Branston deals with an enemy, and plots escape.
In Their Midst
“What’s going on here?” The words rang out amidst the dozens of other men shouting for answers. The question silenced them.
Branston met the eyes of one of the soldiers, who glared back fiercely. It was the soldier who answered the question.
“These men showed up out of nowhere, sir.”
Off in the gloom a man rode slowly through the throng of horses and soldiers while other heads further back turned to see the commotion.
“Make way,” the man said. “Make way, make w- Move!”
Horses were led from the man’s path, and Branston spotted the cylindrical helmet of a Takinthad captain. Soon they were face to face, with many points of steel digging into Branston’s back and chest.
“What are you doing here? How did you get here?” the man asked behind the bars of his helmet. He looked at Faldashir and Olivar, whose faces were pale and wide-eyed; Faldashir looked ready to fight, with his straight back and squared shoulders. Olivar was stiff, his shoulders near to his head as spears poked his back.
The captain looked back to Branston, probably assuming him the leader. “Well?”
Branston wet his arid mouth and managed, “We came from the Second World.”
The captain scowled from behind the bars, and his eyes widened. “So you’re a spirit? Are you the wraith that’s prowling this land?” He was calm, and confidence marked his voice, not fear.
“No...sir.” Branston still couldn’t believe this. Why had this happened! “I used magic and –“
“What’s that?” the captain raised a gloved finger to the saldacrosse that hung in Branston’s hand.
“It’s what I used to –”
The captain snatched it from his hand, and eyed it. Then he looked to Branston’s hand, and his eyes widened further.
Branston pulled his arm away, but wasn’t as quick as the captain. He was in the man’s tight grip, his exposed palm thrust skyward. The moon illuminated the dragon mark.
The man cursed behind his helmet. His cold blue eyes met Branston’s. “What are you doing out here?”
“You know me?” Branston’s voice shook, and he couldn’t help it.
“No, not you. But I know what you are.” He looked down at the dragon again. Other soldiers leaned forward in their saddles to look as well.
“What are you doing out here, Guard?” the captain asked. “Your place is back in Sal’Tathern.”
Branston’s breath shuddered. “That’s where I was headed.” He shifted against the sword-points in his back, and his horse neighed and stomped to ward off the closer animals.
“Really? I doubt it,” the captain replied. “You look like a man caught in a trap.” He seemed to delight in this, crooked teeth bared and eyes like that of a hunter catching prey.
“I just escaped from a wraith,” Branston replied, trying to to make his voice still. “And so did they. We lost a man.” He pointed with his free arm to his partners, and the steel-tips pressed harder. He winced and lowered the arm.
The captain released his hand and looked to Faldashir and Olivar. Faldashir’s face was blank now, though Olivar still quivered. “Is that true?”
“Yes, sir,” both men said in unison.
“And are either of you a Dragon Guard? Or is it just this one?”
Olivar was silent.
How to get out of this? Branston looked around, seeing the trees on either side. They must be on the road. Soldiers watched closely; likely the whole company-–however large it was–-was giving their full attention to Branston and the others. There was no escape. Not now, anyway. They would be swarmed if they hiccuped, the way they were being watched.
“Looking for something?” the captain asked.
Branston smoothed his face and met the other man’s stare. “We’re only five miles from where the wraith attacked us. It’s fast, it could be on us at any time.”
The captain stuffed the fish pendant in his pocket, his eyes locked with Branston the whole time.
“You’re right.” He looked to a soldier. “Get some rope, enough to bind three men. Everybody get ready to move!”
Soon, Branston’s hands were bound to the saddle, with rope linking his belt to three other horses. There really was no escape. Faldashir and Olivar were tied in the same way..
“This one’s got the dragons,” a soldier called out. Olivar cursed and begged for mercy.
“I won’t hurt you,” the captain said, riding to Olivar’s side. “You’ll come with us, and we’ll see what two guards were doing out here. You,” he pointed to Faldashir, “show me your hands.”
Faldashir exposed his palms as best he could with wrists bound. No dragons marked his skin.
“Good.” The captain rode to Branston’s side. “You’ll ride up front with me, and you’ll fill me in.”
Branston followed the captain as he rode through the shifting company of Takinthites, the three ‘anchors’–as the captain called them–followed, giving warning glares to Branston. Their eyes bore into him, and he did his best to ignore them.
Moving through the crowd of horses and men proved difficult, as the ropes that ran between Branston and his anchors meant the others had to move a good distance, rather than the few inches they shuffled out of the captain’s way. On their leader’s orders, a dozen soldiers rode out into the woods, illuminated by the glow of lanterns. Another dozen rode ahead down the road marred by wagon wheels and horse-prints, and the occasional bootprints.
“We’ll spot your wraith, if it comes,” the captain said. He removed his helmet, and Branston gaped. The left side of the man’s shaved head bore pink scar tissue. An eye-patch wound around his head, covering the ear. He looked to Branston and smiled proudly. “A cavalry-man sliced me open before I could get my helmet on, and I kept fighting. Killed him, actually.” His proud voice turned grim and threatening. “So don’t think you can escape. You or your friends.” He cupped hands to mouth and bellowed "Let's ride!"
As they rode, the ropes bound to his belt tugged in various direction. He swayed in his saddle as if on a ship. Where had he heard that story about the captain? He could swear he’d heard it bef – Oh.
“So you’re Tyollis?” he asked the captain.
The other man nodded slowly, a smile stretching his scar. “Yes, you’ve heard of me?”
His smile deepened. “What have you heard?”
Branston cleared his throat. With this man their captor, escaping was near to impossible. “I heard you’re the best swordsman of the North. That you’ve mastered cavalry, archery, and that you’re a smart person, not to be fooled.” Very difficult.
Tyollis nodded, his smile never faltering. “You know me well. Good. Now, tell me about yourself. What are you and another Guard doing so far south?”
Branston found it hard to think, being pulled as he was. He gripped the saddle-pommel he was tied to, and stared ahead at the soldiers bathed in orange glow.
“I ran from Takinthad three years ago. After Sal’Tathern was burned.”
Tyollis smile melted away. “You’re one of them.” Them was filled with contempt. “And the other?”
“I think he ran away recently,” Branston said. His shoulders prickled, Tyollis had a reputation for being harsh to his enemies. “We were heading back to Takinthad.”
“Oh?” Tyollis laughed, and tugged at his gray-streaked beard. “That’s convenient. Why were two runaways heading back then?” He met Branston’s eyes, his analytical gaze unrestrained.
“We heard about the things happening in the North,” Branston replied. Why was it difficult meeting the other man’s eyes? “We heard the dragons fled north, and the armies of Dasoren are following. We decided we were needed there.”
Tyollis’ eyes remained locked on Branston’s, weighing him and his words. “Fine,” he said. “But how can I know you’re telling the truth?”
“I thought you could tell a lie from truth.”
“I’ve got to meet my equal some time,” Tyollis said. “If I accept that I can spot any lie, how many do you think I’ll miss?”
Branston nodded, his heart no longer raced, and even the shaking in his arms was calming. “So what do you think of my story?”
“I think it’s truth.” Tyollis looked ahead. “On your part, anyway. The other Guard...I don’t know. He hid who he was, that doesn’t sound like a man ready to help.”
Branston was silent.
Tyollis looked sidelong at him, his eyes unreadable. “Speak. What’s your opinion on the other Guard?”
“He seems cowardly,” Branston replied, “I don’t think he’ll do well when it comes time to fight.”
Tyollis sighed through his nose. “Luckily he can hide behind a dragon.”
Branston could not figure out this man’s mood. He had to be leading Branston into something, but what? And how could they escape? He looked around at the sparse trees on either side, the orange glow was farther away now. The soldiers were straying.
“How about the old man?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Branston’s gaze snapped back to Tyollis.
“What’s your opinion on the old man?”
“He’ll fight, when the time comes. I’m certain,” Branston replied.
“So, we’ll make it to that war?”
Tyollis nodded, and the moonlight reflected off his scarred skin. “I’ll make sure of it.”
“Did Krassos send you to get us?” Had they been running for nothing? If they were all heading to the same place, it was better to have a force of soldiers accompanying. If Tyollis could be trusted.
“No, not to get you.” Tyollis never turned his head to face Branston, he didn’t even seem concerned with what might lurk in the woods. “We came to act as an escort to King Julionne. The man had already left the capital, on his way to Takinthad. So we were rerouted to retrieve something in this area.”
“And you found it?”
Tyollis nodded faintly, a dip of the head. “Yes, we did. And now we’re returning. With two Dragon Guards in tow.” He did look at Branston then, and his eyes shone with pride, maybe. Branston frowned quizzically, did he see regret in the man’s eyes?
“How many soldiers are in this force?” Branston asked, after a long silence filled with the dissonant beat of horses’ hooves.
“Four hundred.” Tyollis looked away, and for the first time peered into the woods.
“And how long will it take to reach King Krassos?”
Tyollis’ eyes moved back and forth before he said, “Three weeks, I imagine. As long as nothing detours us.”
“My friends and I can make it in two,” Branston said. “I think tomorrow you should let us go, and we can go on ahead and collect the dragons.” His shoulders clenched waiting for the response.
Tyollis barked a laugh, and spoke with a smile on his face. “Oh yeah? No. You’ll be coming the whole way with us. I don’t trust you not to run off, so I’ll be keeping an eye on you and your companions. We’ll arrive at the same time, and do what our king commands us.”
“So we’re prisoners?”
“If that’s how you want to look at it.” The smile slid from his face, leaving it blank; unreadable. “Now,” he reached into his pocket and pulled out the stone fish pendant. “What is this?”
“That is what I used to show up in your force.” Branston was beginning to form a plan of escape. “It allows me to go into the Second World, and when I came out, I was here.”
“Ah, a saldacrosse,” Tyollis said, holding up the pendant and eyeing it. I’ve used one of these before, mine was a rabbit’s foot.” Then he looked at Branston, and his brow drew down in suspicion. He slipped the pendant back in his pocket and was silent.
Branston found himself staring at the pocket, his eyes locked on the bit of cord that hung out. It got him in, and it could get him out. But how to get it from Tyollis?
By force wouldn’t work. Chainmail jingled under his surcoat, and he was a large man, near a foot wider than Branston in each direction. Force wasn’t an option.
He couldn’t simply snatch it from the man’s pocket, he was bound to the saddle-pommel. He tore his gaze from Tyollis’ pocket, in case someone were suspicious.
Branston grimaced, he didn’t think he could leave behind Faldashir and Olivar. He felt the need to save them as well. It just may be possible…
He turned in his saddle–-difficult with his arms bound and his belt roped to five other riders-–and saw Faldashir, sitting in his saddle bound as Branston was. But where was Olivar? The line of soldiers stretched back far, he could be hidden among them.
“Turn back around,” a soldier snapped, giving a tug of the rope that linked Branston’s belt to the soldier’s saddle. He obeyed, having gotten the information he needed.
Faldashir was probably fifty yards away; that might work. Measure distance, his father had said about traversing the Second World. If he could get there, and cross the distance, and appear next to Faldashir, he could take him. Getting under those ropes would be difficult, and there was always the chance he would re-enter this world where something already existed, and then he would die. So the horses proved an obstacle as well. He turned again, spotting Faldashir. He couldn’t make out the old man’s face in this light, but he hoped Faldashir wasn’t giving his captors trouble.
“Turn around!” the soldier reiterated.
Branston looked to the man. “I need water, please.”
The soldier leaned forward and tipped his canteen into Branston’s mouth. He drank the frigid water, and turned back in his saddle. He had gotten a good look at the landscape, in that turn. Fifty yards to Faldashir, turn right, six yards till he came off the road and stopped before the treeline. That would be the spot to search for Olivar.
Branston sighed, his breath icing before his face. Once he got the saldacrosse from Tyollis, the soldiers would become alert, if not frantic. They would ruin his calculations.
“Tell me about the wraith,” Tyollis said.
Branston's stomach lurched at the force in Tyollis' command. “It’s fast. It killed one of my companions. We managed to escape into the Second World, and it didn’t follow, as far as I know.”
He shivered; the look of pain on Vigo’s face had been terrible.
“Clever,” Tyollis said with a nod. His tone and his face were unreadable. “Do you doubt my force could kill it?” He looked at Branston with a thick eyebrow raised.
“I think you will all die if it comes.” Branston met his gaze, unflinching under the captain’s scowl. “My friend, the old one, is an archer. I’ve seen the shots he can make. The wraith dodged his arrow, and it didn’t break a stride.”
Tyollis nodded, and looked away without a word.
They continued on, hundreds of hooves striking the ground and pounding the snow to slush, the sounds loud in the night. The wraith would find them, Branston was sure. With the trail they were leaving behind and the sounds they were making, it would come.
He looked to the woods on either side, seeing the bobbing lantern lights and the soldiers keeping a vigilant watch.
Hours passed slowly, and Branston’s eyes grew heavy. When was the last time he had decent sleep?
“Let’s steer toward the river!” Tyollis shouted, and soldiers farther back in the line carried the order.
“Wait.” Branston sat up straight in his saddle. Had he been falling asleep? “The wraith attacked us at the river.”
Tyollis didn’t look at him, but watched the treeline. “Whether it’s there or not, our horses need water, and we need food.” He steered off the road, into a space that held few trees. The path was clear but for a stray log or jagged rock jutting up. The ropes tugged on Branston’s belt in various directions as the company turned, and he had to grip the saddle-pommel tight to keep from falling off.
Branston stole a glance of Faldashir, seeing he was well and complacent, the way he sat staring at his saddle. Branston didn’t doubt the old man was watching everybody from beneath his thick white eyebrows.
He even got a glimpse of Olivar, further back. The young man was crying, maybe. The sky was turning gray as the moon drifted toward the horizon and the sun emerged, but the light was faint.
As they entered the trees, the company compacted into a tighter formation, and the ropes no longer pulled on Branston’s belt. He looked around for the wraith, peering at every tree and every rock. Within an hour they came to the other side of the trees, and found the river. It was a good sixty yards from the trees to the water, and the undisturbed snow told Branston that no creature had been here. So was it the arms or the wraith that was keeping the animals from showing up? Branston yawned, and Tyollis laughed.
“We won’t be stopping at any inn, you know,” the commander said as he lead his horse towards the water. He dismounted and handed his reins to a soldier. He approached Branston and grabbed the ropes binding Branston’s hands.
Branston rubbed his wrists once the bindings were gone, but watched Tyollis closely.
“Go on,” Tyollis said. “Take off your belt and climb down.”
Branston did so, slowly. He dismounted, never looking away from Tyollis’ vigilant gaze. Standing before him only proved the commander’s size; he was looking up at Tyollis once his feet were on the ground.
Tyollis put his large hands on his hips and said, “If you try to escape, I will cut off your feet.” He looked to Branston’s boots. “You don’t need those to control dragons, now do you?”
Branston was silent, and smoothed his face before Tyollis could see the fear. “What am I doing down here?” he asked the man.
Tyollis gestured toward the river. “Drink.” It was spoken like a friendly suggestion.
Branston hesitated, then knelt down before the slow current and extended his head toward the water. A horse stood on either side of him, lapping up the water with long tongues, drops of the frigid water hit him in the face. Behind him, Tyollis and a few others snickered.
Branston stood quickly, and turned around. “I’m not thirsty.” There was no hiding the anger in his voice.
Tyollis removed a hand from his crooked lips and grabbed a canteen off his horse’s saddle. “Here.” His voice cracked with restraint. Branston took the canteen and Tyollis turned away, his smile breaking just before his back was turned.
That made a few other soldiers roar with laughter. How could these men be laughing? This wasn’t funny anyway!
Branston drank from the canteen. He lied, he was thirsty, and the water was cool on his dried throat.
When the canteen was back in Tyollis’ hands, Branston asked, “How is it you can be laughing? Right now doesn’t seem the best time for it.”
With just a hint of a smile, Tyollis answered. “Because if we didn’t laugh, we would be miserable people moping about what isn’t happening. We have fun when we can, but we’re not ignoring the threat. Come with me.” He turned and Branston followed, his shoulders prickling. They left the line of soldiers and horses who crowded the riverbank and Tyollis gestured grandly toward the trees. Or the men patrolling the trees.
“I’ve got men keeping an eye out,” he said. “And look that way, you’ll see I’ve got men watching there, too.” Branston did look, and saw soldiers sitting atop horses looking toward the direction the wraith should come from. Those soldiers held nocked bows, and lances stuck point-first in the ground.
“Everything is under control,” Tyollis said. “If something comes, we’ll know it. Why not have fun while we’re alive and not fighting?” Tyollis stepped forward and lowered his voice. “I know the joke was at your expense, but it was just funny seeing you try to drink like a horse. We couldn’t help it.” He cracked a smile. “So, since we’ll be traveling together for weeks, shouldn’t we not be grim? Wouldn’t it be nice to not jump at every shadow? Relax, and this trip will be a lot better for it. You know, you never told me your name.”
“My name is Branston. And I can’t relax. Why would I want to? To laugh? I don’t care to laugh, I’d prefer to watch the shadows, and know what’s happening. If your watchers over there–” he gestured to the men on horses, “– are killed, would you know? I don’t think you would until it’s too late. Because you would be laughing at something.”
Tyollis’ face was cold, his square jaw stiff, and his eyes distant. “Fine.” His voice was expressionless. “If that’s how you want to be, fine. You can be miserable if you want.”
He strode passed Branston without a word, and Branston followed.
“Can I see my friends?” Branston asked as they came to the water.
Tyollis turned and put his hands on his hips. “All right, but I’ll be there as well.” He looked to a soldier and said nothing, and the soldier nodded and handed his horse off to somebody else before walking away.
“Sun’s coming up,” Tyollis said with a look to the sky. With a look for Branston he said, “If you don’t want to have fun at least enjoy this: it’s a warm morning, isn’t it? Can you enjoy that?”
The air was warmer, if still a cool. Dozens of plumes of icy breath filled the air, but the morning was warmer than in the past.
Branston nodded. “I suppose I can enjoy that.” The sun peaked through the trees on the other side of the broad river.
Within minutes the soldier returned with Faldashir and Olivar at his side. They were unbound and unharmed as far as Branston could tell. Olivar had tear-stains lining his cheeks, and Faldashir held a blank look.
“Have you been hurt?” Branston asked them.
Olivar shook his head with a snivel, and Faldashir spoke. “No. How about you?”
“I’m fine,” Branston said with a nod. He gestured to the commander. “This is Tyollis. He said we’ll be accompanying him to Takinthad.”
“That’s right,” Tyollis said with a smile that exposed his broken teeth.
“So,” Olivar sniveled. “So..you’re not going to kill us?”
“No, no,” Tyollis waved a large hand. “Though I did say I would cut off your feet if you tried to run. Although –” he looked to Faldashir, “–you may need your feet to fight. I’ll probably cut off something else.”
Faldashir didn’t respond, but Olivar began to choke.
“Air, not spit!” Tyollis said as Olivar coughed into his fist.
Faldashir winced when Olivar turned to him and coughed, but otherwise he was like stone: still and silent.
Branston stood with his eyes averted while the soldiers chuckled at Olivar’s struggle. Eventually Olivar sucked in air.
“I won’t run,” he croaked. “I don’t imagine I’d get far.”
Tyollis nodded, his smile disappearing. “Well, good. Finish up so we can go. You three will be separated for the whole trip.”
Olivar was looking at Branston, and Branston looked away.
“Maybe it won’t be bad,” Branston said, looking to Tyollis. “If we behave, you’ll get us to Krassos unharmed?”
Tyollis nodded. “I swear it.”
Branston looked at Olivar and Faldashir, meeting their eyes. Olivar nodded, and Faldashir averted his eyes.
“Then we’ll behave,” he told Tyollis.
“Good.” Tyollis clapped his hands, his leather gloves smacking together. “Then we should move out.”
As Branston’s companions were led away, he climbed into the saddle. On Tyollis’ insistence, he put on his belt and the soldiers made sure the ropes were fastened.
As the company mounted and rode for the trees, Branston looked to Tyollis’ pocket. The leather cord of the saldacrosse was no longer visible, but that didn’t make it any harder to get to it. For now, he would have to bide his time.
Tyollis’ guard should be down now, at least a little.
END OF CHAPTER EIGHT