Authors: T.O. Munro
“We should stop, Kaylan,” Prior Abroath told his swaying patient.
“When we get there. Not a moment before.” The thief’s voice was a distorted mumble. His jaw, despite the prior’s best efforts, was still a swollen mass on which the bruises from lost and loosened teeth had expressed themselves in vivid purple shades. The fractured bones in his legs might have been knit together, but in joins not yet firm enough to be worked without pain. Abroath saw Kaylan wince and pale with every nudge of knee against his horse’s flank. Twice now, the thief had all but fainted in the saddle, and Abroath had no desire to add a split skull to the list of injuries which had required his healing gift.
“Kaylan!” Abroath drew his own mount alongside the stubborn thief’s. “You test the Goddess’s patience. You have been beaten to the brink of death and broken both legs in a thousand foot fall. The Goddess’s grace may have grant me her servant the power of healing, but there is an expectation that the invalid will allow a few days rest for the cure to be complete.”
“She didn’t wait,” Kaylan retorted. “She rode off and all we know is that she was headed into danger at Rugan’s court.”
“She had Tordil to keep her safe.”
“She needed me. She needs me. She has always needed me.”
“Maybe she does, but she also needs you healthy.”
Kaylan made an unwise attempt to stir his horse into a trot. Abroath had to seize the thief’s arm to steady him as another wave of pain nearly overwhelmed him.
“Haul your wind, Master Kaylan,” the prior told him. “We’ll get to Laviserve all the sooner if you’d only stop trying to get there so fast.”
Kaylan returned the entreaty with a sullen but defeated glare, before turning his eyes back to the broad straight stretch of the Eastway. The winter snow on the cobbles had turned all to slush, milled by the passage of the few carts and horses that had braved the commercial paralysis of wartime.
As they crested a gentle rise, Abroath saw the length of the Eastway dipping and rising in a line five miles or more to the next low escarpment. He pointed to a collection of buildings in the middle of the shallow valley on the south side of the road. “There, Kaylan,” he pointed. “The village of Hatcham. The road to Laviserve leads north from there. There is an inn at which we can take an hour or two’s rest, before we set off again.”
“I don’t need an hour,” Kaylan told him. “Maybe a drink to numb my legs, but not an hour.”
Abroath didn’t hear him. The prior’s attention was suddenly drawn to a group on the road halfway between them and the distant village. “What is that? Who is that?”
The horses’ ears had pricked up. It may have been the promise on the wind of the comfort of a distant stables, or perhaps the curiosity of the riders was contagious. “It is a long road to walk,” Kaylan agreed as their horses stepped a little quicker on the downward slope.
Abroath screwed up his eyes to study the distant pedestrians and wished he had either the far sight of Tordil’s elven eyes, or command of one of Thom’s spells so that he could see whether any danger awaited them. Sir Ambrose had spared them no escort, insisting Kaylan’s journey was against the queen’s instructions, but the big knight had at least allowed Abroath to accompany his convalescing patient. The had passed in safety a few isolated riders and an occasional wagon, but the party ahead of them was more numerous than any they had seen before. A double line trudging resolutely on in the direction of Hatcham.
It was a trick of perspective that made them seem further away than they were, until Abroath suddenly realised the truth. “By the Goddess, they’re children. There must a score of them. Who would let children wander unaccompanied in this weather and at this time?”
It was a few yards more before Kaylan spoke up. “They’re not children,” the thief said as the walkers became aware of the horsemen in their rear.
The double line about faced and then fell out to the side of the road in a line of military exactness. Abroath caught the gleam of sunlight on sharpened steel and noted the stocky build of these well armed youngsters. “By all that’s holy,” he demanded. “Who’d give a child an axe?”
“They’re not children,” Kaylan told him again, though this time with a gurgling cough which Abroath took some time to realise was a laugh.
Kaylan’s eagerness to close the distance was still in thrall to the discomfort of his injuries, none of them softened by hours in the saddle. So Abroath had some leisure in which to examine the ersatz children. They were no taller than a ten year old, but a lot broader and the helms they wore added something to their stature and their menace. However, the least juvenile feature of their appearance were the bristling beards which sprouted in colourful profusion across the chainmail hauberks they wore. “Dwarves!” Abroath murmured.
The prior found he had instinctively let Kaylan take the lead. His experience of the dwarven folk was limited to the tales his father and brothers had told him. It was possible that they had embroidered their stories of a hardy people, driven by greed and quick to anger at any imagined slight, but Abroath was not about to take any chances with twenty axe wielding foot soldiers with only a half healed thief to aid him.
Kaylan had no such reserve. He let his mount take him a full horse length ahead of the prior, so he was the recipient of the dwarf leader’s peremptory greeting. “State your name and business, and be quick about it.”
Abroath shivered a little, but not from cold. The dwarf although a little taller than the others, still came not much higher than Kaylan’s stirrup. His flaxen beard was woven in three thick plaits, the outer two tucked into his belt, and the third descending almost to his knees. In his right hand he held a heavy throwing axe, twirling its haft about his fingers, with the same idle ease that a scribe might spin a pencil.
The thief slipped awkwardly from his saddle and bowed low before the blond dwarf leader. “I am Kaylan-ap-Stonehelm,” he introduced himself.
Abroath saw the flicker of surprise cross the dwarf’s brow before he returned the greeting in kind. “Pardig-ap-Lupus.” As he straightened Pardig gave the thief another shrewd look. “You’re awful tall for a dwarf, Master Kaylan-ap-Stonehelm.”
Kaylan gave a self-deprecating moue in apology for his deformity, before Pardig went on “I am not familiar with your clan name either. Where is it the Stonehelms hail from?”
The thief got no chance to answer for the two dwarves at the far end of the line suddenly broke ranks. They came running up as a pair, one dark, one blond, and clapped Kaylan firmly on the shoulder, or at least as close to that point as they could reach.
“I said it was our longshanks,” the dark one said.
“Did you ever find that girl you was looking for?” the other demanded.
The thief stumbled beneath their good natured greeting, but managed to perform another pair of wincing bows. “Mag-ap-Bruin, Glim-ap-Bruin,” he greeted the darker and the lighter dwarf in turn. “It has been too long, and much has happened since we last met.”
“Indeed it has, indeed it has, Longshanks,” the dwarves replied.
“Ye can vouch for this overgrown Dwarf?” Pardig’s query drew a bout of fierce nodding from the brothers ap-Bruin. “And his companion?”
Abroath suddenly felt all eyes on him. He dismounted quickly. To remain on horseback seemed likely to infuriate these creatures of lesser stature, or so his brothers’ tales would suggest.
“This is Prior Abroath,” Kaylan made the introduction. “He has been looking after my health of late.”
Abroath bowed as low as he dared while the darker haired Mag muttered, “well judging by your face young longshanks, he’s not been doing a very good job.”
Kaylan laughed painfully. “You should have seen it before the prior set his healing hands to work. Prior Abroath, may I present the brothers Mag-ap-Bruin and Glim-ap-Bruin. I was for a time the guest of their brother Bar-ap-Bruin. Like you they have had occasion to nurse me back to health.”
“Aye, has that lady of yours been leading you into more foolhardy orc-bothering?” Glim asked.
“Reunions, for all the joy they may bring, are not our chief business here today.” Pardig tried to assert his authority.
“Nor ours,” Abroath concurred.
“We are on our way to the court of Prince Rugan,” the Dwarven leader announced. “Delegates from the ten clans of the Hadrans.”
“We are bound there ourselves,” Arbroath said. “Though I hear the half-elf’s court is a place of uncertain welcomes.”
“Welcome or not, master Prior, we have news for the great lords and ladies that meet there. News the High Council agreed we should share.” Pardig replied. “Things have been changing in the fallen province of Undersalve.”
“Seneschal! Seneschal Kimbolt!”
Kimbolt did not register his new title at first and it was not until the queen added his name that the former captain stopped and turned to face her.
She must have hurried down the steps from Rugan’s new raised council chamber for her cheeks were flushed. The other council members dispersed around them, seeking the warmth and comfort of the main palace. Kimbolt waited for the queen’s command and, when she gave none, but merely stared at him he dipped his chin in enquiry. “Your Majesty?”
“Come Kimbolt, Seneschal Kimbolt, walk a while with me in the gardens.”
The tips of his ears were burning and his voice cracked a little as he responded, “yes, your Majesty.”
They walked in silence for some minutes, threading their way through the ornate porticos which separated the different sections of Rugan’s elaborate winter gardens. The queen gave a shiver at his side and Kimbolt cursed his negligent discourtesy. The day was cold and she was clad only in another borrowed gown and a thin shawl. He plucked his cloak from about his shoulders and pressed it on her. “Here, your Majesty,” he insisted.
“Why did you go?” She demanded even as she pulled the thick material close around her neck.
“I woke up alone. You had gone. Why?”
“It seemed better, safer, your Majesty.”
“I told you, my name is Niarmit.”
“Last night you were Niarmit and I was Kimbolt; today you are the queen and I am a mere captain in your service.”
“You’re my seneschal, Kimbolt. Not a mere captain.”
He broke his stride, suddenly uncertain of her meaning or intention. “I am a commoner by birth and, as Rugan has noted so well, a traitor by behaviour. I do not think the council would approve if they had guessed at how we…”
“Fuck the council,” she said with such sudden heat that he stopped in astonishment. She had gone a stride and a half on before she realised, and then she turned to face him. Her eyes were hooded with doubt as she scanned his face with a fierce intensity. With some effort he kept his expression impassive.
There was a bench seat beneath a leafless arbour to their left. She waved him towards it and then sat beside him. He thought she had been about to speak two or three times before she actually began. “I want you to know something, somethings.”
“Your Majesty.” He was all obedient attentiveness.
“When I was seventeen I was betrothed, his name was Davyn. We were young, we were going to be married.” She gazed out over the snow clad gardens, seeing something else. “He was so eager that it seemed unnecessary for us to wait, to wait for the formality of a ceremony to bless...” She hesitated a moment, then holding his gaze with her eyes, she said with heavy emphasis, “to wait to bless our union.” She gulped a deep breath down. “But then came Bledrag field and all things changed and we were never married.”
Kimbolt searched his mind for the appropriate absolution one might offer for such a private confession. He had begun to build a response around the phrase ‘no shame’ but as he opened his mouth to speak she commanded his silence with a shake of her head.
“There was another, in the long years when we fought the invaders from hiding. It was a difficult time, it was a mistake.” She rubbed the fingers of her right hand absently along the line of her jaw. “A bad mistake. Kaylan would have killed him if the orcs hadn’t first.”
“Kaylan is very protective of you, your Majesty.” Kimbolt’s voice was thick, a tumult of ungoverned emotions seethed within him.
She took his hand, placed it between her own. “And then there was you, Kimbolt.”
“Your Majesty.” He replied, unable to identify any other response.
In a long uncomfortable silence, the only thing that grew was a sense that he was disappointing her.
“I just wanted you to know,” she said with a flick of her head. “To know that…” she stopped. Further words eluded her.
“Yes, your Majesty.”
“Can you stop calling me that.”
“Yes, your…. yes Niarmit.”
“That’s better.” She scanned the bare branches of the trees and bushes. “It’s strange you know, how you can spend your days surrounded by people and yet feel so alone.”
He put his other hand with hers. “Whatever companionship you want of me, I will gladly give it.”
“I wanted you to stay with me until I woke up.”
He swallowed the rebuke with a slow nod of apology. “I’m sorry.”
She shrugged off his regret and at the other end of a long drawn silence he asked, “and what do you want now? Niarmit?”
The use of her name brought a smile to her lips. “You’re learning, Kimbolt and I’m sorry, I’m doing this all wrong. Everything is in the wrong order. We know each other so well and yet not at all.” She let go his hand and pressed her own hands against her mouth exhaling a misty cloud of breath before admitting, “I don’t know what I want.”
“But I didn’t want there to be a silence between us. I didn’t want to pretend nothing at all had changed, even if I don’t really know how it has changed. I don’t want it to be difficult.”
He took her hand and raised it to his lips for the lightest of kisses. Her cheeks coloured at his touch while he assured her, “Niarmit you are my queen and I am Kimbolt, I am your captain, your seneschal, I am anything you want me to be.”
She looked back at him, a green eyed gaze of unsettling steadiness. “But what do you want to be, Kimbolt? What do you want us to be?”
There was a cough behind him, from someone just out of sight beyond the corner of a high hedge. Kimbolt quickly got to his feet and let go the queen’s hand. A second or two later, Lady Giseanne slipped into view, her expression quite inscrutable.
“I am sorry for intruding your Majesty,” she said. “But Mistress Elise has been to see me.”
Giseanne smiled away the queen’s alarm. “The princess is well, but moreover Elise thinks she is well enough to be told the news. I agree with Elise that she will not thank us for any further delay.”
Niarmit sighed. “I wish there was an end to the bad news I must give her.”
“I can do it, if you wish.” Giseanne touched the great sapphire ring she wore. “I felt his passing too.”
“Together. We tell her together. We are her only family now.”