Trade winds off the coast whisked sea spray up a rocky bluff and across three tents, speckling the shelters in a fine patina. Inside his tent, Bryndor Scrivson rubbed his thumb across the smooth leather of a stowed saddle, removing a thin layer of salty powder. Something about the air here made everything sticky, and the leather felt more supple. He often discovered strange things like this when he traveled with his brother and uncle in their work as cartographers.
He inhaled the aromas of the morning seascape and could not decide if the sensation was pleasant or cloying. The sea saturated everything from their clothing to their bedrolls and even made the parchment tacky.
While I would give a lot for dry clothing and a hot bowl of Aunt Ro’s stew, I could probably get used to this life. At least it makes sense that everyone sees me as a stranger out here.
He sat long moments thinking about how his life might change once they finished their current project mapping the remote territories of Vendal Braveska, the king of Hammond. The contract guaranteed a wage more than double the amount of any previous expedition. With his bit of coin, he could strike out on his own. His sense of excitement about that possibility withered, however, as he thought about how to tell his uncle he planned to leave.
“Bryn, hurry up with the map!” The deep voice of his Uncle Kaellor interrupted his thoughts. Bryndor lifted the saddle to reveal several long, cylindrical leather cases. He fingered over the tubes to make sure the caps remained sealed, keeping all of their precious work protected from the elements.
With Kaellor’s guidance, Bryndor and his brother had drafted some of the most accurate maps of the Southlands. In numerous expeditions over the last few years, they’d navigated the western coast of the lands south of the massive trek of the Korjinth Mountains. The outings had given the brothers a unique opportunity to combine adventure, their nimble minds, and no small amount of math in completing their projects. All the while, their uncle cultivated in them a natural education and sense of wonder about the different regions they traveled.
Bryndor retrieved the largest tubular case and a small box of writing instruments and tucked them both under his arm. After emerging from his tent, he sucked a bit of briny powder from his thumb. The crystals melted, leaving a faint mineral taste on the back of his tongue. He would definitely have to trade for some of that before heading home. The salt alone made the difference between eating to live and living to eat. He ducked into the tent where his uncle and brother knelt around a small portable table.
“Here you go, Kae.” Bryndor offered the cylinder case, then plopped down beside his brother. The two shared a friendly glance, their resemblance evident as they sat side by side.
Lluthean, the younger of the two at fourteen years of age, was growing the beginnings of a scruffy beard. His nimble fingers were always busy, and lately, he’d taken to rolling a flat stone across the top of his knuckles. While both young men stared back at the world with their father’s penetrating grey eyes, Lluthean favored their mother, with light brown hair and a lean frame. In particular, her nature permeated his smile and the agile way he mounted a horse—or so Kaellor always said. However, despite his supposed resemblance to their mother, Bryndor struggled to imagine a female version of his brother.
Bryndor, only two years older and broad-shouldered, puffed a breath of air at his unruly strands of dark hair that draped below his brow. He hoped his Aunt Rona would tolerate his unkempt bangs and scruffy beard; he rather liked the way the wind caught in his hair when they rode. Unfortunately, attending to their haircuts would probably be one of her first priorities when they returned home. He combed his hair back with his fingers, then withdrew several writing instruments and a compass from the delicate wooden box.
Kaellor grasped the leather cylinder and removed the lid, producing a resonant thump. Mindful of the delicate nature of their project, he unrolled a large parchment onto the table.
“Llu, the clamps if you will,” said Kaellor. Lluthean moved to secure the edges of the map, his clever fingers making quick work of the stiff clasps.
“Alright. We left the port of Malvress some ten miles to the north of our current location.” Kaellor indicated a point on the map north of their current position. “Measure it out in leagues and start with Malvress, Bryn.”
Bryndor started to measure the map with the compass and ruler, saying his calculations out loud. “Right. Ten miles, and that makes three and a third leagues, which puts Malvress right about here.” He moved to record the town, but Lluthean interrupted him with a gentle hand. Bryndor paused and looked up with a puzzled expression.
“Don’t you mean five leagues?” Lluthean asked.
Bryndor considered the map a long moment, puzzling out his brother’s calculation. He knew Lluthean usually had the right of things and was offering the correction without malice.
“Remember, here along the coast, with all of this irregular terrain, a league is not as far as back home,” said Lluthean. He continued coaxing the stone across his knuckles, the activity drawing an unusual expression of focused intensity.
“How did I miss that?” Bryndor shook his head. “So two miles in a league, not three. Thanks, Llu.”
How many other times have I made a similar mistake? If it were up to just me, our maps would have folks walking in circles.
Before drafting a permanent emblem for Malvress, Bryndor double-checked the accuracy of its location on the map. He looked to Kaellor for reassurance. His uncle winked, appearing satisfied with Bryndor’s precision, but said nothing. Bryndor nodded and committed to the action.
After recording the town on the map, he sifted through several smaller parchments, reading the notes he’d made the previous day. He inscribed the map with significant points where the coastline had surrendered to rocky headlands and where the ocean currents had carved out fjords.
Eventually, he had consulted the last of his notes and looked up, breaking the silence. “There, that’s the first third of our day. Who kept a record of the next leg?” he asked, holding up the writing tools.
Lluthean leaned closer to their makeshift workspace. “That would be me, royal cartographer to His Majesty King Vendal!” he announced with a dramatic flourish. Without consulting any notes, Lluthean began recording the terrain in detail where his brother had left off.
Bryndor relaxed back and shook his head in wonder as Lluthean documented his portion of their travels from memory. Circles indeed, you are more blessed than you know, brother.
With his contribution complete, Lluthean handed the instruments to his uncle. Kaellor pulled thick, black hair behind his ears and revealed the same grey Scrivson eyes, a strong jaw, and angular cheekbones. His bushy black beard had started to show his age with a shock of silver at the chin, and little crow’s feet accentuated his eyes when he smiled, though he smiled less and less these days. He consulted his notes and updated the map to their current location.
“From here, we should make the outskirts of Hammond by tomorrow evening if we head south along the King’s Road,” said Kaellor. He removed the wooden clamps, rolled up the map, and replaced it in the sealed leather case.
“It’s been a long couple of months away from home. Aunt Rona had to make due longer than we planned,” said Bryndor. He grunted with the effort of pulling apart the stout legs supporting the table. The wood, swollen with the humid sea air, released from the fittings only after considerable effort.
“Rona’s a capable woman, and doubtless had no trouble managing back home in Journey’s Bend. But you’re right. This project carried us farther south than I intended,” said Kaellor. “You’ve both done well. With our survey of the Southlands finally complete, we should keep busy for the next year with the reprints alone.”
“Do you think we’ve been gone too long?” Bryndor asked. “I mean, I know people back home won’t remember us, but will it affect Aunt Ro?”
“Your aunt practically raised you both. The mantle that conceals you is strong, but I don’t think it’s enough to erase all those years, and besides, she’s too stubborn to forget you,” Kaellor replied. “No, it works in a more subtle way to obscure the memories of people who meet you for short periods of time. As you practically grew up on the Tellends’ farm, I don’t think they will have difficulties remembering you either. But most of the others in Journey’s Bend will have to get to know you all over again.”
Bryndor recalled the countless times he’d befriended strangers on their travels. He often used the encounters to test the strength of the mantle. He would share stories about himself, and Lluthean would add heroic embellishments to make the stories more memorable. But in the morning, their new acquaintance never seemed to recall meeting them or hearing about their fictional adventures. The experience only created more alienation.
Lluthean, on the other hand, found endless ways to turn the anonymity to his advantage. Especially in Journey’s Bend, Lluthean had become adept at learning what made someone happy and even better at finding out what motivated them to action.
While his brother seemed to enjoy their concealment, Bryndor often thought about how difficult it was to make meaningful friendships when everyone you met forgot you existed. Every time they showed up in a town, the locals looked upon them as foreigners, and it didn’t help that they looked like outsiders. Their slightly taller than average height and grey eyes marked them as from the lands north of the Korjinth, and while most of the people they interacted with were polite, sometimes that’s all they were.
So, more and more, he had been considering striking out on his own. He worried about leaving his aunt and uncle to make his own life, but many young men left their families around the age of seventeen, and that was only about a year away for Bryndor.
That grinded mantle gets in the way of everything.
How would he buy a plot of land if nobody could recall selling it to him? How could he settle down and make a family if no woman could remember him calling on her? How many times would he have this internal conversation? He wished he could be more like his brother.
Lluthean pocketed the stone and cocked his head to the side. “You look like you just swallowed one of Aunt Ro’s medicines.”
Bryndor sighed. “I was just thinking about how hard it can be to start all over again.”
“There is one good thing about it, Bryn,” said Lluthean. “Since nobody can remember us, we don’t have to go around making up names or remembering what names we gave; isn’t that right, Kevold?”
Kaellor cocked an eyebrow at his nephew, but only shrugged a response. They all knew he’d chosen the rather pedestrian name “Kevold” because it afforded a degree of anonymity. He had used the name successfully for years and tied it legally to all their work.
Lluthean stood and stretched, then said through a yawn, “The sooner we start, the sooner we get to an inn with a real bed and something that passes for hot food.”
Bryndor held his hand out, happy for the distraction. “Help me to my feet, and we can take down the tents.” Lluthean hoisted his brother up. Over the next hour, they attended to familiar tasks: securing their maps, packing the tents, and preparing their mounts.
Bryndor saddled Kaellor’s horse, then greeted his own gelding with a pat on the nose as he gazed out toward the sea. Voshna, the pale blue moon, hung low on the horizon, obscuring all but a sliver of her sister Vaeda, the red moon. Both waned in the morning light.
“Good morning, Scout,” he whispered to his horse. The oldest of their mounts, Scout, was part of the family. Bryn thought the old gelding might be the only friend outside of his immediate family who remembered him. The horse still managed to pull the wagon once a week, and Bryndor favored his steady temperament.
He placed the saddle on Scout, then secured the bindings before giving him a small apple. Usually, Scout responded with a nicker of appreciation, but today he just took the treat and turned his attention to the coast. The old horse perked his ears forward and pawed once at the ground.
“Does something about being so close to the sea make you nervous? We’ll be going soon enough, and you don’t have to pull the wagon today, boy,” he said.
They alternated which mount pulled the small pack-wagon, and today was Lluthean’s turn to guide the cargo. Bryndor walked over to the tracings and sighed when he discovered their condition. Lluthean had unharnessed Scout from the wagon the night before and left everything in a tangled mess. Bryndor tugged at the leather straps encrusted with mud.
By the Drift, Llu, when are you going to learn? It’s like you tried to make a mess of things.
He took a long breath and prepared to call out for Lluthean to sort out the snarled tracings, but a rumbling cascade of boulders startled him to silence. Loud clacks of rock colliding with timber punctuated the growing thunder on the cliffside. The sounds of the avalanche lasted nearly a minute, followed by distant screams and shouts of alarm.
The three men rushed to the cliffside at the edge of their camp to look down. At the bottom of the cape, the King’s Road rose just above the ocean and sat against the rocky face. They watched in disbelief as the last of a massive rockslide of timber and boulders smashed into what appeared to be a horse-drawn caravan and escort. Men screamed in alarm and agony. Several bodies lay crushed under the debris, barely visible under a rising cloud of dust.
Lluthean looked on fish-mouthed, but Bryndor looked back up the cliff face and spied a small group of men picking their way down toward the caravan. They crept with purpose and had their weapons drawn. He tapped his uncle on the shoulder and directed Kaellor’s attention to the bandits.
“We have to help them,” said Bryndor, his words quickened by his heartbeat.
“Grab your hunting bows; we’ll have to circle around to get down there,” said Kaellor. “You two ride double; there’s no time to waste saddling your mount, Llu.”
The boys raced to grab their weapons and followed Kaellor as he urged his mount south down the gradual slope. Once they reached the road, they turned north and began galloping toward the ambush.
Despite their urgency, the descent down to the King’s Road and back north felt like it took a long time; too long. Scout panted hard from the exertion, and Bryndor tried to keep the old gelding from making abrupt turns for fear of throwing Lluthean. He wondered how his brother was managing to hold the bows and quivers and still remain on horseback.
At last, they drew up adjacent to Kaellor, who remained atop his horse as he surveyed the site of the devastation. The three watched as the cloud of dust and debris dissipated, leaving behind a bloody landscape along the base of the shaded cape. Timbers and boulders had ground up at least two men and one horse, judging by the number of exposed mangled limbs. Bryndor wrinkled his nose; already, the iron scent of blood had spoiled the sea spray.
He took in the scene and found himself uncertain of how to proceed, but felt reassured by his uncle’s composure. Kaellor just sat, considering and listening. Though they lived a life of some variety and adventure, they’d never experienced violence like the scene before them. Bryndor wished they had time to prepare a plan, but necessity mandated prompt action. Kaellor seemed to sense as much and gave them direction.
“Tie up Scout here and dismount. Be prepared to cover me with your bows. If you have a shot, don’t hesitate. Never hesitate.” Though he spoke with resolve, he turned a soft gaze on the brothers. “Better to beg forgiveness from the dead than linger as a ghost of regret above your own corpse.” He edged his mount forward at a steady walk.
Bryndor dismounted and strung their bows while Lluthean tied Scout to a piece of deadfall.
“What now?” asked Lluthean with a strained whisper.
Bryndor licked salty beads from his upper lip and made a quick assessment. “I’ll go up to get a better vantage point. Why don’t you see if you can get around between the rubble and cliffside? Pick your way through the shadows.”
Lluthean nodded once then crept around the debris. Bryndor watched him disappear, then climbed on top of the fallen timbers and boulders. Looking down, he saw the shiny knee joint of a horse protruding from the rubble. Shredded, pink muscle and sinew surrounded the odd, rounded bone. Thick, bloody, purple ropes of bowel coiled on the ground below the bone, but the rest of the horse lay buried under rock. Bryndor’s limbs quivered with an odd weak feeling, and cold sweat soaked the shirt at the small of his back. For just a moment, he felt light-headed and nearly lost his footing.
From his perch, he counted at least six dead men trapped in the rubble. Four wore chainmail and two the exquisite silks that adorned those of the court. By the insignias on their uniforms, all of them claimed affiliation to the royal house of Malvress: a silver scale set off-balance on one side by a large fish.
He eased forward onto a larger boulder and discovered three more dead. However, these bodies were not crushed by the debris. Marked by their camouflaged garb, these belonged to the bandit party. Blood congealed like dark purple pudding on the corpses from a variety of wounds.
His mouth watered, and he swallowed back a wave of nausea before drawing a deep breath to steady his nerve. The fight must have been terrible. One man looked to have bled out from a wound that had removed most of his left arm. Another’s face was caved in on the right, and his left eye bulged out unnaturally. Another lay with his head set at an unnatural angle, a garish slash deep into the side of his neck, nearly decapitating the corpse. Two had gaping belly wounds, and the fetid stink of blood and excrement hung heavy in the air. By all the darkness in the Drift, the ride down here took a long time.
At the thought, he lifted his attention from the butchery. Where did you go, brother?
He knew Lluthean was working his way around the backside of the debris, but couldn’t see him just now. Bryndor redirected his attention to the careful progress of his uncle.
Kaellor directed his gelding around a boulder and discovered a lone man sitting with his back to one of the fallen timbers. He wore a polished breastplate and the crest of Malvress. The knight panted with shallow breaths, and an unnatural whistling wheeze escaped from some wound under his chest piece. Rivulets of dark blood trickled from the wounds visible on his legs, and from others under his breastplate. The crimson streams mixed with the blood spilled from the bandits, four of whose corpses lay at his feet. The man turned even more pale and sweaty at Kaellor’s approach.
“Please,” he rasped. “I’m done. But Lesand, she yet lives, and there are still a few more. Please, for Malvress.” The knight coughed a pink, foamy material from his mouth, and his eyes fluttered closed. He twitched unnaturally for several seconds.
Kaellor turned and made eye contact with Bryndor, still hidden on top of the boulder. He nodded once, then drew Bryndor’s attention to the carriage, which sat lopsided at the side of the road. The front wheel had been shattered by stones from the avalanche, and three of the bandits stood with casual arrogance outside the carriage. A young woman screamed from just inside the doorway to the carriage, and a middle-aged thug dressed in worn brown leathers stumbled back a few steps after she kicked him in the face. The man grunted but smiled, unharmed.
“I see the filly’s got some spunk! Good, I like a fighter!” He grinned and produced a long curved knife.
The other thugs chuckled, and one responded, “Be sure you leave something for us, Elcid!”
Kaellor cleared his throat. “I don’t think the lady prefers your company.”
The men turned to glare at Kaellor. “Where did you come from?” asked the one named Elcid as he held forth the menacing knife. The bandit appeared to be in his fourth decade, older than Kaellor, with unkempt, straggly grey hair matted by too many nights without a bath. Even at this distance, Bryndor nearly gagged at the stink of dirty feet mixed with a sickeningly sweet odor of sweat and lust. Two of the others held similar weapons, and one brandished a short sword.
Elcid seemed to consider Kaellor, who sat relaxed and confident astride the gelding but wore none of the fancy clothing common among the noble classes. “You’re no royal!” he spat accusingly, then smiled as if the pronouncement alone released him from any consequence. His beady, nervous eyes scanned their surroundings.
Bryndor crouched low behind the debris and cursed inwardly at the heavy thrum of blood in his ears. His hands trembled so much he had difficulty nocking an arrow to the bow. To occupy his mind and settle his nerve, he carried out a deliberate mental assessment of the brutes.
Elcid held a crude knife. Neither his dirt-stained clothes nor his blade showed any blood. He appeared to have avoided all of the direct violence of the initial attack. The man must only be an opportunist.
Bryndor thought he likely survived off the leftovers and that his companions must have carried out most of the hostilities. A small pot belly draped over his trousers, but he had thin arms and a ruddy nose. So he spends too much time at the bottle as well. Under Kaellor’s silent, unyielding scrutiny, the thug fingered his knife nervously.
Two of the others looked not much older than Bryndor. They shifted their weight from side to side and kept looking back to Elcid. The last thug looked to be in his prime and had a few scars on his muscled arms. This man wielded a bloodstained short sword that reflected the sunlight from its decorative hilt.
He must have pulled that from one of the escorts. That’s too fine a weapon for any in this lot; still four on three, though. Lutney favor the odds.
“You, you better get now,” said Elcid. He took a nervous step with his knife held forward. “You got no business here, and we’re taking what’s ours!”
“Be that as it may, I have to wonder,” Kaellor replied, “what tragedy befell you to make you murder all these men and defile a noblewoman? You lose a wife? Children? You’ll pardon me, but none of you really have the look of the marrying type.”
Clearly confused by the turn of the conversation, the thugs looked first at Kaellor and then to Elcid in confusion. The grimy man screwed up his face and answered, “Look, I ain’t never been tied to no woman and certainly don’t suffer no bastards runnin’ ’round my feet! None that I know of.”
“I thought you said you were only taking what was taken from you. If you lost no woman and no children, then again, I ask what? What was taken from you that gives you just cause to act this way?” Kaellor challenged.
Bryndor watched his uncle use the momentary distraction of the conversation to slide his hand back against his saddle, reaching for a dagger. He knew Kaellor kept the weapon secreted there but had never seen him reach for it in all their travels.
“That’s it!” The ruffian slammed the door to the carriage shut and strode forward, brandishing his blade. “You trying to talk me to death? Be on your way, or we’ll send you to Mogdure!”
Kaellor sighed. “I would advise you against invoking the god of death unless you plan to greet him in the Drift yourself.”
Elcid seemed once again bewildered by Kaellor’s calm banter. Even the man wielding the sword lowered his weapon and turned to Elcid for direction. The grimy leader seemed to assess their options for a moment, then screwed up his face in anger. “Get him!”
Everything happened all at once, but Bryndor kept his eye trained on Elcid. The leader stepped forward as the other three fanned out to circle Kaellor. A quick nicker from Kaellor directed his gelding to retreat a few steps, creating a bit more distance between him and the bandits.
As the thug with the sword strode forward, Kaellor flowed off the saddle with a lithe economy of motion. Once on the ground, he picked up a fistful of sand and tossed it at the man with the sword. The bandit grunted in surprise and staggered back with a wild swing of the weapon while rubbing at his eyes. Kaellor swept in low and thrust the knife up into the man’s chest. The thug grunted and dropped the short sword before crumpling to the ground.
Kaellor grabbed the sword just as the two younger men lurched forward into the melee. Kaellor shifted to his right, then cleaved the short sword into the shoulder and neck of the thug on that side. The man fell back, grabbing at the sword. Without pause, his uncle turned and threw his dagger at the last young man. The blade embedded into his chest, and the bandit stared dumbly at the weapon as he dropped to his knees.
From somewhere to the right, one of Lluthean’s arrows skittered harmlessly to the ground. Elcid had raised his knife and was prepared to join the fight, but upon seeing the arrow turned and ran toward Lluthean. His brother just stood there, casual as a house cat out for a stroll on the King’s Road.
Bryndor felt his body move as if by instinct. A small part of his awareness screamed from a corner of his mind. Is this really happening? Grind me straight to the Drift, Llu, what are you doing?
Bryndor rose and balanced his feet on the boulder, drew a deep breath, focused on Elcid’s back just between the shoulder blades, pulled the bowstring to his jaw, and in a fluid motion, released the arrow. He watched the shaft streak with an odd, slow purpose through the air.
The grimy man’s steps halted when the soft twang from Bryndor’s bow was followed by the eruption of an arrow from his chest. He fingered the bloodied tip of the barb in confusion, then turned to observe Bryndor standing on top of the large boulder.
Bryndor stared at the man down another arrow shaft.
When did I notch another arrow?
He waited to see if the man would take a step.
How many arrows does it take to bring a man down?
He released a second arrow, and it sunk deep into the man’s belly. The thug curled forward, then slumped to the ground, gasping with labored wheezing.
Bryndor looked to his uncle for direction. Kaellor took a moment to survey the surroundings. The muscled bandit twitched on his back in death. The two younger thugs stared with dead eyes at the sky. Bright red stains blossomed from the killing wounds on all three corpses. The fresh stink of excrement lingered in the air.
“A bad end for bad men,” said Kaellor, as he retrieved his knife.
Kaellor approached Elcid. The thug kneeled on the sand and struggled to reach his blade, which lay just beyond his reach. Kaellor bent down and placed the handle of the knife in the thug’s hand. The man grimaced with each shallow breath, and bright red bubbles frothed around the arrow exiting his chest. Pink and purple spongy lung tissue hung from the menacing barbs. Kaellor leaned in close, enduring the peppery stink.
“Though you likely deserve it, no man should suffer long in agony. I can help you or leave you to your misery. It’s your choice,” said Kaellor.
Defeated and panting in splinted breaths, the man nodded.
“Alright, then, are you ready?”
“Do it!” the man growled.
Without a word, Kaellor wrapped his hands around the bandit’s, holding him fast to the handle of the blade. He plunged the rusty knife hilt-deep into the left side of Elcid’s chest. The weapon entered with a crack, splitting a rib. The bandit grunted with wide-eyed surprise.
“It still takes a moment,” said Kaellor in answer to the man’s pleading silent question. After several seconds, the thug relaxed his grip, and his agony ceased.
Kaellor reached down and grabbed a handful of sand and the petals of a small pink wildflower. He rubbed his hands together vigorously to remove the lingering taint of the thug’s odor, then stood and waved his nephews over toward the broken carriage.
Lluthean gawked at the corpse of the last bandit. Bryndor thought it strange how fast all the color had drained from Elcid’s ruddy complexion. Though his eyes held no expression, his jaw muscles still moved as if the body was trying to draw breath.
“Is that normal, is he dead?” Bryndor asked cautiously.
“He’s well on his way. You did well; are you alright?” Kaellor asked softly.
Bryndor only shrugged and nodded, staring at the bloodied meat still clinging to the protruding barb. His arms felt suddenly very heavy. He became aware once again of his tunic sticking to the small of his back where an unnatural sweat gathered.
“Do they always smell that bad?” Lluthean asked, holding his nose.
“That’s not death on the man; he simply stinks,” Kaellor replied plainly.
Bryndor reached down to retrieve the errant arrow Lluthean had released. He considered the initial volley and wondered if his brother had lost his nerve. Lluthean was usually the better marksman with the bow. “Your aim seemed a little low, Llu?”
“After hanging onto you and the bows all the way here, my arms cramped up. I wasn’t certain I could make any shot, especially with all those moving targets. So I thought to at least get his attention, turn one to the side. He’s kind of a gangly fellow.” Lluthean smiled and placed the arrow back in his quiver. “So I thought to get him to turn a bit and give you a broad target. Besides, if I missed wide, I might have hit Kae. Where you stood, the shot was better.”
“The task is well begun, but not finished. Let’s see to any survivors.” Kaellor approached the carriage.
Kaellor cleared his throat. “You can come out now; it’s safe. You will come to no harm.”
A long moment of silence passed, so Kaellor stepped forward and tapped on the door. “My nephews and I travel to Hammond. Your escort is dead, and the King’s Road has proved a dangerous place. Why don’t you come on out and we can see you safely on.”
The carriage door creaked open, and a brown-eyed adolescent girl with dark skin stepped into the light but remained hesitant at the threshold. She twirled a nervous finger through black wavy hair, and the breeze caught at the hem of her delicate silken gown. “You will not hurt me?” she asked with a quivering lip.
Bryndor stared, shocked. He looked back at the corpse of the man named Elcid with renewed disgust. Then he wondered who might require such a large escort.
Kaellor took a knee, then spoke, “No child, we only came to help. I’m sorry for your loss. Is there anyone else with you?”
The girl nodded. “Yes, but I fear they are all dead. That man, the one you shot, he choked my governess blue, and now she’s dead.” The girl’s gaze lingered on the bloodied rubble. “Did none of them survive, not even my guardian, Lord Krestus?”
Kaellor sighed. “If Krestus wore a breastplate, then he died fighting to protect you, child, but not before he dispatched four of them.”
“Then, I really am the only one?” she whimpered as tears pooled in her eyes.
“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Kaellor replied. “My name is Kevold, and these are my nephews, Bryndor and Lluthean. We are surveying the King’s Road for King Vendal and travel to Hammond. What’s your name, child?”
The question gave the girl cause to attempt to regain her composure. She inhaled, stifling a sob. After a few moments, she wiped away her tears and stood taller in the threshold of the carriage. “I know who you are, my lord. You met my father only a few days back. My name is Lesand, youngest daughter of Duke Leland Braveska in Malvress and niece to His Majesty Vendal Braveska, high king of Hammond. I’m to spend summer at court and attend my aunt, the Queen Shellend Braveska.”
“Your father is Duke Leland?” Bryndor asked, now appreciating her resemblance to the younger brother of King Vendal.
“The king and queen will doubtless be concerned for your safety,” said Kaellor. “Why don’t you come along with us, and we’ll see you safely to your uncle?”
Lesand burst into tears, scurried over to Kaellor, and buried her face in his side. He endured her embrace with awkward silence for a few moments before patting her on the back. They all remained still until her sobs eased.
“Bryn, why don’t you and Llu retrieve our things and our wagon. I’ll stay here with Lesand until you return,” said Kaellor.
Happy to leave the carnage behind, Bryndor mounted Scout and pulled Lluthean up behind him. They allowed the old gelding to return to camp at an easy pace. He felt exhausted and shivered as the breeze caught at his sweat-soaked clothing. He rolled his shoulders, trying to release the sense of fatigue. Behind him, Lluthean repeatedly flipped a small, flat stone in the air with his thumb. As Scout stumbled on the uneven ground, the rock arced close to Bryndor’s cheek, but his brother snatched it from the air.
Bryndor readjusted his balance in the saddle and secured his bow across his lap. “You took quite a chance down there, trusting me with that shot,” he said.
“I don’t know that I had much of a choice. I spoke true when I said my arms were cramped,” said Lluthean in between flips. “But I think I just knew you would manage it. You always manage things when it comes right down to it. You always do what needs . . . doing, you know? I guess I figured it would be like that, and I was right.” Lluthean jabbed Bryndor’s ribs lightly, giving emphasis to his declaration and causing Bryndor to chuckle.
“Still, what were you going to do if I missed?” Bryndor asked. “Run away?”
“Well,” said Lluthean, “I only have to run faster than you. So yes, running could work, I suppose. I didn’t really have time to think about it. And thanks to you and Kae, I didn’t have to.” Lluthean flipped the stone a few more times, then stopped his repetitive game. “I’ve never seen him move like that. Kae, I mean.”
Bryndor nodded, chewing on his lower lip. “Me either. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, but Kae never relies on luck.”
“He moved so fast. First one, then the other,” said Lluthean. “It was like he had the whole thing planned out ahead of time, but that doesn’t make sense.”
“Sometimes things just have a way of working out, I guess,” said Bryndor.
“What was it like, Bryn? Shooting a man?” asked Lluthean.
They rode in silence for several minutes while Bryndor considered the question. “I don’t know. I mean, one moment, all I could think of was how shaky my hands felt. I’ve never felt my heart pound that way. But then the next moment, it looked like you could be in danger, so I made it all stop.”
“Made what stop?” Lluthean asked.
“All of it. The sweats, my racing heart, my hands. I just let it all go. Before I knew it, I had drawn and released. And that was that.”
Lluthean resumed his game of flipping the rock into the air. “We have to come up with a better story than that before we get home. You make it all sound pretty plain.”
Leave it to his brother to lift the conversation from a dark place. He loved him for that most of the time. “I don’t know that anyone will care to listen to the adventures of two relative strangers back home. But if it comes up, I’ll try to recount how brave you were to draw that bandit’s attention,” Bryndor said.
“And maybe don’t forget the bit about the king’s niece. Everyone loves a story where commoners rescue the nobility!” Lluthean flipped the stone once more, but this time Bryndor swatted it away, sending it skittering back down the trail.
“You’re hopeless, Llu,” he said. And we are not just commoners, but nobody else knows that.
“You’re supposed to catch the stone then flick it again. Like this,” said Lluthean. He flipped another rock up into the air and snatched it back. “Anyway, if you let me do the telling, I wager I could score a round of free drinks!”
“That’s if Aunt Rona will even let us go to the tavern again,” said Bryndor.
They reached the campsite, and Lluthean hopped down. He led his gelding over to the front of their wagon and retrieved the knotted tracings. He held the tangled mess for a moment and shared a look with Bryndor, who only arched an eyebrow in an expression of, “Don’t look at me!”
They spent the next half hour in companionable silence as Lluthean worked to untangle the mud-crusted leather bindings. Bryndor double-checked the placement of their belongings on the wagon, but his mind kept wandering. The late morning sun was warming their coastal camp, and short purple wildflowers carpeted the ridge. A magnificent hawk soared at the edge of the bluff, where the cliff dropped off to the King’s Road.
Normally, Bryndor could lose himself in that kind of beauty. But he returned again and again to the moment he stood on the boulder. He couldn’t seem to dismiss the lingering taint of excrement and blood from his awareness. He kept reliving the simple act of drawing his bow, aiming, the vibration of the bowstring and the slow, deliberate path of the arrow . . . then the abrupt way the man had lurched in surprise when the arrow struck.