Firestorm – Sample Chapters

 


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PROLOG

Harold Faron rode hard and fast along the road with the moon rising behind him. His face was creased with rage and his jaw tightened as he thought of the message again. His only son, heir to the small fiefdom Harold had spent his life building, had married a commoner. He gritted his teeth and urged the worn animal on with an angry “Hyah!” whipping it with the tail ends of the reigns. The horse snorted and shook its head, then resumed huffing labored breaths it could not draw any harder. Harold listened with satisfaction to the hooves thunder against the road, as if they were his own fists pummeling the earth, kicking up dirt and flinging it into the air behind him. His captain and one of his squires rode just as hard, trying to keep up.

“M’lord,” the captain yelled. Harold knew what he was going to say. There was a real danger in running the horses this hard without rest and or water. If not for the cool of the night air, they might already be dead. The keep was just over the horizon now; it didn’t matter. If his horse were to fall over dead, Harold Faron would leap off the saddle and hit the ground running.

Reaching the castle, they thundered across the drawbridge into the ward. Harold yanked his horse to a halt, jumped off and threw the reins at the stable guard. Without a moment’s pause, he made for the main hall. His hand went to his sword as he ran, but stayed in its sheath for now.

Tyrus stood in the main hall, waiting for his father, a man he had not seen for almost a full year. Pages flanked the door, rigidly staring past Tyrus at the wall behind him. He saw they were straining almost as hard as he was to keep their breathing calm and even. He swallowed hard, to get it out of the way now so the urge wouldn’t betray his nerves in front of his father. He was reconsidering the advice of his bailiff to leave on an inspection of the outlying manors – and maybe not come back, when Harold stormed through the door. It creaked heavily on tired hinges as Harold threw it open into the face of one of the pages, who caught the door just in time to keep it from breaking his nose. Tyrus looked at his father’s face, one which he no longer recognized.

The face was leaner than he remembered. The lines were harder, like chiseled sandstone. His eyes flashed like cold steel under a furrowed brow. Without a word, his father stepped towards him, seething through his teeth. Just as Tyrus was trying to understand why his father looked so enraged, Harold stopped in front of him, coiled his arm like a snake and swung hard, striking Tyrus in the face with the back of his hand.

Tyrus saw the room tilt, then soft stars floated across the hall like butterflies as he fell. He felt the cold stone of the floor against his cheek and heard himself groan. Shocked by the sudden violence of the attack, he struggled to push himself to his knees and turned to look at his father. He felt a burning ache in his ribs as his father’s boot kicked him hard enough to send him tumbling back onto the floor. As he looked up at the hall’s vaulted ceiling, his hand reflexively reached for his sword. The man who had brought him into the world, into a life of privilege, now seemed intent on killing him. Even as one part of his mind stood still, shocked by the insanity of such a thought, another took note of the range and stance of his father, reckoning the next move required to gain the advantage of the first swing of a sword.

Tyrus started to roll over and draw his blade when his father stepped over him and stomped on his hand. Tyrus grunted and fell limp. He shook his head, trying to clear his mind enough so that he could talk. He looked into his father’s eyes, which stared back at him with the total assurance of Tyrus’s demise. There was no reasoning with this man – whoever he was.

“If you’re going to kill me,” Tyrus wheezed, “then get on with it.”

Harold held his breath for an instant, drew his head back and labored hard to slow his breathing. He removed his hand from the grip of his own sword, took his boot off Tyrus’s hand and stepped back. Tyrus gently cradled his hand and shook it absently, trying to restore the flow of blood. Harold blinked and shook his head, as if waking up. He spoke slowly. “I’m not here to kill you, boy.” He turned and fell onto a bench under one of the broad windows that lined the main hall. “Although I would be in my right mind if I did.”

Tyrus pushed himself up and crawled across the floor to sit against the wall. “Is this about Aveline?” he asked.

Harold sighed. “Of course,” he said. He looked tired now. “Is it true?”

Tyrus absently rubbed his jaw, which was swelling and growing numb. It was becoming difficult to speak clearly. “Yes, it’s true,” he answered.

“I -” Harold started to say. He closed his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t understand why you would do such a thing.”

“No, you wouldn’t understand,” Tyrus mumbled stiffly. “And I’m not going to explain it.” Harold shot to his feet, started towards his son and stopped. Tyrus looked at him, comically defiant with his swollen jaw.

Harold clenched his fist. “You were betrothed!” he shouted.

Tyrus scoffed and struggled to his feet. “But I did not consent. It’s required. And I withheld it. The Parson can explain it to you if you like.”

Harold took another step closer. “You took dowry! Do you have any idea what will become of our family when the King finds out – “

Tyrus cut him off. “I gave it back.” Harold, deflated, looked around the room, his eyes wide. He slumped back down on the bench and stared at the floor.

“All of it?” he hissed.

“Yes,” Tyrus replied.

“Those lands, we need those to -“

“And the livestock and the stones for a new press,” Tyrus said, “All of it. I released it entirely.”

“It was not yours to release,” Harold said, “That dowry belongs to your family, not you.”

“Strange, it seems to me that your dowry stayed with you, after mother – ” His voice trailed off in a faint act of mercy. Both men looked at each other in silence.

“I’ll have this annulled,” Harold said.

“How? She is not my cousin and the parson hasn’t killed anyone. There are no grounds for annulment.”

“No, no, there’s a way.” Harold stood up and began to pace. “If you are a widower, you can regain the dowry and marry properly. Yes, that’s it. You were merciful. It was all a misunderstanding. You were young. You were drunk. I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.” He stopped and glared at Tyrus, a vile grin spreading across his face. “None of it matters if you are widowed.” In the place of his father, Tyrus now saw a stranger. He worked his jaw slowly, stood up and again moved his hand to the grip of his sword.

“I pray you speak only out of madness,” Tyrus said. Harold did not move. He nodded absently, the grin fixed on his face like paint. His eyes lowered to Tyrus’s hand resting on the grip of his sword. Tyrus adjusted his stance, stabilizing himself as his father had taught him. He felt the sinews in his arm tighten as he adjusted his grip and watched his father stand motionless, still grinning, when something inside him asked a question. What are you willing to die for? It then whispered to him with false reassurance, All will be well. What seemed sensible at that moment, he would later realize was nothing more than fear.

Two fully armed squires stepped into the hall. Tyrus blinked absently as they approached. One jerked Tyrus’s hand away from his sword while the other seized him by both arms. “

“Take him to the keep,” Harold said. “Put him in the sleeping quarters.” He stepped close to Tyrus and whispered, “If you are widowed -“

WARRIOR

Tyrus’s lungs tightened. The closer the enemy got, the more breath they seemed to leach from the air. The enemy rolled forward like a wall made from the earth itself. For most men facing the imminent avalanche of battle, it was like being bundled in a burlap sack, tied with rope and tossed into the sea. There was no escape. All you could do was wait for it, knowing that the moments of your life dwindled with each step the enemy took. It was exactly the panic brought on by the proximity of men who could not escape each other that gave them the will to fight. You learned to surrender to the fear that smothered everything around you, because it was the only thing you could trust. When the enemy closed to the tip of your sword, the only thing left in the world were those last moments he was trying to take away forever. You didn’t fight the enemy as much as you pushed him away so he could not take your last breath of time. You slashed through him, as you would push through an ocean wave just to get it behind you. You lunged out with a violent prayer that pleads for it all to just stop. This is what it was like for most men. It had once been like this for Tyrus Faron.

All they could hear was the crackle of oil-soaked arrows burning behind them. The wall of fire they created ensured no man could retreat now. All that was left was waiting for the shimmering silhouette of the enemy’s infantry line swelling in front of an orange sun. Tyrus wondered how many of those marching towards him were just like the whimpering boy standing next to him. The boy wasn’t a day older than 16 and could barely hold on to his spear, which was little more than a pointed stick hacked from green wood. That’s all the new ones got.

Tyrus felt his boots sink into the mud of the battlefield. Again, he picked up each foot and shook off the mud. He repeated this ritual every few minutes so his boots wouldn’t stick when it came time to fight. He held the grip of his sword, ready to pull it from its sheath. The enemy line was close enough now to shake the ground in a steady cadence as a thousand feet pounded the ground. A brute of a man that was heading right for Tyrus caught his eye. The man held a blade half as tall as a man in his right hand and a ball-in-chain in his left. Tyrus closed his eyes and imagined the brute plunging the sword into his gut and then beating him to death with the ball-in-chain. He pled the shortest of prayers.

“Please.”

When Tyrus opened his eyes, a distant voice screamed in a foreign tongue. The enemy halted. The clouds of dust they had kicked up during the march kept rolling forward for a few moments and then settled onto the ground. The boy with the green wood spear began to shake and turned to Tyrus with eyes wide in terror. “Don’t worry too much about it lad,” Tyrus said. “There is always one who is closest. Deal with him first. The rest can wait.” The boy stared across the field without seeing it, trapped in the trance of fear. Tyrus would have to keep his sword close to this one. “All one needs to be noble is to stand when others will not.”

 More shouting echoed up and down the enemy line. Spears and pikes in the back ranks silently flipped up to point at the sky. A moment later, Tyrus heard the chorus of clattering metal and wood. To his left, another boy stood with his feet apart, his knees bent and a long pike with metal points fixed carefully at the height of a regular horse. He looked at the horizon, maybe even past it. “How many, lad?” Tyrus asked.

The boy with the pike kept his eyes fixed on the horizon when he answered. “This will by my third, sire.”

The enemy’s front line marched a few more steps and then stopped. Another shout echoed out. The cold scrape of steel rang through the air. Then, there was the final prelude of silence that came before every battle. The boy with the green wood spear let out a huff. His meager training now told him what to do: he tightened his grip and dug the butt end of his spear into the ground. “Yes sire,” he muttered. He was no longer shaking, but the fear in his eyes would invite every man in the enemy ranks to strike him down first.

“What did you say, Lad?” Tyrus asked.

“Yes, sire, I’ll find the closest one first.”

“That’s good, lad.”

A final shout and the men in the enemy’s back line swung their pikes down to form a sea of gleaming metal that pointed straight at Tyrus. Then, every man in the enemy line opened his mouth and the ground shook as they thundered across the field at a full run. A chill ran through Tyrus as he waited for the sound to catch up. A moment later, the air burst with the enemy’s scream and the rumble of their feet as they rushed towards Tyrus and his men. The boy with the green wood spear began to shake again.

“No, lad,” Tyrus said.

“Right, sire,” the boy practically whispered. Tyrus reached over and shoved the boy half into the mud.

“I’m still an officer in the King’s Army. Speak to be heard, lad!” Tyrus yelled. The boy shot him a hard glance as he scrambled back to his feet and quickly reset his spear. But he was no longer shaking.

By now, the pounding of the enemy’s charge drowned out any but the loudest scream as men in Tyrus’s line shouted orders to prepare for the onslaught. The enemy rushed in, a maelstrom of swords and pikes and screams that gushed out from behind teeth bared like animals. Like two great gnawing beasts, the armies clawed into each other. The peasantry ducked their heads and blindly lunged out with their spears. In the blink of an eye, half of them became soldiers as they scored their first kill in battle. The other half fell before they could lunge out a second time.

Tyrus unsheathed his sword, crouched down, tapped the tip on the ground twice and then let it lay there. The brute in front of him raised his sword, ready to strike. Tyrus looked straight into the man’s eyes and waited for the sword to crash into his skull. When the brute left his midsection exposed, Tyrus could have easily sliced him open, but he kept his sword down with the tip resting on the ground. The brute swung his blade down hard. By reflex alone, Tyrus thrust his own sword in front of the boy next to him. The blades crashed together with a piercing ring, just inches from the boy’s face. He froze in panic. Tyrus grunted and tried to push the brute back with his free hand. He might as well have been trying to move a block of granite. The brute bared his teeth and swung again at the boy’s face. The force of the strike nearly knocked Tyrus’s sword out of his hand. He pushed with all his strength to hold the brute’s sword in check, and then felt the burning ache of the ball-in-chain crashing into his ribs. His mesh armor helped absorb the blow and probably kept his ribs from breaking, but it still hurt like hell.

“Poke him, lad,” Tyrus yelled. He grunted with the strain of holding the brute’s sword back.

Still transfixed by the swords just inches from his face, the boy yelled back, “What, sire?”

“With your stick, poke him with your goddamn stick!” Just as Tyrus’s strength gave out, the boy stepped back and thrust his spear just hard enough to draw blood. The brute laughed and raised his sword to prepare for another attack. “Poke him again!” Tyrus yelled. The boy pulled his spear back and reset his stance. He drew a lung full of air and screamed. This time, he thrust his spear deep enough to make the brute growl in pain, lower his sword and stumble back.

“That’ll do,” Tyrus said.

Tyrus shifted his weight, crouched low and raised his sword. Just as the brute regained his footing, Tyrus swung the flat of his blade at the boy and hit him just hard enough to knock him to the ground. The brute swung his sword for the last time. When the blade flashed just to the side of the boy’s head, Tyrus slashed the brute’s gut open and said, “You chose poorly.”  Tyrus drew his sword back, reset his stance and heaved the blade into the brute almost to the hilt, then pushed him hard so that he slid off the blade, stumbled back and fell to the ground. The boy scrambled to his feet, screaming wildly. He thrust the tip of his crude spear into the brute’s belly. He pulled back, took a breath and thrust the spear again, then leaned into it, pushing the point deep into the brute’s now dead body. He would never be 16 again.

Tyrus turned just in time to see another swordsman bearing down on them and yanked the boy back to the line. By the time Tyrus positioned himself, the enemy swordsman was able to lurch forward and swipe his sword at the boy’s spear. The blade broke the green wood and ripped the spear from the boy’s hand. He took a step backward and started to run. Before he could take his next step, the swordsman’s blade sliced into his chest and through his heart. As the boy’s limp body collapsed in the mud, Tyrus heard all sound around him fade to a dull rumble. He felt the familiar ache in his right shoulder but didn’t hear himself scream.

He threw the pikeman to his left behind himself. At the same time, he swung his blade in a flat arc, cutting the enemy swordsman’s neck in one clean motion. The swordsman looked puzzled, gasped for air he could not breathe and then toppled over onto the body of the boy he had just killed.

“Behind me!” Tyrus yelled. “Behind me, all of you!” Every peasant within earshot scrambled to his position, fell in behind him and formed a small perimeter, each with his pike pointing out. Tyrus moved in one continual motion as he slashed through an enemy soldier, turned to reset and took down another before the first even hit the ground. He screamed continuously, but heard nothing. He felt his shoulder ache and burn as blood surged through the muscle. His arm was on fire as blood rushed to his fingertips. He no longer felt the weight of the sword in his hand. It had become part of him as he swept it through the air, into his enemies and back again. He felt its blade slice into muscle and crush bone. He saw men grab their chests, arms and throats as he cut them down in a flurry of motion that had no beginning and no end. But he did not hear the gurgling if his enemies when they clutched at their throats, or the agonizing cry when one lost an arm or found himself suddenly impaled by the cold steel of Tyrus’s blade.

Then, everything stopped. Tyrus heard himself gasping for air. There was not enough air in the world to fill his lungs. His shoulder and arm stopped burning. His fingers grew numb. The sword slipped from his hand and fell into the mud. He dropped to his knees and surveyed the remnants of the enemy. All that remained was a gaggle of young conscripts like those huddled behind him. He would not raise his blade against them. Instead, he waited for one who was brave enough to raise his spear against him. He closed his eyes and pled a short prayer.

“Please.”

But none came forward. All he saw was terror in their eyes. Glaring at them all, heaving in deep gulps of air, he knew what they saw. And he would be terrified, too. He closed his eyes and reached into his tunic to pull out a blue scarf with frayed edges. It had been with him in every battle and yet it had not a single drop of blood on it. As he felt the fabric caressing his palm, horses thundered onto the battlefield to run down the remnants of the enemy stumbling back across the field. One by one, the enemy conscripts lurched, heaved and fell to the ground as the cavalrymen impaled them with long spears, stabbed them with swords or simply trampled them to death. To a man, the enemy died running. Tyrus watched in despair and spat at the ground. In a war of attrition, what the cavalry did was necessary. He understood that. But there was no honor in it.

He stuffed the scarf back into his tunic, stood up and sheathed his sword. He looked up and down the line. A few men limped from the battle. A handful crawled. Both the boy with the pike and the boy with the green wood spear lay motionless on the ground. When he turned around, there were ten peasants looking at him. Still breathing hard from the labor of battle, he stood up and staggered towards their camp. His ten peasant-warriors trailed behind him, protecting the man who had given them all one more breath of time.

NOTICE

Frederick Durant, Bailiff of Faron Manor, stood in the center of the main hall. The tall windows lining the walls were smudged by years of smoke from the fire place. Sunlight fought its way through them to cast oily patches of dull orange on the stone floor, which was covered with a thin layer of grime reaching to every corner of the room. The floor around the banquet table was even worse. The tapestries lining the walls were heavy with the same oily residue that covered the windows. Even though it was daylight and the place was dark enough for torches, none of the cradles tacked to the walls held a single torch to be lit. Frederick felt the weight of the dank air settle into his lungs as he choked it down one breath at a time.

He could have sat at the table on the dais if he chose, but he didn’t feel comfortable there. That was a place for nobles. The only place he really felt he belonged was on horseback, patrolling the manor and tending to its daily operation. But today, he was the ranking official on the manor, the top man, the only one who could properly receive the coroner’s clerk. The clerk – a man who would soon arrive to discuss the gelding tax, which Frederick knew was long past due. The manor lord had just died and left this, and many other burdens, on the shoulders of his tenants. Even as the manor mourned his passing, men like the coroner took no pause in the pursuit of their duty. Even if the lord’s passing was more cause for celebration than despair, it still seemed to Frederick there should have been some respect for the ritual. The fact that no such consideration would be offered was made real when the main hall door creaked open on tired hinges and a squire stepped in to announce the clerk’s arrival.

“Sire -, I mean, Bailiff. Sir.” The squire’s face twisted in a lapse of confusion. “The coroner’s -” Before he could finish, a mousy man dressed in the formal heraldry of the coroner’s office pushed the squire aside. Anger flashed across the young squire’s eyes as he looked at Frederick for guidance. Frederick shook his head just enough for the squire to get the message. The squire backed away and closed the door.

The mousy man spoke. “Good afternoon -.” Frederick smiled when the clerk realized he wasn’t the right man. “Where is your lord?” the clerk asked.

Frederick raised his brows and blinked at the man. “You haven’t heard?”

The clerk idly brushed the front of his tunic. “Heard what?”

“You mean the coroner’s office has not received word of the passing of Lord Harold Faron, master of this humble estate?” The clerk looked at the floor, as he mentally reviewed the information he had been given by his office. He took a scroll from his tunic. His eyes flitted across its contents. He rolled the paper up and stuffed it back in his tunic.

“No, I had not,” the clerk said. The two men stared at each other and Frederick allowed himself another smile as the clerk was clearly feeling the discomfort of the stagnant air. “I’ll see to it the coroner is informed,” the clerk continued, dismissing the subject. He stepped forward and formally announced himself. “I am the coroner’s clerk. Who am I addressing for this meeting?”

“Bailiff Frederick Durant, at your service”

“Very well.” The clerk opened the flap of his satchel and carefully withdrew a parchment scroll tied with a red ribbon and sealed with a smudge of wax bearing the coroner’s seal. “This is the final notice for the gelding tax which has been due for some time now.” He offered the scroll to Frederick. “As I’m sure you’re aware.” Frederick was aware, but the clerk didn’t need to know that. Such things were not the business of the manor bailiff.

“I am not aware,” Frederick said. He left the clerk’s hand suspended in front of him, still holding the scroll. The clerk pushed it closer. Frederick casually took the scroll, doing his best to look bored.

“Bailiff, I must inform you then, that this matter is of the utmost urgency.”

“Oh?”

The clerk seemed to struggle as he had to improvise an explanation of something that should have been obvious. “I’m sorry to bring this to you at such a difficult time,” he said. Like hell you are, Frederick thought. “These are matters which should have been attended to long before now.”

“Perhaps another time, then?” Frederick asked, trying to dismiss the man while he had the chance.

“Oh, no, sire. Um. Bailiff. I am sorry for adding to your burden at this time, but it is a matter which we must attend to today. Now.”

“I don’t understand. Are you asking me to pay this -” Frederick unrolled the scroll. His eyes widened and he stopped breathing when he saw the number. He closed his eyes and rolled the scroll back up. “We can’t possibly pay even a portion of this,” he said.

“That is not up to me. Or you. It is due.”

“It has been a difficult season for us.”

“Indeed. Nevertheless, sire, I have been instructed to inform you that if the levy is not made good, your manor will be remanded to the King’s court for disposition.”

Frederick looked past the man, imagining the fields that lay beyond the main hall door. Even as they were speaking, tenants labored in fields whose meager harvest would barely feed them through the winter. They had broken their backs plowing the winter field. They had trudged through unforgiving soil, planting seeds that had no hope of nourishment from an earth that had seemed to give up. They weeded the crops anyway, beating back the choking blackgrass and chickweed, which grew more plentiful than the withering strands of wheat, barley and oats. Then they went home to cupboards that were all but bare, slept in rags and woke up hungry to do it all over again. Frederick had long given up trying to understand how they kept going. What he did understand, though, was that their lives would be made worse if they lost the manor. Those that owned land – some of it handed down for generations – would lose it. Then they would be put to work in the Baron’s demesnes to pay off the manor’s debt, spending the rest of their days hungry, tired and broke. Those that didn’t have land would probably be left in the streets of Fareham to beg or pressed into the service of the Baron’s regiment and sent to war. Their numbers would dwindle through the winters until none of them were left. All of this would happen because they paid their rent and their taxes to a lord who did not.

The clerk knitted his brow and neatly cocked his head to one side. He opened his mouth, began to say something, and stopped short. He adjusted his tunic and asked, “What shall I tell the coroner is your response?”

“As I said, we have had a difficult season,” Fredrick said, “and the King’s insistence on littering the country with townships has left our mill, press, smith and bake house idle. I would rather he send patrons with coin than clerks demanding the impossible.”

“You speak of -“, the clerk began.

“Fareham,” Frederick said, a little too loudly. “Fareham, and her goddamn guilds, that’s who I speak of.” He took a breath and raised his hand, forcing himself to calm down.

“I do see your point, Bailiff,” the clerk offered. “Again, the response?”

“Has the King considered that every traveler through this manor would provide us the means by which to pay this levy if not for these towns?” Frederick asked.

“Indeed,” the clerk said, “but the towns, you see, pay their taxes.”

 Frederick’s eyes narrowed and his breathing came in measured, shallow breaths. Resisting the urge to throw the man physically through a window, he realized something the clerk should have already known, unless he was counting on Frederick’s ignorance of such things.

“The manor’s heir has yet to be summoned,” Frederick said.

The clerk smiled gently. “Protocol?” he asked. “You’re going to cite protocol?” Frederick did not respond. “Will things be any different when he arrives?” the clerk asked.

“You’ll have to ask him,” Frederick said. The clerk let out an impatient sigh and turned to leave without another word. Frederick had bought them time. But he, too, had to wonder: would things be any different when Tyrus got home?

SUMMONS

The commander’s clerk was waiting in a tent that was too clean to be anywhere near a battlefield. Inside were many of the same amenities that adorned the commander’s own tent: a table, a real chair, candles, kindling and a comfortable straw mattress. For accommodations in the field, it was one of the better places to be. And Tyrus despised the man for all of it. The squire holding the reins of Tyrus’s horse was the same way: clean, functional and utterly useless.

Tyrus stood in front of the table. There were three items placed neatly in front of him: a candle, a fire steel and a parchment scroll. The clerk’s eyes drifted to Tyrus’s sheathed sword. Tyrus smirked when the clerk cringed at the sight of blood still dripping from the hilt. Blood was one of the many small terrors that upset the world of men who had no real business being here in the first place. The clerk fumbled for the fire steel. His hands trembled as he struck the flint and it took him several tries to finally light the candle which did little to disperse the gathering darkness. It lit the inside of the tent just enough to allow the two men to see each other. The clerk cleared his throat and sat down, pausing for a moment to study Tyrus, then picked up the scroll.

“Lord Faron-” he began.

“Sir,” Tyrus said, interrupting the clerk.

“Excuse me,” the clerk said.

Sir Faron. I am a knight in the service of the King’s Army.”

The clerk unrolled the scroll. “Not any longer, lord Faron.” The clerk winced when Tyrus reflexively reached for the grip of his sword.

Tyrus took a breath, dropped his hand to his side and smiled. “What?” The clerk offered Tyrus the scroll. Shadows danced across the fabric of the tent as he waited. Tyrus did not move.

“This is a summons from your lordship’s manor,” the clerk said. He waited for Tyrus to respond. Tyrus still did not move. Finally, just as the clerk’s hand was beginning to tremble, Tyrus let out a short breath and took the parchment. He wouldn’t have thought much about it if it had been written on paper. Parchment was a different thing: whatever was written on it was important.

“Your discharge will be along the proper channels in due time. You don’t need to wait for it. The situation at home is -” The clerk took a moment to find his next word. “-urgent.”

The clerk leaned over to look behind Tyrus as footsteps approached. Before Tyrus could turn to look, a hand gripped his arm like a vice. Tyrus whirled around and stopped short of drawing his sword only when he saw the eyes of his commander.

“I can’t say we’ll be better off without you, lord Faron,” the commander said. Tyrus squelched the urge to correct him. The man tightened his grip and Tyrus felt the ache of blood being squeezed from the muscle of his arm. “But we will.” The man leaned in to whisper in Tyrus’s ear. “How many men have called you hero? Have you lost count?” The man squeezed even harder. “How many of them are still alive? I know you haven’t lost count of that.” The man pushed Tyrus back against the table, knocking the candle over. Hot wax splashed the table and spread a small fire across its surface. “Not one single of the boys you fought with in the mud are alive to tell stories about you!” Before Tyrus could regain his balance, the commander drew his own blade and pushed the tip against Tyrus’s chest. “They’re not supposed to live. They only have to kill. If every man on the line kills one enemy before he is struck down, he has served his purpose.” He pressed the tip harder. The only thing holding it back from Tyrus’s heart was the chainmail between the sword and Tyrus’s chest. “But nobles, like you, are important enough to survive a battle. There aren’t as many trained knights with horses as there are whore’s litters with sticks.” Tyrus closed his eyes, struggling to contain the rush of anger surging behind his eyes. It would only get him killed at this point, he knew that. And that would have been fine, except this was not the proper way to die. “Because of you,” the commander continued, “I have lost good men I can never replace. Honorable men. Men with purpose. Men who would be alive today -” He pressed the tip even harder and Tyrus grunted as the mail bit into his chest. “-if you had ridden with them. If you had fought with them. If you had been a proper noble. Not just a fool with mud on his boots and his name on the lips of men who weren’t fit to speak it!”

The man pulled back his sword, shoved it into his sheath and glared at Tyrus one last time. “Get out of this tent. Get out of this camp. Get out of my regiment.”  The man paused, drew a deep breath through his nose and said, “Get out of my army.” The man turned to give Tyrus just enough room to step past him and into the night. As Tyrus left the tent, the commander said one more thing. “I swear to God, if I ever see you again, I’ll kill you myself.” Tyrus stopped to study the face of a man that would make such a dangerous threat. Tyrus was within his rights to strike the man down here and now. He glanced at the clerk scrambling to put out the small fire spreading across his table. And there would be witnesses.

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” Tyrus said. The squire holding the reins of Tyrus’s horse stepped forward to hand them over. As Tyrus swung into the saddle, he said, “Somebody more worthy, like one of those boys from a whore’s litter, will do it for you.” Despite the urge to kick his steed into a full gallop, Tyrus sat as straight as his tired body would allow and eased his horse forward in a slow step, giving the commander every opportunity to carry out his threat here and now, if he was as bold as his words. The horse barely moved across the ground as Tyrus pulled the reins to keep her head tucked in. With each step, he clenched his jaw, waiting for the burn from the commander’s blade plunging into his back. But it never came. Looking over his shoulder, Tyrus said, “The ones you swore an oath to defend. Do you remember?”

CHESTER

Supper had been a veritable feast – a thin vegetable stew in a bread bowl. Chester could have easily eaten a second bowl if there had been one. Even though a pang of hunger stirred in his belly, he left the bit of crust he had saved tucked into his tunic pocket. The hour was late and his parents were well asleep by now, but Chester listened to his father snore a while longer before crawling to the edge of his loft. He took one more glimpse of his parents to confirm they were sound asleep on their straw bed in the corner. He slid across his own bed of straw and placed his foot on the highest rung of the ladder leaning against his loft. Despite his paltry weight, he could not keep the ladder from creaking. He stopped on each rung, held his breath and peeked at his parents to make sure they were still asleep before moving on to the next.

As he set his foot on the floor, a gentle patter of rain started to dance across the roof. Rain was always good since it helped the harvest, but tonight it made him cringe. He padded his way to the door, checking over his shoulder with each step. He slipped on leather shoes which had no sole, but were good enough most days in the field. He laced them tightly and reached for the door. Just as he opened it, a distant rumble of thunder masked the sound of the hinges scraping against each other. He stepped into the rain.

Most of the other cottages of Faron Manor were dark, but a few glowed with the soft light of an oil lamp or, in some cases, a small torch. On his way to the village road, he passed quietly through the small plots of land belonging to families lucky enough to have one. Once past those, he turned down the road and headed for the badlands. A frosty moon hung over The Massif behind the badlands, splashing its glistening spires with blue light. Then the storm boiling out of the Massif hid the moon away, leaving the mountain peaks in darkness. Lightning struck out from the clouds and lit the peaks for just the blink of an eye. Chester hunched his shoulders and wrapped his arms around himself when the patter of rain became a torrent sweeping across the manor.

So entranced by lightning dancing along the granite of the Massif, Chester barely noticed when he finally reached the end of the road. He clapped his hands and shook his head to clear his mind. He surveyed the ground, peering into a copse of trees and noting the boundary of the approaches to the Massif. He took a breath as if he were about to jump into a cold pond and stepped into the badlands.

He pursed his lips and made a kissing sound, but the rain was coming down so hard he could barely hear himself. Even so, he kept on as he trudged through weeds and past small islands of trees. “Here boy,” he called out. His voice was so beat down by the rain that it was barely louder than a whisper. “Where are you?” He listened for the whimpering he had heard last time, but the only sound was the dull roar of rain pounding the badlands into mud. He stopped when he reached the center of the badlands and scanned the entire field. The rain was so thick he could no longer see the Massif approaches or the village road. “Come on now,” he said. “Where are you?” With the next flash of lightning, he saw a glint of light near an outcropping of trees. He clapped his hands, hard, and called out again, “Come on boy, over here!” Another flash of lightning revealed the glint once more. It had not moved.

Chester tried to take a step forward but his foot wouldn’t move. He swallowed hard, trying to quench the surge of panic rising up in his chest. “Come on” he growled to himself. He pulled his foot up high and forced himself to march towards the trees. The glint remained steady as he slogged across the field. With each new bolt of lightning, he felt his heart sink. He pounded his fist into his palm, forcing himself not to cry.

As he approached the trees, a silhouette appeared. Chester slowed down and studied the form. The hair of his neck bristled. The form moved and Chester found himself looking into the eyes of a villein, one of the poor wretches who lived day to day by whatever labor they could find from other manor residents. They had no home and survived at the whim of those who did. They went to church with the rest, shared in the hay making and spent their turns in the demesnes, just like the rest. But every night, they came here, where they had to make do with crude tents and leans-to. If they were lucky to find work that day, there would be fires burning as they prepared meager portions of potage. Occasionally, they would catch small game that had wandered into the badlands and have a feast of rabbit or squirrel. On other nights, the badlands were simply a dark void inhabited by the hungry and desperate. There were many tales about the badlands – and the unspeakable things that happened there. Hunger and desperation could make any man dangerous. Because of all this, Chester was forbidden to even be here.

“Hello?” he said. The silhouette lurched and he saw a girl not much older than himself sitting next to the body of a man laid out on his back. Chester knelt down next to her. She didn’t seem to notice until he put his hand on her shoulder. She looked directly into his eyes and he couldn’t tell where the rain stopped and her tears began. She let out a sob and drew in a hard breath through her nose. Not knowing what to do next, Chester said, “I can’t find my dog.” The girl shuddered and collapsed into Chester’s arms.

“He couldn’t find work,” she said between sobs. “We were hungry. You know how wolves sometimes come down from the forest.” The girl shuddered again and let out a wail. “We were hungry.” Still holding the girl in his arms, Chester inspected the body lying in the rain-soaked mud. With each flash of lighting, he stared at the wound in the man’s belly. He closed his eyes and pulled the girl tighter against his chest.

A hand touched his shoulder. Chester felt it, knew he should be scared of it.

“Come on home now lad,” he heard his father’s voice say.

“I can’t find my dog,” Chester said, still looking into the curtain of rain that seemed to hide the whole world away.

“I know,” his father said. “It’s time to go now.”

Chester looked into his father’s eyes and said, “But she’s hungry.”

“And so are we,” his father replied. “Come on now, let’s get a spade.”

Still rocking the girl, Chester blinked at his father. He couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t get up. He couldn’t even think. All he could do was let the rain spatter against his face. “I can’t find my dog.”

“I know.” As gently as he could, Chester’s father reached down to pick him up. The girl’s fingers brushed Chester’s hand and slipped away as his father hoisted him into his arms. With each step towards home, Chester watched the girl fade further behind the gray curtain of rain. By the time they reached the village road, he couldn’t see her at all.

ROAD

The camp was a day behind him when Tyrus slid out of the saddle. He let the reins go free and his horse wandered off just far enough to start grazing on the wild grass sprawling across the ground. Tyrus stretched his arms to the sky, stomped his foot and stumbled to a scraggly tree just off the road. He heaved himself to the ground and leaned back against its thin trunk. He looked through thin leaves too frail to protect him against anything. He pulled the scroll from his tunic, tapped it against the palm of his hand and held his breath. He slowly unrolled the document and held it at an angle to catch the failing light of the setting sun. It was written on finely tanned parchment and bore the formal strokes of a scribe.

         Tyrus my old friend,

         I pray this finds you spared from the spear point of battle.

         There is no gentle way to say that your father has passed from this world and into the next.

         I know the terms of your parting were less than cordial, but the fact remains we are without a Lord of the Manor.

         Much has changed since you left, my old friend and the manor has been worn to a shadow of its former self.

         There is little time for our fortunes to turn. We are in need of many things, but most desperately wanting is the steady hand of a leader and the authority of your title.

  The urgency of things cannot be overstated.

         Return to us without delay, my lord. Please.        

         Your true friend and faithful servant,

         Bailiff Frederick Durant

Tyrus read the scroll a second time before rolling it up and placing it back in his tunic. He leaned his head back and let out a sigh. To the west, the sun splashed an orange glow against clouds forming on the far horizon. The camp lay between him and the sun. Beyond that, the road wandered into the heart of the kingdom and its myriad of manors and battlefields. There had to be a Marshal leading any one of the King’s battles that had never heard of Tyrus. A man with his sword and skill would be welcomed, even if just as a mercenary. One thing was certain: conscripts were in abundance, as were brutal enemies. Perhaps he could still meet his match on the field.

To the east lay Faron manor. He picked up a stick lying next to his tree and started scratching a crude map of the manor in the damp ground. He could defend the villeins, cottagemen, peasants and serfs of the manor just as well, but ‘home’ was a word he no longer understood. He tapped the stick on the ground and then dropped it. He reached into his tunic to pull out the blue scarf and carefully draped it over his hand. He closed his eyes and brushed the silken texture against his cheek.

When Tyrus opened his eyes, the last remnants of daylight revealed a lone figure walking up the road towards him. He absently caressed the blue scarf as he studied the figure. The man moved slowly enough that Tyrus determined he wouldn’t need his sword. He tightened his grip on the scarf and placed it back in his tunic before turning to the task of building a fire. The country side was damp and covered mostly with grass and weeds. The only suitable kindling came from the small outbreaks of scrub. He took a handful of dry grass, twigs and a fire steel from one of his bags. Sparks leapt out from the fire steel and he coaxed the dry kindling into a small flame. As he fed morsels of brush to the fire, the figure came close enough for Tyrus to call to him and wave. The figure did not respond – he just kept walking. Tyrus shifted position so the man was directly to his front as he tended the fire.

The man stepped off the road and ambled towards Tyrus. He stopped when he reached the fire and let out a long breath. Sweat trickled down his forehead, chasing the rivulets that had splashed into his eyes for most of the day. He wore a hooded habit, the hem frayed by the stones of too many miles traveled by foot. Neat stitching and an occasional patch mended tears and rips that had been acquired over the years. He carried a small satchel tied to a hemp rope slung over his shoulder, nothing more.

Tyrus eyed the man carefully. He was older than Tyrus and did not carry a weapon. After determining that he could counter any threat the man might present, Tyrus gestured at the fire. “Please, Father, join me.” The priest nodded, set his satchel down and grunted as he eased himself to the ground. He held his hands by the fire, dispersing the chill that was settling into the air.

“Thank you my son,” the priest said. Tyrus stood up to fetch another one of his bags and pulled out a bit of dried venison. He tore it in half and offered a portion to the priest, who gently took the offering and bowed his head. The priest’s lips moved as he spoke a silent prayer before gnawing into the morsel.

Tyrus let out a short laugh and reached back into the bag. He pulled out a small lump of bread and handed it over. “This might be easier.”

The priest took the bread and set in his lap. “Patience prevails,” he said, then continued to gnaw on the venison. Tyrus fed more brush to the fire and studied its fledgling embers.

When the priest had finished, Tyrus said, “I am called sir Faron.”

The priest took a small cloth from his satchel and dabbed at his mouth. “I passed a camp not far from here,” he said, “is that where you’re headed?”

Tyrus cocked his head and knit his brow. “That is where my regiment is camped,” he said.

The priest huddled over the fire and rubbed his hands together. “Is that where you’re headed?” he asked again.

Tyrus let out a huff. “That is where my regiment is camped.”

The priest pulled his hood over his head and folded his hands neatly in his lap. He eyed Tyrus’s sword and watched the horse, still grazing. Tyrus poked the fire with a stick. “Are you commissioned?” the priest asked.

“I am,” Tyrus replied. “Captain.”

“Which are you tonight?” the priest asked. “Knight or Captain?”

“I am both,” Tyrus spat back. He closed his eyes and exhaled slowly. “Pardon me Father,” he said. “I am tired from the road.” The fire had grown high enough for its flames to flicker in front of the priest’s face. His eyes would not let go of Tyrus.

“It is difficult when one travels a long road that leads to somewhere unexpected,” the priest said.

Tyrus leaned back and squinted at the priest, whose eyes did not waver. “I suppose.”

“How long did you serve?” the priest asked.

Tyrus looked into the fire. He had never thought about the time. One battle blurred into the next. In between, they buried the dead, trained new conscripts and moved onto another field to watch most of them die. Then they would do it all over again. Tyrus cocked his head to the side, counting back. “Twelve years.”

“Long enough for boys to become men,” the priest said.

Images of the countless boys that had fallen next to him in battle flashed through Tyrus’s mind. Over the years, they had become the same person, gripped by the same fear and fell by the same cruelty of a stranger. “They need me,” Tyrus said absently.

“Who?” the priest asked.

Tyrus poked harder at the fire, stirring up sparks that drifted up through curls of smoke. “The mothers of boys sent to war.”

“What of your tenants?” the priest asked.

Tyrus stopped stirring the fire and looked at the priest. “How do you know I have tenants?”

“Surely a knight who has lived as long as you possesses his own manor.”

Tyrus fed more scrub to his fire and unleashed more sparks into the air. The only image he had of the manor was his Aveline standing in the spring field with a rake and basket. She tended to the earth, practically caressing the furrows with the rake as if she were combing a child’s hair. She swept her hair over her shoulder and then kneeled down to pick the plants that were ready for early harvest. That was all he could remember. “I have been called home,” Tyrus said.

“Is that where you’re headed now?” the priest asked.

Tyrus stabbed at the fire a while longer and then threw the stick into the embers. The thin bark curled away as it lit fire and filled the air with the fresh crackling of burning green wood. Tyrus fixed his eyes on the priest, whose face was now just a shadow behind the shimmering heat and boiling smoke of the fire.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you want then?”

Tyrus scoffed quietly as he stared into the fire. He retrieved the blue scarf from his tunic and rubbed it with his thumb. Staring at the ashes that floated in the curling wisps of smoke, he said, “I want to say goodbye.”

FAMILY

Chester’s father, a round and sturdy man, sat at the table with a blanket over his shoulders. He coughed and grumbled and then coughed some more. He pounded the table. “Goddamn fever,” he said. Chester’s mother stirred a pot of stew hanging over the fire pit in the middle of their cottage. She handed Chester the spoon when she heard a knock on the door. She kissed him on the head and said, “Keep stirring. Don’t let the venison stay at the bottom.” She wiped her hands on the tattered apron covering her dress and opened the door. When she saw the reeve standing on the porch, her heart skipped a beat.

“Good evening Mrs. Bigge,” the reeve said. She couldn’t read his tone; it was both simple and formal. His intentions rarely differed from what he actually said.

“Reeve,” she replied. She raised her eyebrows to ask why he was at her doorstep.

“The rent’s due, Mrs. Bigge.”

“I didn’t know you were collecting again,” she said. The reeve nodded. Lariset opened her mouth to say something more, but the thought escaped her. She leaned back and looked over her shoulder to make sure Chester was still stirring the stew. Turning back to the reeve, she fumbled for words. “Um.” She shook her head. “You know how it is. We just don’t have it yet. But we still have more plowing. It’s come late this year, you know. Surely you can understand .” He had to understand; he was like the rest of them. It was just his turn to help the bailiff with collecting taxes and rent. Every tenant with land had to do it sooner or later.

“Of course I do,” the reeve said. “But we’re out of time.”

“What have you heard?” she asked.

The reeve shook his head and looked at the ground. He rolled his foot over a loose stone. “Evictions,” he said.

“Who?” she asked.

The reeve looked straight into her eyes and almost stopped breathing. “All of us,” he said. “I’ve heard the Baron himself is behind it.”

A shudder rippled through Lariset. Her hands trembled and she flexed her fingers, struggling to regain control. Her throat tightened as she choked out her next words. “How long?” The reeve just shook his head. “Thank you,” she said, and closed the door.

Lariset picked up a bread bowl and wooden ladle from the cutting board and brought them over to Chester, who spooned the thick stew into the bowl and sat it down in front of his father. Rowan tore a hunk of bread and bit into it with vigor, still grumbling. Chester and his mother prepared their own portions and sat down quietly. Chester followed his father’s eyes as the man hissed and grunted, “Ach.” He and Lariset remained quiet, letting his father work through his anger by viciously gnawing on bread and attacking the stew with his wooden spoon.

Finally, Lariset spoke up. “That was the reeve.”

“What do we owe?” her husband asked.

“A full quarter,” she said.

“We don’t have that much.”

“No, we don’t.”

“We have plowing on into July, though,” her husband said. “That’ll get us through.”

Lariset absently scratched the table top with her thumbnail. “He says they’re going to start evicting tenants.”

Her husband stopped eating and stared at her. “Who the hell?” he started to ask. “We don’t have a lord to pay anythin’ to.” He pounded his fist on the table again and started to cough. “Who is going to evict us?”

“The Baron,” she said.

Her husband’s eyebrows arched and he sat back in his chair, scratching his chin. “Then it’s over, I guess.”

“I have some hemp,” she offered. “I can sew some bits to sell out at Fareham,”

“Ach, it won’t be enough.” He looked down at his bread bowl. “This is the last of it, ain’t it?”

“No no,” Lariset said. Smiling at Chester she got up and prepared another bowl for her husband. “We’ve got enough to pay the miller. I just need to sew a bit to get the grain, and then you can give the ox fees to the reeve.”

“In July?” he asked. “None of us’ll be left by then. It’s no better out there, y’know. If we ain’t havin’ the wheat, then where do you suppose Fareham got theirs? It’s expensive and your hemp won’t bring in the same as ox fees.”

“What do you want from me then?” she asked. “Do you want me to roll on the floor and cry in the straw about it? I’ll sew. And I’ll get what I can get and that’s that.”

“You’re like the boy and that damn dog.” He glared at Chester. “You hope too much.” He coughed again, harder this time.

After her husband’s coughing subsided, Lariset set the fresh bowl of stew in front of him and said, “You can’t go out like this.”

“I’ll be fine in the morning,” he countered.

“No,” she said. She glanced at Chester.

“I’ll do it,” the boy said.

“Ah, hell no,” Rowan said.

“I know what to do,” Chester protested. I’ve been running stones for you all season and I’ve seen you on the plow. I know the way to turn and how deep the furrows go.” He paused, searching for something more. “And, I know what to tell the stickman.”

Rowan studied Chester for a long moment and then turned to Lariset. “And yer alright wit’ this?” he asked her.

Lariset let out a sigh and looked at the table. “No. But we’re all in this,” she said. She looked at Chester and smiled despite her fear. “And he has a right to help.”

Rowan took a deep breath. “You get Ginney in the mornin’ to help you wit’ the stones.”

“Yessir,” Chester replied.

***

Frederick stood at the foot of the drawbridge and watched the reeve plodding up the village road towards the castle. The man looked defeated, even at this distance. Frederick let out a slow breath and clenched his teeth. Looking across the manor, he imagined parcels being cut up for merchants in Fareham. Some were as rich as a noble. A few had even more. Maybe some of the tenants would find work with the new landowners. Frederick didn’t want to think about those who wouldn’t. When the reeve stopped in front of him, Frederick asked, “How much?” The reeve held out his empty palms and shook his head. “Did you tell them about the evictions?” Frederick asked.

“I told them,” the reeve said.

“And still no rent?”

“No, bailiff. And some of the plots are already abandoned.”

“Probably some of them found work in Fareham,” Frederick said. “We don’t even get their fee for release.”

“I’m sure if we sent the guard to Fareham, they could round up some of it.”

“It won’t matter by then,” Frederick replied. “Besides, the last thing I want is for the guard to see Fareham right now.”

“How do you mean?” the reeve asked.

Frederick counted the lights in the village. There had been more just the week before. How long before they were all empty?

“What I mean,” Frederick said as he counted, “is we may need them.” He clenched his jaw, peered down the road leading away from the castle and asked, “Where the hell is Tyrus?”

***

Chester arrived at the hunters house, the domain of men who were more than freemen but less than knights, and waited for any huntsmen that returned from the forest with game. Chester did not know any of them, so when two huntsmen came down from the forests hauling a red deer lashed to a sturdy pole, he felt his heart beat a little faster. He could see by the strained expressions on their faces that the deer was heavy, even for men who braved the cold of the Massif and faced the charge of wild boars.

Not long ago, they brought in game for the lord’s never-ending feasts. Now, they sold most of it at market in Fareham. None of it found its way back to Faron manor – none of the tenants could afford it. Most of the hunters had homes in Fareham these days, so they only came to the manor to exercise their rights under a hard-won warrant to hunt in the forests under the manor’s control. Having paid a half knight’s fee for a coveted warrant, they alone were allowed to roam the forests with pikes en force or bows on horse. These were the men Chester had come to meet this day.

The two huntsmen stopped under the thatch roof upheld by wooden beams that made up the hunters house. It had no walls, so the rich mixture of odd and unpleasant odors would not gather. There were four tables for unmaking and packing and a wooden rod for hanging and seasoning. The floor was covered with fresh straw every morning before the hunting parties left for the forest.

The huntsmen heaved the deer onto one of the tables and started untying it from the pole. Chester approached the table to watch the men work. One of them shifted his attention between the deer and the boy, somehow realizing that he wouldn’t be able to just shoo Chester away.

Chester took a step closer to the table and asked, “Can I help?” The two men stopped working. They looked at him, then at each other, and burst out laughing.

“What would we do with you lad? You’d be easier to unmake and hang than this deer right here on this table.” The huntsmen laughed even harder. Chester forced himself to look at the deer, imagining it cut open to reveal its innards. He choked back the urge to gag, forcing himself to concentrate on what it would be like to cut it open and clean it out.

“I’m stronger than I look,” he insisted.

The hunters stopped laughing. Done with the game, the huntsman standing over him said, “Get back to yer mother lad, we’ve got work to do and no proper work for the likes of you.” Chester did not move. “I said get!” the hunter yelled.

Chester’s heart was beating so hard it hurt. His stomach churned in knots from both his imagining the deer gutted on the table and the fear of this man towering over him. Yet, he spoke again. “I can help. Show me what to do so you can go back to the forest and hunt.”

The huntsman picked up a knife from the shelf next to the unmaking table and shoved the blade in Chester’s face. Chester flinched and looked up at the man with all the defiance a 12 year old boy could muster. The hunter smiled wide with a toothy grin and flipped the knife over in his hand so the handle was now pointing at Chester. “Here, then. Take this knife.” Chester wrapped his bony hand around the handle. “And come over here,” the huntsman said, leading Chester to the other side of the table. He pointed at the deer and said, “Start skinning this roe here.”

Chester took a deep breath, and walked up to the edge of the table. He studied the animal for a moment and figured the easiest place to start was where the deer had more meat than bone. He grabbed the knife with both hands, raised it over his head and plunged the blade into the deer’s hind quarters with a grunt. He sawed through the meat, making a long cut. He took the knife out, laid it flat on the deer’s hide and slid the blade just between the skin and meat. He knew that he should be careful to leave as much meat on the bone as possible, so he made small strokes, gently plying away the skin. The huntsman rubbed the back of his neck, pursed his lips and said, “I’ll be damned.” He took a different knife off the shelf. It was smaller with a shorter blade. “Here, try this one,” he said, laying it on the table.

Using the smaller knife, Chester was able to separate a large flap of hide quickly and cleanly. The huntsman then spent the next half hour teaching Chester the basic techniques for skinning and gutting. Chester concentrated hard so the huntsman wouldn’t have to say anything more than once. Once Chester was able to flail the roe using the pattern he had been shown, the two men prepared to leave.

“What about my pay?” Chester asked, still slicing skin from the deer. The two men stopped in their tracks.

“We thought you wanted to be a huntsman.”

Chester shook his head and grunted as he worked through a particularly tough patch. “No. I want a portion of your catch to take home with me.”

The two hunters looked at the boy and blinked. “How much?” the first hunter asked.

Chester paused in his gruesome task and looked up, sweat already sticking his blonde hair to his forehead. “A pound, true to the bread scale.” Without having to stop and unmake their game, they had a good chance of adding an extra catch to the day. They could venture further into the Massif. That was certainly worth a pound of meat. It was actually worth a lot more.

“Alright, a pound then. After you unmake all of our catch.” Chester was already back at work.

More hunters arrived throughout the day, laying their catches on the unmaking tables. All watched with curious fascination as the boy who would be a man gutted and skinned the first deer brought in. When he finished, he went to a table with a fresh catch and commenced again. When he slipped and cut a gash in the palm of his hand, he tore a small strip from the bottom of his shirt and wrapped it around his hand. But he did not stop.

By nightfall, his hands ached with the strain of the unmaking. Some hunters were done for the day, their catches hung to cure. Others straggled in close to sundown. Just at sunset, the first hunters he had met that morning heaved their last catch onto the table and announced they were the last team for the day. As night fell, Chester worked the last deer with speed and precision. When it was finished, he dropped the knife on the table and massaged his hands. The second hunter took over and began to butcher the meat, handing just over a pound of prime cut to Chester. The boy put it in the linen sack he had brought with him, bowed to the hunters, and turned to walk home.

His hands ached and his knees wobbled as he stumbled down the road. His belly was so tight with hunger, it hurt. But for one night, his mother would have to use a spit instead of a cauldron. For one night, his father would have his fill and find the strength to fight off the spirits of his illness. For one night, they would feast like kings.

LOYALTY

The Sheriff pulled his horse to the side of Fareham road. This was the furthest out the manor’s castle guard would be on patrol. With the manor in its current condition, he wasn’t even sure the castle guard still existed. But he had to make sure. His uncertainty evaporated when the pennants of the Faron Castle Guard peeked over a rise in the road. As the patrol approached, the pennants rose up to reveal the horses and their riders. When he heard the cannonade of 200 hooves roll over him, he pulled hard on the reins to keep his horse in place. The captain riding at the head of the column raised his arm and the column turned into a melee of horses sliding to a stop. They scurried to regain formation, but the illusion was broken. These squires were green.

Sir Thomas kept riding until he was close enough to bellow his challenge, “Who goes there?” He pulled his horse to a stop, cocked his head and waited. When there was no answer, he signaled his men. Just as the squires broke column to form a skirmish line, the sheriff reached into his tunic and carefully pulled out a scroll neatly tied with a simple string and sealed with the Baron’s own mark. He held it high, so the captain could see his hand, and rode slowly forward. He stopped close enough to hand over the scroll. It told anybody who needed to know, exactly who he was. He waited quietly as Thomas broke the wax and inspected the scroll. “Unusual for the sheriff himself to patrol the road, isn’t it?” Thomas asked. He looked up for a moment when the sheriff didn’t respond and then went back to reading the scroll. “Even more unusual for the Baron to send his sheriff to conduct business with manor officials on the road.” Sir Thomas kept his head bent over the scroll as he watched the sheriff. Neither man moved. Finally, Sir Thomas rolled up the scroll and handed it back. “State your business Sheriff.”

“You are aware, I am sure, of the pending foreclosure of Faron manor?”

“I am aware,” said Sir Thomas.

“How much longer do you expect your troop to hold out?”

“We have 30 days provisions in reserve, if needed.”

The sheriff’s smile disappeared. That wasn’t the answer he was looking for. He took a step towards Sir Thomas. “I need to know, Captain, if things come to it, where you will stand.” Sir Thomas repositioned himself in his saddle and studied the sheriff with a sidelong gaze. Neither man spoke. Their horses pawed at the ground so that each had to work the reins to keep their steeds in check. The sheriff was already calculating the troops he would have to bring when Sir Thomas spoke.

“Where will we stand if you come to serve eviction?” asked Thomas

“Yes.”

“My portion of the demesnes is secured by my services as captain of the castle guard. What becomes of them?”

“That is the question, isn’t it?” asked the sheriff. “And the answer to that question depends entirely on where you will stand when the day arrives. Will the Baron need to dispatch his regiment?”. The sheriff started counting the men waiting behind their captain. There couldn’t have been more than 50.

Finally, Thomas said, “I grant fealty to whomever secures my interests in the demesnes.”

The sheriff let out a slow breath. “That is good to hear, Captain. The Baron’s troops have seen enough in the way of pointless battles.”

“Careful, Sheriff,” Thomas said. “It is just as easy to find yourself on the wrong side of my grace as it is to make promises that you have yet to keep.”

The sheriff studied the squires as they waited patiently behind their captain. Every pennant holder had his head on a swivel, guarding the flanks as if they were securing the King’s own wagons. Green or not, they were properly trained, which would make any fight that much harder. But he had no doubt the end would be the same. And he had no doubt that end could be avoided by feeding this fool’s conceit.

“You have a fine troop there, Captain,” the sheriff offered.

“As good afoot or in the saddle,” Thomas said.

“I’ll send a man along to notify you of our arrival.”

“Very well. I thank you for the parley, Sheriff.” Each man bowed his head slightly. The Sheriff stepped his horse back. Still facing the patrol, he watched Sir Thomas lead his troop back the way it had come. Only after he saw the last pennant dip below the horizon did the sheriff turn to head back to Fareham.

ARRIVAL

Frederick was in the saddle, looking down the castle road. The narrow road lay like a ribbon draped across the westlands and then disappeared into the shimmering orange of the sun. There was nothing else left to do. He had exhausted the extent of his authority, which ended at the manor boundary, so it didn’t really mean much now. He had learned long ago that whipping peasants did not improve their performance, especially when they were tired, hungry and had little hope for tomorrow. Without title, he couldn’t do much else. It was Tyrus’s title they needed most. He could issue writs, petition the court and even plead to the Bishop for intervention. He would realize later that Tyrus’s title also gave him the power to make things worse.

The waves of heat rippling across the land became more intense. Frederick squinted. The ripples shifted again and now he saw a smudge emerging where the road met the sun. The smudge bobbed gently on the horizon, dancing behind the rippling heat and then morphed. A form emerged, growing as it came closer. Its edges became more defined to reveal the silhouette of a man on horseback. Frederick felt tingles of elation surging through his body, out along his arms and into his fingertips. He felt downright giddy and quietly admonished himself to stay calm. Wait to see what happens. Don’t get ahead of yourself. But the part of him that remembered his friend from 12 years ago being dragged off to war would not listen. Despite his best efforts, a smile broke out on Frederick’s face.

Dust trailed behind the horse as its hooves kicked into the road with a steady gallop. Tyrus’s face wasn’t visible yet, but Frederick couldn’t hold himself back any longer and cried out “He’s here!” Some of the peasants working the winter field stood up and looked at him, then down the road at Tyrus. They stood watching for a few moments and then went back to work. The squire in the guard house at the foot of the drawbridge was half asleep and showed no sign of hearing Frederick’s proclamation.

The sound of hooves beating the ground floated through the air, growing louder as the man rode closer. He slowed the horse to a trot and then pulled her back to a walk until he stopped just a few feet in front of Frederick. The man did not speak. He sat straight in his saddle and looked at Frederick as if he were just in the way. His face was rough and tanned to leather by years of sun on the battlefield. Deep wrinkles creased his face like fissures in stone. His stature was striking, almost regal and Frederick sensed raw power being held in check by the man’s will alone. His eyes stared at Frederick. No, they stared through Frederick. They did not see him. They were the eyes of every soldier who stared at something no one else could ever understand. The person Frederick saw before him was Tyrus Faron. But the man he knew 12 years before was long gone.

“Tyrus?” Frederick asked. The man did not respond. “How are you -” Frederick paused to ponder his next words. “-my old friend?”

Tyrus nodded once. “Bailiff Frederick.” When Frederick reached out with his hand, Tyrus looked at it briefly and then reach out to shake Frederick’s hand once, formally, and then withdrew. “We should talk,” Tyrus said. He turned his horse and walked her across the drawbridge. Frederick followed, leaving some distance between them. The only sound he heard came from the hooves clopping over the tired wood of the bridge.

***

Tyrus stood in the middle of the main hall. He looked at the windows, which had no curtains. He studied the stone floor; the dining table was gone, but the patch of grime that had built up around it was still there. The walls were barren of any tapestries. All that remained were the torch brackets, most of which were empty. “What happened here?” he asked.

Frederick, standing close to the main door, said, “Most of it went to Fareham.”

“How much did you get for it?”

“Not enough.”

At the head of the hall, a raised dais formed a large alcove where a table and two chairs remained so they could at least formally host visitors. The dais was flanked by a hallway on either side. An arched wooden door next to the front hallway was bolted shut. “Why is the chapel locked?” Tyrus asked.

“No priest,” Frederick answered, his voice growing softer with each question.

“How does a manor have no priest?”

“Tithes were growing thin. One day he was gone. Nobody’s seen him since.”

“And that’s it?”

“We sent a message to the Abbey. They said they were sending somebody.” Frederick looked at the floor. “But that was a while ago.”

Tyrus grunted. “It’s just as well,” he said

Frederick sensed something was slipping away from him. “What do we do now, Tyrus?”

“Well,” Tyrus said, “there’s something I need to do first.” He walked over to Frederick and put a hand on his shoulder. “I need to see her.”

Frederick wrinkled his brow. “She’s gone,” he whispered.

“I know that,” Tyrus said. “I meant her grave.”

Frederick groaned. “You were told she’s dead?”

“Yes.” Tyrus’s eyes narrowed. Frederick shifted his gaze and felt a twinge in his chest when he looked into Tyrus’s eyes; they looked as if they could forge iron. “I was told she is dead. Is that true?” Tyrus asked.

“She’s gone.”

“What does that mean?” Tyrus asked.

“Nobody knows. Several – ” Frederick stopped short, carefully choosing his next words. “- Some time after you left, she just disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to her. She’s just gone.”

 Tyrus leaned in closer. “Where was she last seen?”

Frederick looked around the room for some avenue of escape. Even as he felt everything slipping away from him, he knew the truth would only make matters worse. “With her family. One night, they went to sleep. The next morning, she was gone.” Tyrus stepped back. It seemed a lifetime before he finally looked away. The air seemed to go suddenly cold. “Tyrus, what are your orders?”

Tyrus paced across the hall to the dais and sat down on its ledge.  “I’m going to submit a writ of substitution.”

“What?”

“I only came here to say goodbye. There is nothing else left to do.”

“But the manor. Your manor -“

“Will now be yours,” Tyrus interjected.

“But we need you,” Frederick said, stepping towards the dais. We need the Lord of the Manor.”

“You need a leader and a man with title. This is what you wrote me, is it not?”

“I -” Frederick exhaled in exasperation. “That’s not what I meant.”

“You are their leader, Frederick. For a while now, I suspect. And now you’ll have the authority of my title. I can’t do any better than you.”

“But -“

Tyrus cut Frederick off with a wave of his hand. “I’ll stay until the writ is registered with the Baron. That should only take a few days.”

“Tyrus -” Frederick squeezed his eyes shut, struggling to find a final breath of persuasion. He took another step towards the dais. Tyrus shot him a glance that stopped him in his tracks. “That’s not everything,” Frederick said. Tyrus bent his head down and rubbed the back of his neck. “There is another reason for you to stay.” But Frederick had already lost him.

Tyrus heard, but he wasn’t listening. “That is all,” he said flatly.

The look in his eyes told Frederick that the conversation was over. He walked back to the main door, pushed it open and left. He walked across the ward and stopped at the foot of the drawbridge. He surveyed the manor. He studied the village. He focused on one of the cottages and imagined the peasants living there being pulled out of their home and banished from land their family had owned and worked for generations. But it wasn’t to that point. Not yet. And there really was another reason for his old friend to stay. Frederick just needed to figure out how to explain it to him.

***

Father Gotfrid arrived the next day. He limped along the castle road, nearly exhausted from more miles of walking than he could remember. The guardhouse squire came out to help the old priest across the ward and into the main hall. Sweat still trickling down his forehead, Gotfrid limped across the stone floor and eased himself onto one of the benches lining the wall. He took his time about it, as if his frame were made of fine china. The day wasn’t finished and the bench would not be enough for the rest he needed, but God’s work always demanded one more breath than a man had to give.

“Get the father a cup of water!” the squire bellowed. One of the pages posted by the main door dashed to the rear hallway next to the dais and into the kitchen. When he brought the cup of water to Gotfrid, he ran, spilling most of it on the floor.

When the page handed the cup to Father Gotfrid, he saw the cup was nearly empty. He gasped and said, “Sorry, Father. Please, I’ll get you another.”

“No, no, that will be fine,” Gotfrid said. He smiled warmly at the boy and took the cup from his hand. He closed his eyes and drank the remaining water as if it were the last drops left on Earth. He nodded and groaned in satisfaction. “Thank you.” The page grabbed the cup and sprinted back to the kitchen. He walked more carefully when he brought the next cup of water, so it arrived with most of the water still in it. Gotfrid smiled and said, “You are kind to an old man. Heaven begins there, yes?” He winked at the boy and took the cup. This time, he gulped it down in one long drag, nearly drowning himself. He handed the cup back to the page and said, “Now then, where is the manor lord?”

Before anyone could answer, the click of Tyrus’s boots filled the hall. He emerged from the kitchen hall and strode straight over to Gotfrid. Towering over him, Tyrus said nothing at first. Without taking his eyes off of Gotfrid, he said, “Thank you, page. Resume your post.”

“Yes, sire,” the boy said then walked briskly back to his post next to the main door.

“You, too squire. Thank you.” Gotfrid felt a faint tremble in his hands as he forced himself not to look away from Tyrus’s eyes, which seemed to be recessed in creased stone.

After the squire stepped into the ward and closed the door, Gotfrid stood up and offered his hand. “I am Father Gotfrid, sent from the Abbey.” It was enough as long as nobody asked too many questions. That he hadn’t seen the Abbey for years didn’t need to be said. Gotfrid still knew how to ply his trade of bringing the word of God to those who needed it most. It wasn’t the will of men that granted him the grace of his role as a priest; it was the will of God. But something told him the man standing before him didn’t need to hear any of that. He needed something more important. He needed what Gotfrid came to give him. But as he searched Tyrus’s face for a window to his soul, Gotfrid could see the man was not yet ready.

Tyrus’s face softened and he said, “I shared my fire with you on my way here.”

“That’s right,” Gotfrid said.

“And you’re our new priest?”

“Indeed, I am.” As if he had just noticed Gotfrid’s extended hand, Tyrus reached out to shake it briefly before dropping his own quickly to his side. “May I see the chapel then, m’lord?” Gotfrid asked.

Tyrus swept his arm towards the chapel and said, “After you, Father.” He followed Gotfrid, deliberately slowing his pace so the priest would remain in front. When they reached the door, Gotfrid stepped to the side and let Tyrus pull back the dust-encased bolt. The hasp let out a screech as the bolt slid out of its grasp.

A splash of dust hopped into the air as Gotfrid stepped into the chapel. It was dark, even in the daytime, but enough light trickled through the stained glass over the sanctuary that he could see well enough. With his fingers on his chin, he walked slowly up the aisle between the stools lining each side of the nave. The few tapestries hanging on the walls were thick with dust. The stained windows were encrusted with dirt. The rood screen hanging across the front of the sanctuary was caked with a heavy coat of dust. There was a crucifix above it, but the statues of Mary and the village’s saint were missing. The sanctuary, raised by a few steps at the front of the chapel, was furnished with a fixed stone lectern and an abandoned altar chest. Gottfrid offered a short prayer as he walked up the sanctuary steps and knelt in front of the chest. He placed his hand on the lid and slid his fingers along the seam until they found the latch. He cracked open the lid and slowly pushed it back on its hinges. His heart stopped. His grip on the lid tightened and he clenched his jaw. The chest was empty. He closed his eyes and prayed. Muttering in anger, he took off his satchel and opened the flap. He pulled out a single vestment and laid it in the chest. He placed a wooden goblet that would serve as his chalice and a wooden salver plate next to the vestment. He closed his eyes again, prayed once more and closed the chest. He stood up and brushed the front of his robe. When he turned around, Tyrus was still standing at the chapel door.

“Would you care to join me?” Gotfrid asked. “I can take a confession if you like.”

“Confession,” Tyrus said. He looked at the floor and whispered again, “Confession.” When Tyrus looked back up, Gotfrid saw in Tyrus’s eyes the countless days of a soul’s passage through places no man should ever have to see. “Do you know what it means to kill a man?” Tyrus asked.

An ashen smile eased onto Gotfrid’s face. He closed his eyes and nodded. “Not to kill a man, no,” he said.

“Then you and I have very little to discuss.” Tyrus grunted and started to turn away.

“But to see a man killed, yes,” Gotfrid said.

Tyrus stopped with his back to Gotfrid and his hand still gripping the door frame. He seemed to be frozen in time, waiting. To save a man’s soul, you had to find a corner of it that you could hold on to. To save everyone else, you had to show the man how to do the same. Gotfrid knew that if Tyrus took a single step further, he had no hope of doing either.

“How do you mean?” Tyrus asked, his back still turned.

Gotfrid let the words slip through the air and dissipate before answering. “I’ve seen it. Northallerton. Wahlstatt.

Tyrus scoffed. “Those are more than a hundred years apart.”

“I know.”

Tyrus turned to face Father Gotfrid. “What, the church was there, so you were somehow there as well, all one great spirt saving souls?

“Shrewsbuy,” Gotfrid said.

Tyrus knitted his brow and looked at the ceiling. “Never heard of it.”

Gotfrid took a step closer. “You will.”

Tyrus huffed and shook his head. “Look, Father, I don’t know what you want here, but I really don’t have time. I’m sorry, but the limit of my charity for men of the church has been reached.”

Gotfrid took another step forward and reached towards Tyrus, as if to pull him back through will alone. “The eyes. They always say the same thing.”

Tyrus’s face went blank. “What about them?” he asked.

“The eyes of a dying man. They always say the same thing. Whether a boy with a staff or a master of the sword such as yourself, there is a moment when they know that their breaths will not see the next day. They all have the same thought. They all want to make it stop.”

“Make what stop?”

“Time. They plead for forgiveness not because they seek salvation, but because they seek time. They always understand the agony they have brought to others, the true depth of their own sin, what it really means to take the rest of a man’s time in one swing of the sword. They see every soul they have ever given over to God and they understand, in that moment, that none of them wanted to go. They all wanted to stay. Because in that moment when they repent and they lose every bit of strength or power that comes from the angst of war, the only thing left in their soul is fear.”

“Fear of losing their soul? Going to hell? Is that what you’re trying to tell me, Father? That the wicked become fearful in their last moments as a final penance for their evil doings?”

Gotfrid took another step closer. “No, my son. They are willing, in that moment, to throw off all that is evil, mend every single one of their wicked ways and throw themselves on the mercy of God and beg to let them show Him that they understand what it means to be righteous. And at that moment, they understand more than any man ever can who is not dying what it means to be righteous, what it means to give over your life to His will. And that is why they are afraid. Not because they will never have the chance to live the life they finally understand is the right way for a man to live. They are afraid that there won’t be anything on the other side of that last breath. Like all men, deep in their hearts, they are afraid of the eternal dark.”

Tyrus stood in the doorway, soaking in the words. When Gotfrid stopped, every crease of anger was gone, every notion of resentment left to the side. In that one moment, there was nothing between them. The key that unlocks a man’s trust was starting to turn. “And so they beg for just a moment more,” Tyrus said.

“Yes.”

“I’ve seen it. In the face of every man I have killed. I always thought they were trying to say that they didn’t mean it. That I didn’t have to kill them. That they would take it back and go on their way. They all begged for me to undo what I had already done. Even knowing that I couldn’t, they still begged for it. That is what I saw in their eyes.” Tyrus gasped. “But how do you know that?”

“I gave last rites to such men.”

“The ones lucky enough to make it back from the fields before giving back that last breath?”

Gotfrid could tell Tyrus had not yet let the key turn the whole way. “No. I gave last rites to men as they clutched at their wounds just after falling on the field. I knelt next to dying men even as the insanity of war raged on around us and asked them to repent for their sins.”

“Did they repent?” Tyrus asked.

“Every time. There is no greater sincerity than penance from a man who is moments away from darkness.”

“In all my years in the field, I never once saw a priest forward of the regimental camp. Not once. They always waited for us to bring the dead and dying to them.”

“Even so, do you believe me?” Gotfrid asked.

Tyrus took a step towards Gotfrid, nodded absently and said, “Yes.” The key turned.

“And now,” Gotfrid said, “after all those years of protecting the weak, why do you leave these people?”

Tyrus took a step closer and stared at Gotfrid through the dim light of the chapel. “You are right, Father. When a man’s soul dies, there is nothing but eternal darkness on the other side. No heaven. No hell. Just unending suffering. I passed into that realm a long time ago.”

“Then what do you hope to find?”

“An end to the suffering. I was never afforded the silence of eternal darkness, just the suffering of waiting for it to finally pass. It’s time to find that silence.”

“I am certain God has a better path for you.”

Tyrus scoffed. “God. When you’ve seen the horrors wrought by the will of men as we have, do you not realize there is either no God or He simply does not care.”

“But he does care. And your path is not just to find your own peace. There is something more important for you to do.”

Gotfrid stepped towards Tyrus one more time and laid a hand on his shoulder. He looked straight into the man’s eyes, waiting until Tyrus looked into his. “To know what to die for, find what you cannot live without.”

“I found that once. And she was taken from me.”

“Even so, you must stay here.” He searched Tyrus’s eyes for a sign that he understood. “You must find what is worth dying for here. Then you must protect it.”

“Why?”

Gotfrid leaned forward and looked deep into the windows now open on the soul he had been sent here to save. “What is going to happen to these people,” he asked.

“Most will be put to work for the Baron at some other manor to pay off the debt. Might as well be slaves, really.”

“And you would let that happen?”

“I can’t stop it.”

“No, you can’t.”

Tyrus raised his brow and shrugged his shoulders.

“Still, you must stay.”

Tyrus shook his head and prepared once again to turn and leave the chapel.

Gotfrid grabbed his arm. Tyrus tried to jerk it away, but Gotfrid did not let go. As anger flared in Tyrus’s eyes, Gotfrid told him, “Because if you leave, we will not survive. They won’t be given over to the Baron. And he will not force them off their land.”

Tyrus yanked his arm way and raised his hand, warning the father to stay where he was. “What do you mean?”

“What I mean, my good Sir Faron, is that if you leave, not one of the peasants stooped in the fields, not one of the villeins scrounging in the badlands, not a single man woman or child will leave this manor alive.”

EVICTION

A squire clattered across the drawbridge at a full gallop. He bolted across the ward and stopped just in front of the barracks, dismounted and burst inside. The building was cut into two sections. A straight line of straw mattresses filled a long cramped hall on one side. On the other, a door opened into Sir Thomas’s private quarters. Still breathing hard, the squire knocked on the door and waited. When he did not hear an immediate response, he knocked again. “Sire, I’ve come with a report. It’s important.”

Another moment passed before he heard Thomas’s muffled voice from the other side of the door. “Come.” The squire burst in and marched up to a small desk. Behind it, Sir Thomas continued writing in a flat book of papers. “What is it?” he asked without looking up. They both looked at the door when Tyrus stepped into the office.

The squire looked at Tyrus, who signaled for the boy to proceed. “Sir, I was on picket along Fareham Road and report four horsemen at arms riding on the manor from a thousand yards.” The squire looked quickly between Tyrus and his commander, waiting for either man to respond. “Captain?”

“I heard you,” Thomas said, still writing in the book. He glanced up. “Dismissed.”

The squire started to leave when Tyrus said, “As you were, squire. Stand fast.” Thomas continued to write in his book. “How many did you see?”

The squire glanced at Thomas, who gave a quick nod without looking up. “Four, m’lord.”

“Sire,” Tyrus said. “You are a squire, not a farmer. And I am your military superior.”

“Four, sire.”

“How were they armed?”

“By the sword, and a single staff without pennant.”

Tyrus nodded and started to pace in front of Thomas’s desk, eyeing the captain as he continued to write in his book. He stopped and leaned on the desk with both fists.

Sir Thomas sighed and closed the book. “Fetch my horse,” he said and stood up. Tyrus kept his eyes fixed on Thomas but did not remove his hands from the desk. Thomas narrowed his eyes and frowned. “And have Sergeant Quinn prepare a squad to hold a back line at the bridge.” He stood up and looked at Tyrus’s hands. Tyrus stepped back from the desk. Sir Thomas came around and stood in front of Tyrus. “Will that be sufficient, sire?” he asked.

“That will be fine, Captain.”

“I’ll report to you once we have more information.” As Thomas turned for the door, Tyrus stepped sideways and put his hand on Thomas’s chest. “We’ll all go.” He held the Captain in place a moment longer to make sure the officer understood.

“Fine.” Thomas waved his hand at the door. “After you, sire.”  Tyrus pulled his hand away and marched back through the door into the main barracks.

***

Tyrus, Sir Thomas and the picket squire positioned their horses in a line abreast across the road. It was a simple challenging formation, but something wasn’t adding up for Tyrus. His was the only military unit in the area. The closest men at arms would be from the Baron’s troops, but it wasn’t time for that yet. No demands had been made. His writ hadn’t even been acknowledged yet. None of this was right.

“Glass,” Tyrus said. Sir Thomas unfastened a leather pouch slung behind his saddle and produced a brass spy glass. As he took the instrument, Tyrus noted it still looked quite new, or simply had not been used much. He pulled the glass out to its full extension, raised it to his eye and slowly swept the horizon. Four horses in a slow gallop kicked dust from the road into the air behind them. The front man had a sword, greaves and a tunic draped over at least a single layer of chain mail, maybe more. The important thing was it being hidden under a tunic rather than worn on the outside. A shield hung to one side and Tyrus studied it intently, waiting for a full view of its heraldry. As the troop changed direction at a shallow turn in the road, he was able to make it out well enough to identify its owner. He handed the glass to Thomas. “Baron’s herald?”

Thomas peered through the glass and said, “It is.” He collapsed the instrument and tucked it back into his saddlebag.

Tyrus squinted and surveyed the entire horizon from the south to the northern approaches to the Massif. He stopped periodically to study specific points and then moved his head onward, like a beacon looking out over the sea. Something behind the low hills between the road and the approaches caught his eye. He peered intently, tracking along the terrain as if something were moving around them to the west, even if he couldn’t see it. Then, he saw it again: faint plumes of dust floated up over the rises. They were moving fast. “Bring up the back line!” Tyrus shouted.

“Hold fast!” Thomas yelled out. In a normal voice, he asked Tyrus, “Sir, is that really necessary? Are we sure we want to provoke them?”

Tyrus gritted his teeth and looked directly at the squire. “Haul your ass back there before I kick it into next Tuesday. Get that goddamn back line up here!” he shouted. As the squire galloped back towards the manor, Tyrus wheeled his horse around and stepped as close to Thomas as he could without knocking him and his horse to the ground. Thomas still didn’t have the right look in his eye. “Countermand me again, Captain,” Tyrus started to say.

“Sire, with respect, these are my troops.”

Tyrus stretched his neck and felt the blood starting to warm in his shoulder. He shook off the anger and said, “All those pretty squires are bought and paid for by you, are they?”

“That’s right sir. And trained by me.”

“And where does your fealty lie, Captain? Somewhere in my demesnes, as I recall.”

“Yes, m’lord, my fealty is bound to my holdings in the demesnes. And I will protect them and the manor according to my oath.”

“Sire,” Tyrus said.

“What?”

“We are in a military formation. You will address me accordingly.”

Thomas scoffed. “As you wish. Sire.”

The sound of beating hooves floated up from behind them. The back line was on its way. Tyrus would have to finish this conversation later. He backed away from Thomas and turned his horse to watch the men as they rode into position. The soldier in the lead was a big burly mountain of a man who knew how to handle a horse. When he was close enough for Tyrus to see his eyes, they told him everything he needed to know. Sergeant Quinn was the only man in the Faron Castle Guard who had ever been to war. Sergeant Quinn rose his hand and the squad slid to a stop.

Sergeant Quinn first looked at Sir Thomas, then Tyrus. Looking directly in Tyrus’s eyes, Quinn bellowed, “Sir!” That was all he needed to say for Tyrus to know that this man, who had known him for exactly five seconds, would march against the hounds of hell for him.

“Sergeant, put four of your men to the north to sweep the flank. Leave the rest here to blockade the road.”

“What’re you got here, sire?” Sergeant Quinn asked.

“Somebody headed for the approaches. My guess is to scout a blocking position”, Tyrus answered.

“What the hell for?” Quinn asked.

“That’s what I need you to find out.”

“Aye.” Quinn looked over his shoulder and bellowed out to the men behind him, “Taylor, take the second half and do as the man says. Get up on that north side and flush out anybody that don’t belong there. Bring ’em back for interrogation. Send a rider if you need help.”

“Yes Sergeant.” He and four of his fellows charged into the hills to the north.

Sir Thomas studied the northern hills, his jaw slightly agape as he struggled to assess the terrain. “I don’t see it,” he said.

Tyrus told him, “Don’t worry about it too much, lad. It’s not your fault the King hasn’t called you up for proper training.” He knew Thomas wouldn’t care for that.

“And what would proper training be, sire?” Thomas asked tightly.

“The kind where they make you stand there and actually kill somebody who’s intent on doing the same to you.” Out of the corner of his eye, Tyrus caught Sergeant Quinn smirking. For his part, Thomas didn’t say a word and kept his attention on the northern hills.

The Baron’s men were almost on them by now. “Line abreast!” Sergeant Quinn yelled. The remaining squires of his squad fanned out across the road.

Tyrus reached down to pet his horse’s mane. “You’ll have to stand with me on this one, girl. Sorry.” He pulled gently on the reins and his horse took two high steps with each front foot and then snorted. By now, the horsemen were close enough that Tyrus could see their eyes. They did not slow down and if they were impressed by his blockade, they didn’t show it. It wasn’t until they were right on top of him and his men that they pulled their horses neatly to a halt.

Before Tyrus had a chance to say anything, Sir Thomas blurted out, “Sheriff, what brings you to these parts?” Tyrus caught Sir Thomas signalling the Sheriff with a subtle sweep of his hand.

The Sheriff looked at Thomas quizzically and then turned to Tyrus. “And who do we have here?” The Sheriff stepped closer. “I come at the bidding of the Baron. I have my appointment for you to read if needed.”

Tyrus squinted at the man, trying to determine if he was here to kill them or not. “That won’t be necessary, Sheriff,” he said. “As the Captain said, what brings you to these parts? The Baron’s patrol jurisdiction does not extend this far. And why are you at arms with his heraldry?”

The Sheriff laughed easily and raised his hand in a disarming gesture. With a smile, he said, “Please, sire, don’t be worried. This is all just a formality.”

Tyrus tapped his chest with the palm of his hand. “When does formality require a sheriff to wear armor?” The sheriff kept smiling but did not respond. Tyrus glanced at the squires working their way towards the sheriff’s men in the hills. “And when does formality include an ambush?”

“Come now, my lord, we don’t often get a chance to exercise our tactical procedures. It is a drill, nothing more.”

“You’re the first sheriff I’ve ever met that drills in military tactics.”

The sheriff’s smile disappeared and he said, “In case we’re attached to the Baron’s regiment.”

This will quickly become more than ‘nothing more’ if your deputies don’t relinquish their arms,” Tyrus said. Did he see a quiver of nervousness in the Sheriff’s expression? Before he could finish the thought, everyone’s head snapped towards the northern hills.

They all heard the same thing – the wail of a man’s scream.

***

Quinn recognized the scream. It was an old scream. It was the same scream. It never changed and it always meant the same thing. And just like every time before, he now rushed to the aid of the wounded man who owned it. He rode hard and fast across the rolling country of the northern hills. They weren’t quite hills, really, but the crests were just high enough that he couldn’t see what was behind one until he got there. He had to rush across each small valley and slow down on the other side to survey the narrow bit of ground winding between him and the next hill. Quinn knew that the boy had a finite number of breaths to live and each pause on the crest of a hill took one of them away in vain.

None of the squires were special beyond the notion that they had yet to fall. How many of them strutted on the parade ground with gleaming swords, proudly thumping a shiny breastplate? Not so many were left after the first call to battle, the life stomped out of most of them by the hooves of a real fight they could never stop.

But this was different. Quinn heard the notion of it all as a hoax whispering even in his ear. The truth of it was the stupidest tragedy he had ever seen: the young squire Taylor writhing on the ground and clutching at his belly as all thoughts of glory spilled out red onto the cool grasses of the northern hills.

Quinn leapt off his horse before it even stopped. The other squires had their swords drawn and their eyes fixed on the deputies facing them with the same confused insolence that they were ignorant enough to confuse for courage. “Bah, git!” Quinn yelled at them. He raised his arms like a great hawk and peered into their eyes, burning away the lies of old men to whisper a crimson truth. “Run! Before I kill you where ye by God stand!” He didn’t have to watch them to know they were already stepping back along the way they had come and had only one thought on their mind, which was to watch him and pray that he had already forgotten about them and would never look at them again. Running came naturally that way.

The squires watched their adversaries retreat from a battle that was nothing more than a lit candlewick snuffed out by a single drop of rain. Quinn crouched down next to Taylor and pried the boy’s hands away. The flow of blood thickened and Quinn quickly put the boy’s hands back in place. He grunted as he hoisted the boy over his shoulder and carried him to his horse. He dropped the boy over the back of his horse like a sack of wheat and was rewarded with the boy grunting in pain. “Aye,” Quinn said, then hoisted himself into the saddle. He grabbed the reins and looked over his shoulder to give his orders to the squires standing far behind the day they would understand any of this. “Mount up all of you and report back to the Captain.” The three of them looked at him as if his words came to them with no sound. “Get on yer damn horses and go!” The three of them sheathed their swords and struggled to get their convulsing feet into stirrups. As much as the moment had taken away their notions of being a knight, so had it denied them the skills of a horseman. Quinn shook his head and rolled his eyes before kicking his own horse, firmly, and splitting the sky with a deep-throated “Hyah!”

The manor lay just over the horizon. Quinn felt time stop – the boy was either dead or not, but he wouldn’t know until he stopped to pull him off the horse and bandage his wound. That moment would either be just around the corner of time or it would tell the last word of young squire Taylor’s story.

***

Tyrus didn’t watch Quinn riding across the northern hills. He didn’t take more than a passing note of the dying squire flopping on the back of the sergeant’s horse. He didn’t examine Sir Thomas to assess the man’s handling of a casualty in his ranks. And he most definitely didn’t look at the sheriff. He would get to that in a minute.

So, he watched the faces of the squires that had remained with him on the road. Rivers awash with the untried waters of a man’s soul seeing blood drawn for the first time flowed through them all. It was like that for any man the first time, even for a man such as himself or Quinn. They were all boys at first, every single one of them. It was the passage from boy to what came next in the life of a man christened by the blood of his countryman that interested Tyrus most. There would be plenty of time for consolation, if it came to that, but he knew something far more important that could only be seen in this moment alone. And he knew that moment was fleeting. It only came once, revealed its passion in crushing men’s souls and then flitted away leaving them to bandage wounds they could not comprehend. This was his only chance to know exactly what kind of mettle his squires were made of.

Some didn’t look at all, instead choosing to look at the ground and study the nature of the dirt the road had been cut from. These, Tyrus could dismiss right away as little more than targets that would spare the others by absorbing arrows. They would be the first to die because they would be the last to fight. They contemplated the matter as if there was a choice to be made. Others quivered, an out of control waterfall of emotions cascading over them. Among these were boys whose cheeks were now wet with tears. They had the courage to face the matter at hand, but took too much interest in thinking about it. Such thinking sapped just enough of a man’s will to fight to ensure he would be among the first to fall. That left the few who looked either with anger crouched on their brow and pressing resolve into their hearts or those that looked on dispassionately, taking note of the lie of the land, the disposition of troops and even the mind of those around them. These were the few soldiers among them. Tyrus had but seconds to watch all of this play out on their faces. After that, they would all find a way to hide their mind, mostly from themselves. Nobody would ever see this revelation of truth again.

Sir Thomas’s voice buzzed through the air to tickle the fringes of Tyrus’s awareness. “What?” he said.

The captain pulled his horse back so he could look Tyrus in the face. “I said, my lord, that I warned you against provoking them. This -” Sir Thomas thrust his arm dramatically in the direction of Sergeant Quinn “- This was unnecessary.” He let his arm down, worked up a grimace that was almost convincing and said, “This blood is on your hands.”

Tyrus waited. The man seemed to be finished. Tyrus waited some more. The force of ego came together with the pride of ignorance as Sir Thomas cast the easiest of all things embraced by those less than men: blame. All Tyrus had to do was wait until it was washed away by the quiet onslaught of truth – just enough of it to remind men like Sir Thomas they were only wasting their time on the unimportant. “And why would the sheriff effect what can only be called an attack before he even serves his warrant?” Tyrus asked.

“Because we know you Tyrus! Everybody knows how you think. The sheriff serves under the law. All you know is your blade. So he brought his with him!”

Tyrus waited again, but after a while all Thomas’s face showed were the various shades of fuming and glaring that wreaked of false conviction. Tyrus practically spat the man’s title at him when he next spoke. “Sir Thomas, are you coward or fool?”

The captain’s eyes flared, proving once more that provoking either the weak or the foolish was as trivial as waking up in the morning. Sir Thomas glanced at the sheriff, who looked bored more than anything else. “How dare you sir!” the captain protested. To protect what he thought was his honor, Sir Thomas moved his hand to his sword. Before he could even feel his hand pressing on the grip, the ringing scrape of Tyrus’s sword filled the air. The flash of fear in the captain’s eyes told Tyrus that Sir Thomas now understood his blustering gesture had to become real action in the face of real danger. Before the captain’s sword was even half-drawn from its sheath, Tyrus swung the flat of his own blade against Thomas’s shoulder, knocking him off balance. Tyrus whipped his horse into position and thumped the captain’s chest with the butt end of his sword, sending the man sprawling to the ground. Keeping his horse in place, Tyrus swung his sword around and touched the tip of the blade to Sir Thomas’s throat. The captain’s eyes now flared with the panic that held a man at the mercy of knowing he was about to die. It was exactly the same look that Taylor must have shown as the cold steel of the deputy’s sword slid into his gut.

As Sir Thomas scrambled back from the blade, Tyrus asked, “Do you ask me now to secure your honor, Sir Thomas?” Tyrus easily moved his horse a half step, keeping the tip of his sword at the captain’s throat. “Come now, Sir Thomas, you beg for satisfaction, do you not? Or do you want me to ask you again? Are you coward or fool?”

“Enough!” the sheriff shouted. He sighed with his eyes half closed and shook his head. “Thomas, get back on your horse and go tend to your man.” Tyrus lifted his sword, allowing Thomas to stand up, look indignant and then mount his horse a little too quickly, revealing his earnest desire to escape. He didn’t look back as he whipped his horse into a gallop and fled down the road. Tyrus sheathed his sword and turned to face the sheriff, now squinting as he studied Tyrus. Tyrus casually allowed the man to come to whatever determination he might find regarding who and what Tyrus really was. The sheriff stepped his own horse closer to Tyrus before he spoke again. “I dare say I would prefer not to tangle with you in a fight, Sir Faron.” Tyrus feigned weakness of pride and allowed a smile, all the while watching the sheriff’s hand. The sheriff continued, “That would be a formidable task indeed.” The sheriff shifted in his saddle, trying to see what Tyrus would never reveal. “But look here, Sir Faron, how many men do you have with you? You and I both know that I can count the men that would come to fight by your side with two hands at most.” He stopped to let the words swirl around Tyrus, who simply moved his head to the side as if to let them fly past him, which, for the most part, they did. He had been threatened before, and by men who Tyrus feared and respected far more than the sheriff now yapping at him as the Baron’s lap dog. “You would surely take me down, and a good many of my men, but that would be as far as it goes. The Baron would deploy his full regiment, commanded by men every bit as able as you. You have 50 men at arms, most of whom will probably follow Sir Thomas in a dead run to the west.”

“Nah, you’re wrong about that, Sheriff,” Tyrus said. “The good captain will stay to defend his stake in the demesnes as long as he thinks he can do so without getting killed in the process. Greed is a sharp edge against fear. Whatever promise you’ve made him, he’ll wait for you to deliver. He’ll only run when there’s nothing left for him.”

“Even so, have you become so enamored with war that you would go out of your way to bring it to your doorstep?” the sheriff asked.

“There is no fight between men you can bring to me that I am not prepared to meet.”

“And what of your people? Are they equally prepared?”

Tyrus realized immediately he couldn’t answer that. He was always amused by those who could corner him with logic. The sheriff was right, Tyrus had no interest in seeing the people of the manor suffer. Neither was he interested in conceding to tyrants, who seemed in more abundance every day. He advanced against the sheriff on his own ground. “Sheriff, you know your warrant is improper. I have not been given the time afforded by law to prepare an offer. Beyond that, my writ of substitution imposes a stay on all other proceedings affecting the manor and its tenants.” He relished the surprise not quite hidden by the sheriff’s stern gaze.

         The sheriff smiled, but not in any way that indicated surrender. “About that,” he said. He reached into a saddlebag to produce a scroll, neatly tied with a simple stretch of string. He untied the string and threw the scroll at Tyrus. Feeling his pulse quicken, Tyrus started reading. It was his writ of substitution. Scrawled at intervals along its entire length was the word VOID. “All of what you say is quite right,” the sheriff said. He casually eased his horse closer. “You know,” he said, letting out a friendly chuckle, “I have to admit that you thinking all of this is supposed to be done fairly is actually endearing.” He let his laugh roll out for a moment more and then his face grew cold. “But I don’t care. And neither does the Baron.” The sheriff then backed his horse away from Tyrus. “You’re outnumbered, Sir Faron.” As he turned his horse back towards Fareham, he added, “You have until morning to settle the geld. After that -” The sheriff didn’t finish his sentence. He just grinned and cocked his brow before riding away.

***

Rowan pulled in a raspy breath, convulsed with a rumbling cough and wheezed as he spoke. “Remember what I said about Ginney.”

Lariset pulled a cloth out of the water steaming in the cauldron and brought it to Rowan. She kneeled and placed it on Rowan’s forehead. “Lie back down,” she said. Rowan shivered and drew up the blanket around his shoulders even though it was well into summer.

“I know,” Chester said. He checked that his tunic was buttoned and the rope around his waist was secure. He flexed his feet, ensuring his shoes were snugly laced. He crouched down next to Lariset and took his father’s hand. “I’ll take care of it. I promise.” Rowan coughed again and nodded. He seemed to attempt a smile and then lay back down.

Chester stood up and allowed his mother to fuss over his attire. She checked the buttons and smoothed his tunic with her hand. She tried to hide the worry behind creased eyes. “Be careful – “ she started to say, when a knock sounded on the door. Both he and Lariset turned and looked at the door. After a brief pause, somebody pounded on the door hard enough to make it move. Several men outside started murmuring

Chester and Lariset exchanged worried glances. “I’ll get it,” he said. As he stood up, two men heaved the door open and burst in. One of them shoved Chester to the ground while the other marched towards his mother and tossed a scroll on the table. When he started yelling, she backed into the table, cowering behind raised hands.

“By the order of the Baron, on the service of His Majesty, you are to vacate these premises immediately in forfeiture for the geld unpaid.” He paused just long enough to signal the other man to start looting the place. The second man walked stiffly to the bare cupboard and pulled it over. Lariset yelped as she turned reflexively to watch the wooden shelves hit the floor, crack and scattered their sparse contents over the stones. “How dare you – “ she began.

“Have you the payment for geld?” the man boomed.

“Of course not,” she said. The man snapped his fingers and pointed at Rowan. Just as the second man bent down to pull Rowan to his feet, Chester scrambled out the door.

Once outside, he ran into the small barn where they kept the plow oxen. He rummaged around in the fodder and found the pitchfork he used to turn the hay. As he stepped back into the sunlight, Rowan came flowing out of the door backwards and fell to the ground. He wheezed and coughed and rolled over. Just as he started pushing himself up from the ground, one of the men stomped out of the cottage and kicked him in the ribs. Rowan grunted and fell over on his side. The man pulled Rowan up by the shoulders and shoved him towards a rickety cart standing in the road. Chester tightened his grip on the pitchfork. It was a good fork, made with real metal sturdily attached to its staff. The man shoved Rowan towards the wagon and yelled, “Get in there, ya sorner.”

Before he could think about it, Chester raised the pitchfork and ran at the man, screaming. Just as Chester reached the man, he lunged at the man’s gut with the pitchfork. When the tines were about to land home, the man turned, took a step back and drew his sword. Chester stumbled forward as the pitchfork missed its mark. When he saw the glint of the sword, he turned and started to run just far enough to avoid the blade. When he stopped to face the man again, he felt a sharp burning in his thigh. He dropped the pitchfork and grabbed his leg as he let out a raging squeal that he didn’t recognize as his own. He rolled over on his back to see the man bearing down him with the tip of his blade. When he grabbed the pitchfork and held it up as a shield, the man started to laugh.

“God damn you!” Chester heard himself yell. He tried to stand back up, but his leg felt like hot lead and he couldn’t move it. The man stopped laughing and scowled as he drew back his sword. Just as the man seemed ready to smash open Chester’s skull, he heard the thunder of hooves.

***

Tyrus and Frederick stood with their horses at the top of the village road. There was nothing they could do to stop the sheriff now. All they could do was watch. They mounted up and stepped their horses back from the road when the first of the sheriff’s men crested the rise on the far side of the brook bridge. There were only two of them: one on horseback, the other driving a single-horse wagon covered by a crude cage made of branches lashed together. Tyrus couldn’t help thinking how about the way he could turn these two back, but there were more on the way. Despite what the sheriff had told him, Tyrus had decided he would plead his case to the Baron personally. He knew that men did not always know what their charges were doing and part of him still couldn’t believe the Baron would toss aside the law for a backwater parcel like Faron Manor. He would leave first thing in the morning. For now, all he could do was watch as the sheriff’s men robbed his tenants of everything they had. He clenched his fist, aching to chase them down. But that would only make it that much harder to plead his case to the Baron. For now, they followed a careful distance behind the deputies pulling their cart down the village road.

“I still can’t believe this,” Frederick said. “I thought that once you were here, things would be different.”

“If anything, I think I’ve just made matters worse,” Tyrus said.

“No, it’s not that,” Frederick said, “I just thought that 12 years in the King’s Army would count for something. They owe you something for that, don’t they?”

“All that is ever owed is fealty. Fealty and taxes. Nothing more.”

The sheriff’s men slowed their pace as they rode past the cottages in the village. Some tenants stepped out to take a closer look. One of the men barked something and the tenants scurried back into their dwellings. Frederick picked up his pace when the sheriff’s men stopped in front of one of the cottages. “No,” he said.

“What?” Tyrus asked.

“Nothing.” Frederick clutched his reins tighter.

The sheriff’s men stopped and dismounted. Both Tyrus and Frederick picked up their pace when one of the Sheriff’s men started pounding on the cottage door. Tyrus knitted his brow. “Seems a little heavy handed there,” he said. They kicked their horses into a trot when they saw the men barge into the cottage. Tyrus felt the blood surging in his shoulder when Chester scrambled out of the cottage. When the boy raced into barn and emerged with a pitchfork, both men broke into a full gallop. Tyrus pointed at Rowan crawling towards the wagon. “Help him,” he said.

Tyrus yanked the reins hard and veered off the road. He trampled through gardens and jumped low wooden fences, all the while keeping his eyes fixed on the man raising his sword against Chester. It was the same thing all over again – Tyrus saw images of conscripts cowering in the face of brute force they could not fight. Except Chester did not cower. The boy jutted his chin out and faced the sword about to crush his skull. He put his hands up, but not to hide from the terror of steel cutting into him. It wasn’t a surrender to the inevitable. It was a last stand against the impossible.

Just as the sheriff’s man started to swing his sword down, Tyrus lept off his horse and hit the ground at a dead run. In one single motion, he snatched Chester by the scruff of his neck, tossed him aside like a rag doll and drew his sword. Chester grabbed his pitch fork and started to stand up. “Behind me!” Tyrus yelled, practically throwing Chester back into the barn. Tyrus slid to a stop and planted his feet. The sheriff’s man wasn’t prepared for Tyrus and flinched for just a second before charging with his sword still drawn back over his head.

“You don’t want to do that!” Tyrus yelled, but the man kept running. As the man’s blade came down in a wide arc, Tyrus stepped to the side, crouched down and tripped the man, sending him barreling across the small cottage yard. Tyrus wheeled around to watch the man tumble over the ground before regaining his balance. He stood and faced Tyrus, sword still in hand. He eyed Tyrus for a moment and then lunged forward. The blade came at him so slowly that Tyrus was able to trap it next to his body with his free arm so that the flat of the blade slid harmlessly along his chain mail. Just before the man ran into his chest, Tyrus released the man’s sword, and then thrust his own into the man’s belly. He put the palm of his hand on the butt end of the grip and leaned in, shoving the blade in to the hilt. The man’s eyes widened as Tyrus pulled his sword out and let him fall to the ground. He looked into the man’s eyes, not yet dead, and heard the familiar whimper of the defeated that humbled all brutes with swords who had met their match.

He whirled around and caught Frederick’s eye. “How is he?” Rowan lay sprawled on his back behind the wagon with Frederick. He wheezed and coughed and struggled to sit up, then fell back to the ground.

“He’s fine.” Frederick stepped out from behind the wagon and started to walk towards the cottage when Tyrus held up his hand to stop him. Frederick crouched back behind the wagon.

Tyrus looked at the open cottage door, but heard nothing from inside. He looked at Chester, who was on his hands and knees just in front of the barn, bleeding profusely from the wound in his leg. “You alright lad?” Tyrus asked.

“Yes, m’lord.” The boy grunted as he tried, once again, to stand, but his leg was too weak. His eyes fluttered and he fell over on his side. “Frederick!” Tyrus yelled.

“Sire!” came the response from behind the wagon.

“I have to go in here.” He motioned towards the cottage door. “And when I do, you get this boy out of here and back to the priest.”

“Right,” Frederick said.

Tyrus looked at the blood again, which had soaked the entire length of the trouser leg, right down to the boy’s shoes. “And be quick about it.” Tyrus took a breath, held it and then stormed through the open door. Inside, the second man stood next to Lariset just in front of the table with his sword drawn. He stood in a slight crouch with the blade pointing down and was breathing so hard he couldn’t keep his eyes steady. Tyrus took two long strides towards the man, raised his boot and shoved it straight into the middle of his chest. As the man tumbled back and fell on the floor, Tyrus stepped up, anchored his boot on his chest and placed the tip of his sword on the man’s jugular. “I know 10 ways to kill you in less than 10 seconds and too many other ways to kill you slowly,” Tyrus said. “Drop your sword.” The Sheriff’s man let his sword fall to the stone floor with a clang. “What business have you here?” Tyrus asked.

“You dig your own grave sire. We are here upon the King’s orders, secured by writ and warrant.” The man pointed towards the table. Lariset was still standing in front of it, holding her hand over her mouth, eyes wide open in terror. The scroll sat on the table, still tied and sealed.

Tyrus glanced at it and told Lariset, “Read it.”

With trembling hands, Lariset broke the wax on the parchment scroll and uncurled it. She took a breath and cleared her throat. With a quivering voice, she read, “In the case of Faron Manor, whereupon the geld being delinquent -”

“Not that part.” Tyrus said, cutting her off.

Lariset blinked and then asked, “What part then, my lord.”

Tyrus moved the tip of his blade off the man’s jugular and cut a small nick in his neck. As the blood trickled down and onto the floor, Tyrus said, “The part about terrifying women and murdering their children.” He stared straight into the man’s eyes. “That part.”

Lariset lowered the scroll and looked up. “There is no such part, m’lord,” she said.

“Then read the part about destroying the meager belongings of peasants and pressing the sick into labor they cannot survive.”

“There is no such part, m’lord,” she said again.

The man gulped as Tyrus gritted his teeth and pressed the tip harder, drawing more blood. “What does it say these servants of the King can do?”

Lariset read through the scroll silently. “Here,” she said. She looked into the eyes of the sheriff’s man. “Here, it says that they are to take whatever reasonable means are required to secure the property of the King and relegate custody of its tenants to the Baron pending assignment at his convenience.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Tyrus. He sheathed his sword and stepped back, then dragged the man’s sword to Lariset and placed the grip in her hand. He told the sheriff’s man, “You go on about your business, but you come back to this one last.” Tyrus waved his hand towards the door. The man nodded, stood up and scurried out of the cottage.

MASSIF

The approaches to the Massif were well behind him now. He and the other huntsmen had been pushing further out of the forest where they were warranted to hunt. The rumors of the manor foreclosing were rampant now.  Once that happened, their hunting warrants would be useless; poaching had become the least of their concerns. Every huntsman was stocking up as much as he could. Some had already gone to Fareham to sell meat and hide while they looked for work in one of the guilds. A few stayed behind to pilfer what they could from the Massif forests. For generations, there had been the old rumors about exotic animals, creeks where you could pan gold and even gemstones higher up in the Massif. There were the forgotten legends that went even further back in time; ale-soaked tales of shadows and demons. But nobody could tell if any of it was true. The forests here were part of the King’s royal domain and he never gave warrants for anybody to enter. As far as anybody knew, nobody had ever set foot in them until now.

His leg ached as he strained to keep one foot planted on a stubby rock while he kicked the grassy slope in front of him to dig out a small step. He leaned into the step and pushed himself up, trying to ignore the beckoning of the brook in the meadow behind him. There were so many things about the Massif that he wanted to stop and just soak in. The clouds were closer up here and they swept by with a faint promise of adventure. The wind had a particular song that you could only hear through the trees, rocks and gullies of the Massif. It was the kind of place where you could stretch out, bathe in the mountain sun and not really care if you ever got up again.  He had to put that out of his mind. Beads of sweat boiled up out of his forehead, gathered and broke, sliding down his face and off the tip of his nose. He wanted to wipe it away with his sleeve, but he couldn’t let go of his tenuous grip as he climbed the embankment. So, he put the sweat out of his mind, too. Then there was the pain from struggling with the rough terrain of the Massif that gripped his body. He willed himself not to feel it. All he felt was his body against the embankment. All he heard was his own breath and heartbeat as he moved his foot up to the next sliver of flat ground and heaved himself onto a small clearing framed by walls of smooth granite.

A web of caves pockmarked the rock, some too small to fit his hand into, others almost big enough for him to sleep in. He walked up to peek into one of them and ran his hand along the smooth surface of the rock. He jumped when his hand touched something prickly. It felt like soft needles. He reached in with his other hand and tugged at the thing until it slid towards him. He pulled it out into the fading light of twilight and cradled it in both hands. He shook his head, looked up at the sky and laughed. Then he slid it into the leather satchel slung over his shoulder and closed the flap.

Darkness came sooner here than in the manor. The sun was already drifting behind the spires and peaks of the Massif. The waning light wouldn’t last much longer. He was going to have to spend the night. He stepped back and climbed down the embankment. Once back in the meadow, He sat down next to the brook and breathed in the cold air drifting across the water. He could already feel his muscles stiffening from fatigue and needed to find a place to settle in for the night. He stood up and started to hike across the meadow to an island of trees to gather dried twigs and brush to make a fire. The last of the day’s light was almost gone and it was difficult to see what he was looking for, but he was able to gather enough for a small fire. When he emerged from the forest, clouds started gathering for a night storm. The first flash of lightning sizzled across the sky, followed by a sharp crack of thunder. The air thickened, telling him the rain would be along any moment. Exasperated, he threw down the twigs and brush and tried to remember where he might find shelter until the storm passed.

As he stumbled through the darkness searching for cover, the clouds spat their first drops of rain. They came down hard, smacking into his arm with a sting. He winced from the pain as a few more drops smacked his arm. The rain started to thicken into a steady hail of drops that felt like small pebbles of fire burning into his hands, neck and arms. His heart raced as the pain scurried across his skin and soaked through to his bones. His vision blurred and the only thing he could see was the ground right in front of him as it shimmered with the light of another lightning bolt. The thunder rumbled hard enough to shake the ground and the rain swelled into a torrent so thick that he could no longer see his own feet. He stumbled forward blindly through its cascading torrents, surrounded by a black curtain of darkness. He tried to gather his strength to run, but could only lurch forward like a drunken villein. The rain pummeled him even harder and his entire body felt like it was on fire as it ate into his skin. He staggered blindly through the darkness, screaming until he could no longer feel anything at all and driven on by the frantic urge to flee the Massif and find open sky.

MERCY

Frederick bounded into the ward and to the arches of the main hall. Holding up with one hand, he swung out of the saddle and then dropped Chester into his arms. The guards posted at the door opened both sides wide and Frederick rushed into the hall. “Priest!” he yelled, half running to the chapel. He looked at Chester’s leg and his heart sank. “No no no,” he said in a low voice. “Not now.” Blood had soaked through the entire length of his trouser leg and dripped from the hem, splashing on the stone floor. “Priest!” he yelled again, bounding into the chapel.

Gotfrid was sweeping the floor while a page was cleaning off the stools with a wet rag. As soon as the priest saw Chester, he dropped his broom to the floor with a clatter and rushed to help Frederick. “Here, bring him to the sanctuary,” he said. Frederick looked at Father Gotfrid for reassurance, finding none in the eyes of the priest as he reached out to help lay Chester in the sanctuary. “Straw,” Gotfrid said to the page. “Bring as much as you can from the stable, and make sure it’s clean.”

“Yes, m’lord,” the squire said, bolting out the door.

Chester whimpered when Gotfrid ran his fingers gently across the wound. “I thought he was unconscious,” the priest said.

“He held on the whole way,” Frederick said. “Can you treat him Father?” The priest seemed to attempt a smile as he grabbed his satchel from the stone lectern, but he wouldn’t answer Frederick’s question. “He has to make it,” Frederick said.

“I’ll do my best,” Gotfrid said. “The rest is in God’s hands.”

Frederick clutched at the sleeve of Gotfrid’s robe. “No, Father, you don’t understand. We have gone through so much so he could find this day.”

“Tear the cloth so I can get at the wound,” Gotfrid said.

Frederick grabbed the hem of the blood-soaked trouser leg and started to pull. Chester moaned in pain. “Hang on, lad; we have to get at that wound.” Chester nodded and gritted his teeth. Frederick ripped the cloth and pulled it away from the wound. It was encrusted with congealed blood, but still oozing. Chester’s face was a pale white and Frederick realized the boy had lost much of his blood.

Gotfrid knelt down next to Chester and ripped open the flap of his satchel. He pulled out a shallow wooden jar, untied the string holding on the lid and dabbed a small amount of ointment onto his fingertips. He dabbed it carefully on the wound and Chester winced, but he forced his mouth to stay closed so he wouldn’t be too loud. “No need to be brave, lad,” Gotfrid said.

“What is it?” Frederick asked. Just then, he heard footsteps behind him and then Tyrus’s voice.

“It’s yarrow,” Tyrus said.

“Quite right,” Gotfrid said. “It slows down the bleeding.” He quickly retied the lid to the jar and placed his hand on Chester’s forehead. He then felt along Chester’s neck. “I can still feel the blood running through him,” the priest said. He pulled out another jar and applied another ointment to the wound. “Myrrh. It calms the redness and keeps it from spreading too far.” He set the container aside and pulled out a slender glass vessel wrapped in a leather pouch. He pulled out the cork and drizzled its contents onto the wound.

“That feels a little better, Father,” Chester whispered.

“Honey?” Tyrus asked.

“With clove. It helps with the pain.”

“Poppy would do even better,” Tyrus said.

“Maybe later,” Gotfrid said. He felt the boy’s neck and close his eyes. “When his blood is stronger.” The page stumbled through the door with an armful of straw. “Bring it here, lad, Gotfrid said.” The page hustled up to the sanctuary and kneeled. Gotfrid grabbed a handful and spread it underneath Chester’s leg. He grabbed more and started building a small mound that held Chester’s leg off the ground. He then lifted Chester’s head and spread some of the straw to make a thin pillow.

“You knife, Bailiff,” Gotfrid said.

Frederick stared blankly. The world seemed to stop. “I don’t understand.” His pulse quickened and he felt sweat breaking out on his forehead. “He has to make it, Father!” Everyone in the chapel was now looking at him.

“Trust me. Your knife.”

Frederick slowly pulled his knife from its leather sheath and handed it to the priest. Gotfrid laid it on the floor next to Chester and opened the altar chest. He slowly pulled out the vestment and unfolded it. He closed his eyes and murmured a prayer. “Forgive me, Father, and bless this boy with your sacred touch.” He then kissed the vestment and laid it out on the floor. He picked up the knife and stabbed it into one end of the vestment, roughly six inches from the end. He pulled the knife through the cloth, cutting the end into two strips. He turned the vestment over and did the same to the other end. He placed the vestment over Chester’s wound and then started winding it around his leg as a bandage. He then tied it off with the frays and snugged it down with a knot. Handing the knife back to Frederick, he said, “Thank you.”

Chester waved the priest’s hands away and asked, “M’lord, are you here?” Tyrus was close enough to see the boy clear as day and Frederick shot him a worried glance. Tyrus placed a hand on his bailiff’s shoulder and stepped up to crouch down next to Chester.

“Right here, lad.” Chester looked into the space above him, as if he couldn’t see Tyrus. He groped the air with his hand until he found Tyrus’s and latched onto it.

“Mama,” Chester whispered in a quavering voice. “Is she alright?”

Tyrus smiled and nodded. “Yes, lad, she’s at home now, probably making hot stew for you.”

“And Papa?” Chester asked. Tyrus looked at Frederick.

“He’s at home now. We didn’t let those men take him.”

“He’s sick,” Chester said. “Didn’t they know that?” He started to pound the floor with a weak fist. “Did I get him?” he asked.

Tyrus adjusted his grip on the boy’s hand, holding on tightly as he struggled to stay awake. “Get who?” he asked.

“The man with the sword -” Chester stopped pounding the floor and his head lolled to the side. A convulsion ran through his body and then he sucked his breath through his teeth. He seemed to struggle as he pulled his head back around and said, “I think I had a pitchfork.”

“Yes, you had a pitchfork,” Tyrus said.

“He was going to take them away.” His eyes fluttered and then he stared straight into Tyrus’s eyes. “I couldn’t let them.”

“No, you couldn’t. And you did get him. You got him good, lad. He won’t bother your mother again.”

“And the other one?”

Tyrus reached down to stroke Chester’s forehead. He shot a glance to Gotfrid. The priest wrinkled his brow and nodded gently. It really was in God’s hands. Tyrus looked back into Chester’s eyes.

“You scared him so bad, he ran out of there. I don’t think he will ever come back.”

Chester smiled and said, “They can’t take take Mama away. I won’t let them.” Chester’s eyes fluttered again and his eyes went blank. Weaker now, he whispered, “I can’t find my dog.” Then his eyes closed and his hand went limp.

“No,” Frederick blurted out. “Hold on.” Looking at the priest, he said, “Do something.”

Gotfrid felt the boy’s forehead and then his neck again. “He’s got the fever, but his blood’s doing fine. He just needs rest now. Please, leave him with me. We have to give him time to heal.”

Frederick closed his eyes, unable to fight back memories of the abandoned barn. The wind rushing through the broken window and stirring up the forgotten leaves of autumn surrounded him. He could hear it all. The storm lashed out at the fields as she stared into his eyes. “Take care of him,” she had said.

“I promise.” The words echoed in his mind and the storm from that day grew louder and swept down into the valley as she walked away. There was thunder. And she was gone. He heard the thunder again, rumbling closer. Rolling down from the Massif, it pounded the air like a fanfare for the coming deluge. The thunder rumbled again and he opened his eyes. He heard another rumble and realized the storm he had heard was real.

“Just what we need,” Tyrus grumbled. He stood up and headed for the chapel door.

“Take care of him,” Frederick said once more and stood up to follow Tyrus outside. They heard a commotion in the hall and then a man screeching for help. Before they could reach the chapel door, a huntsman stumbled into the chapel, holding onto a man barely able to walk. Frederick gasped when he saw the smoke rising from his skin and the blood oozing from countless wounds on every bit of his skin. They were everywhere: his neck, arms, hands and his face. It looked as if the man had been attacked by a flock of buzzards and then thrown into a fire. The man looked at him – a face with no eyes. Frederick’s heart stopped when the man spoke.

“Help me.”


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copyright 2016 Michael J Lawrence