jerem interrupted proudly. “For the Duke of Windshae. He says he’s gonna keep doin’ stuff like taking people places and such for the Duke. Just here and not there,” Jerem added happily.

    It took Gyillian and Cerna a bit to puzzle out what Jerem was talking about.

    “You were a soldier?” Gyillian said at last. It seemed to be a point in Janthro’s favor.

    “Yes,” Janthro agreed.

    “And…” Gyillian let the word hang a while, fishing for more details.

    “I was a ranger,” Janthro clarified, “not a soldier of the line.”

    It was the best he could do to try and explain what he had done for the Duke and how atypical the Hand’s work had been. Rangers were a familiar concept, if a bit vague in their duties. Local Barons used Rangers to patrol their wild lands and keep them safe, the Duke used his for similar, but expanded, purposes.

    But the silence didn’t last long, as the crowd now moved en masse to them and Jerem repeated his introduction to all the newcomers. The younger ones seemed thrilled and fascinated by Janthro’s sword more than anything else. When it became clear Janthro wasn’t going to say much, something that then attracted their attention to his neck, they turned their inquiries to Jerem. After about the fifth rapid fire version of ‘what happened to his neck?’ and ‘is that real blood?’ Jerem glanced up at Cerna and Gyillian before he bit his lip and said to his young audience,

    “Come on, let’s go to the loft.”

    Jerem didn’t wait for permission. Neither did the rest of the boys, they all just scampered off rapidly toward the back of the Hook and Sinker to share the tale outside the hearing of any adults. The two girls looked as if they might like to join them, but with reluctant sighs, returned to serving customers. Privately, Janthro was impressed. Jerem had figured out all on his own that the detailed story of circumstance behind their reunion would not go over well just now with his foster parents.

    Jerem’s friends, however, were another matter, and Janthro had little doubt that the tale being told outside had morphed like some grotesque fish tale into its most violent and bloody incarnation. Or maybe not. Jerem always had trouble with even such small falsehoods as tall tales. But speaking of falsehoods, Cerna’s attention had been focused on his injury since before the boys had left. It was time to redirect her.

    “Got wounded in Kerine,” Janthro explained. “My last assignment before being released from service.”

    Cerna seemed to be following the trail he led her down, toward a conclusion that his injury and finding Jerem had been two separate incidents, not one single moment in time. Should the full truth ever come out, it would hopefully be after they had accepted him and his brother back into the fold. Cerna nodded at his non-answer, her fingers twitching like her motherly instincts could not leave any injury unexamined and potentially untreated. Gyillian was less convinced, but was called away by a customer, which drove much of this concern from his mind. Cerna gestured Janthro to a seat at the bar, where she brought him dinner and a mug of ale. Janthro thanked her and started eating. He wasn’t halfway done, silently observing the townsfolk while he ate, when Jerem came bouncing back in. After a quick look around, he slid onto the stool next to his brother.

    “See I was right,” he said without preamble. “We should have come here.”

    Janthro snorted a bit at the tone, but did not otherwise respond. He watched as Jerem slithered off again, apparently making the rounds of the townsfolk, friends, and acquaintances that continued to wander in throughout the evening. It had gone better than he had expected, Moondale a safe haven at least for now. Which would have to be enough. Janthro finished his food, tired and ready to get settled in for the night. He rose and fished around in his pocket for his money pouch as he approached Gyillian to settle their account.

    “How much do I owe you for the meal and a room?” he asked.

    Gyillian just shook his head.

    “You don’t owe anything,” he replied with a laugh. “You brought my boy back safe. You’re family.”

    It took Janthro aback. So much so that he didn’t answer for several long moments. Family. That was one hell of a loaded word. It settled a bit uncomfortably in a corner of his mind as Janthro considered before he finally managed,

    “Thanks.”

    “Jerem can take you to your room.”

    Janthro ducked his head in grateful acknowledgement and crossed to Jerem on the other side of the common room. Jerem gave him brief directions and then turned happily back to his friends. Janthro left him to enjoy the remainder of the evening under Gyillian and Cerna’s watchful eye, still pondering their welcome here and its implications. Family. Did the innkeeper know what he was saying, including Janthro so readily in that circle? Janthro had done nothing he could recall to deserve it…the trust that word implied.

    Jerem has though.

    Janthro reflected on this for a while as he readied for bed. It felt strange, to not have to earn everything himself. That instead of having to protect and provide for Jerem, his little brother had provided this for him. The oddness of the thought sprung offspring. Maybe he was thinking about this all wrong. Maybe Jerem didn’t need a parent so much as a Guide. Maybe there was something he could learn from Jerem. The germ of an idea began to form in Janthro’s head. An idea where Jerem wasn’t simply an innkeeper, or tradesman, or innkeeper’s assistant his whole life. Jerem could grow into a competent Ranger, with time and training. Janthro knew he could. They could be partners.

    Janthro’s back brain chewed on the idea trying to balance the image of Jerem dead by the campfire with his ease on the trip home and in Moondale. Jerem entered the room shortly thereafter, with a friendly wave. His little brother shucked out of his travel clothes, dropping them on the floor, and pulled on something to sleep in. He nodded firmly at Janthro.

    “See,” he declared, just a shade smug, “I was right. Cerna likes you and we should have come here.”

    Janthro restrained a chuckle and merely replied, “Yes, you were.”

    “Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to everyone else,” Jerem burbled on. “After chores, I guess.” He slithered under the blankets. “Night.”

    “Night.”

    Janthro stayed awake a while longer, still considering. He stood in front of the small dresser mirror as he unwound the bandage covering his neck. Yes. He had been right to keep it hidden. Even with Terreen’s magical assistance, it was still an ugly thing, a blackened and raw line from just below his ear all the way to his adam’s apple. He swallowed, wincing, wondering how long it would be until it no longer bothered him. Maybe he should have asked Terreen to do what more he could for it before they had left. But Janthro had not wanted to owe anyone, even a friend.

    Janthro’s glance was pulled back involuntarily to his brother, now sleeping soundly in his bed. No, his ledger was full, and until his brother was grown, Jerem was his only obligation. Janthro sat down on his own bed, hastily dragged into Jerem’s room from the Goddess alone knew where.

    So what now?


    Once again Janthro tried to recall what had happened in the grove, but his memories were fuzzy. What had really happened? Had his Goddess really brought his brother back to life? Was he now her servant or hunter or whatever it was? Or had he imagined it all, and Jerem had never really died? People had been thought dead before, to wake up and scare relatives at their own wakes, so had Jerem not been dead but grievously hurt? Had Terreen’s spell kept Jerem ‘frozen’ long enough to heal, so that when it wore off, he merely woke up?

    Janthro honestly didn’t know where the truth lay. It bothered him to not be certain. He knew he had lost a great deal of blood himself, enough so that the entire week had had a strange, vague quality to it as a result. Enough that he still tired quickly even now. So how could anything he remembered be certain? Death or mere injury? Recovery or miracle? Divine intervention or plain-old, strange life?

    What was certain was that Jerem was all right. And it was his job to keep his brother that way. Janthro’s fingers reached up to tenderly touch along the broken surface of his neck’s skin. And himself. He’d need to be more careful there, too. Some bandit arrow killing him would still leave Jerem in a bind. But maybe not. Janthro considered this as he lay down to sleep. Cerna and Gyillian were good people. Family, they said. They might keep Jerem regardless of Janthro’s fate. Janthro fell asleep at last, dreaming about what he could do to make certain of that fact.

    He woke the next morning and tried to make himself useful. Ironically, It was Jerem who led the way, jumping right back into the stable chores as if he had never left. A quiet word to Janthro about venison, and Janthro headed out into Darkwood. He returned in the early evening with stag, which was promptly butchered and dressed for use as dinner.

    In the days that followed, Janthro tried to help out as much as he could. He ran trap lines and hunted, but still the feeling of guilt grew daily. Moondale was small, and though the MacCafferty’s would never say anything, Janthro’s added presence a strain on their resources. And they wouldn’t accept money. The furs and meat simply weren’t enough. Janthro knew he had to find another solution—he had to find someplace to raise his brother without burdening anyone else. But where?

    He was checking his trap lines, the furthest ones out, placed in hopes of catching a more valuable ermine or mink, when the terrain jogged a memory. It had started to rain, a late spring downpour, and as his cloak and clothes began to soak through, Janthro recalled a similar wet and chilled day as the Hand had cut through Darkwood to reach Tawson.

    There’s a cave near here!


    A pretty big cave, now that Janthro recalled it. The five men had been quite comfortable inside as they had taken shelter for the night and dried their sodden gear. Janthro began to wander off his original route, farther north and east. It took him nearly the whole day, but at last he found it. It was in a section of the forest where the earth seemed to be more broken, outcroppings of rock pushed up at odd angles from the ground creating a series of hills, valleys, and dells. In one of these dells, the hill rose up beside a deer track with a broken cleft in the rock a few feet larger than a person.

    Janthro ducked inside to find it much as he remembered. There was one large chamber several feet further in, from which four smaller tunnels branched off. Most dead-ended in alcoves or nooks shortly thereafter, but it was all one level and dry even in this rain. Janthro poked about some more, lit himself a fire to dry off by the entrance and considered.

    This might do.


    It was within a day’s journey of Moondale, though you wouldn’t be able to do much else that day. Even now, Janthro had resolved to spend the night in the cave before finishing his trap line check and returning to the Hook and Sinker. It was also deep in Darkwood Forest, which meant privacy. No one would come here, not with Darkwood’s haunted reputation. Not even the Barons who owned this land could convince their men to journey too deeply into its depths, nor to spend the night. Janthro knew the legends false, having never seen anything unnatural in any of the time he spent traversing the forest as part of the Hand, but if the locals believed then they would be safe.

    Janthro dug out some dried meat from his backpack and arranged his collected furs to make a more comfortable bed. Food would also not be a problem here, either. His trap lines had revealed an abundance of wildlife from which to choose, even enough to make some extra money. And the forest itself would prove a valuable training ground for his brother. Jerem shouldn’t need to be a scullion for the rest of his life, not when Janthro could teach him an actual trade. Hunting and fishing guides were paid well by the nobles, Janthro knew, and those trained well enough to provide not just direction but also protection on the still dangerous roads between cities could do even better.

    When Janthro woke the next morning and headed for Moondale, he not only had a new home but also a direction for the next few weeks and even years. And so it became a pattern, summers of heavy and near constant work with Jerem left in Cerna and Gyillian’s care. Winters spent in their cave near Moondale doing odd jobs until spring. Janthro trained Jerem intensely whenever he could, practicing both weapons and woodcraft. When Jerem grew skilled enough at swordplay to exhaust local trainers, Janthro took him on trips to Tawson and then Windshae to find tutors during the slower winter season. Within five years, they were true partners, Jerem accompanying Janthro on many of his journeys as Janthro’s reputation grew. It wasn’t long before Janthro could not easily recall a time when Jerem hadn’t been with him.

    Janthro’s attention was drawn from his reverie when Jerem dropped cross-legged to the ground to sit beside him, his final evening patrol complete.

    “So what’s next?” Jerem asked curiously as he joined his brother in the watch over the now quiet camp.

    And Janthro smiled.



    THE END
    All rights reserved, etc.
    In other words, enjoy it, don’t copy it.


    Last edited by jlvm4; 2019-03-28 at 07:20 AM.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

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  25. - Top - End - #25
    Halfling in the Playground
     
    HalflingRogueGirl

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Is it okay if I send this to some friends? I think they'd enjoy it just as much as I did.
    That's also the best way I've ever seen "all rights reserved" explained.
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

  26. - Top - End - #26
    Halfling in the Playground
     
    HalflingRogueGirl

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by jlvm4 View Post
    Hope everyone is enjoying the story so far.

    I did have a question, though. What age do you think this story is aimed at? Young adult? Adult? I'm curious because I don't really know myself what age my writing is appropriate for.

    Thanks
    I think maybe young adult, with the reference to Janthro's... er... girlfriend in chapter 5 and the mild language used. That's just my personal take on it.
    Last edited by TrashTrash; 2019-03-29 at 02:22 PM.
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

  27. - Top - End - #27
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    RangerGuy

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by TrashTrash View Post
    Is it okay if I send this to some friends? I think they'd enjoy it just as much as I did.
    That's also the best way I've ever seen "all rights reserved" explained.
    Sorry it took so long to get back to you, I was out of town. Thanks for the feedback, I'm glad you liked it.

    In terms of sharing, I would prefer that, assuming they have web access, they read it here (as it's only got my login on it, and not my real name).

    If for whatever reason they don't have internet access, DM me and I'll see if I can't put together something in pdf form to send to them. I hate to be so obnoxious about it, but I've been working on this series (as mentioned before there are about 14+ books in various states of completion) since the 1990's and I'm rather possessive of the characters :)

    Again, thanks for reading.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  28. - Top - End - #28
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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by TrashTrash View Post
    I think maybe young adult, with the reference to Janthro's... er... girlfriend in chapter 5 and the mild language used. That's just my personal take on it.
    Yeah. That's where I get hung up too. As the series progresses there's more stuff that is less young adult going on. People get hurt, die, have relationships... basically life. Which can sometimes get quite mature. I mean it's never going to be Game of Thrones-level sex and violence, but it does get more obvious than oblique references. Not to mention some pretty violent and ugly things already happen to the characters in this book.

    So there are two issues with figuring out what 'level' the series is at, text and content, and I'm not sure they are both the same. I'd be curious as to your opinion on the language itself (words and sentence structure). Did it also come across as young adult level?

    Thanks
    Last edited by jlvm4; 2019-04-07 at 01:24 PM.
    I’ve known people who play chess like this. They can’t think their way to a checkmate, so they spend their time trying to clear the board of the little pieces. This eventually reduces the game to a simplicity they can grasp, and they’re happy. The perfect war is a fool’s mate.
    -Miles Naismith Vorkosigan

    ranger avitar created from site paladin avatar

  29. - Top - End - #29
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    HalflingRogueGirl

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    Thumbs up Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Quote Originally Posted by jlvm4 View Post
    Yeah. That's where I get hung up too. As the series progresses there's more stuff that is less young adult going on. People get hurt, die, have relationships... basically life. Which can sometimes get quite mature. I mean it's never going to be Game of Thrones-level sex and violence, but it does get more obvious than oblique references. Not to mention some pretty violent and ugly things already happen to the characters in this book.

    So there are two issues with figuring out what 'level' the series is at, text and content, and I'm not sure they are both the same. I'd be curious as to your opinion on the language itself (words and sentence structure). Did it also come across as young adult level?

    Thanks
    The sentence structuring is very well done, to the point where anyone could read it without difficulty. I think the vocabulary used might go over the heads of younger kids, though, as might the idea of the characters struggling with issues of morality (for example, the priest making the judgement call to let Jerem go instead of locking him up might be a little confusing to a younger kid. When I was younger, I personally had problems comprehending that sometimes what's allowed isn't always what's right.)
    Last edited by TrashTrash; 2019-04-24 at 11:23 AM. Reason: Small grammar fixes!
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

  30. - Top - End - #30
    Halfling in the Playground
     
    HalflingRogueGirl

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    Default Re: Storytime aka is this any good?

    Also, sorry for the late reply myself. My schedule went absolutely insane recently.
    "If you can't blow it up, try setting fire to it."
    "When in doubt, roll for Intimidation."
    "Great, now he's unconscious, bleeding out, and on fire. Great teamwork, guys."

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