Thomas Q. Miller
“Can’t trust them nobles,” Maikov shouted. Other men of the village voiced their agreement.
“I knew it for a fool’s errand when ya sent him,” Maikov continued, gesturing at young Braelyn.
Braelyn’s journey to the city of Restov had almost been for naught. Three days of hard riding had resulted in him sitting for as many in a packed antechamber waiting for an audience with the Lord Mayor. An aging Steward finally took pity on him and explained that unless he had news concerning the latest rumors on the looming civil war, he should return home. They would have to sort the trouble out themselves. The Lord Mayor had no men to spare.
Braelyn intended to do just that until he was approached by an aged warrior named Balaam and his strange proposal. A proposal resulting in a meeting with the Lord Mayor, but a very different one than Braelyn originally intended.
He told Elder Caleb that no help was coming from Restov. He now wished he had shared his other news as well.
“Seeking their help was the right thing to do,” Elder Caleb said, waving his arms in an attempt to quiet everyone.
Braelyn looked from Maikov to Elder Caleb, who stood under the large set of elk antlers hanging at the front of the gathering hall. The hall was packed, as every man in Ardenton had come when they heard Braelyn had returned.
Caleb looked like the god Erastil himself under those antlers. If everyone had been standing, as was proper at services to Old Dead Eye, Braelyn would have thought it was just another morning service.
“Least the lords in the River Kingdoms know the worth of their people!” Sergei called from one of the many benches. He had moved up north last season to start an orchard. He was hard working, but complained about everything from the soil to the aristocracy.
It was no secret that Sergei did not care for Elder Caleb or his way of running things. It was also no secret that Braelyn, Caleb’s son, and Sergei’s only daughter, Jenna, were in love. Braelyn suspected Sergei’s dislike for his father, as much as anything else, was the reason Sergei refused Braelyn’s requests to court Jenna.
“We need to hire professionals to deal with these bandits,” someone from the back of the hall shouted.
“Fish and mercenaries both stink after three days,” Caleb recited, quoting one of the many parables of Erastil. “Their kind are no more welcome than the bandits. They will charge us more than we have to pay and worse. What will you do when your children want to follow their example and set off to explore the world? Or if your daughters takes up with one of them?”
That quieted the hall. Maikov wore an expression like he just bit into something sour.
“Yes, the bandits took most of our winter provisions, but nobody was killed,” Caleb continued. “Those not robbed shared with those who were and we made it through winter under Erastil’s blessing.”
“Erastil helps those who help themselves. Isn’t that what you always preach?” Sergei said.
“What was all that training for if not for this?” someone added.
Caleb had spent long hours teaching those capable the basics of sword and bow. Braelyn looked forward to those afternoon lessons on the village green. Living on the southern border of Brevoy, the people of Ardenton had to be able to defend themselves.
“Listen to me. This is different. These are not just a handful of misguided men. You all know, as well as I do, what happened in Twillthorpe when they fought back,” Caleb said.
Braelyn had pushed that news to the back of his mind where it would not dissuade him. It crept out now and added knots in his already churning stomach. These bandits who raided out of the Greenbelt were organized now and would not be easily dealt with. But, what had been done at Twillthorpe could not go unanswered.
“If Restov will not send aid, then we should seek help from the Lords of Silverhall. Surely, one of the Noble Houses will help us,” someone said.
Braelyn felt Sergei’s eyes on him. His grip tightened on the rolled up parchment Balaam had given him. He had little doubt how the news it held and the decision he had made would be received.
As Caleb’s son and his acolyte, Braelyn was expected to agree with Caleb and put the needs of the community before his own. A part of him felt he was doing just that, but there was a thought tickling the back of his mind like a persistent child; it wasn’t the only reason.
Braelyn had rode straight to Caleb upon arriving in Ardenton. While Caleb gathered the men of the village, Braelyn had then sought out Jenna.
“Braelyn, your back!” Jenna said as she ran to the door of the little cabin. Old Sergei stopped her with a look as he continued to rock rhythmically on the porch in his old wooden chair.
“What’cha want?” Sergei said, his teeth clutching a thin reed pipe.
Braelyn slid out of the saddle and patted his horse. The feel of its muscles lending him strength.
“I have come to request permission to court your daughter.” The warmth of the smile his words brought to Jenna filled his heart.
“Same as I told ya, a’fore, the answer is no.”
“I have just returned with news from Restov.”
Sergei took a deep pull from his pipe and blew small smoke rings, patiently watching them drift apart into the wind.
“Expect you already shared this news with that mule headed Pa of yours?” Sergei finally said, squinting through the smoke puffed out with each word.
Braelyn nodded, ignoring the jab.
“Expect he’s going to gather us up fer a meeting?” Sergei continued.
Again, Braelyn nodded.
Sergei stopped rocking and stabbed his pipe at Braelyn.
“Expect he’s gonna tell us to do nothing and let the will of Erastil guide and protect us or some such foolishness,” Sergei said.
“I will not put words into Elder Caleb’s mouth, but he will look to the wisdom of Erastil in this as in all things,” Braelyn said with more than a bit of pride.
“Then you’re not telling me nothing I don’t already know, boy, so off with ya,” Sergei said, snapping his teeth down on his pipe and returning to his rocking.
Braelyn swallowed and unrolled the parchment. He glanced over the words he had read again and again during the cold ride from Restov. He then shared those words; words that not only brought old Sergei happily to the meeting, but also prompted him to agree to Braelyn’s request to court Jenna. Words that caused Jenna to burst into tears and run back into the house. His heart still ached at the thought of that being the last time he might see her, but she refused to come back to the door.
What Braelyn had not expected was that old Sergei would demand he share those words and his decision at the meeting. Braelyn wanted to find Caleb and speak with him first, but there had just not been enough time.
This would not come out right and Braelyn understood Sergei wanted it that way.
Braelyn stood and cleared his throat.
“Yes, son?” Caleb said from the front of the hall.
Braelyn stared at his father, but didn’t know how to start. He finally just unrolled the parchment and began to read. As he read aloud, his thoughts warred with each other. Was he doing this to protect his people? Was he putting their safety before his own? Or was this just some childish act of heroism to impress Sergei and marry Jenna? If he lived to see it through, of course. He was sure that was exactly what Sergei was betting against.
“Be it so known that Braelyn of Ardenton has been inducted into the Swords of Light by the Swordlords of Restov, acting upon the greater good and authority vested within them by the office of the Regent of the Dragonscale Throne,” Braelyn finished, his arms falling to his side.
Braelyn continually glanced across the room to Caleb looking for any reaction. He held a glimmer of hope for approval, but would have taken sadness or even outrage, anything other than the blank expression he was now enduring. Awkward silence filled the hall.
“The Swords of Light have been granted rights of exploration and with restoring justice to the Greenbelt in Brevoy’s name. High Captain Balaam and the Swords should be here by tomorrow. They have promised to help us with the bandits, Father!”
The men of Ardenton murmured amongst each other. The Swords of Light were a mercenary company known for two things, a firm belief in their own self righteousness and championing lost causes. The northern portion of the Greenbelt was only a days ride south of Ardenton. So, all who lived here were familiar with the scattered ruins of those who had tried and failed to claim the stony hills and fey-infested forests that made up the Greenbelt. The many faces in the hall were as easy to read as one of Caleb’s scrolls. If there was ever a more lost cause, it was trying to tame the Greenbelt.
“Don’t be a fool, Braelyn, the bandits will have your guts fer garters!” Maikov said.
Sergei was smiling and nodding as he watched Caleb out of the corner of his eye.
“I fer one am proud of the boy!” Sergei said, standing. “If he is willing to actually do something to protect this village then he has my respect and blessings to court my Jenna!”
“She’ll be wearing a black shroud a’fore a white one ever touches her head, mark me!” Maikov said.
“Enough!” Caleb shouted over the crowd.
“I would speak with my son on this.”
Sergei dropped back down on a bench and began taking out his pipe and pouch.
“Alone,” Caleb added. Though spoken softly, the word had no trouble traveling to the far corners of the hall.
The other men began shuffling out, some delaying long enough to give Braelyn a comforting squeeze of the shoulder or pat on the back. With a ominous thud, the door closed behind the last of them. He watched his father stalk toward him.
Right now, bandits were the least of Braelyn’s concerns.