The new temple to Iomedae was perhaps one of the more extravagant in the city of Tuskendale. Built of stone and metal ore brought up from the mining roads in the south, it was a solid, imposing structure, meant to evoke the weight of duty bringing the light of justice. Beyond a heavy stone wall, the temple opened up into a wide sanctuary that doubled as a training and proving ground. The roof was fitted with numerous skylights that could be opened to allow light and air to flow down from above like the breath of the goddess herself. All around were silver trim and red flourishes, many that mixed Ursundova’s heraldry with Iomedae’s iconic sword and shield. Iomedae’s temple was not just a place of worship, it was a place to learn, to heal, and to find strength. For some it worked better than others.
The temple was surrounded by several outbuildings, including humble residences built for clerics and paladins that called the temple their home. At the door of one of these dwellings, one could hear the laughter and cries of children throughout the day. Here, Rachel Lazarou raised her children in the shadow of Iomedae’s temple, often looking up to admire how the sunlight gleaned against the silver buttresses or to read the word of the acts inlaid along its great walls. The temple’s companionship served as a nigh-constant reminder of the sacrifice her husband’s life in defense of the Kingdom. Rachel would not have had it any other way.
After midday in the latter half of a drawn out week, there was a knock at Rachel’s door. Setting down a stirring spoon in her kitchen, she told her eldest, “Keep the others out of this pot. It’s not ready yet.”
“Yes mother,” her son responded obediently.
Rachel removed her apron and checked the fabric of her dress beneath for obvious stains. It was hard staying presentable when you were raising four children by yourself, but Rachel made the effort never to let her weariness show. She called out cheerily, “One moment!” as she hustled to the door. She found a well-worn smile for her visitor as she undid the latch, a smile that quickly fell from her face when her guest was revealed.
She said, “Lem…I wasn’t expecting you.”
The man at the door was a tall, lanky fellow with chestnut brown hair. He wore shining armor and a brilliant red cloak emblazoned with Ursundova’s black boar. He carried a small arsenal of weapons on his hips and shoulders, the most prominent of which was a bulky mechanical crossbow that laid awkwardly across the muscles of his back. Lem was smiling for her, but there was little warmth in the expression. He looked worried and sad. It was an expression Rachel had become weary getting used to.
Lem’s eyes fell away as soon as they met Rachel’s. He said guiltily, “I’m sorry…I should have sent word. Is this a bad time?”
“It could be,” she replied flatly, “It depends on why you’re here.”
“Uhh…I was umm…just in area…visiting the temple.”
“You’re not here to give me money, are you?”
Lem’s cheeks reddened, “No, I—”
“When Jayson came back from school yesterday, he had pouch with ten platinum in it.”
Lem stared at his boots, “Really?”
“When I asked him where he got it, he said a man with a crossbow gave it to him.”
Lem brightened a little, “You know, crossbows are getting pretty popular around Ursundova, I’ve seen a lot of our new—”
“Jayson said it was Daddy’s old friend.”
Lem fell silent.
“I won’t have you stalking my kids with bags of gold Lem,” Rachel told him with a mother’s firmness, “We’ve talked about this.”
“I was just trying to do something nice.”
“We don’t need your money Lem. The King has seen that we’re well provided for. All you’re doing is confusing them. They don’t need to be any more confused.”
Lem didn’t look up as he nodded, “I’m sorry.”
It felt like kicking a puppy.
Rachel sighed, “Look, the stew’s almost ready. Do you want to join us for dinner? You’re always welcome in our home.”
Lem looked guiltily away, “No, I think I’ll be going. I’m sorry—”
She grabbed him by the wrist before he could turn, “No, you’ll stay, because at minimum I still have ten platinum pieces to give back to you. So go wash your hands, unload your weapons, and get ready for dinner.”
Lem didn’t try to fight her, “Yes ma’am.”
- * *
Even with four of the most well-behaved children in the Kingdom, dinner at the Lazarou house was always a trying affair. Herodes’s and Rachel’s children spanned the ages of three to ten, and between the four of them there was always someone or something needing attention. Rachel sometimes wondered how she managed to eat herself, she certainly didn’t remember doing so most nights.
Lem didn’t really help, at least not with the discipline of the house. Rachel had to admit, Lem was good with the kids, if not a perfect role model for proper manners or speech. He didn’t want to just talk to the children, Lem wanted to hear what they had to say, he wanted to get down on the floor and play with them. In a lot of ways he was just a big kid himself…a kid who fought monsters for a living.
As the family gathered around the table, there were hundreds of questions for Lem, most involving villains vanquished and evil thwarted. Over the years, Lem had become a decent storyteller, and Rachel’s children were ever an enthralled audience. The only place where Lem faltered were tales that involved their father. For those, Rachel could see hints of pain lurking in the corners of Lem’s smile. She helped out to move the stories along when she had to.
After dinner, the dishes were cleared and the kids put in their beds. Rachel let Lem help as best he could with their evening routine, more for his sake than for the actual assistance it provided. Rachel knew that Lem saw Herodes in the children’s faces…she knew because she saw it too. She didn’t fault him for wanting to be close to them.
When the children had settled in and the candles in their room had been snuffed out, Rachel made a kettle of tea for the two of them as the bells in the cathedral chimed for evening services. Lem sat forward in his chair as the steam rose from his cup, his attention seemingly fixed on the tea leaves at the bottom.
Rachel asked, “Okay Lem, why are you really here?”
His face brightened, “Nina’s with child again, and this time she thinks it’s going to be a boy. If it is, I’d like permission to name him after…you know, you husband.”
“Herodes would be honored,” Rachel assured him.
Lem smiled, “Great. Thanks. I mean, Nina’s not really onboard yet…she doesn’t think we should name the kid at all until he’s at least a year old. But she came around for Alura, so I’m sure I can…you know…”
His voice trailed off and his attention went back to his cup.
Rachel took a sip of her tea, “What else Lem? I may not know you like Nina does, but I know when something’s wrong.”
“I umm…I nearly died the other day.”
Lem shifted nervously on his chair. His hands curled against each other between his knees. Rachel didn’t try to prompt him further…she waited for the dam to burst.
At length, Lem said, “Look, I just don’t know if I’m doing this right, I mean, this Champion thing, or you know…” he touched the silver holy symbol hanging from his neck, “…Iomedae. I’ve tried to be good. I’ve tried to be pure. I haven’t backed down. I haven’t given up. I’ve…tried… really. But she doesn’t talk to me. I nearly died out there…and there was nothing for me at the end. Just blackness…blackness stretching all the way down…”
He touched at his eyes, playing off the motion as if he had an itch at the bridge of his nose. He continued, “I know it wasn’t like this for Herodes. He was always so sure. He knew exactly what Iomedae wanted from him. And I know it wasn’t like that for him at the end. I know she was there with him.” Lem looked up at her, “I saw it. I saw it Rachel.”
“You don’t think Iomedae favors you?” Rachel asked softly.
He chuckled, “I haven’t always had the best luck with women.”
Rachel’s voice was reproachful, “_Lem_.”
“I’m sorry. I know. It’s disrespectful.” He shook his head, “I forget sometimes. Maybe that’s…maybe that’s why. I don’t know.”
“You shouldn’t say such things,” Rachel told him sternly, then softened her tone, “But do you really think that Iomedae would abandon you because of a few off-color jokes?”
“Herodes never seemed too fond of them.”
Rachel clasped her hands in front of her, “My husband was the most wonderful man I’ve ever known, but he was also a bit of a sourpuss. Nowhere in the Acts does Iomedae forbid humor…as long as it’s respectful.”
“The fault here is one of faith, not in her, but in yourself. You’ve somehow lost faith that you are worthy. Iomedae can’t help you with that.”
Lem sat forward, “But that’s it Rachel, that’s just it. What if I’m not worthy? I’ve done a lot of praying, a lot of fighting. I went to the damn Worldwound for a year. I did everything the Acts told me to, I’ve changed my whole life around them. And I’ve felt Iomedae’s presence… once …maybe…and I’m not even sure about that one. I wasn’t fighting monsters when I faced the abyss…I was just face down in the water. I never even got a shot off. Is that how Iomedae wanted me to die?”
“You’re not dead yet Lem.”
His eyes fell away, “Yeah…not yet.”
“Didn’t you and Herodes discuss Iomedae’s blessings?”
“Well yeah,” Lem said, “But honestly, most of our Iomedae-talk was about things I shouldn’t lower myself to.”
“But did he ever discuss where he drew his magic from?”
Lem gave a half-hearted shrug, “Maybe?”
Rachel brought forth her own symbol of Iomedae for Lem to see. It was a small, silver sword, intricate in detail but plain in shape and function. She said in a teacher’s voice, “Iomedae is a powerful goddess and an unrelenting force for good in this world…but she is not all powerful. She is but one of many gods who shape our fates, each playing their parts in the cosmic design.”
She gestured to the room around them, “It’s not then that Iomedae can control us, nor is she an angel who sits on our shoulder to watch over us. No, how Iomedae shapes the world is by sharing a portion of her power with those who would do her will. She trusts in them to serve her cause on the mortal plane. She knows that the struggles of mortals must be won by mortals. Iomedae does not work for us, she works through us.”
Lem frowned, “But if that’s the case, why won’t she work through me? I’m willing. I’m ready. I’ve done everything asked of me. What more is there for me to do?”
“I think you know.”
The words had an edge like a sword being drawn. Lem flinched away from them.
Rachel frowned, “It’s time Lem.”
Lem didn’t do anything for several seconds. Then, in a hurried movement, Lem took his cup in both hands and gulped down the last of the tea. Standing from the table, his voice spilled out in a current of rushed syllables, “I’m sorry I intruded tonight Rachel—that I kept the kids up too late—and that I’m so lousy with a scrub brush. I really appreciate your hospitality though.” He motioned to the kettle, “And the tea.”
Rachel’s voice refused to let him go, “You’ve run from this long enough.”
He froze where he was.
“It’s time,” she said again.
After a moment of thought, Lem nodded agreement, “You’re right.”
She stood beside him, “I know you have the strength. All you have to do is find the courage.”
Rachel’s expression warmed, “Know that you’re welcome here any time.”
The Champion of Ursundova gathered his gear and weapons, refastened his cape, and moved to the door. Rachel gave him a hug on the threshold, “Be well. Be righteous. Be victorious.”
“You as well.”
He walked into the night.
- * *
Nina Yanayev lived in a small hideaway south of the monastery city of Elkhorn, deep enough in the woods that only the fey of the Greenbelt could find it without being invited. The dwelling was not naturally occurring, but it was a living thing, one that had taken Nina several seasons to develop through careful application of phytomancy. Framed by lattices of roots trussed above, the dwelling was a small, comfy shelter beneath the green that smelled always of damp earth and incense. It had only one room and lacked even a door, but that was all Nina needed. Nina had resisted any efforts of others to move her from her simple life, even when she became engaged and then married to the Champion of Ursundova. It was the same reason she had kept her name despite the station of her husband. Nina had never had interest in changing herself to satisfy others.
As the soft patter of dripping rain through leaves filtered in from outside, Nina said to her husband, “No.”
They were sheltered together in the special darkness just before midnight beneath a heavy fur blanket, with the warmth of their daughter Alura snuggled up against Nina’s back. They talked in whispers to let the girl sleep, as they often did once the light of the day had faded. Nina had found long ago that the darkness helped Lem speak. He was never as open with her as he was in these quiet moments.
“Nina, they haven’t even met you, I just want—”
“No,” she said again.
“Because Alura is barely a year old and I am with child again. And because I don’t want to. If your parents want to meet me, they can come here. You and Jacek have practically built a road to their door, the least they can do is use it to see their grandson.”
“Nina, you’ve got to understand. My dad—”
“_No_ Lem. No.”
Lem was silent for several moments. He knew when Nina would not be moved, and Nina knew to be gracious when her husband was disappointed.
“I’ve got to go see them,” he said at last, “There’s some…things…I have to ask them.”
“That’s fine. The baby’s not due for several months. Alura and I will be fine while you’re gone.”
She swore she could hear him frowning in the dark, “You could at least pretend you wanted me to stay.”
“It’s not that I don’t,” Nina replied patiently, “But I know I didn’t marry a man who could stay one place for very long.”
Again Lem fell silent. Nina pulled him closer.
“Nina,” he asked, “What would you do if I didn’t come back?”
Her eyes sought through the darkness for him, “You’d better come back.”
“What if I couldn’t?”
“You mean if you died?”
Nina was quiet a moment, then said softly, “I don’t like to think about such things.”
“But you should,” he warned, “Because it could happen anytime. You’ve got to be ready.”
“Are you worried about what would happen to us without you?”
His voice was a confession, “I’ve been thinking about it a lot.”
Nina rested a gentle hand against his chest. She said, “I don’t like to think about such things…but I have, know that I have. If you were to fall and could not return, I would grieve, my heart would ache, but our lives would go on. I love you Lem, but I know I must balance my love for you against the good you do for others. The world is a better place because you are free to act within it. I knew that when we first came together. I know that someday you may leave us. Heroes seldom grow old.”
“And you’re okay with that?”
“I’m not okay with it, but I have made peace with the possibility. Death comes for us all when it is due.”
“But what if I’m seeking it out?” Lem asked, “What if I’m looking to death as an answer?”
“You’re not Lem.”
His voice was weak, “Then maybe I should be.”
Nina ran her hand down his back. She asked, “Why are you saying these things?”
He stirred in her arms, as if struggling with to throw off an unseen weight. He said dourly, “Iomedae doesn’t favor me.”
“Why do say that?”
There was sudden frustration in his voice, “Because it’s true. I’ve been a coward Nina. All the duty I’ve placed on myself…everything I’ve done for Ursundova, the people …it’s just a distraction. I’ve just been making excuses to avoid what justice demands. And twice now, I’ve been at death’s door fighting someone else’s fight. Fighting their fight to avoid mine.”
Nina shook her head, “You fight for the people who trust in you, Lem. That is your fight.”
“But there’s a duty far closer to me that I’ve always pushed away,” he said, “One I’ve been running from my whole life.”
Raindrops fell in the forest.
Lem said, “It’s time for me to face my father.”
- * *
The halflings of Pitax lived in small communities beyond the sight of King Irovetti and his soldiers. Sheltered in out-of-the way valleys and hidden in underground homesteads, most of the Halfling families lived simple lives and mostly tried to stay unnoticed. Only troublemakers sought out interaction with the wider world. Berren Berrybrook was one such Halfling.
Berren had come from a long line of rabble-rousers. For more than three generations, the Berrybrooks had led small parties of bandits and fighters on expeditions into the neighboring regions of the River Kingdoms to exercise the River Freedoms in their most literal sense. By the River Freedoms, it was not robbery if the robbed had the chance to defend what was theirs. If they could not defend their holdings, that was their failing, not Berren’s.
Still, Berren was not a reckless man, he didn’t go out more than he had to or take from those who were likely to seek vengeance. Nor was he cruel—he did not take from those that could not afford the loss nor victimize those that could not defend themselves. He had a moral code that directed his expeditions. And it had served him well over the years…for the most part.
Now Berren was getting old – old for a warrior at least. At 50 it had still been easy to run, to hide, to swing a sword and take a hit. Now, closing on 75, he hurt most of the time. Despite magical healing, something was wrong in his hips. His knees ached when he took the steps. An injury to his shoulder plagued him with occasional shooting pains down his arm. He went out less and sat on his front step more. His wife and family looked out for him. It was not a bad life, but not the one that he wanted.
On a sunny mid-spring morning, Berren was smoking his pipe on his front step. In the valley below him, his sons and grandsons toiled to plant pipeweed in the family fields. His old war pony pulled a rusted plow through the damp soil. Berren felt for the poor beast.
Beyond them, along the path that led up out of the valley, Berren saw movement. It was a tall shadow leading a horse. Berren stood, went into the house, and found his sword. A moment later he was running between the trees, ignoring the pain and stiffness in his legs.
- * *
From behind a tree, Berren took a closer look at the intruder. He was a tall, well-built human, wearing a camouflaged cloak over glittering chainmail. He wore a longsword at his side, carried a satchel of bolts on his hip, and bore a bulky crossbow across his back that looked familiar to Berren. He had owned one like it once—so large that he and his sons had used it like mobile artillery when conducting their raids. But he had sent the weapon away years ago when his adopted his son had gone out to seek his fortune. His adopted son named…
Berren stepped out onto the path. His son, his human son, stood before him.
“Cayden’s cup it is you,” Berren breathed as he lowered his sword, “My boy, you’re home.”
Lem’s familiar smile found its way to the stranger’s lips. He said, “Hey Dad.”
- * *
Berren’s wife Ellia squealed with joy when she saw Lem. She rushed forward and embraced her son, not waiting for him to kneel to her height. Instead she swept in at knee level, nearly toppling Lem back out into the yard.
When he did kneel, she turned her attention to his well-being, using several minutes to check him thoroughly for scars and injury. Her voice became admonishing, “You look like you’ve been up to no good. All this dirt everywhere. And that scar above your eye, that’s new, isn’t it? And your hair’s too long. And you smell like you need a bath. Tell me straight boy, have you been taking care of yourself?”
She clapped him on the shoulders, “Well you look like you’ve been eating right at least. But you’re tired in the eyes. I can see it. You been drinking too much? Not enough?”
“Just the right amount I think.”
Ellia drew back and waved a finger in his face, “Now then, Lem Rosen Berrybrook, you’re in trouble with your old Mom. You’ve been gone for what? Nine years? And not even a letter to let me know you were okay. Not even a letter. What were we supposed to think?”
“It’s not like the postman knows you’re out here,” Lem countered.
“You could have sent your bird,” Ellia told him, “You’ve still got Shay, haven’t you boy?”
Lem raised a hand, made a whistle, and a feathered shape dropped from the trees. A brown and white falcon alighted on Lem’s wrist as if it were a natural perch.
Ellia drew back a moment, then motioned up at the raptor, “He could have brought word, couldn’t he?”
“Shay’s more of an attack bird mom. All claws, no brain.”
“Well you should have taught him better,” she told him, “All these years and not even a letter, we were sure Pharasma had come for you.”
“No Mom, I’m still here.”
She pulled him toward the door, “Well come on in then, tell your old Mom what you’ve been up to.”
- * *
Lem’s explanation did not go down easily. Of course, the Berrybrooks had heard of the rise of the kingdom of Ursundova, but most of what they understood of the fledgling nation had been colored by the dominate opinion in the River Kingdoms—that being that Ursundova, like any other attempt to civilize the Stolen Lands, would fall apart with time. Stories about evils conquered and cities built were just that— stories. No great kingdom could sprout from nothing so quickly.
But Lem insisted it was all true, and what was more, he had been at the center of it. His name was on the charter that had given the founders claim to settle Ursundova. He had fought monsters and men, driven back evil and founded cities. He claimed to be the Ursundovan’s champion. Even after he produced the champion’s red and black cape from his saddlebags, there was still skepticism in the room.
That skepticism turned to outright disbelief when he mentioned Nina.
“Lem Berrybrook!” Ellia shouted, “You got married?!”
“Well yeah, you know, things happen.”
Lem’s face reddened, “Yes mom, I found someone who would marry me.”
“Well flip my pancakes,” Ellia said with a dramatic gesture of both hands, “I would never.”
“I founded a Kingdom mom, I wear the bloody flag for them. I was actually a pretty sought-out prospect.”
Ellia gave him the most dubious of dubious looks.
Lem looked away, “I mean, yeah, I had to wear her down a little bit…”
Ellia put her hands on her hips, “So where are my grandchildren?”
“She’s umm…waiting to meet you?”
Ellia swept him into another hearty embrace.
- * *
That night there was a feast. All of Berren’s sons and daughters were called in to share in Lem’s return, and they in turn gathered their own families and relatives. By the time they were through, half the village had gathered in and around the Berrybrook homestead. The eating, drinking, and singing went on well into the night.
Lem spent a great deal of his time stooping under ceilings that were well too short for him. It brought him back to his childhood, of years spent trying to squeeze behind his brothers and sisters in work and play. Everything had been too small for him as a child—the portions, the clothes, the attention available. The Berrybrook family was an expansive one, and while Lem had always been the biggest of the brood, he had never been the most important. Now, it seemed, that had changed.
After answering questions and telling stories for hours on end, Lem found a way to slip outside to warm himself at the dwindling bonfire built in his honor. It was late enough that only Berren remained beside the fire, a crooked pipe smoking in his calloused hands.
Lem sat cross-legged in the grass beside his father, raising his hands towards the glowing embers. As pipe-music continued inside, he asked, “How have you been doing?”
“What sort of question is that?” Berren demanded gruffly, “How should I be doing?”
Lem thought a moment before answering. He had seen his father drinking earlier that night, and knew that Berren could become unpleasant when properly inebriated. He was a fighter after all, aggression was part of who he was.
Berren looked sideways at him while Lem was thinking. He challenged, “You seem to be wearing a lot of silver and red nowadays.”
Lem nodded, “Yeah Dad, I’ve devoted myself to Iomedae.”
He scoffed, “The silver sword, eh? Goddess of naval gazing and pretending to be in charge.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“Bah. The world’s not a very nice place. Why should I be?”
Lem straightened, “I’ve seen a lot of good done in Iomedae’s name.”
“Oh, I’m sure,” Berren growled, “Good because Iomedae says so. Good because you didn’t bother looking both ways. It’s easy to do the right thing if you don’t bother caring about who it hurts.”
Lem frowned, “You don’t know what you’re talking about Dad.”
“And what’s wrong with Cayden?” Berren demanded, “The drunken god’s been looking out for you, hasn’t he? Seems to me you’ve been gambling with loaded dice. Hells, a whole damn kingdom fell into your lap. You should be hoisting a mug rather than kneeling behind a sword.”
Lem couldn’t tell if the bitterness in his dad’s voice was just the drink working its spell, but it felt raw…unsettled. It was the voice like a blade beneath the ribs.
Lem said, “You know, I don’t feel that lucky dad.”
“Why not? Not enough platinum in your purse? Not enough blood on your blade?”
Lem frowned at the fire, “Nevermind.”
“So now you’re going to shut up?” Berren grumbled as he chewed on the stem of his pipe, “You’ve been running your mouth all night and now you get quiet? Not even a bit of a fight in you?”
“I’m not going to fight you dad.”
“That’s your problem boy. You never fought anything your mouth could run off.”
Lem didn’t have the courage to respond. All he had was that heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach, a cold twist like ice in his veins. It told him to look the other way.
They were not the words Lem was expecting. He looked over at his adopted father and found a much older man sitting at the fire. Berren’s shoulders had slumped, his eyes were tired and sad. The pipe shook in his hand.
He said, “I shouldn’t have run you off all those years ago.”
Lem began to protest, “You didn’t—”
“Don’t tell me what I did,” Berren said over him, “I ran you off. I got rid of you, for my own sake. You didn’t belong here and I was tired of making excuses for you. I figured you were better off stumbling around out there than wasting away here. Or at least that’s what I told myself.” His lips drew tight, “Ellia’s never forgiven me for it.”
Lem looked down. His hands clenched. He said, “I understand why you did it.”
“Doesn’t make it right.”
Lem straightened, “We all have our paths to walk.”
“Spoken like a true Iomedaen.”
They were both silent for several minutes. The remaining embers in the fire pit flickered and died one by one, their deaths like soldiers falling in battle.
Lem asked, “Do you have bad dreams dad?”
“Hmm?” Berren grunted, “Whadya mean?”
“I have dreams about…friends…I’ve lost. Sometimes they’re alive. Sometimes I see them die again. Sometimes they come to kill me, or my…my family.” Lem shook his head, “I wake up screaming sometimes.”
Berren drew a breath, “That’s normal boy. Fighting leaves its scars.”
“But sometimes I see them while I’m awake,” Lem continued dourly, “In a crowd, at a window, standing at a grave. And I see their killers, trolls and demons and liches…damn monsters in every shadow. It’s like their ghosts follow me around. I know they’re not there…but I’m never free of them…never.”
Berren grimaced, “And you never will be.”
Lem rubbed at his eyes. He asked, “How do you deal with it?”
Berren sighed, “The same way you deal with any other wound. Give it time to heal.”
“It’s been years dad.”
“The deeper the cut, the sharper the pain. The scar will always be there, it just won’t hurt as much.”
“That’s not very encouraging.”
Berren harrumphed dramatically, “It weren’t meant to be.”
With this, Berren stood from his seat and went to the log pile. He poked around at several of the pieces before finding one he liked. He came back and threw the wood in the center of the smoldering pit, nearly snuffing out what fire remained. For some reason it made the old halfling smile.
Berren stood by his adopted son and put his hand on his shoulder. He said, “You’re asking me all these questions now…now when you’ve already gone out and lived the answers. It’s backwards I suppose.”
“A little bit.”
“I guess I never was a very good teacher.”
“You did okay dad,” Lem assured him, “You did the best you could.”
“Bah,” Berren scoffed, “I left the teaching to your mom and to the world. I just tried to keep you moving forward.”
“You did at that.”
“That’s because that’s the only lesson I ever really learned,” Berren said proudly, “You’ve got to keep moving forward, no matter the cost, no matter the hurt. Any time you’re not moving is time you’re dying.”
“But what if the place you’re moving to is the place you die?”
“Then at least you got some place to go,” Berren answered with a grin.
He kicked at the fire with one boot, laughing in that way that only he could laugh, “Seems to me boy that worrying about death is a life sentence, and I don’t mean to get locked up in it.”
“So you’re not afraid of it?”
Berren laughed, “Nah, I get afraid—being afraid is part of being alive. It’s just not the only part of being alive. The fear’s the part that makes you remember you got something worth living for, it’s the part that keeps you from throwing it away for nothing. But the other part is just as important…because that’s the part that tells you what’s worth fighting for.”
Lem thought on this for several seconds.
Then, his hands clenched before him, Lem said, “I do have to something worth fighting for Dad. And I need your help to win it.”
Berren grinned in the firelight, “I thought you’d never ask.”
- * *
North of Pitax, across an unsteady scribble of a border marked on a map, was the kingdom of Brevoy. In Brevoy the noble houses each held their own territories, doled out between counts, dukes, and other royal titles as appropriate and necessary. The Lebeda family held the most southwestern of these territories, and had used the trade that flowed across the western border to build a fortune unmatched by the other houses.
One of the estates run by the Lebedas was headed by a Lord named Miroslav. He was an uncle to the current head of the house, and as such he had a degree of confidence in his position that most other Brevoyan nobles could not enjoy. He was not directly in line to the head of the family, so he need not worry about taking responsibility for the decisions of his house or acting against those that would conspire to take power from them. But Miroslav was close enough to the head of the family that his opinion carried weight and that his defense was seen to. So living in this way, Miroslav was content to enjoy what he had for as long as he could make it last.
Miroslav did not live a life of lavish luxury, but he certainly lived better than others who shared his estate. He had meat at every meal, fire always in his hearth, a comfortable bed to sleep in, and numerous servants to keep his household running. He had soldiers to guard the doors, walls to protect his treasure, and healthy young women at his beckon call to satisfy his other needs. Miroslav was not a greedy man, and with time and experience his ambitions had been metered by caution. Now a wizened man with a silver mane, he knew exactly how far to reach without risking his hand in the trap. All you had is what you owned. And Miroslav owned people. Servants, soldiers, laborers—they were his to do with as he pleased.
Miroslav had not been married off until he was nearing middle age, and then it was to a much younger woman who bore him beautiful heirs. One of these, Marcelina, he had sent South into the new nation of Ursundova to establish familial ties that would support the eventual binding of the two nations. Miroslav knew that it was only a matter of time before the Brevoyan crown realized the seed they had planted in the Stolen Lands had finally blossomed and borne fruit. It was only a matter of time before they sent their armies south to gobble it up. When they did, Miroslav would have first bite at it.
But several years ago, Marcelina had once sent troubling news. An Ursundovan named Lem Berrybrook claimed to be his illegitimate son, rescued out of bondage as a child on the way to Ustlav. This would have been bothersome news on its own, but it seemed that Lem had ascended to a post of some importance in the Ursundovan nobility. What’s more, Marcelina had met him and somehow had come to believe his story. Since her wedding to the high cleric of the country, Miroslav had not received one word of correspondence from his daughter. He knew she was alive, the spies he sent confirmed it. She just refused to speak to him…
… on the word of a bastard.
Miroslav knew that all men of power had bastards, or they would, could their circumstances allow it. Like fine wine or feathered pillows, women were a luxury of the noble class, a luxury to be used, enjoyed, and then discarded. Miroslav didn’t know or care from which of his numerous mistresses this particular bastard had been spawned. He knew only that he had turned his daughter away from him…and that he would pay for it.
Miroslav sometimes mulled on what he would say to his Ursundovan bastard on the day he was taken to the chopping block. Before he died, Miroslav wanted him to appreciate how little he meant. That he had been born at all at been by Miroslav’s will, how we would die would be the same. It was important to Miroslav that his bastard be put back in his place.
Miroslav missed his daughter…but not so much as to seek her forgiveness. Miroslav knew that in time, she would come to back him. No Kingdom had ever survived the Stolen Lands for long. Ursundova would be no different. Even if it wasn’t by Brevoyan hands, the upstart nation was bound to fall apart. When it did, Marcelina would come running, and his bastard son would fall in his lap for judgment.
Miroslav need only be patient.
- * *
Over the Pitaxian border, Lem and Berren led a small party of Halflings and wagons through the lesser known roads of western Brevoy. Lem couldn’t say that he knew exactly where he was going, but before he had disappeared, Grauss had drawn him a map. The man who had called himself Grauss had always struck Lem as two parts spider and one part scorpion. Lem didn’t miss Grauss often, but he missed him at that moment.
Finally they came to it, a small, dilapidated cottage on the edge of a treeline. It took Lem a few moments to make himself believe that what he was seeing was really it. When he had been young it had seemed so much bigger. He had always thought it a mansion.
As they sheltered behind an overturned log, Berren asked, “Well boy, that it?”
Lem nodded, “I think so.”
Lem frowned, “I was five last time I saw it.”
Berren mumbled something under his breath.
Lem pointed in the direction of the cottage, “If I’m right, there’s at least four or five other children in there with their moms. Grauss said that Miroslav still uses this place to park his mistresses until they’re well enough to return and the kids are old enough to sell.”
Berren nodded, “So what’s our likely opposition?”
“Mama and Papa Malick.”
Berren stared at him blankly.
Lem explained, “An old man and an old woman.”
Berren’s stare turned to a glower, “What?”
“Look Dad, I just remember them as being old, and it’s been what, twenty years since then? They must be ancient by now.”
Lem shrugged, “They might have a dog.”
Berren rolled his eyes so hard he went blind for several seconds, “We’re going to go kill an old couple and their dog?”
“No,” Lem insisted, “No, we’ve been over this. These guys were just the caretakers. They watch the women and their kids until they’re old enough to sell off. I need them alive to ask them what happened to my mother. They may be the only people who know.”
“So I can’t even kill anybody.”
“If they come at you with a weapon, please, by all means, kill the crap out of them. But otherwise, please, leave it to me.”
Berren let out a tremendous sigh, “Okay boy. It’s your show.”
- * *
Lem really wanted to kick in the door.
The problem was, he remembered being on the other side of that door. Not much, and the memories were hazy, but he remembered staring up at the big oak door and rattling the knob. When he did, his mother would come running across the room to grab him before Mama Malick noticed the sound. There weren’t toys or games in the Malick’s cottage, and the children were kept separate as much as possible to limit their noise. Still, Lem had been a kid, and all he had wanted was his mother’s attention. He loved getting her to look at him, even if she was mad. He loved hearing her voice, even if it was to silence him. He loved feeling her hold him…especially on the bad nights.
There was a long, unnatural silence on the other side. Lem could hear whispered voices behind the door and footsteps. Berren gave Lem an imploring look. Lem waited.
Finally the door swung open. A haggard man with stringy gray hair and a scraggly gray beard stood hunched behind a pitchfork on the other side of the door. He rasped in a poisonous tone, “Whadya want?”
Lem hefted the crossbow he had named Springsnap to eye level, “I’m an old friend.”
The pitchfork clattered to the floor. Papa Malick’s hands went up. Behind him, a round-faced old woman with a mane of silver-white curls tightened her grip on a carving knife. When Springsnap swung over to aim at her, it too dropped to the floor.
“Yer a robber?” Papa Malick asked.
“No, that’s me,” Berren said as he squeezed between Lem and the door frame. He poked Papa Malick with the tip of his shortsword to back him up, then waved Lem in to join him.
Lem walked forward with Springsnap braced and ready in the crook of his shoulder. He whistled, and Shay dropped from a nearby tree a fluttered into the room. The falcon alighted on the center of the hearth as if he belonged there. Lem kicked the door closed behind him.
Berren scowled as he looked around the room. Everything the Malicks’ owned was old, tarnished, broken, or a combination of the three. Berren said, “They’re not exactly living the high life, are they?”
“Selling kids pays less than you think it would,” Lem growled.
“Ain’t no kids here,” Mama Malick said, “You ain’t in the right—”
“Don’t bother,” Lem said as he crossed the room toward her. He lowered the aim of the crossbow to her sunken chest, but kept the weapon ready and cocked. He told her, “I remember you, you evil bitch. I remember everything you did to me.”
“I ain’t done nothing,” Mama Malick protested.
Lem’s finger tightened on the trigger, “You have no idea how long I’ve waited to see you again Mama. You have no idea how long I’ve waited to pay you back.”
“We have gold,” Papa Malick interjected suddenly. He scuttled across the room, putting himself between Mama Malick and his crossbow, “Please, we ain’t done you no harm. Take the coin and go.”
Lem couldn’t help but laugh, and the sound was like a hyena closing on prey. He raised Springsnap again and shouted, “YOU DID EVERYTHING TO ME! YOU DID EVERYTHING!”
There was a child’s cry from somewhere near the back of the cottage.
Lem’s eyes cut in the sound’s direction. He told Berren, “They’re back there, go let them out.”
Berren eyed his son a moment, then went to the hall at the back of the cabin and found a door that locked from the outside. He smashed the lock with the hilt of his sword and pried the door open off of what remained of the latch.
Lem listened as his Dad entered the room, his eyes remaining locked on the Malicks. He heard Berren say, “Hey kiddos, it’s okay. I’m a friend. Small, happy, sword-wielding friend of kiddies, that’s me. Oh, and moms too. Good friend of moms too. Come on out with me and we’re going to find you a new home. Can yah do that? I’ve got a furry ole’ pony that needs a pettin’.”
With this, three women with children exited the tiny room, all in dirty clothes and with eyes wide with fear. The youngest of the children they held was probably only a year old. She cried as he mother cradled her tight, the woman whispering over and over in the infant’s ear, “It’ll be alright.”
Lem ordered in a level tone, “Take them outside Dad.”
Berren seemed hesitant. He asked, “You got this boy?”
Berren nodded and took the women and children outside, leaving Lem with two of his oldest nightmares.
Before Lem could find the words he had practiced, Papa Malick asked, “We sold you then?”
Lem nodded, “About three lifetimes ago.”
“You must have been in the caravan that was attacked…all those years ago on the way to Ustlav.”
“You remember it?”
“’Course I remember it,” Papa Malick spat definitely, “My brother died that day. Them bandits cut his head off.”
“Your brother was a slaver,” Lem said through gritted teeth, “Your brother was a murderer.”
Papa Malick looked down at the ready crossbow, “And what does that make you then?”
Lem felt something stir within him.
“No,” he said resolutely, “No, I’m not a murderer. I fight when I have to. I kill when there’s no other choice. I do what I have to to save lives, to protect my friends, to serve justice. I’m not a murderer. I’m a warrior, and I will do what’s right.”
Papa Malick’s expression creased with disgust, “Oh, wow, a noble warrior …here to shoot an old man and his wife in cold blood.”
Lem shook his head, “That’s not what I’m going to do.”
Papa Malick’s expression softened slightly.
Lem lowered the crossbow, “But I am going to burn your house down.”
- * *
As the thatch roof of the cottage erupted in racing flames, Mama Malick wept while Papa Malick held her. If Lem hadn’t known them for the monsters they were, he would have felt pity. As it was, all he felt was the bittersweet taste of melancholy.
Berren counted coins as he sat in the grass beside him, apparently unconcerned with the fate of the Malick’s home. Shaking his head, he dumped the meager pile back into the sack they had found it in, “Forty gold, seventy five silver, and seventy one copper.” He looked left into the pile he had gathered from elsewhere in the house, “A little real silver, a set of crown plates, a horse, and a worn down saddle.” He looked up at Lem, “This is hardly the riches I was promised.”
“That money is going to go to set these moms and their kids up in Ursundova.”
Berren frowned, “Then how am I going to cover expenses?”
Lem kept his eyes on the burning building, “Don’t worry about that Dad, I’ll take care of it.”
Berren harrumphed indignantly, then began to rummage for a pipe from a pouch on his belt. He gestured with the stem when he found it, “Was it worth it?”
Lem looked back to the women and children being loaded in the cart Berren had brought across the border with them. They still looked wary, but their fear was waning. They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew that Berren’s men wouldn’t hurt them. Even Halfling bandits couldn’t help but be a little welcoming.
Lem said, “It was worth it.”
“Did they tell you what you needed to know?”
Lem shook his head, “They say they don’t know what happened to my mother, all they know was that she headed back to the Miroslav’s estate after I was gone. They say they never saw her again at the cottage.”
“So all this was for nothing?”
“They told me her name was Chessa.”
Berren lit his pipe, “Well that’s somethin’…and somethin’s better than nuthin’.”
The Halfling took a puff, “So you’re going after her?”
“You need a second blade?”
Lem looked down at him, “No Dad, the rest I’ve got to go alone.”
“Going it alone is how you end up dead,” Berren told him, “You need someone to watch your back.”
“I’ve got Shay for that.”
Berren took another puff, “Your little girl is going to be pretty upset if you don’t come back to her.”
Lem was quiet for several seconds, the hungry flames reflected in the mirrors of his eyes.
At length he said, “Dad, you know where I’m going.”
“That’s why I need you to take these kids home…because I can’t do it myself. We’re not far from Miroslav’s estate. Once they see the smoke, they’ll send someone to investigate. Once they hear what happened from the Malicks, I’m sure Miroslav will come hunting. I need you get them across the border before he gets here.”
“You mean your border.”
Lem offered helpfully, “Tuskendale has a wonderful school system.”
“What if they don’t want to go to Ursundova?”
“Then give them their share of the Malick’s money and let them go. They’re not prisoners anymore. They can do what they want.”
Berren chewed his pipe, “Seems to me they were never prisoners to begin with.”
Lem turned to him, “What do you mean?”
Berren gestured to what remained of the cottage, “There aren’t walls here, there aren’t guards. Why didn’t they try to escape? Why didn’t they take their kids and run? Why stay if they knew what was coming?”
“Where do you run when the whole world is against you?”
Lem’s posture stiffened as the words flowed out of him, “This is what we’re changing Dad. This is what we’re tearing down. Here, these women were slaves and their children were property. In the world we’re building, they are free people. In the world we’re building, they will have a voice.” His heart pounded like a drum in his chest, “The world has to change. It has to.”
“You plan to change the whole world boy?”
He nodded, “As much of it as I can.”
Berren took another puff on his pipe. After a long, thoughtful silence, he said, “Well good luck with that.”
Lem smiled, “Thanks Dad.”
Berren closed up the Malick’s money pouch and stood. He brushed the dust off his pants as he asked, “You want to take a horse with you for your Mother?”
“I’d appreciate it.”
Berren tucked the bag of coins into his belt, “Alright then…I’ll add it to your bill. I expect you to deliver the payment in person, not one month from today. Got it?”
“Do good son.”
Lem straightened up, “I will.”
- * *
Lem headed North, staying off the roads and walking the horses to keep a low profile. Shay kept lookout above him as they moved, sweeping from tree to tree to stay ahead of his master. It was slow going, and it got slower still the closer he got to Miroslav’s estate. As he pushed through the underbrush he realized he knew the place only as a mark on a map. Lem knew he had no idea what he was walking into…
…he knew only that the end of his journey was near.
It was near sunset when Lem ducked low to avoid a party of ten riders racing southward along the main road. They wore the blue and silver of the Lebeda family and carried gleaming dueling swords bouncing on their hips. Undoubtedly, the smoke from the Malick’s cottage had been seen. Lem’s window was closing.
A half mile further on the forest broke, and Lem found himself staring up at the high stone walls of a fortified villa. It was not quite a castle, but the place was imposing, especially when cast in long shadows by a crimson sun hanging just above the horizon. Lem watched a while for sentries on the walls or lights in the villa’s one turret. From what he could tell, the walls were largely undefended.
But why should they be, here, deep inside the Brevoyan border? The politics of the noble houses meant that there was little need for sneak attacks or sieges. Everything in Brevoy that could not be solved with words, was solved at the point of a dueling sword.
Shay settled on a branch beside Lem and watched with his master as he assessed the threat. Lem said after a moment, “I’m not sure I planned this far buddy.”
The hawk twisted its head to meet Lem’s eyes.
“What do I do now?” he asked, “Sneak in after dark? Wait for first light and pose as a merchant or something? Just start sniping guys when they show up at the gates? What do you think?”
The bird said noting.
Lem sighed, “Maybe I should have brought Dad after all.”
Shay looked away.
Lem lengthened his breaths, closed his eyes, and quieted his thoughts. Herodes had taught him the technique, a way of focus meant to open paths that would otherwise be closed. Herodes had said, “The gods only speak when they are certain you will listen. Silence your doubts, open your mind, and the answers will be yours.”
Lem did just that, or as best he could manage. But the problem with doubt was that it didn’t listen to reason. The harder he tried to find confidence, the further it slipped from him.
“C’mon,” he growled at himself, “Just this once Lem. Just this once put your head on straight. Just this once don’t screw it up. Please. Please. Get it together. Be a man.”
And for maybe the first time, Lem heard his own voice. He heard what it had said. He realized what it meant. He had been talking to himself like this his entire life.
He took a calming breath.
“I’m sorry,” he said to himself, “You don’t deserve that. I don’t deserve that. You know why you’re here. You know what you have to do.”
And again, Lem felt a new energy stir within.
His eyes opened, “Okay then.”
Lem stood. He readied a bolt on Springsnap’s rails. Then he walked out of the trees.
- * *
There was a guard at the gate of Miroslav Lebeda’s estate, but he didn’t fancy himself as much. No, as far as he could tell, he was only a doorbell—someone to get the attention of the lord of the estate if a visitor came unexpectedly at night. He had a pike, but he didn’t wear armor, and rather than standing at attention he slouched against the stone adjacent to the two panel gate in the front wall. He yawned as the sun set, knowing too well how long the night would be.
It was strange then to look up and see someone approaching. Stranger still, the man looked like he was in armor and carrying an impractically large…
The guard stood quickly and hefted his pike, “Stop right there!”
The stranger paid the order no mind. He approached with his cloak billowing behind him, the sun’s last rays catching in glittering orange bursts across the links in his mithril chainmail. As he closed, the stranger took his crossbow in both hands and pointed it in the guard’s direction.
The guard jabbed at the air with the point of his pike. He shouted, “I said no further!”
Lem said boldly, “I have business with your master. Let me by or lose your life.”
The guard took measure of Lem and considered his options. A second later the pike dropped to the ground.
“Where is Miroslav?” Lem asked.
“He’ll be taking his dinner in the main hall,” the guard answered uncertainly, then added quickly, “_Sir_.”
- * *
The main hall of Miroslav’s manner was a narrow, high-ceilinged room with a single long table running down the center. There were twenty-one chairs at this table, but at present only two were occupied. Miroslav sat at the head of the table, using a serrated knife to saw through a leg of roast pork. Next to him, his wife Eada sat still and silent, dressed in a beautiful blue silk dress, but her plate empty and her wine untouched. Miroslav didn’t consider it good manners for women to eat at the table. Their job was to provide company to the men…speaking only when spoken to, and even then only sparingly.
A pair of maids waited in the corners of the room on either side of the main table, one with a decanter of wine, the other with a wash cloth and plate. They too remained silent, their eyes down. A ceremonial guard with a dueling sword stood beside the main door, his attention fixed in the middle distance, his posture rigid. He seemed a statue…until the door to the hall was flung open.
The guard turned, saw Lem, and immediately drew his sword. Lem pointed Springsnap at his chest, standing not two feet away. The guard swung. Lem shifted quickly back out of his reach, then fired a bolt into the swordsman’s shoulder. The guard grunted in pain and stumbled back.
Lem recocked Springsnap with a heavy pull on a mechanism below the breach. He told the guard, “Stay down. My quarrel is not with you.”
The guard grimaced as he clutched at the wound on his shoulder. He began to stand.
Lem fired again, this time hitting the guard’s weapon right at the pommel. The sword broke at the point of impact, the blade spinning away to the far side of the table.
“I said don’t,” Lem growled.
Miroslav stood at the head of the table, “What is the meaning of this! GUARDS! GUARDS!”
The breath emptied from his lungs as Lem’s gaze fell upon him.
Lem held for a moment by the door, his muscles tight, his expression grim. Then he began toward Miroslav, his metal-shod boot steps falling like hammers in the silence. He pushed aside the wounded guard, leaving him sprawled helplessly on the stone floor.
Shay swooped in from the main hall behind his master, gliding down the length of the table straight at Miroslav’s face. Miroslav ducked behind his chair as the bird flapped past. The falcon alighted on a window sill high behind him, in a place where the bird could watch the whole room.
It took a few seconds for Miroslav to find the courage to straighten up again. When he did, Lem pronounced accusingly, “You are Miroslav Lebeda.”
Miroslav glanced behind him. The door to the kitchens was maybe fifteen feet away…too far to run with the crossbow already on him.
So, knowing there was no other choice, Miroslav fixed the intruder in his hall with a defiant glare. He challenged, “I am Lord Miroslav Lebeda, and you are trespassing in my home. On whose authority do you threaten the Lebeda family? In whose name do you draw blood in my hall?”
“I am Lem Berrybrook,” Lem said as he drew closer, “And I here for myself and no one else. You owe me a debt, and I have come to collect.”
Miroslav new better than to back away from the stranger, even as Eada retreated hurriedly away from the table, even as his maids scrambled back and tried to disappear in the shadows. Miroslav recognized the rage burning behind this man’s eyes. To turn now would be to invite death.
Instead Miroslav demanded, “I owe no debts, not to you or any man. You are a fool out of your depth, and if you come one step closer I will have you drawn and quartered and your entrails fed to my hogs.”
Lem stopped where he was. He said, “You can’t threaten me.”
As if on cue, a pair of guards appeared at the door to the main hall. They stared a moment at the door as they gathered their wits, then quickly pulled their swords from their sheaths. One of the pair shouted, “You! Lay down your arms!”
Lem’s gaze stayed fixed on Miroslav. His voice was cold and stern, “It’s you I want. I haven’t come here to kill your men.”
Miroslav’s voice was a slithering hiss, “Yes, but they’re here to kill you. KILL HIM!”
The guards obediently rushed forward in a sprint, but Lem was ready. Springsnap spun in their direction and launched two bolts in quick succession. Both guards caught a bolt, one in the leg, the other in the arm. The first guard fell, the other dropped his sword and careened into the table, knocking chairs aside with a loud wooden clatter. He tried to stand, but as he did, another bolt caught him in the boot, pinning his foot to the floor. He screeched with pain.
Miroslav used the distraction to run, but before he could make it to the door a whirlwind of feathers and claws dropped on him from above. Shay’s talons pulled at the hair of his scalp, then sliced long furrows of flesh from his hands as he tried desperately to drive the bird away. Miroslav fell to his knees and balled in on himself, screaming in pain while he shielded his face.
And suddenly the bird was gone and all he could hear was his own screaming. Miroslav stood, and in the strange silence he felt a rush of air by his ear and heard a solid “thunk” from ahead of him. A silver crossbow bolt had buried itself in the doorframe ahead of him. Behind him, Springsnap went “Ka-chunk” as another bolt was readied in the breach.
Miroslav turned to stare down the crossbow’s rails at point blank range. He found the eyes of the man who held it strangely familiar.
Miroslav held up his hands in surrender, “What do you want of me?”
“You?” Lem asked, then shook his head, “You? For a time I wanted everything you had, but now I want nothing…honestly nothing.”
“Then what? Why are you here?”
“I’m here for a woman named Chessa.”
There was a clatter of silver in the corner. The maid who had held it—a thin, dark-haired woman—stared open-mouthed at Lem. There were sudden tears in her eyes.
Lem lowered his crossbow and turned to the maid, “I’m here for you Mother.”
The woman staggered forward, “Andrik?”
“Once I was mother,” Lem said softly, “Once I was.”
She rushed forward and embraced him.
And Lem felt a strength within he had never known before.
Miroslav wiped blood from his eyes as the bile rose in the back of his throat. It didn’t matter that he was wounded, that his guards were broken, or that death might be mere moments away. The rage wouldn’t let him stay silent. He shouted, “That woman is not yours…she is mine! You will not take her!”
Lem turned and casually fired a bolt into Miroslav’s thigh. The old man grunted and fell.
Lem wiped the tears from his mother’s face, then turned to consider the man who had never been his father. He said, “I have a thousand reasons to hate you and a hundred justifications for killing you. But none of them are worth it…not anymore. You are not worth my hate Lord Miroslav, and your fall will come by your own hand. You are a miserable, soulless man and your power over others ends tonight.”
Lem turned to the wounded men in the hall and the small crowd of servants and onlookers who had gathered at the door. Light seemed to swell from within him as he began to speak.
“Listen to me,” Lem’s voice boomed as he gestured down at Miroslav with Springsnap’s length, “Miroslav Lebeda is a monster who has sold his own offspring into slavery and death. He is a coward that spills the blood of others to protect his own. He is a noble fraud who knows neither valor nor honor. This is a man who will be punished in this world and the next. Any man who stands by him after this day is my enemy and an enemy of the righteous gods. Any man who stands with him from this day onward will be punished at his side.”
Now, the sword-shaped holy symbol hanging from Lem’s neck was shining like a silver star. His voice came again, backed by a powerful woman’s voice—resolute, glorious, and undeniable, “Hear me, mark my words, and know I speak truth. This is the voice of truth. This is the mark of justice.”
They heard him.
The silver light faded, and Lem seemed to wake from a trance. He looked to his mother and put a hand around her shoulders. He said kindly, “Let’s go.”
And when he looked up, he found himself staring into Eada Miroslav’s eyes. It occurred to him then how much she looked like Marcelina.
Lem smiled for her, “My Lady, please come with us. No one need be a prisoner here any longer.”
Eada appeared unable to speak, her voice trapped by the tumult of emotion written on her face. Instead she nodded, tears welling in her eyes. Chessa moved forward to take her by the hand to lead her toward the door.
Behind them, Miroslav roared like a lion surrounded by wolves, “No! NO! You cannot have them! Any of them! They are mine! I KNOW WHO YOU ARE CRETIN! I WILL COME FOR YOU!”
The crowd at the door parted for Lem and the two women. Then, one-by-one, they followed him.
In the silence that followed, Shay flapped up to the Lebeda crest carved into the wood above the head of the table. With deliberated strikes of his beak and talons, the falcon tore deep scratches in the carving, leaving it as scarred and disgraced as its owner on the floor below. Then, with a cry like a sword being drawn, the falcon swooped down through the door and was gone.
- * *
A caravan of four dozen men, women, and children met Miroslav’s patrol on their way back to the estate. The crowd led an irregular assortment of horses and wagons, and carried torches that illuminated hastily packed trunks and sacks. The group seemed in a state of collective shock, as if uncertain what drove them on or where they were headed.
The sergeant leading the horsemen spurred his horse forward, demanding of the assembly, “What business do you have on the road at night?! Why are you not at our Lord’s side!?”
A tall man with an enormous crossbow stepped out from the center of the crowd. He said, “These people belong to no man—they go where they like. I tell you also that they are under my protection.” The man raised the crossbow in both hands, “Harry them at your peril.”
The sergeant looked to either side at his men, seeing the same apprehension he felt etched on their faces. He had ten armored soldiers on horseback versus one man with a crossbow. Why then did the odds feel so stacked against him?
He gritted his teeth and pointed down with his sword, “I demand in the name of Lord Miroslav Lebeda that you turn this rabble around this instant!”
Lem grinned slightly, “That’s not going to happen.”
A winged shaped flashed through the space between them with the speed of a racing arrow. In an instant, Shay disappeared back into the night sky, but none of the soldiers could see where. Their heads swiveled and their eyes bulged as they searched the darkness for the bird, their horses stomping nervously beneath them.
Lem took another step forward, and as he did the men and women at his back joined him with resolute expressions and tightened fists. He said, “Lord Lebeda is a lord no more. Go back to your barracks, take what is owed to you, and then be gone. Miroslav is a marked man in the eyes of Iomedae. I warn you all, do not share his fate.”
As he said this, the sword emblem hanging from Lem’s neck began to glow with inner light. By the time the words had finished, it was burning with pure, silver radiance that lit him and the crowd around him.
The soldiers’ horses stamped and whinnied, a few nervously bucking beneath their riders. They felt the power in the man that stood before them. They knew when to be afraid. Their masters followed the animals’ lead.
The sergeant motioned his men to the side of the road, “Let them pass.”
The soldiers stood aside while the families of the Lebeda estate continued Southward.
As the torchlights faded into the darkness, one of the other soldiers approached their leader. He asked nervously, “What will we tell Lord Lebeda?”
The Sergeant’s voice was surprisingly carefree, “Maybe we won’t have to tell him anything.”
- * *
The caravan continued South through the night, past the smoldering remains of what had been the Malick’s cottage, down and across the border of Brevoy and into Pitax. From there he took the party East, to the newly constructed ‘Fort Horizon’ built over what had once been Armag’s Tomb. Here they took food and rest for two days, while Lem explained the breadth of their new country. He told them, “Ursundova is a land of immigrants, a land of free people and new ideas. You will find different lives here. Let the past be the past. We look to the future.”
To Lem’s surprise, Lady Aeda began speaking for the group, her voice becoming stronger and more confident with every opportunity to do so. When her followers called her “Lady Lebeda”, she stopped them and rebuked the name. She told them, “I was Aeda Medyed first, and so I will be again. I will not share a name with that monster any longer.”
In private, Lem confided to Aeda that her daughter still used the name Lebeda from time-to-time. Aeda’s face had become serious when she heard this. She said only, “I will speak to her about it.”
- * *
At the dawn of their third day at Fort Horizon, the party prepared to head out again, with the intention of making it as far as the city of New Light before nightfall. Lem woke up early, as was his custom, and took Shay to hunt rabbits in a pasture just outside the fort.
To his surprise, his mother came to join him. They had been close during the entirety of the flight from Brevoy, but she had said almost nothing during their journey. Lem had not pressed her, knowing very well the time some wounds took to heal.
Now she stood beside Lem and said, “Good morning.”
“Good morning,” he returned, a little uneasy in the saying, “Did you sleep well?”
“Well enough,” she answered.
She drew her arms around her and watched with Lem as Shay’s angular shape soared against a fire-orange sky. After a while she said, “Will your King be angry with you for this?”
Lem thought a moment, then shook his head, “No. He’ll be frustrated, but that’s normal. Once he meets you I’m sure he’ll understand.”
“You risked a lot to come for us.”
“I’m just sorry it took so long.”
Chessa visibly shivered, and Lem reached out to put an arm around her. When he did, she started at his touch, as if it had brought pain. Then looking into his eyes, she rested her head wearily on his shoulder. He held her as the morning wind pulled at his cloak in fluttering gasps. He said, “It’s okay now mother.”
She said softly, “I’m scared Andrik.”
Chessa had been using her name for him since the night at the manor. Lem had not seen fit to correct her yet.
He asked in a kindly tone, “Scared of what?”
“Miroslav, Lady Sarrona, the others…all the others. The people who could come for us. Armies that will march.”
Lem shook his head, “The Brevoyans won’t send an army to help Miroslav, not after how we left him. He’s finished.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I know,” Lem told her confidently, “Because Iomedae has told me so.”
Chessa drew back and looked into Lem’s eyes. What she found there gave her strength.
She stepped away from him and looked back to the soaring falcon, “I’m sorry son. It’s been so long since I’ve had something to fear for, I think I may have forgotten what it felt like.”
“I understand that mother…more than you know.”
“I feel like I’ve been asleep for twenty years,” she continued with a weary shake of her head, “Like I’ve been trapped beneath frozen ice. When they took you from me, they took my heart with you. Afterwards, Miroslav brought me back to the estate and had men in black robes do… something …to me. They took my womb from me Andrik…because I was his favorite. Because he didn’t want to have to send me back to the Malicks. I’ve never had another child…I never could.”
The bitterness in her voice pressed Chessa’s lips into a tight, angry line. Lem saw her fists clench at her side.
“I wanted to kill him Andrik…” she continued with a halting breath, “…I wanted to kill him, or at least kill myself…to take his power away. But I never had the courage Andrik. I was always too weak. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
Lem took his mother’s chin and turned her eyes back to his, “There is no shame in this, not for either of us, not anymore. We’re not victims anymore. We’re alive. We’re together. And before you know it, you’ll be snuggling your granddaughter…and let me tell you, she’s a snuggler.”
This made her laugh, and then cry, and then both at once. They embraced again, then turned to watch the sun’s first rays cresting over the far ridge.
“What is it you call this place again?” Chessa asked as the dawning light warmed her face.
“Ursundova,” Lem answered proudly, “It’s the start of a new world.”