Authors: Rachel Rossano
Another possibility was what my comrades at arms suggested.
I could stand and fight. Claiming my inheritance and all that was due me
sounded as risky as leaving would be heart wrenching. There was no hope that in
my and my men’s strength alone we could withstand Orac’s enforcer long enough
to stake and validate my claim. I searched for a third option.
A familiar voice broke through my thoughts. I looked up to
find myself standing at the door to the old guard quarters where we lived. I
was home. I had no recollection of walking the three miles between the farm and
“You really need to pay more attention to your
surroundings,” Roulf cautioned as he appeared at my side. “I have been trailing
you for a mile now, and you didn’t so much as look around. If I knew you were
being this careless I would have come sooner.”
I frowned at him. That sounded bad. “Why?” I opened the door
and stepped inside, dripping rainwater all over the fresh rushes Kat laid down
the day before. The smell of slightly burnt meat filled my nose almost
“The enforcer has started using press gangs to pick up every
available male in the valley. He intends to have his mansion finished for the
anticipated arrival of King Orac.”
“When is this to happen?” I asked, sinking to the bench next
to the door to remove my boots.
“A day you should know well,” the shopkeeper replied solemnly.
“He is coming for the celebration marking the anniversary of his ascension to
My hands froze, laces dropped from suddenly unresponsive
fingers as my head filled with the memories of that terrible day. Marching
through the city streets with my hands bound behind me, the jeering crowds
pressing us on all sides, I closed my eyes, but the images were not easily
“Press gangs?” I struggled to get my brain to think.
“Oh, it is you.” Kat entered the room. “Hello, Roulf, what
brings you here?”
“Bad news, I fear,” he informed her, laying a hand on my
shoulder. “Are you going to be all right, Tourth?”
I nodded. “Just give me a minute. Some memories are harder
to banish than others.” I carefully gathered up my laces and retied my boots. I
needed to think, and being shut indoors was not going to help me. I thought
better when I was in motion. “I am going to take a walk.”
“But it is raining outside,” Kat protested.
“The press gangs–” Roulf didn’t stop in time to check his
words. Kat’s face drained of color.
“What press gangs?” she asked.
I sighed heavily. “I will stay close to the keep and out of
sight,” I assured Roulf before leaning over to kiss the top of my sister’s
head. “Give Roulf some food and something warm to drink. He can fill you in and
the others when they arrive. I need to think on my own for a bit before we
decide what to do.”
Kat searched my face for a moment before nodded. “Be safe,”
she cautioned before turning to Roulf. “I am sorry to say I have only burnt
venison to offer you and some mulled cider.”
“That sounds filling Miss Mynth,” Roulf was saying as I
closed the door behind me. He would explain things better than I could and
soothe her worry a bit in the process.
I stepped out into the ever-increasing downpour and headed
out to the east, up the valley toward the tree line. There were no roads in
that direction, only wilderness, trees, and wild animals. In this downpour I
doubted any animals would be moving about to bother me, and the shelter of the
thick wood would be perfect for thinking. I turned my face toward my
destination and started praying.
He wasn’t a fool. I admitted that. As I stood in the shelter
of a rather large pine with more character than its neighbors, I watched
Kat was right. He obviously needed to move to think. He
paced back and forth along the top of a fallen tree. He struck the side at
regular intervals with a stick in his right hand. I couldn’t hear his voice,
but his lips moved as though he were speaking to himself or perhaps praying. A
fall of sopping brown hair was plastered to his forehead. I was debating
whether or not I should interrupt his thoughts when he turned and jumped off
the log with a squelch. Frowning down at his soaked feet, he grew still amid
the constant uneven tempo of rain dripping from leaf to leaf over our heads.
I stepped from my shelter and approached him. “Have you
His head snapped up in surprise. “How did you find me?” he
demanded. “I didn’t leave a trail.”
I debated letting on that he had. His trail, though fainter
than the one an inexperienced man might have left, was easy to follow. Settling
on a more elusive response, I shrugged. “Kat asked us to find you. She is
“She sent all of them out for me? And only you found me.”
“I figured you would choose somewhere out of the way to
think. I came bearing news, but Roulf said he already informed you about the
He nodded, retreating again behind a contemplative mask.
Silence settled between us. The shadows, deepened by the setting sun, weighed
upon us as we stood.
“So, have you made a decision?”
“Part of one,” he replied. I raised my eyebrows and regarded
him patiently. Finally he glanced my way and explained. “Kat needs to go to
“She isn’t going to go willingly.”
“Well, she doesn’t have a choice,” he replied more
forcefully as he studied the branch still in his hand. “I can’t protect her
anymore, and I am going to need all of my attention and concentration for what
lies ahead. Worrying about her safety would be a distraction I cannot allow
myself. She has to go.”
I watched the play of emotion in his features: fear,
resolve, determination, and uncertainty in almost equal parts. “You are going
to stake a claim on your title.”
He pinned me with a dark gaze, scanning my face briefly.
“Yes. I have no other choice.”
Although a number of alternatives jumped to my mind, I
didn’t open my mouth. If all the prayer and thought culminated in this
decision, I was willing to wager that it was Deus’ will.
“How far is it?”
“To Lord Eryant’s stronghold?” I nodded.
He shrugged. “A day’s ride.”
“I will take her,” I volunteered. His eyes widened in
surprise, so I explained. “I am the best choice. If you are making a stand, you
will need to lay low and keep the other men with you for protection. The press
gangs will be roaming the roads. They won’t be interested in two women should
they spot us.”
“They might be interested in you for other reasons.”
I shook my head. “I know how to keep them at bay. Trust me.
There are a couple options, and I need to speak with Kat to choose which to
use. So, how are you planning to make your claim?”
“I was thinking of sending word to King Orac,” he grimaced
at the name, “stating that I wish to lay claim to lands. I will say that I have
just returned to my home, found it in disrepair and my people being treated
like vassals of his enforcer. I will state that I wish to swear allegiance to
his throne and take my rightful place.”
“Then we wait. I am hoping that when he arrives at the
celebration, I will be able to present myself as a mighty leader willing to
join forces with the king. To do this I will have to organize the farmers as
best I can, gather my father’s former troops, the ones I can, and parade into
“With Lord Eryant’s backing.”
He shook his head. “All I can ask of Lord Eryant is that he
protect Kat. This move is imprudent at best and downright foolish at worst. I
will not ask him to back my claim at the detriment of his own prestige. He is a
good man. I do not want to make trouble between him and the king.”
I watched him throw away his branch. I had no qualms about
asking Lord Eryant for his assistance. I would try to speak to him while I was
there delivering Kat. He might give me an audience at least for assisting in
the capture of the raiders on his border.
A month ago, his men trailed a band of marauders. They
raided his outlying homesteads, trampling fields, and harassing his peasants. I
happened upon his men on the far southern border of his lands. They needed a
tracker to find the marauders’ camp. I located them within two days, in time
for them to prevent the planned raid on the Earl’s granary.
“Kat is not going to go willingly,” he muttered to himself.
“Let me speak to her. I think I can explain it so that she
He smiled over at me in relief. “Thank you. I am still not
too happy about facing Svhen, Dardon, and Arthus when I return.”
“I thought they were for you taking a stand and claiming
your title and lands.”
“Just watch. When I tell them, they will change sides.” He
brushed his hands off on his shirt and then stared at it as though just
realizing how soaked he really was. “How long have I been gone?”
“Kat said you left two hours before I returned and it has
been at least an hour since then.”
“We should go.” He started off in the direction he came,
tramping through the underbrush and pushing aside branches as he fought his way
out into the open. I followed at a distance, planning my own strategy on how to
help my new-found family.
“How can I do it?” Kat demanded later that evening in the
small kitchen. Her blue eyes flashed fire at me. “I have never left my brother
before and I am not going to leave him now. I have only just begun to see
glimmers of the man he used to be. I am not willing to leave. I don’t want him
to become the man he was when he came home from the war.”
There was barely enough room for two. I was thankful for the
lack of space. It kept the others from following us in there.
“Kat, listen to me for a minute. I understand your anguish.
I too have lost brothers that I sometimes doubt I will ever see again. I have
seen the shattered souls that remain within the eyes of the battle-scarred. I
am telling you that this is the only way you can help your brother.”
“How?” Kat flung the word at me. Anger flushed her cheeks
and brightened her eyes, but I identified the emotion behind them, fear.
“Get me an audience with Lord Eryant.”
“What? How will that help my brother?”
“He is not willing to ask Lord Eryant for help in his claim,
but I have no such restraints. I intend to speak with the man and ask for the
support that Tourth so desperately needs.”
She considered this. “If we ask in the right way, he will
listen. I cannot guarantee he will do it though.”
“We won’t know until we try,” I pointed out. “We can’t try
unless you go, and go willingly.”
“If Tourth figures out your plan, he will stop you.”
“Then don’t tell him.” I held out my hand to her. “I want to
help you, Kat. Will you help me?”
She regarded me for a moment. “You truly are an unusual
woman.” She smiled and took my hand. “Now, how are we getting over the
“Ah, I have a few ideas.” I smiled mischievously. “Shall we
be old women, young men, or lepers?” Her eyes widened in surprise. “Don’t
worry. This will be fun.”
“We are leaving.” Wren’s voice interrupted my thoughts,
drawing my attention away from my task of repairing the tack. She stood in the
doorway, an unfamiliar outline against the early morning light outside the
stable. Stooped shoulders, overwhelming wimple, and a voluminous dress of
homespun green wool seemed to swallow up her slight form.
“So, you are traveling as old women?” I asked.
“Yes, and your sister wishes to say goodbye.”
I nodded and set down the harness in my hands. “We are going
to miss you both.”
“I will be returning.”
“Still, we shall miss you. Arthus has volunteered for
kitchen duty, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he poisons us all.”
She smiled. It moved across her face in the twitch of her
lips and was gone. “I am certain you shall all be fine.” She stepped out of the
doorway to let me pass. “I will return in three days and save you from his
“That will be much appreciated. Why three days? It will only
take you a day either way.”
“I have business of my own with Lord Eryant.”
Before I could ask her what business she spoke of, Kat
“Tourth, what do you think of our disguises?” She spread the
skirt of an identical dress to Wren’s except instead of a non-descript green,
hers was rust brown. Padding changed her shape, giving her more generous curves
and the ample hips of a matron. The wimple concealed her hair. “Do you think we
will be accosted?”
I shook my head, suddenly realizing what I was doing. I
didn’t know when I would see her again, if ever. “You will be safe in Wren’s
hands.” Even as I said the words, I found that I believed them. I did trust her
to protect Kat. She liked Kat. The two of them bonded on a level that I had
never seen Kat bond with another woman before. Wren would let nothing happen to
“I am going to miss you, Tourth.” Kat wrapped me in a fierce
hug with her head to my chest, face buried in the front of my tunic like she
had as a child. “Promise me you will be careful.” They were the exact words she
used the day I went off to war. I tightened my arms around her, squeezing her
“I will. I promise.”
“You better. You are all the family I have left.”
“And what are we?” Arthus asked from a short ways away.
“Is she crying yet?” Dardon asked.
“I don’t cry,” Kat protested with a suspicious swipe at her
face as she whirled around to face him.
“Well, if you are done breaking your brother’s ribs, can I
get a squeeze before you go?” Dardon opened his arms to her.