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The Hero – Part I [Chapter Four]

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I

    Bannar had a manservant waiting for her when she had knocked on the front door. He was tall, and thin, and clean-shaven; he smiled when he saw her.

    “Sarah, I presume? I apologize for the familiarity; Ser Bannar did not give me your family name,” the man said.

    “Aden, ser,” Sarah said.

    “Madra Aden, my name is William. Bannar said you might be coming by this morning. Would you like something to eat?”

    “That is far too much trouble, William. I’ll just wait for Bannar, if that’s alright.”

    “It is no trouble at all, madra. The food is already on the table. You can eat while you wait, if you so choose.”

    William bowed, and led her from the front room. Bannar’s home wasn’t the opulent palace that Sarah had believed it to be. He was the one of the richest merchants in town, and he lived in a house not much nicer than Ian. The trappings were nicer, sure; the table was polished wood, infused with gold and silver, and the plates were not cheap wood or heavy stone, but of bone, and some silver.

She wondered, too, about the stone he had taken from them. She had touched it, and that mattered to him, and it made her nervous. She had been too busy helping Alex and getting through the night to really focus on it at the time, but since she woke up that morning it had been weighing on her. She would have to ask Bannar about it, if only for her peace of mind.     

    “Do you like roast?” William said.

    “I do,” Sarah said.

    William cut a piece off a giant slab of meat, and put it on a plate, and handed it to her. The food on the table was fresh; steam still rose from it, and the smell of baked bread and cooked meats made her mouth water.

    “I hate to trouble you, William,–” she began, but William poured her a goblet of water.

    “Ser Bannar does not drink wine or beer or ale anymore, I’m afraid. Just water,” he said.

    “Perfect. Thank you.”

    “You are welcome, Madra Aden. He will be with you shortly.”

    William bowed again, and left the room. Sarah took a fork and knife from the table, and cut up her roast; the first taste was almost more than she could handle, and she was reminded that she had not eaten in almost a full day. Merchant Turo had been murdered, skull smashed into small bits, and Sarah had spent much of that day reconstructing his head for the funeral. She was close to finished when Harry had carried Alex in, near death, and broken-bodied. She wondered what would happen to Merchant Turo now; they had moved him when Alex came in, used that room for Alex’s recovery.

    “Good morning,” said Bannar, sitting down at the table with her.

    “Good morning, Ser Bannar,” Sarah said.

    “I see you’ve been speaking with William. Only he and the guards call me ser anymore.”

    “I think more people call you ser than you realize. Ser.”

    “An unnecessary title, but I would be lying that it doesn’t puff an old man’s chest at the sound of it. Do you like the food?”

    “It’s delicious, ser,” she said.

    “No more ser, please,” he said, cutting off a piece of roast, and a few vegetables. William came in and poured him more water, and did the same for Sarah. They ate for a moment, and the quiet in the room was filled by clinking forks and spoons, and the raising of goblets.

    “Do you have an update for me?” Bannar said.

    “Oh gods, I’m sorry, Merchant Bannar. He asked for you,” Sarah said, embarrassed. She had begun eating, and had forgotten the purpose of her visit, and to ask about the stone. It reminded her of her first night in Toha, after Ian had pulled her from that caravan; she had ate, and ate, and ate, and for a while couldn’t remember where she was, or where she came from, or even her name. That had been a good night.

    “It is fine. Do you mind if I call you Sarah?” he said.

    “Sarah is fine,” she said.

    “Well, Sarah, if you have eaten your fill, I would like to see Alex.”

    Sarah looked wistfully at the food on the table, but stood anyway. Bannar came over to her, and they linked arms, and they walked out of the house and into the sunlight. Ian’s house wasn’t far from Bannar’s; they lived only a few streets over from one another, bracketing the edges of the nicer homes in Toha.

    “How long have you been here, Sarah?” Bannar said.

    “Twelve years, kind of,” Sarah said.

    “Longer than even I and Alex.”

    “Only a few, I believe.”

    “I don’t believe you and I have ever met before, which I find strange, in all this time of overlap.”

    “When I was twelve, Ian– Ser Hansa sent me to study as a healer in the Four Corners. I spent five years there,” she said.

    “And then came back here?” he said.

    “No, I went to Boros. Or, was supposed to go to Boros, but my group came across members of the Royal Army, bogged down after battle. We were a group of healers, some of us even trained in battlefield medicine, and they conscripted us then and there. I spent three years, until the end of the war, working for them.”

    “You’ve lived quite the life so far, Sarah Aden.”

    “Enough of one, Ser Bannar.”

    They walked in silence for a moment, arm and arm. People were out and about on this day, this perfect, cool morning. They were all the genty; all the genteel upper class of Toha, or what passed for genteel this far from the capitol. They came to the end of Bannar’s street, and made a left, walking down the main road of Toha, the only cobblestone road in the entire city. Bannar had some trouble picking up his feet, and they moved slower than they had on the firm dirt. A few times, Sarah thought she caught him stealing glances, but she was not sure.

    “The war did not reach us here,” he said.

    “I am not surprised,” she said.

    “I expected it to, to tell you the truth. I expected that we would have to fight, whether in large or small numbers. But, no; the barbarians were driven backwards, about ten leagues from here.”

    “Not so close.”

    “Close enough to see Spahn go up in flames. The loggers brought back burned, warped wood from the edge of the Grenwood; it was a novelty for a while, a thing to say that you had a souvenir from the Burning of Spahn. A disgusting practice,” he said.

    “Did you take any?” she said.

    “Oh, of course. I sold it at a high price at my shop. Let no one say that I am adverse to making money.”

    Another merchant, a young man in silk robes, bowed as he passed Bannar, who bowed in return.

    “I’ve never see him before,” Sarah said.

    “He sells weapons. Took over from his father. Danne Wallen, I believe,” Bannar said.

    “He bowed to you.”

    “And I bowed in return. We are acquaintances.”

    “And competition.”

    Bannar laughed.

    “Oh no, Madra Aden. I sell clothes and pots and pans and boots to the good folk of this town. I do not sell weapons. He is very much not my competition, and he won’t ever be, if he knows what he’s doing.”

    They came to the end of the cobble road, and took a right. There were not far from Ian’s house; she could see the front door from where they were.

    “May I ask you a personal question?” Bannar said.

    “You’ve asked me several personal questions,” Sarah said.

    “One more, then.”

    “Okay.”

    Bannar looked at her. His gaze was intense, and Sarah felt uncomfortable underneath it.

    “Did you have any family in Boros? An aunt, or a grandmother, or anything of that sort?”

    “My family is from Northmount. I was the first, and as far as I know, last person to leave the town. If I have family there, I do not know of them. Why?”

    He looked at her again, and smiled sadly.

    “You remind me of someone I knew. A spitting image of her, almost uncomfortably so. I was wondering if the two of you were related. Hopes of an old man, it seems.”

    Sarah put her hand on the door, but stopped before opening it. She turned to Bannar, who looked at her with hope, as if she had remembered something. He looked younger, more vibrant; whoever this woman had been made a difference to Bannar. But she hadn’t remembered anything; she just had a question.

    “May I ask you about the stone, Ser Bannar?” she said.

    The hope fell from his face, and it became old, and gray, and tired.

    “You are not in danger, Madra Aden, if that is what you were wondering,” he said.

    “You asked who touched it.”

    “And you did, and nothing happened. That means one of two things, both of which are inconsequential at the time being.”

    “Inconsequential?”

    Bannar’s lips tightened, and his jaw flexed. He put his own wrinkled hand on the door handle, and pushed it open.

    “If I felt it necessary, I would tell you,” he said, a different man than the one who stumbled along the cobblestone. He pushed past her, and went into Ian’s house.

II

    Harry downed his last beer; an early morning jog of the mind. Helena had cleaned him up, and the beer grounded him back in the work. Or, at least, that’s what he liked to think. Harry just liked to have a little hit in his neck when he went on early morning checks; it made him feel like he was ready to fight.

    Outside of the bar, he passed by three beggars. One of them, with long red-brown hair, had a cap in front of him. Harry bent down and put a coin in it, and the young man peered up with his dirty face.

    “Thank you,” said the beggar, and looked back down. The beggar next to him made a face. Harry nodded, and kept going.

    Nobody had come storming into his house that night; a victory, all things considered, though Harry thought it possible that they had all been covertly murdered. But it was a happier outcome; he saw Thomas at his post, arms heavy with sleep. He clapped the glass-eyed boy on the arm, jolting him awake.

    “Captain,” said Thomas, a second slow, with three blinks too many.

    “Have you been out here all night, Thomas?” Harry said.

    “Yes, Captain.”

    “Thank you. Find Wotom, tell him to take your post. Then go home, and don’t report till tomorrow morning.”

    “Yes, Captain. Thank you, Captain.”

    Thomas slapped his right arm over his chest, grabbing his left bicep; a formal salute, created and implemented by a commander long-dead on the battlefield. Harry had outlawed it long ago, but he just smiled at Thomas, and let him walk away.

    Harry went next to the Greased Pig. It wasn’t open for business, not yet; but this did not stop some of the regulars, like Water Dick and Swamp from lounging around outside. They had beers in old wooden cups, and had already drank their fill, if the sway of their legs as they tried to stand still was any indication.

    “Where’d you get the beer?” Harry said to Water Dick, who pointed inside.

    “Gita serving, but not inside,” Water Dick said. Harry went past them, and opened the door.

    Gita was in there, in breeches and a sleeveless shirt, scrubbing the blood off of the floor. She had bruises on her arms, to go along with the ones on her face; her right arm was pinned to her chest by a piece of cloth, and a knife hung from her waist. At Harry’s entrance, she stopped, and looked up at him. He thought for a moment that she would attack him, but she relaxed, and went back to cleaning.

    “Thought you might be someone looking to have a go at this place,” she said. “Was preparing to gut you.”

    “Just coming to check on you,” Harry said.

    “My arm is broken, but otherwise, I’m alright.”

    “Did you see the Healer?”

    “Saw you dragging bodies inside, figured it was best to leave it be for now.”

    “He probably has some time now. A lull in the action, as it were.”

    “More coming, then?” she said.

    Harry leaned against the bar. The blood where the young guard had been impaled was mostly clean, but the outline of his corpse was forever there, at least in Harry’s mind.

    “Yeah, more coming, I think,” he said. He stood up straight, went over, and stuck out his hand.

    “I’ll go later,” she said.

    “I’ll get someone to take care of this. Go get patched up, take some time. If action comes, everyone is going to need you at full strength,” he said.

    Gita looked up at him. She was not a woman who liked pity; none did, really, but she especially. Harry had never asked, finding that he liked his jaw and nose intact and clear of bloodstains, but he suspected Gita had come from somewhere foul, and wasn’t anxious to go back. A lot of those here in Toha, he thought.

    “Alright. But I’d like this place to actually be cleaner when I return, not just look it,” she said.

    “It will be. I promise,” he said.

    Gita stood, and brushed herself off. She and Harry went outside.

    “You’re not coming with, are you?” she said.

    “Until you make it safely to the Healer’s, yes,” he said.

    “What about Water Dick and Swamp? They’ll break into anywhere for a beer.”

    “Hey!” said Water Dick.

    “That’s not true!” said Swamp.

    Harry turned to them both. Short, stocky, fat bastards; they drank more than anybody in Toha, or at least acted as if they did. He pointed at Water Dick.

    “If you go in there, I will hang you from a tree by your balls,” Harry said. He pointed to Swamp. “And you, I’ll gut with a cheese knife. Understand?”

    They both nodded quickly, and sat down in front of the Pig, straight down into the soft dirt. Harry rolled his eyes, and he and Gita set off.

    “****ing drunks,” he said.

    “Those drunks pay me more coin than ten other customers combined. Try not to scare them off,” she said.

    “Well, if the smell is any indication, I believe I emptied both of their bladders. They’ll be dying for a drink by the time you get back.”

    She was in more distress than she let on; she moved slower and slower the closer they go to the Healer’s. He saw her bite back a yell more than once, as her foot caught on the ground, and her arm jostled against her chest. She was pale, and tired, and Harry wanted to carry her, but suspected he’d find his balls on the ground shortly thereafter.

    At the Healer’s, she didn’t speak a goodbye, or a thank you; she just went into the open door.

    “Can you help her?” Harry said.

    “I’ll do my best,” the Healer said.

    “Thank you.”

    The Healer nodded, and led Gita deeper into the house. Harry closed the door, and let them be. He had a few more things to do before he checked on Alex, as much as he wanted to go now. Those seven men that had come in the night before would need to find somewhere to bed down, and were almost surely being watched; Toha had a strange relationship to foreigners, keeping a tight eye on anyone out of place, and seven men armed to the hilt looking for a warm place to sleep would send murmurs through the less reputable channels. Harry passed by a group of merchants in fancy silks, tittering amongst themselves. Harry had never seen them before, but they struck him as strange.

    The closest inn was the Frogs and Fingers, a converted mansion that once belonged to the head of Toha. He and his wife were thought to be Channellers, the kind that kidnapped little children and frogs for their spells and potions; they were drug out into the street, and sodomized, and burned alive. It turned out they were spies for the Korodan, so, there’s that.

    The Fingers always had a guard out front; it was mostly for show, to make those few passing-through travellers think this was a place where they were safe. But in truth the Fingers regularly stole from it’s patrons; caravan merchants resting for a night woke up with lighter wallets, but none of that money was ever found. Anyone with experience (sense, after stepping in the place), would go a few streets over to the Sunshine, and pay extra to not get Fingered.

    “Morning, Sam,” Harry said to the guard outside.

    “Morning, Captain,” said Sam. “You here about those boys that came in last night?”

    Harry smiled.

    “As a matter of fact, I am.”

    “Lady Andrea said you might. She’s out back, tending to the well.”

    “Thanks, Sam. Be safe.”

    “You too, Captain.”

    The Fingers did have one distinct advantage: they had their own well, and no other inn could boast of such a luxury. Most houses shared a well, set on a piece of land in the city shared in ownership by those houses, but a lucky few owned land where houses had been built around or next to a source of groundwater. Those houses often went for twenty times the price, and the owners had to be careful about where they left the deed; should you find a magistrate looking for coin, and have a talented forger at command, one could steal it out from the proper owner. The penalty for such malfeasance used to be a fine, and a two month expulsion from Toha, but Harry had executed one thief and his forger for the crime, and it had become less common in the five years since.

    The well was in a covered portion of the inn; it was not apart of the inn, per se, but built around it and attached to the existing structure. Lady Andrea took care of it herself, not trusting anyone else to maintain the well, which was smart; should some worker poison the water, finally running off the last gullible customer (or putting them in the ground), then Lady Andrea would have to sell; she would find no shortage of buyers.

    “They’re in the second room on the fourth floor,” Lady Andrea said when Harry stepped into the well room. She was fixing the crank on the well, replacing it with a new one. She was a muscular woman, with dark skin, and dark hair, pulled back into a ponytail. A sword sat against the wall, bigger than Harry’s.

    “May I say hello first?” Harry said.

    “Hello, Harry. They’re in the second room on the fourth floor.”

    “Any trouble with them? “

    “None. But I suspect they know we’re watching them.”

    “Why?”

    “I’m an professional thief, allegedly. I can tell when someone is hiding secrets,” she said.

    “Quite a power you have, Lady Andrea,” he said.

    “That,” she said, “or I have ways to listen into their conversations. They know, and do not care that we know that they know.”

    “Any word on what they’re planning?”

    “Nothing. Just keep your eye out. If they were to disappear, and, say, the Grenwood bears got a nice, hearty meal, I wouldn’t be off-kilter.”

    “They just might. Morning, Lady Andrea,” he said.

    “Morning, Captain Reyna.”

    Harry left her to it.

    Something struck him as off about the whole thing. It was a trap, but not; a taunt, but a shrug. He did not know what the point of all of this was; if they wanted to spring an attack on Toha, take whatever it was they came for, there were myriad ways to do it. But to come in, armed, and then not care about being surveilled puzzled Harry. The only people who would even notice them would be those who they would eventually have to answer to, and though he was no tactical genius, he was pretty sure that giving up the element of surprise was a bad idea.

    He went up the stairs, heading to the fourth floor; his stomach rumbled, and that early morning beer came back to his throat. He felt nauseous climbing the stairs; felt something deep underneath; he felt fear has he made his way to that fourth floor. He stopped, and caught his breath. This felt off, and he did not like it, and so he went back down the stairs, and out the front doors.

    Outside, he saw those men in the silks, putting money in the hats of those beggars he had seen before. But something was off there, too; they seemed to be actively hiding themselves now, positioned in a darker corner, partially behind some barrels. The men in silks were also strangely positioned; backs mostly turned to him, all three bending over to put money in the cap. The only part of them he could not see were their faces.

    Around him, the rest of the world took no notice, not of one another. They all freely showed their faces, let their eyes and ears and mouths and noses be lit up by warm sun. But not the beggars, and not the men in the silk robes. And then one of them shifted, one of the beggars, and looked up at him, just for an instant, and he knew: they were watching him.

    His heart turned hot, and his fingers tingled. He walked on, smiling at the passerby, and made his way down the road. They would not follow him again, of that he was sure; they had slipped up, for some reason; they had shown their hand, and he did not know why. But this much was certain: he was a target, and if he was a target, it meant they were here for something larger. That fear from before, that fear as he climbed the stairs, returned, and washed over him. But along with it came a thrill, and Harry thought of the man with the hammer, and the way his head hung half off his neck; he found himself anxious to do it again, to these men; and that, more than anything else, sent a chill down the back of his neck.

III

    They were at Ian’s worn dinner table, Alex and Bannar, and neither of them could find the words, at first. Alex wanted to apologize, but had been struck dumb when he saw Bannar; he wondered if the man who had pulled him from the dirt was mad at him, and he wondered if he would be able to withstand it.

    “Alex,” Bannar said, finally.

    “Yes, Merchant Bannar?” Alex said, fearful.

    “How are you feeling?”

    “Better than yesterday.”

    “I am very glad to hear that, old friend. Very glad indeed.”

    Bannar reached out across the table, and gave Alex’s hand a squeeze; Alex felt hot tears in his eyes, and he blinked them back.

    “I thought you were going to be upset with me,” Alex said.

    “Gods no, Alex. Why would you think that?” Bannar said.

    “I was supposed to protect the store, and your things, and–”

    “It’s okay. I promise.”

    Alex nodded, a weight lifted. He felt stupid, now; of course Bannar wouldn’t be upset. He had pulled him from the ****ing dungeon in the capitol; would he really be phased by a small explosion? Absurd to even consider it.

    “I do need to ask you a few question,” he said. Alex nodded.

    “Okay,” Alex said.

    “Did you touch the stone?”

    “Yes.”

    “Did you blow up the shop.”

    “Yes,” Alex said, reluctantly. Bannar smiled, squeezed his hand again.

    “It’s alright,” he said, “thank you for answering truthfully. Now, Healer Ian told me that you experienced a warmth when he was using his mending spell on you. Is that true?”

    “Yes. Is that bad? Am I okay?”

    “You’re fine, but it does tell us something important.”

    “What?”

    “One more question: have you been having strange dreams since you touched it? Have you seen things that you’ve never seen before?”

    Alex nodded, and Bannar sighed. He sat back in his chair, and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He knocked on the table, and Ian came in.

    “It’s what you thought,” Bannar said.

    “Then we need to get him out of here,” Ian said.

    “What? Why?” Alex said. Ian turned to Alex.

    “There are two kinds of magic users, or Channelers: those with a well of natural magic within, and those who draw it from themselves,” Ian said. “I have no well of magic, no reserve to pull from; each drop I use comes from my own body. Someone like Healer Oros in the Four Corners has a reserve of magic to use; it’s like writing a pen that has ink pot to fill it, versus one that writes with your own blood. You have a magical reserve.”

    “We know,” Bannar said, as Alex opened his mouth, “because you were able to feel the effects of that mending spell. Most do not feel healing spells; they feel a tingling, or something like it, and they’re healed. But those with reserves feel it almost as an emotion; almost as a state of mind. It leaves you open to extra anguish when hit with something evil, or dark, as well.”

    “Did the stone give me this magic?” Alex said.

    “The stone activates magic within those who have it, but in whom it lays dormant. They are rare, indeed, and worth a fortune. They are also dangerous, as you experienced, for anyone who touches it that has no magic within will be badly injured, as the Void Shadows made the stones, and they were unpleasant men. For those who already have magic already, it does nothing at all, ” Bannar said. Alex saw Ian’s eyes widen, and something flash across his face; but just as quickly, it was gone.

    “Excuse me,” Ian said, and left the room. Bannar watched after him, and then looked back at Alex.

    “I can use magic?” Alex said, and Bannar nodded.

    “You’ll require training, lest you hurt yourself and others, but that seems to be the case. But that will have to wait for now. We’re going to get you out of the city, into the Grenwood, until you can recover,” Bannar said.

    “Why would I got into the Grenwood?”

    “That stone just woke magic up in you. Many people have magic reserves that the magic itself did not see fit to activate. It takes a massive amount of power to wake up a Channeller, and people are bound to notice. I do not want anything to happen to you again.”

    Bannar stood, slowly. He looked tired, and worn.

    “Can I help you, Ser Bannar?” Alex said.

    “Don’t call me ser, for one. But thank you, Alex. Just rest. That will be enough for me,” Bannar said. Ian came back into the room. He looked troubled.

    “May I speak with you for a moment, Lucas?” Ian said.

    “Of course,” Bannar said, turning to Alex. “Rest, please. You’ll be moved tonight.”

    Bannar and Ian walked out together. Alex remained at the table. His head was spinning, and he felt nauseous. He felt a laugh bubble up his throat, and it came out as a half-cackle, and that half-cackle made him laugh again, and before he knew it, he had laid his head on the table, laughing so hard that he began to cry. Eventually, he sat up, and contained his laughter to a few chuckles, and gasps. He wiped his eyes.

“Gods above,” he said, sniffling, “what the **** is going on?”

IV

He had peeked. Joseph knew that Ethan had peeked, regardless of protestations to the country. Ethan had peeked, and there was no doubt that the old guard knew that they were following him.

    “I doubt he knows,” Ethan said.

    “You saw his demeanor, Ethan,” Joseph said. They had relocated from the Frogs and Fingers, outside of the city. The four men disguised as rich merchants had changed their disguise, and moved over to the Sunshine; the weapons had left with Joseph, Ethan, and Tenzo. They were in a makeshift cabin, once owned by a family of loggers, now buried in the backyard. Tenzo was outside, packing snow to melt down for water; tomorrow, he would go down to the river and bathe and clean the weapons, and bring water, too; but it was too dangerous for them to move around like that now.

Joseph and Ethan were fixing dinner for that night.

    “He was probably spooked by those fools in the silks. Bloody fools probably tipped him off, which would be why he didn't go up to the bloody room at the inn. Surprised us all,” Ethan said.

    “You looked at him,” Joseph said.

    “So what? You weren’t looking at him? Tenzo wasn’t looking at him? You think Hiseni or Itho or the others weren’t staring?”

    “Not one of them stared so brazenly. You made an error, and have put this operation in danger.”
    Ethan slammed a dish down as he cleaned it, and it broke on the table.

    “You put this operation in danger when you hired mercenaries to find the merchant. They made a ruckus, and put the town on alert!” Ethan said.

    “The town being on alert was an acceptable outcome, as you very well know,” Joseph said.

    “You deny your failure, but accentuate mine? Cowardly, Joseph. Cowardly.”

    Ethan swept the pieces of broken plate off the table. Joseph’s mouth tightened, but he said nothing. Ethan cared not for this house; he had been the one to find it, and the one to gut those who lived in it, but Joseph did care. Blood spilled should be blood earned; that is, a fair fight, with reasonable motive, should be the only reason a knife or sword or bow is drawn. But Ethan trained under Master Gramma, and Ethan killed whatever stood adjacent to him, regardless of the consequences.

    “They will prepare for us now,” Joseph said.

    “Good. I grow tired of waiting. We should just take the town, and execute anyone who will not lead us to the stone and the magic it awakened.”

    “We are seven men. Not enough for a town as large as Toha.”

    “Then we call our brothers, and we take the town then.”

    Ethan placed out more plates, leaving them intact this time. He went outside, and took the pig he was roasting on the spit, and brought it inside. Joseph cleaned up the shards on the floor, and then laid out the cutlery. The family had no silver forks and knives and spoons; just rough wooden utensils, probably cut by the family themselves. Joseph’s father had been a sculptor, and he admired the craft work. He would’ve liked to meet the person who cut the forks and knives and spoons

Tenzo came back with melted snow He set down two large buckets, careful not to slosh them. He came to the table with a smile, enjoying the warmth from the fire, and from the satisfaction that came from completing a task.

“Pour the water,” Ethan said to Tenzo, who did, though Joseph saw anger on his face. He wished, not for the first time, that he had brought a youngling along instead of Ethan. Ethan was a talented swordsmen, one filled with a bloodlust so great that he could take down ten men and feel no fear nor fatigue, but he wore on the nerves; had Hiseni been here, instead of Tenzo, Ethan would’ve long been buried, facing the sun, as were his wishes.

Tenzo poured the water, and they sat down at the table. They each ate slowly, and in silence. Tenzo prayed first, as he always did; he was a devoted follower of the Smiling Gods, while Joseph had been raised as a worshipper of the Bloodied Four. He no longer practiced, not since he joined the Rei, but he still remembered the prayers at the table, and the sacrifices after every meal.

Joseph had never seen Ethan pray, though he knew that he had been in seminary for the Smiling Gods, before joining with them. The Rei attracted all types, all for various reasons, and rare was the man that was turned down. Joseph disagreed with allowing all willing to become members, but he was a good soldier, and he followed orders.

Ethan finished first, and went outside to piss. Tenzo looked at Joseph when he was gone; he was upset.

“He told me to pour the water,” Tenzo said.

“I heard,” Joseph said.

“He does not like me.”

“Nor I.”

“I think I should kill him.”

“Not now,” Joseph said.

“If he touches one of the people who gave coin, I will kill him,” Tenzo said.

“I know. I am not against it.”

“He is too angry for this mission. Too angry, and too proud, to believe in the cause.”

“Perhaps. But his strength in battle is worth the agony he causes. At least for now. I will speak to the Council when I return.”

“Thank you.”

Tenzo stood. They had stashed their bedrolls against the wall, and Tenzo unrolled his. They had started a fire in the fireplace, and Tenzo laid his bedroll in front of it. He crawled upon it, and closed his eyes, and, within moments, was fast asleep. Joseph envied him. He could not fall asleep so easily.

Ethan came back inside, still stuffing his cock back into his breeches. He sighed upon seeing Tenzo.

    “Little bastard finally fell asleep,” he said, slumping down at the table.

    “You should be nicer to him,” Joseph said.

    “The nicest thing I could do would be cut his throat. A believer in the Smiling Gods. What a moron.”

    “All religions are welcome in the Rei.”

    “For now.”

    Ethan grabbed his bedroll, and placed it in the corner.

    “Tomorrow,” Ethan said, “I am going into town to look for that merchant. Are you coming?”

    Joseph looked at him. The plan they had all agreed upon, when leaving Toha, was to lie low for a few days. But Ethan was impatient, and desired to rule over Joseph and Tenzo, and the rest; he would go regardless of orders, or the like.

    “Tenzo and I are coming, yes,” Joseph said. Ethan nodded, and laid on his bedroll, and rolled onto his side, back facing Joseph. He thought he was shaming Joseph, showing that he was unafraid to face the wall, unafraid to show his vulnerable back; but it was a relief for Joseph, for every time he saw Ethan’s face, he wanted to drive a knife straight through it.

    Joseph went outside, and took a piss.


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