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Chapter 6: Family
The Month of the Mouse, Soctrosday the Eighteenth
The village Farnoakes in the duchy of Anverhale.
The village consisted of little more than small, dirty hovels, half-buried in the dark earth. Strips of farmland stretched out beyond those. Low walls of stacked rocks marked their boundaries. The people in the village watched him with the same suspicion and fear he remembered from the East Kingdoms. These people had as close to nothing as anyone could have and still survive. They looked at his patched, worn clothes with envy. They had nothing with which to patch theirs. The price of the sword at his side would feed them for months. It was the same in every village they had passed through. It was the same everywhere he had ever been.
What would happen when the war reached them? How many of them would even survive it? How could these people benefit if Alec and his defeated the Surraeveans? Did they even care who their lord bent his knee to? Hadn’t they been just as destitute, just as desperate when a Kellei king sat on the Kellei throne? Had their lords not been just as rapacious?
Of course they had. Before the Surreaveans came, these people suffered under lords who spoke their language. Maybe some nobles were more forgiving than others. Maybe some would be more forgiving once a Kellei king again wore the Kellei crown. It wouldn’t matter. These people would toil so others could tax. What difference if the one taxing spoke Kellei or Surraevean? Even if the victors of the war could influence what could come after, what would change? Kellei or Surraevean as a ruler, these people would still be tilling the earth. Villagers like them would live their lives trying to avoid punishment. They would still face arbitrary lords the law said could take their lives for any offence.
Johanna walked at his side. She attracted interest and curiosity as she did everywhere. She wore the clothes of a man. She carried the tools of violence usually reserved for men. She walked with a swagger the villagers had likely only ever seen in a man. Still, Alec didn’t think anyone would mistake her for a man. But still, what would these villagers think. She could not be a woman, could she? It would be a disgrace. Blasphemy even. Alec could only imagine their response if they learned this woman led men into battle. What would they say if they learned that the Patriarch had declared anathema upon her.
Or that she could see into their hearts and cloud their minds.
He knew what they would think then. But what would they do? Nothing, if his experience was not faulty. Johanna carried a sword and that marked her as outside their world. Whether they liked it or not, Johanna bore the marks of the lord or the soldier. That set her apart, as much as gender did.
And anyone who thought otherwise would not live long enough to regret their mistake.
“I honestly thought you were a noble.” Johanna used the Taulmeeran dialect common among mercenaries on the mainland. Even speakers of Taulmeeran found it hard to decipher. Who here could understand it? “It’s not that you always expected people to listen to you, or that you were that comfortable leading, but it was just natural for you. It was like with Cristobel. Like it was destined, or expected, even when it was earned.”
Alec almost choked on his laughter. “A noble. Me? Cristobel I can see. It makes sense. I mean, he’s a noble now. But even then, before. Yeah, that makes sense. But for me . . . I don’t know. Being in the company felt right. Wherever I was, whatever I was doing, it made sense. Not the killing, not the violence, but the order, the relationships.”
Johanna joined him with a good-natured chuckle. “Oh, those relationships. It was more like a family than most families I’ve seen. That person at your side, they had your back. Even if they would steal your last crumb of bread in the camp, when the blood started to flow, they would stand with you and protect you. There was safety. We were going to war, going to die maybe, but you could trust your comrades with your life. I had never known that.”
“My father was a retainer—a kern.” Alec paused. He considered the village around him. Maybe with Kellalh so diminished it would rank as a small town. People passed around them. While casting glances, the villagers pretended to ignore the man with the sword. They especially avoided staring at the woman beside him, likewise armed. “I was trained for the same. So was my brother. It was different in the East Kingdoms. It was a different kind of war. The companies expected a different kind of leadership, but I knew the life. At least parts of it.” He couldn’t help but smile. “I was born for war.”
Johanna’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t carry it like the others, like Mordwech or even Glamorgall.”
“I was young when I left.” For the moment, Alec lost himself in the past. “No, not young, . . . broken. The invasion broke me. I did not die with my lord or even with my father. I saw the futility in it. The emptiness of the lessons. None of it proved true. But in the companies, it worked. There, you didn’t leave your comrades. You didn’t leave the field without them. You stood and fell together. Back here, . . . here I was supposed to die for a person who didn’t care about me at all. I was just a tool. I was only valuable if I was useful. The kern gives the lord everything and gets nothing in return. Honour. What a hollow thing that is.”
“And your brother?” Johanna stepped back just after asking, her eyes unfocused for a moment, staring into the distance. “I’m sorry, I didn’t . . . I shouldn’t have asked.”
“What was it?” Alec watched her as she recovered. She had reacted as though someone had struck her. “Was that me?”
Johanna straightened herself as she straightened her jacket. “When I’m comfortable with someone, I sometimes forget and leave myself open. I wasn’t ready for your reaction. It was like, . . . well, like fire. Anger and resentment, I would say.”
“That’s about right.” Alec gestured up the road with a swing of his head. Johanna agreed. They started forward. “My brother was supposed to take care of our sister. I sent what money I could. Then I heard nothing. Gone. We were never really close. He was the heir. He was the favourite. My father . . . he was a kern. He was a violent man in a violent world. I don’t think I ever—” Alec swallowed, marking the pause. “I’ve never been close with my brother.”
They walked on in silence for a time. Alec thought of his brother. He wondered at the fire Johanna had sensed. He recognized his anger. He remembered his envy. He remembered the favourite who did nothing to earn that favouritism. It wasn’t just their father. Their sister had idolized him. But he was never there for her. He wasn’t there when she needed a friendly ear. He wasn’t there when she looked for support. He certainly never showed her any love or affection. He saved that for himself.
The anger had never vanished. Maybe it hid, but it never left. Here he was dreaded chief of the Order of Talons. He had led thousands under a feared banner in the East Kingdoms. He still felt cheated. He had never been good enough. Maybe he still wasn’t.
Now at Alec’s left shoulder, Johanna leaned close. “I’ve visited many places, many towns and villages, sometimes at the head of an army, and I think this rates as one of the most morose.”
“Are you surprised?” Alec asked. “Do you blame them? For all they know, next time they see us we’ll be leading soldiers. Next time, maybe we’re taking what little they have.”
Johanna’s spoke quietly, almost a whisper. “Have you noticed how few men of your age there are?”
He had noticed. Alec saw gray-haired and lean old men. He saw women and children. They had passed some men in the fields who had seen more than twenty years but few older. He could count them on a single hand. For a town that might have a few hundred roofs, he saw too few men between the ages of thirty and sixty.
“The invasion,” Alec said. “The lords raised their levies. Then the lords got them all killed. This is the result. Their duke survived. The Duke of Anverhale knelt to the Surraev king. He took an oath and became a vassal. He got all his people killed, then gave up the fight and lost nothing of his own. I think his son is duke now.”
Johanna’s brows furrowed as she looked about the village. “That’s a lot of dead men.”
And those men in the field? He’d soon have them in an army. What would happen to this place then?
“A generation.” Alec closed his eyes for a moment. “Not all dead. Some of them probably march under our banners in the East Kingdoms. The dead probably outnumber the absent. It doesn’t matter. It’s still a generation gone. After the invasion, there weren’t enough left to work the fields or pay the taxes. The thing is, if you have a home, you’ve got to pay your taxes. Even a hovel or shack means the lord’s factor comes calling. So the women, the children, and the old worked if they could. Most couldn’t meet the demands. They died. They probably died starving and alone. There’s no happy ending to their story.”
The two stopped in front of an open-faced shack with smoke rising from it.
“Here?” Johanna grimaced. “This is the hold of a favoured son?”
“Perhaps.” Alec glanced around. There were very few in the laneway. “Stay here and keep your eyes open. I’ll see what I can find.”
Johanna’s pinched lips and tight forehead led Alec to believe she didn’t have high hopes. Still, she put her back to the slight wall. She was careful not to lean on it. Crossing her arms, she waited.
Smoke rose from the shack. The ringing of hammer on metal and on anvil echoed through it. Standing there, looking into the smithy, Alec again tried to accept it. He tried to really believe it. A smith? That was the favoured son now? A smith? He slowly entered. He could clearly see the smith at work, his back to the entry. The smith stood in a sparse space. His shack held the forge and tools of his trade. And more. Alec thought he saw a bed with a chest at the end of it in the far corner.
The smith stood at least a hand and a half taller than Alec. His bare back showed skin darkened by work near the fire. Muscles rippled under taut skin. He would have earned those through years of hard labour. The smith finally turned. Did he realize someone watched him?
“Do I . . .” The smith’s voice trailed off as he took a closer look at his visitor. “I know you.”
“It’s me.” Alec had planned a better introduction than that. He couldn’t remember it. “It’s Alasdair come home from abroad.”
“Ally?” The smith shook his head. “I don’t know what game you are playing at, sir. Alasdair is dead. He died years ago, over in the East Kingdoms.”
Alec laughed. He wondered at his own reaction. “Who told you that?” He moved close and spoke. The noise of the town almost took his words away. “It’s me, Ally, your little brother. Diarmuid, don’t you remember me?”
Diarmuid reached out and touched Alec’s cheek. He inhaled sharply, his eyes watering. His mouth opened and then hung there. No sound issued from it. He licked his lips. He took his hand away and stepped back. “My brother is dead.”
“It’s me.” Alec took a step forward, grasped his brother’s hand. “It’s me. Look at me.”
Diarmuid looked into Alec’s eye. Alec saw the first tear make its trail down his cheek. Diarmuid dropped his head. He whispered rather than spoke. “You died a long time ago.”
“Damn it man, it’s me, it’s your brother.” Alec wrestled to keep from shouting. He felt the anger rise up in him. The same anger burned whenever he thought of his father. “Put down your cursed hammer and take your brother’s hand.”
“I . . .” Diarmuid didn’t finish. He put down his hammer. He moved away, stepping back and further into the shack. Back into his smithy and his home. “I heard a rumor, a few years after you had left, that you had died in Taulmeer. They said there was a big battle, that you had died there.”
“Who told you?” Alec asked.
Diarmuid indicated the walls and beyond them with a sweep of his hands. “Everyone spoke of it. There was a battle at Brentok, in Taulmeer. All the Kellei fighting there had died.”
Alec let out a bark that had started as a laugh. He pulled open his tunic. He shouldered his jerkin. He showed his bare chest and belly. He pointed to a scar in his side. “I got that at Brentok.” Releasing his tunic and jerkin, he pointed to the scar running from his eye-patch to his jaw. “And that, but they didn’t kill me. No one’s been able to do that. Yet.”
Diarmuid looked at him, looked him straight in his one good eye. “Why have you come back?”
Alec’s eye narrowed. “Why do you think I came back? Why would I bother to come back?”
Diarmuid turned away, picking up a dirty rag. “The war’s over.” Diarmuid slid the dirty rag over his head. That’s when Alec realized it was a tunic. “The war ended a long time ago, and everyone is glad it’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Alec said. “It won’t be over until a Kellei king sits on Kellalh’s throne.”
“A Kellei king on . . . ” Diarmuid’s eyes narrowed. “Really? That? That’s why you’re here? To what purpose? What does it matter? Does it matter to anyone here?” He encompassed the village with his flailing arms. “Does it matter to anyone except the nobles and the ones who want to be nobles?”
Diarmuid stepped back, and took a long, deep breath. “It’s done. There’s nothing here, not for anyone. There’s no wealth and there’s no crown.” The fire in Diarmuid’s eyes guttered. He looked down at his hands. “I don’t want any of it. We lost the war. We’ve paid for it. We’ve paid for our pride and all our people paid along with us. I was done with that before you sailed off. I want to live my life in peace, to get gray hairs, to die in bed.”
“Die in bed?” Alec spit out the words. “They killed our father. They killed our neighbours. They burned all our homes and fields. They burned this whole kingdom. We swore to die before we let that happen, but we still live. I live so I can fulfill that vow. What do you live for?”
“Me?” Diarmuid waved off Alec’s words. “I’m not living for honour and I’m not living for glory. I’m living to enjoy a drink with my friends after the sun sets and maybe a nice meal every Blessed Eve. I’m living to hear songs sung and stories told. That’s enough for me. I’ve got nothing else. You hear me? No wife. No children. Nothing but this smithy. But it’s fine. I’m fine.”
Alec didn’t allow himself to throttle his brother. He didn’t allow the raw fire of emotions to reach his face. He wouldn’t let the bile spewing from his belly to speak through his mouth. He could feel his good eye twitch. His nostrils extended. He clenched his fists at his sides. He wouldn’t let them strike out.
“The favoured son of a feared warrior.” His voice carried no hint of the turmoil beneath his surface. In fact, it carried no hint of emotion at all. “A coward.”
Diarmuid moved in and swung his fist. Alec raised his arm and blocked it. Diarmuid took two steps back. Did he fear that Alec would charge at him? Alec didn’t.
“We are the last of our house.” Alec leaned forward as he spoke. “There is no one else.” He fixed his brother with his gaze. “Father wanted you to follow him, to be a retainer. He wanted you to be a loyal kern. He thought you could rise to the top. You could’ve been a chief. Maybe you could’ve elevated our house. That can still happen. It can happen through me. I can give you a chance to lead in war, to prove your worth.”
“Worth?” Suddenly Diarmuid’s face opened, his mouth wide as he laughed. “Oh, of course, why not? A legendary hero I’ll be. Is there a fairy watching over my shoulder, to guide my hand and protect me from harm? Will the Immortal Consorts come down and bless me themselves? The King of Surraev will certainly fall back in fear of me then.” Diarmuid propped himself on a workbench, crossing his arms. “You disappeared in fire and here you have returned obscured in a haze. What do you really want?”
“I want to rebuild our family, our home,” Alec said. “And I want to find our sister. And I want nothing more.” Alec held up his hand to stall any response. “An army is here. A king will follow. I am not the marshal. I’m a captain. I’ll be at the marshal’s side and I’ll lead in this war. I will need trusted lieutenants. Those who make a name for themselves in the war can expect power after it. Our lord is dead. His son is dead. I saw Artorus fall. I burned his body. He was the only heir of the Artains of Banalach. As a retainer of House Artain, you can carry the banner. You can rally the retainers. If you find favour with the new king, you might get the title.”
Diarmuid’s brow furrowed. “Gain favour with a king? Are you mad?”
“You were trained as a kern.” Alec grit his teeth. “You were heir. Father had faith in you. Had pride in you. Fill that role now. Become the chief retainer, and then perhaps the lord. Wasn’t that always the hope, the dream?”
“Lead men in war? That is the plan, is it?” Diarmuid’s laugh had no joy only exhaustion. “You know what will become of me then? A corpse. I’d be dead. You offer me a dead man’s honour.”
“I am coming with an army, Diarmuid.” Alec straightened. He used the voice of the captain, of the commander of soldiers. “I am coming with an army to train a larger army. We’re going to crown a Kellei king. You can be a part of that, if you want. You could have a home, an estate. You could marry and have children. You could live in some kind of comfort. You could have respect.”
Diarmuid looked at his hands, rubbing them together. “And what of you? You would be the loyal power behind my paper throne?”
“I will never be Alasdair of Kenfrost again. I will always be what I am now: Alec Ulvarsson. I’ll always be a mercenary and leader of mercenaries. I might have been born in Kellalh and ready to fight to free it from Surraev, but I’ll always be a mercenary. There’s no chance I’ll ever be anything more.”
“And if I refuse?” Diarmuid raised his head and stared hard at Alec. “If I tell you I would rather die in my bed in the years to come than on the field tomorrow?”
“Then the Consorts piss on you.” Alec turned his back on his brother. “Feel free to rot here.” Alec paused. He looked down at his feet. He swallowed. “If you don’t want to fight, don’t come to me later for a reward. This isn’t a gift. If you want it, you work for it. The war is coming. It won’t be tomorrow, but it’ll be soon. This is your one and only chance. Once we’ve suffered and died to put the king on the throne, that’s too late. I’ll have nothing to give you then. Grab it in your hands now or abandon it forever.” Alec glanced back at his brother. He didn’t meet Alec’s gaze. “This is your only chance. If you reject it, be a good smith, because you’ll be dead long before you can be a lord.”
Diarmuid met Alec’s eyes. “And if I accept your offer, who do I sell myself to?”
Alec straightened his back. “Kellalh.”
“It sounds pretty, but I see plenty of ugly behind it.” Diarmuid sighed. “I’ll make my decision tomorrow.”
“If you can’t take it now, you don’t want it.” Alec put on his meanest commander’s face. “If you want it, you’ll take it. If you don’t want it, you don’t deserve it.”
“Well, that’s the question,” Diarmuid said. “Do I deserve it?”
“You don’t and I don’t care.” Alec snarled out the words. “Who does? Fight with us. Lead. Help free this country. Then maybe you’ll be worthy. And if not, stay here and be damned. Prove father wrong.”
Diarmuid jumped forward, finger directed at Alec. “Don’t speak to me of father and his plans. He died, and that’s all. Did he think of our mother, of our sister, of us? No, he only thought of glory, of his thrice-cursed honour. He died for himself, not for us, not for the family and damn-well not for the house.” Diarmuid spit at Alec’s feet. “That’s for father’s death, and I hope it speeds him on his way to the Hells.”
Alec’s left hand gripped the hilt of his sword so strongly, he almost, for a moment, feared it would snap or bend. More likely his hand would snap. “And what of our sister? Tell me, Diarmuid, what of your dear Zarai? Where is she? I’d love to see her.”
The fire left Diarmuid, and his strength seemed to follow it. “I don’t know. I haven’t known for years, since her last letter to you. She wouldn’t listen to me. She wanted to go off on her own.” He wanted to say more, Alec could see it as he opened his mouth, motioned with his hand, took a step forward, but whatever he wanted to say, it died. “She wanted to live her life and I hope she is.”
Alec’s sword slid almost a hand’s length out of its scabbard before he checked himself. “You can say what you want about father, say what you will about me, but you promised me you would take care of Zarai.” He rammed his sword back into its scabbard, though he really wanted to draw it, to put his brother in the ground and forget him. “I swear, I’ll find her. I won’t abandon her again. Whatever has happened to her is your fault. You’ll see it made right. Lord or no, master or not, you’ll not forget your family again.”
Diarmuid closed the distance between himself and Alec. “Forget my family? That’s rich. Who ran off to the mainland? Who left everyone to fend for themselves as best as they could? You self-righteous bastard.”
Alec couldn’t hold back. His fist connected with Diarmuid, actually lifted him off his feet. Diarmuid landed hard, dazed. He couldn’t rise, though he tried. Alec was on top of him, raising his fist for another strike. Diarmuid didn’t cower. He didn’t try to protect himself. He just stared hard at Alec. Alec’s breath caught in his throat. The fire cooled. He was a soldier, a captain, not a berserker. Anger would not help, it could only hinder. He uncoiled. He rose to his feet. He unclenched his fists. Diarmuid’s face looked as though it had connected with a tree.
“Get up and stop sniveling.” Alec didn’t care if his anger and his loathing reached his face or his voice. ” If you can’t take responsibility for your own actions, who would follow you?” His voice came as a restrained growl. “I won’t let you blame this on me. I wanted to take you both across the sea. We could have lived there, could have survived.”
Diarmuid rose and brushed the dirt from his ragged tunic. He winced when he touched his face. “You could have never cared for her over there.”
Alec gulped at air, trying to cool the burning in his belly. “I could have never cared for her? Like you have cared for her? You dog.” Alec took a step forward, wanting to strike Diarmuid again. He didn’t allow himself the pleasure. “You blame everyone but yourself. You always have. Father had a duty. That duty that came before his family. He knew it. We knew it. Everyone knew it but you. Nothing could shine brighter in the sky than Diarmuid’s star. How is that star shining now? “
“You left us,” Diarmuid said. “You should have stayed, should have helped.”
Alec turned his back on his brother. “I hope you’re a good smith. You’ll never be anything more.”
Diarmuid’s words came mangled and mumbled, but Alec understood. “You owe me. You owe me something after leaving us all like this.”
Alec didn’t look at him. “You decide now if you want it or not. Yes or no?”
Alec frowned. He had forced him to this, how could he now reject him? He wanted to. He wanted to cut his brother’s heart out and drop it in the smithy’s fire. But he did owe him. He had left his family. All the demons in the Hells curse his brother, but he had driven the dagger of guilt in hard.
“Someone will come for you, to prepare you,” Alec couldn’t look back at his brother. “It may be a few weeks, but they’ll come. Clean yourself up. Get ready to return to Kenfrost. You’ll need to find recruits to train to fight this war. ” Alec took a step. He paused. “And I’m going to find Zarai. I’m going to bring her back.” He thought for certain he had bent the hilt of his sword, he clutched it so tightly. “And lord or not, chief or not, kern or not, you are going to get down on your belly and beg her forgiveness.” Alec’s eyes dropped to his feet. His voice was all but silent for his next words. “You and I both.”
He stormed out of the smithy, pausing to inhale deeply. He could not remember feeling so angry, not since he had left Kellalh. He could not remember losing his temper. He couldn’t remember the last time his rage had controlled him so completely. He did not know the man who had confronted his brother. He thought he had left that man on the docks fifteen years ago, and he had been happy to be rid of him.
“You weren’t as quiet as you probably should have been.”
Alec looked up. Johanna stood close by. Her hand hovering near his shoulder but not yet touching. When their eyes met, the tightness around hers lessened. She lowered her hand and squeezed.
“No one was close by.” Johanna spoke in a quiet reassuring tone that Alec had never heard. “No one was in earshot. Except me. You know I trust you and will follow your lead, but you are playing a dangerous game with a poorly wrought piece.”
“I know.” Alec clutched Johanna’s shoulder in turn. “But it’s the hand I dealt. I play this through or I scuttle my own game.”