Branston puts his escape in motion, and learns of the danger in the North.
The Things Lords Hear
Branston hit the snow as he was sent into the Second World. His hands bound tightly behind his back clutched the leather cord that held the saldacrosse.
Standing up, he smiled at his easy escape. While the soldier had put the rope to his wrists, he had turned a hand sideways. Now he twisted his palms until they touched, and slid out of the loosened constraint.
He let the coil of rope fall and took off sprinting forward, saldacrosse in hand. With the forest to his left and the river to his right, he measured the distance he ran. Blood dripped from his palms, a meager price for escape.
Twelve yards. Thirteen yards.
He slid to an unsteady stop, and wiped his blood from the fish pendant.
Then he was in his world. Men were shouting and rushing toward him from the sides and from behind, but it was Faldashir he focused on.
“Branston wha-” Faldashir shouted as Branston raked his nails across his face, and wiped the blood on the fish. Faldashir was gone. With a look for the soldiers, Branston wiped his blood across the left side. He was gone from the world.
As soon as he was in the Second World, he took to running, leaving Faldashir behind. The old man shouted after him, but he didn’t listen. He ran in long strides and measured his pace.
Six yards. Seven yards.
Skidding to a halt and turning to the trees, Branston wiped the blood off the left side of the stone, and was back in his world.
Olivar sat before him, soldiers bearing down on them. He scratched Olivar’s face and gathered the blood on the right side of the pendant, before applying his own blood to the left. The soldiers barely missed him as he was transported to the Second World.
Olivar stood up quickly, glaring at Branston with a hand cupped over the scratch on his cheek-bone. “What was that?” he snapped. He looked around, seeing the fog and the black wall. “Oh, not here again,” he moaned.
“Would you rather be a captive?” Branston huffed. He doubled over, careful not to wipe blood on his pants. His legs shook from exhaustion, his arms shook from fear.
“Branston!” Faldashir strode over and planted his feet in the snow, crossing his arms. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“I’m getting us out of there,” Branston replied, looking up at Faldashir. He broke into a grin. “It worked.” He laughed, and fell to his knees, sucking in deep breaths.
“Well, we better go, then,” Faldashir said.
Branston stood up and nodded. His heart was racing, but Faldashir was right, they couldn’t stop moving.
“What now?” Faldashir asked. His eyes were blazing and his mouth was twisted in a scowl.
“We go north,” Branston replied. “Like before.”
“But now we have no weapons, no horses, and no supplies,” Faldashir said grimly. “You didn’t think this through, did you?”
Branston met Faldashir’s eyes. “I was concerned with getting us away from those men.”
“Why?” Faldashir asked, spreading his arms. His glare looked more fierce coated in blood. “We were fine! They were taking us to Sal’Tathern. Even if the trip was slower, we had a force of soldiers protecting us from wraiths and soul-stealing arms. Now we have nothing!” Faldashir ran his hands through his hair with a curse.
“Something was in the woods behind us,” Branston said. But Faldashir was right; partly. “The horses were nervous, branches were cracking. I may have gotten us away from the wraith. Those soldiers may be dead now. Tyollis was ignoring me. He wasn’t concerned with the wraith, he would have tried to fight it if it came. We’ll run from it. Besides,” he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the coin purse filled with gold coins. “Tyollis didn’t take our money. A few of these coins will get us anything we need at the next town.”
There was a long silence before Faldashir spoke. “You are reckless, Branston. I wouldn’t have thought it until now, but you don’t think very far ahead, do you?”
Branston broke away from Faldashir’s gaze, and focused on the lights that spiraled in the distance.
“I can send you back, if you want,” he said at length, his voice level.
“No,” Faldashir said. “I don’t imagine we’ll be welcomed back. Let’s just go. I think there’s a town a few leagues east of here.”
Faldashir turned away, wiping at the blood on his face.
Branston followed, and Olivar kept close behind. Branston turned when Olivar tapped him on the shoulder.
“I wanted to say thank you,” Olivar said, not looking Branston in the eye. “I didn’t want to be a prisoner, so thank you.”
A light smile touched Branston’s lips. “You’re welcome.”
The group continued on into the trees, and kept up a quick pace. Branston’s legs were weary from the run, and his stomach growled eagerly.
He kept an eye out, peering into the darkness for signs of evil, though he could see nothing at a hundred paces. The ground was slush beneath their feet, telling of the coming spring, though the Second World felt colder than his own even in summer.
They crossed ten miles of hilly land, following Faldashir.
“I need a break,” Olivar said as he dropped down onto the trunk of a fallen tree. The others halted, and Branston took a seat next to Olivar.
Faldashir sat cross-legged on a rock and drew in deep breaths, a hand wandering absent-mindedly to his rib.
“Still hurts?” Branston asked. Faldashir nodded.
“I’m not sure I can go any further,” Olivar’s head sank into his hands, then he grabbed frantically at the red curls atop his head. “My hat! It’s gone!” He groaned and slid his hands down his face.
“How far until the town?” Branston asked.
Faldashir shrugged and stood gingerly. “I don’t think I can go much further, either. There should be a fortress around here. Let’s get to our world.” It was spoken as an order, not a suggestion.
Branston wrapped his fingers around the saldacrosse and scraped off the blood in one twist. As they entered their own world, the environment revealed itself. Trees surrounded them, as in the Second World, but here prints marked the snow. Deep boot-imprints crossed over each other, to their left rose a tall stone wall, with a portcullis flanked by stiff men holding spears. A glance showed that they bore the Yellow Bull of Dasoren on their thick gray gambesons.
“Hey! Stop there!” a guard shouted through the face-bars of his steel helmet. The soldiers pointed their spears, but they were a dozen feet away.
Branston raised his hands, and Olivar shot up from the fallen tree.
“How’d you get here?” one guard demanded, stepping forward. His thick fur cloak billowed in the wind, and his partner stepped forward at a quicker pace.
Faldashir strode forward and said, “I am an agent of King Dendlo of Veresses. We wish you no harm, and we ask your master for shelter.”
The guardsmen halted, and exchanged glances. “Do you have any weapons?” the one on the left asked.
“No, sir. No weapons.”
Branston slipped the leather cord of the saldacrosse over his head, tucking the fish under his coat.
The soldiers’ shoulders eased, and they planted the butt of their spears in the ground.
The one on the left said, “If you want to come in, I’ll have to make sure you got no weapons.”
Olivar spoke up before anybody else could. “Do you have beds?”
The guards looked to each other, and the man on the left said, “Yeah, we have beds. You gotta have coin to pay, I’m sure.”
Faldashir turned to Branston. “I have nothing to hide, and my legs are sore. I could use a rest.”
Branston nodded. He wanted to collapse on the spot. “We’ll allow your search, sir.”
The man handed his spear off to his partner and stepped forward. Branston stood rigidly with arms and legs spread as the man patted him down.
“We’ve found weapons in strange places before,” the soldier said with a chuckle. His hands patted Branston’s pocket, hitting the coin purse. The coins jingled, and the soldier froze, hungry eyes gazing at the pocket. But he moved on to Faldashir, and finally Olivar.
“Alright,” said the guard, stepping away and reclaiming his spear. “Come on in.” He turned and looked up the length of the wall. “Open up!”
Branston scanned the woods around them as the portcullis was raised. Hopefully the noise would draw no danger. They walked through the gateway after a grand gesture from a guard, and the portcullis closed behind them as they stepped into a courtyard.
The ground was cleared of slush here, though the stone was wet. A mansion sat on the far end of the courtyard, but the wall ran past it and out of sight.
Men walked the yard, in armor or not, all bearing weapons. Branston’s fists clenched, there had to be a hundred of them. Some men stood against the wall, speaking to each other, and as the portcullis settled closed, every eye in the yard turned to Branston and his friends.
A dozen of the soldiers strode to meet them, one man resting a bare sword emphatically on his broad shoulder.
It was he who spoke. “Who are you?” His round bald head swiveled as he looked each of the newcomers in the eyes.
“We’re travelers,” Faldashir said. No fear marked his voice, and his squared shoulders and high head showed confidence. “We wish to ask your lord for a place to sleep for the night.”
“And food,” Olivar muttered. His shoulders were drawn in, his head down.
“Yes, and food, if your master can spare it,” Faldashir said.
The large man nodded slowly. “You have money?”
Branston glanced at Faldashir. This sounded like a robbery-in-waiting.
“We have money,” Faldashir said.
The man let his sword drop and said, “Alright, follow me. I’ll take you to him.”
They followed the man and five others across the courtyard, toward the mansion. Branston kept his fists clenched as they walked, hiding the dragon marks. A cool wind blew across the yard as they reached the door, which was twice the size of the man.
He sheathed his sword and pulled the door open. “Wait here,” he said as they entered the building. Branston and the others stopped in the dooray, which was shut by one of the men. The dozen men who had followed them across the courtyard flanked Branston and the others, crossing their bulging arms and watching them closely.
The man strode down the red carpet that ran the length of the narrow room, past two roaring hearths on either wall, and came to a stop at the foot of the steps where sat two old men at a long table. Curtains of deep red covered the tall windows on the opposite end of the room, so only fire lit the place.
The man on the left end of the table looked to the guard. He scratched at his patchy gray beard with a hand shining with the grease of the pork before him, and fixed the guard in his gaze. Ire narrowed his sharp eyes, but he gestured with a frail hand for the guard to speak.
“We have guests, if you permit, my lord,” the guard said.
The old man turned his gaze to Faldashir. “Travelers, eh?” His voice was hoarse, as that of a man who smoked all his life.
Faldashir nodded. “We ask for beds, and food if they can be spared.”
“You got money?” the old man asked.
Branston looked around warily at the men who stared back.
“Yes, we have money,” Faldashir replied. He turned to Branston and said, “One coin should do, if I recall.”
Branston nodded and reached into the pocket of his coat. He made sure not to show his dragons, and fished for a coin carefully, not letting any coins jingle. Pulling out a gold coin, he gave it to a man who held out his hand. The bony man ran across the room and handed it to the lord.
The old man eyed it, and exposed his rotted teeth in an excited smile. “How many of you are there?”
“Three, sir,” Faldashir replied.
“Gimme two more of these and you all have a bed and food.”
Branston frowned sourly and pulled out two more gold coins. A guard ran them up to the lord.
The lord pocketed the coins and announced, “Anybody who’s not a guest, leave.”
The doors opened and the guards left, leaving Branston and his group alone with the lord and the other old man at the table, who had yet to say a word.
“Come, come.” The lord beckoned with a hand. “You payed for food, come eat!”
Faldashir was the first to go, looking like a lord himself, the way he strode confidently across the room. Branston and Olivar followed, and they took their seats near the center of the table.
Branston looked hungrily at the food before them. Plates of potatoes and chickens and sliced beef and pork spread across the grainy wooded tabletop, and bowls of berries and fruit and pitchers of wine as well.
“That is Commander Elser,” the lord said, gesturing across the table to the fat man at the other end.
“Pleasure, sirs,” the man said with a smile of broken teeth. His red face and bulbous nose suggested he was very accustomed to the wine goblet in his thick hand.
“And I am Lord Anher,” the lord tapped himself on the chest. “This is my land. And for what you payed, you are welcome in it.” He smiled and gestured spastically to the food. “Eat! It’s what you payed for, have at it.” Lord Anher put on a friendly smile, but Branston still hesitated before taking a slice of pork and chewing off a piece.
“Excuse me, sir.” Commander Elser leaned forward in his chair, his gut pressing against the table edge. He met Branston’s eyes and went on. “Were those dragons on your palm?”
Branston froze, and the only sound in the room was that off the crackling hearths and Lord Anher tearing apart a chicken wing.
“Yes, sir. It is.” Branston couldn’t hide it, and lying would do no good.
“Hold on.” Lord Anher dropped the split wing on the table and looked at Branston with his slanted eyes. “You’re a Dragon Guard?”
“Yes, sir.” Branston’s shoulders prickled.
“Should I be worried about a stray dragon down here?”
“No, sir. I’ve seen none.”
“So they’re still in the North?”
Branston nodded, “I believe so.”
Anher’s gaunt face grew blank, and Branston could see the man thinking, as if he were trying to put together a puzzle. “So, a Dragon Guard with no dragon, this far south. You running from the madness up there?”
“That’s where we’re headed,” Branston said, taking a large bite of pork as an excuse not to talk.
Faldashir poured himself a goblet of wine and turned to Anher. “What madness is in the North, lord?”
Anher peeled meat from the bone of the wing and swallowed it after two hasty bites. “Spirits, mainly.” He gazed at a hearth, and the flame blazed in his distant eyes. “And other things. Wraiths have come through to our world, so some say.”
“And I say it as well,” Commander Elser said, pouring wine for himself. “It came on us, and we barely fought it back.”
Anher barked a hoarse laugh and pointed a small bone at the commander, though he looked at Faldashir. “This one claims to have survived a wraith attack. It’s why he’s here.”
“My men need their rest, and we’ll be back out there looking to finish the thing off,” Elser boasted.
Anher shook his head. “Not gonna happen. You’ll die, and your men will, too.” He said it as if it were a certainty
Anher picked up an apple and continued. “Stay here. Live. I plan to bleed my supplies dry and find the closest ship off this dying continent.”
“That’s a bit hasty, lord,” Faldashir said. Banston took a sip of wine, his throat had gone dry in the last minute. Was the man exaggerating, or was it really that bad in the North?
“No,” Anher shook his head. “It’s not. Things are coming back which haven’t been seen in thousands of years, and I’ll bet you anything this world will not survive it. You do know what’s in the North, don’t you? You know what will be the doom of us? Have you heard of the Carlassen Army?"
"No, sir," Faldashir said. "I've never heard of that."
"Well," Anher spread his hands. "That one's a rumor, and I know nothing about it. All I know is it's a strange army, and I don't intend to be in its path when it comes."
Branston set down his goblet and turned to Anher. “What things have returned?”
Anher leaned back in his chair, his gaze on the high ceiling. “Second World dragons, some say. Others say that Iguidrim himself has returned.” He leaned forward and placed his elbows on the table, peering at Branston. “That goes to show how good messengers can be.” He laughed and poured a goblet of wine.
“You have spies in Takinthad?” Faldashir asked. Did admiration tinge his voice?
Anher nodded with the goblet to his lips; wine spilled down his chin and splashed onto his filthy brown coat. He placed the goblet on the table and turned his gaze to Faldashir. “Yes, I do. In Takinthad, and in Margolad. Even as far as Canderale.”
“Canderale!” Faldashir smiled, and grabbed a plum. “What news is in Canderale that’s worth putting men on a boat?”
“Nothing,” Anher said with a crooked smile. “Nothing but political squabblings among entitled lords’ boys. But that’s what was up in Takinthad ‘til a few weeks ago. You never know, maybe our savior will show up in Canderale with an army of wizards at his back, come to conquer the evil in the north. Then my spies will mean something, won’t it?” Anher laughed, a terrible cackling sound, and Commander Elser joined in, though his was a booming guffaw.
Branston exchanged worried glances with Olivar. Was Anher mad?
“So,” Anher’s laugh died suddenly, but his smile lingered. “You said you want food, you have it. Is it to your liking?”
“Yes, lord,” Faldashir said with a smile and a nod. “Very much so.”
“And you?” Anher looked to Branston.
“And you?” Finally, his gaze fell on Olivar.
Olivar mumbled and nodded. Anher’s smile faltered, and he ran his teeth over his bottom lip. “Don’t be afraid of me, boy. You payed well, you’ve behaved yourselves, you’re safe in my home.”
“Thank you, lord,” Faldasdhir said.
Branston’s eyebrows raised. Faldashir knew what he was doing! The old man was playing Anher like a puppet.
Anher nodded to Faldashir, and said, “Will there be anything else you gentleman will be needing?”
“Horses,” Faldashir said. “And weapons. We can pay, if the price is right.”
Anher perked up in his chair. “You–“
“’xcuse me, lord.” Elser leaned forward, his gut pressing against the table ridge. “Horses and weapons are mine. You had neither of these when I arrived but for your personal guardsmen.”
Anher sank back in his chair, flicked a hand, and was silent.
Faldashir and Branston turned to Elser, and Faldashir spoke. “So, you’re willing to sell weapons and horses to us?”
“Yes,” Elser said slowly, “What will you be needing?”
“Three horses. A bow and full quiver, I’ll want to look at those. I’m sure the others will need weapons, as well.”
Branston nodded when Faldashir looked his way, and Olivar said, “I want a knife.”
“What kind of knife?” Elser asked.
Olivar looked up from his half-eaten plum and peered at the curtained window. “I don’t know. I don’t know much about knives.”
“I’ll want a sword,” Branston said. “But if it’s all the same to you, I’ll want to look at your weapons, and judge for myself.”
Elser bowed his bald head and said, “Anything else, sirs?”
“We’ll need food for the road.” Faldashir looked to Anher just as the lord perked up in his chair. “And I assume that will be your business.”
Anher grinned and took up a slice of pork. “Yes, it will.” He took a snapping bite and swallowed after a few chomps. “But it’s getting la–“
The large door at the other end of the room opened, and in walked the large man that had escorted Branston and the others. “Another guest, sir, if you’ll see him.”
“Well,” Anher dropped his pork on a plate full of similar cuts and gestured with a hand. “Bring ‘em in.”
Branston turned in his chair to see the door as the man exited. A moment later he returned with the guest. Branston snatched a slim jagged knife off the table and leapt to his feet, and Faldashir stood with a knife in each hand.
Commander Tyollis stood in the doorway, his eyes on Branston.
“You!” the man barked. The sound rang through the room. “Lord Anher, this man is an escaped prisoner of mine. All three are.”
Branston turned to Anher, who held a mirth-less smile on his face. Branston's eyes flicked to Tyollis, noting that his scabbard hung empty from his waist.
“My lord,” Branston said. “We’ve committed no crimes, this man was holding us ille–“
Anher raised a bony hand, then stood, his eyes on Tyollis. “You bear Takinthad marks on your coat, but you’re in Dasoren. This is my land, and these men are under my roof.”
Tyollis stepped forward, but Anher’s doorman gripped his arm. Tyollis froze in place, but a vengeful sneer touched his face. He looked to Anher and spoke loud and clear. “If you don’t hand these men over, you will make powerful enemies.”
“Well.” Anher strode to the edge of the top step and clasped his hands behind his back. “You are a long way from your king. Who has bigger problems, by the way. So, you are going to threaten me in my home, far from any help that cares about you. Do you think you are going to win this?”
Tyollis wrenched his arm from the doorman’s grip. Branston’s knuckles turned white around the knife.
Tyollis crossed his arms and said, “I have a large force outside your walls. I gave them specific orders: If I don’t return in half an hour, they will storm this place. If you kill me, you will die before you see the sun.”
Branston looked at the back of Anher’s head and said, “He told me he had four hundred men.”
Anher laughed, his cackles bounced off the walls and gave Branston shivers.
“Commander Elser, come to my side, please.”
The fat commander stood and obeyed.
Anher placed a hand on the taller man’s back. “This man has brought me six hundred men. All ready for combat and very bored. If you choose to speak again, keep that in mind.”
Tyollis shut his mouth, and his arms fell to his sides. “You won’t give them to me?”
There was a pause, and Branston’s breath froze. But Anher finally spoke.
“You will not get these men.”
Tyollis’ mouth twisted sourly, but he eventually said, “I didn’t come for them, anyway; just an accident. Why I came was to ask something of you. My men and I need a place to stay. We need rest–“
Anher held up a hand, and Tyollis was silent. The old lord chuckled, and the raspy, malicious sound of it made Branston shudder.
“You want to threaten me,” Anher said mockingly, “Then you ask to stay in my castle? Go on!” He flailed an arm is dismissal. “Get off my land, and don’t stop ‘til your out of the country!”
Tyollis opened his mouth but the doorman took him by his neck and spun, thrusting him out the door. The large doorman left the building and slammed shut the door.
The men gone from sight, Branston smiled. “Thank you, Lord Anher.” He turned and placed the knife on the table, taking in a deep breath. He caught Faldashir’s stare, and the man had a smile in his eyes if not on his lips.
“You're welcome, young man.” Anher turned back to the table and clasped his bony hands together. “Never liked the Takintites. Bunch o’ power stingy men who want the world in their palms.” Anher froze and looked toward Branston’s hands. “No offense to you. But you don’t look like a Takinthad man. You look like a Margolad man, in fact.”
Branston sank into the high-backed chair as Anher and Elser made their way to their own. “My mother was from Margolad,” Branston said. “My father was a Takinthad lord.”
“Ah.” Anher’s chair scraped across the stone floor, and the lord took his seat. “Eat up, this food isn’t going to waste.” He flicked a wrist toward the table and picked up a pork slice.
Once everybody was back in their seat, Branston dug into an apple, savoring the sweet juices. For a few hours the men ate, though Olivar glanced toward the door now and then.
“He isn’t coming back,” Anher said a couple hours after Tyollis’ departure. “And if he does, I’ll kill him.” There was joy in that statement.
Another hour passed, and Branston slumped in his chair. “I’m sorry, Lord Anher, I can’t eat any more.”
Anher dropped a chicken bone on the table and said, “That’s fine. I assume you’ll be wanting to go to bed then?”
Branston nodded. His eyes were heavy, and the warm room and roaring fires didn’t help the matter.
Faldadshir stood, pushing his chair in. “I am ready for sleep as well. Thank you Lord Anher, you’re a gracious host.”
Anher barked a laugh, and bits of meat flew off his tongue. “Gracious! Never been called that before. Speak to my doorman, sir. He’ll take you to your beds.” The way Anher looked to his goblet as he poured was a picture of finality. Branston stood; the man would likely say no more.
Olivar dropped a chicken wing and stood, taking a rushed gulp of wine before setting the goblet on the table and following Branston and Faldashir across the room.
Leaving the building, the tall bald doorman looked to Faldashir, who told him Anher’s orders.
The doorman raised an eyebrow, and peered through the doorway, before nodding and pulling the door closed.
“Follow me, sirs,” he said, turning and heading for a building on next to the mansion.
This was a low stone building, with barred windows and a single door. As they entered, Branston gaped. The building was long, the walls lined with men laying either on bedrolls or cold stone. Most were crammed side-by-side, and some were sprawled across the center of the room. Here and there chamber pots gave off fetid odors, and on the far end of the dozen-yard room, a steady trickling could be heard coming from a man who stood with his back towards the newcomers. Snoring permeated the room, some dry, some wet, and in places men coughed.
Olivar whispered a curse, and put a hand to his nose.
Branston nodded agreement, wrinkling his nose and scanning for a spot that held no men.
The doorman chuckled. “You met Commander Elser; these are his men.” He gestured grandly over the room. “Come on, I’ll help you find a spot.”
They stepped over the men who lay in the center, and passed a pair who spoke in whispers to each other. Branston searched, his eyes peering through the moonlight that lit the place.
He rubbed furiously at his nose; the smell alone could keep him awake!
“Rank, ain’t it?” the doorman said with a grin. “Here.” He gestured to a spot at the far end of the room, and put his hands on his hips. “It’ll be a tight fit, if you insist on being close, but it’s better than nothing, right?”
With that, the man walked away, chuckling to himself.
Branston's scowl was broken by a yawn. He spread out on the hard stone floor as much as he could, and rested his head on his arm. Faldashir and Olivar lied down on either side of him, and sleep slowly took him.
END OF CHAPTER TEN