Chapter 11: The Scythe’s Blood
As Brandyé and Elven followed the turns and corners of the small streets of Daevàr’s Hut, night came wholly upon them, and what light there was came from open doorways, and uncurtained windows, and flicking lanterns along the alleys. From the doors of inns came raucous laughter and sometimes fights, but in the streets themselves there were now few people.
Elven seemed sure of his direction, and marched on down one street and another, Brandyé following him, now hopelessly lost. He would have to pass the night with Elven at this rate, for he could not possibly find his way back to the Stone Rose in the dark.
It was as he was following Elven, passing a tiny alley that led between two houses, that Brandyé heard a scuffle, and raised voices. He had heard such things for some time now in the evening of Daevàr’s Hut, but this noise gave him cause to halt, for one of the voices carried a tone of fear. Silently, he retraced his steps, and peered carefully around the corner of the building, and stared deep into the unlit alley.
There were shapes, and movement, of this he was certain. He could not make out their forms, but it seemed there were two men, one taller than the other. The short one was angry: “I’ve given yeh three weeks, Freyd – three weeks! D’yeh know how many men get that long? None, that’s how many!”
The taller man, Freyd, was pleading: “Yeh’ve been so kind, yeh have – I ent doubtin’ yer word on that! Yeh know I’m always glad o’ yer help, and the missus, well she an’ the lads ate well for the first time in a month, and I was so glad, I was…” he was whimpering now. “But Dougan, he had me under lock an’ key for the past two nights, I couldn’a got it back to yeh, I couldn’t!”
The short man’s voice became now a threat. “It don’t matter to me what yeh do, or where yeh go. I helps yeh, and I expect a fair repayment. So far, I ent had it, Freyd. Not one penny. What’re we goin’ to do about it, eh? I ask yeh, what?”
The tall man became terrified, and tears were in his voice as he said, “Please – please Howarth, let me have one more day, jus’ one – I beg yeh!”
“If I let everyone have jus’ one more day, I’d not have a whole lot fer myself, would I?” Rand said, and his voice was thick with false reassurance. “We can’t have exceptions, Freyd; yeh understand.”
Brandyé wasn’t certain what followed, but there was a sound of metal scraping on stone, a rush of air, and suddenly a loud crack, and Freyd gave a scream of pain. Brandyé saw his dim shape drop to its knees, and a flush of anger rushed to his face. Memories of the tall boy under Soleheart rose in his mind, and before he knew quite what he was doing, he found himself marching towards the two men, the black blade unsheathed now in his hand.
The man in the shadows saw him as he approached, and seemed to draw back for a moment, surprised by his appearance. He clutched what appeared to be a long shaft of metal, and it dragged on the cobble as he turned to face him. “Get out o’ here, lad – this don’t concern yeh,” he growled.
Perhaps it was the rapidity of Brandyé’s approach, or perhaps his failure to respond as he sped onwards, but the man in the shadows had not even raised his club as Brandyé fell upon him, and struck him to the ground. In a moment, Brandyé had crouched over the man’s chest, and the point of his blade pressed deep into the man’s throat.
“I am concerned,” Brandyé muttered, low and threatening, “to see a man struck defenseless by a coward.”
The tall man, the one who had been struck, hissed and crawled away, and his leg dragged behind him, wounded. Brandyé turned to see him, and the man beneath him shifted, but at the movement Brandyé’s blade pressed deeper still, and the man did not move. Instead, he spoke, “Yeh don’t know what yeh’re doin, fool. Get off!” His voice was weak and rasped.
Brandyé looked back at him in fury, and in the close darkness could smell the beer on his breath and the fear on his skin. He sought to sting the man yet further with a cutting remark, but from behind he heard the sound of hooves on stone, and a lantern was suddenly held high above him.
“What is this?” a voice commanded. “A thieving, is it? Release him, boy!”
Brandyé withdrew his blade and swept it beneath his cloak once more, and released the man beneath him. As he stood, the man’s face fell into the lantern’s light, and he saw the man was not young, and a trickle of blood seeped from his wrinkled neck. The man stood also, and his hand was on his throat. For a moment, he merely panted, and then he spoke: “Not before time, sir! Freydar Longboot there were givin’ trouble again, and then this lad” –he pointed at Brandyé– “gets himself mixed up in business he don’t understand–”
“Enough, Howarth,” the commanding voice spoke, and Brandyé saw now it belonged to a jacketed constable on a high horse, and he had a short sword drawn. “I know well what business is yours.” He looked down at Brandyé, who squinted in the light. “You, boy – what is your name, and what business do you have in Newtall Alley at night?”
Brandyé did not want to reply, for fear his grandfather should discover his deed, yet he dared not refuse this officer an answer. As he considered his words, the short man, Howarth, uttered a cry. “Stop him! Sir, see – he’s tryin’ to flee!” Indeed, the man who lay still on the ground, Freyd, was still trying to drag himself out of the alley and away from both Howarth and the constable.
The constable swiftly brought his steed around and cut off Freyd’s path. Then, in a sudden move, he reversed his grip on his sword and brought the pommel down hard across the man’s skull. Freyd let out a small moan, and collapsed on the ground and did not move further.
Brandyé stood in shock at this scene, and would have cried in protest had Elven not at that moment grasped his sleeve and hauled him mightily from the alley, and out of the constable’s lantern. “What happened?” Elven whispered forcefully. “I looked, and you were not there!”
Uncertain, Brandyé continued to look back towards the alley, form which none of the three men had yet emerged. He could hear the voices, subdued now, of Howarth and the constable.
“You were careless, Howarth,” he overheard the constable say.
“That curs’d boy!” Howarth replied. “It’d’ve all been quiet like, if it weren’t for him. Yeh’d not have known–”
“Careless,” interrupted the constable. “The law is not yours to enforce.”
“Careful,” said Howarth, and there was now menace in his tone. “Don’t start treadin’ a path yeh can’t turn back on. This man” –he spat at Freyd’s unmoving form– “has crimed against me, and so had crimed against the lords.”
“That may be so,” said the constable. “But such is not for you to judge.”
Brandyé, listening to the hushed voices, was encouraged; it seemed the constable had arrived in time to save Freyd from a savage fate.
“If yeh know what’s good fer yeh, yeh’ll finish it now,” growled Howarth.
“You do not command me,” said the constable, and his voice was now higher. “This man will return to the Hut with me, and there he will be judged.”
Howarth spat once more, in disgust. “Fine – have it yer way. It’s all the same in the end.”
Brandyé breathed in relief, and turned to Elven. “That man, Howarth, was treacherous. It is fortunate that constable appeared when he did.”
But Elven’s words were not comforting: “Of that I would not be certain,” he replied. “Come – we must make haste. And do not hesitate for anything!”
At a quickened pace, he led Brandyé through the dark streets, and in a few minutes they had arrived at a small apothecary. Light could be seen from a window above, but through the front glass of the shop, little could be seen. Elven drew forth a key, and let them in, latching the door shut once more behind them.
“Take care,” he told Brandyé, “for there are many bottles and instruments in this room that will break easily, and it is difficult to see in this gloom. Follow me.” Delicately, Elven led Brandyé across the shop, and through a door. A narrow staircase led up, and the dim flicker of a lantern now lit their way. At the top of the stairs were three further doors, one of which stood ajar, and through which the light shone forth. Elven bade Brandyé wait a moment, and slipped into the room. Through the door, he saw Elven move softly to a table by the window, upon which lay a half-eaten meal. In a large chair by a dwindling fire, an old man sat, seemingly fast asleep, his chin upon his breast.
From the table, Elven stole some bread, cheese and wine, and slipped quietly back into the landing. “I would not disturb Sörhend,” he spoke softly, “for he is old and in need of rest.”
As Elven led Brandyé through a second door, he was reminded that his grandfather, also old and in need of rest, still knew not where he was. He raised this with Elven as he lit a small lantern beside his bed.
“I have not yet sent word to Reuel,” he said, “and I fear it is now too late to pass through the streets.”
Elven set their victuals upon a flat-lidded trunk, and whistled softly. There was a sudden flutter, and from the gloom of a corner came a full-grown falcon, which came to rest on the bed. Elven offered her a morsel of ham, which she devoured eagerly. Brandyé had forgotten about Sonora, and smiled in wonder. “She has grown so large!”
“Indeed,” replied Elven, “and useful, also. This is what I wished you to see.” With growing wonder, Brandyé observed as Elven drew forth a scrap of parchment and a quill, and scratched: Dear Reuel, Brandyé is safe. He shall pass the night with me, for it is too far to travel by night to the Stone Rose. We will return on the morrow. Concerned, Elven Dottery.
When he was finished, Elven rolled the scrap tightly, and, taking a length of string, fastened it securely to Sonora’s leg. She did not protest, and allowed him to tie it without disturbance. When he had finished, Elven leant close to her, and said, “Make haste, Sonora; this message must arrive swiftly in the hands of Reuel Tolkaï, at the Stone Rose.”
With a nod of consent, Sonora flapped her wings, and leapt off the bed and passed through the open window into the night.
“I do not believe it,” Brandyé uttered.
“I do not have much reckoning of birds,” said Elven, “but she is intelligent beyond measure. Though she cannot speak, she appears to understand every word I speak to her. I could not ask for a better companion. She will deliver the message to Reuel, without fail, and will return without it.”
There seemed little else to say of this astonishing discovery, and Elven invited Brandyé to sit beside him on the bed. Together, they heartily tucked in to their supper, and for many minutes said nothing while they ate.
After some time, when most of the bread had been eaten and his cup mostly empty, Brandyé asked Elven something that had been on his mind since the encounter in the alley. “You said it was not fortunate that the constable intervened between those two men,” he said. “I do not understand. The one had clearly crimed against the other; will he not receive punishment in due course?”
“That man, Howarth – I know of him. He gives money to those who have little, but asks for twice in return. I have heard disturbing tales of what happens to those who do not repay him, but tonight is the first time I have witnessed it. He is a dangerous man.”
“But surely the constabulary should put an end to such deviousness,” said Brandyé. “Tonight he is caught.”
Elven shook his head. “Alas, were it only so. The constabulary are in the service of the Fortunaé, and it happens that much of Howarth’s ill-gained profit passes into their pockets. It is not for Howarth you should be concerned.”
“That is unjust!” Brandyé cried.
“Make less noise,” Elven cautioned him. “It is unjust. If you are in the service of the lords, you are protected, and if you are not, you may be punished for the slightest transgression. I heard tell of a man who was kept without food for twelve nights, because he asked payment from a noble for an apple.”
Brandyé was aghast. “And yet you are happy to live here? How do you not dwell in fear?”
“I am content here,” Elven replied. “In this house, apprenticed to Sörhend. I enjoy the company of those I have met in the streets. But I knew not of such injustices when I came; this town has not the magic I had once thought.”
The Fortunaé are cruel,” Brandyé muttered, and he was bitter. “I see now whence the lord Garâth’s son learnt his ways.”
“I do not think they are deliberately cruel,” Elven said. “They are hungry for power and wealth. Their cruelty is reserved only for those who would impede this.”
“It is the most terrible thing I have heard,” Brandyé growled. “What will happen to the man, Freyd?”
Elven shrugged. “He will be tortured, most likely.”
“We must rescue him!” exclaimed Brandyé. “He has done no wrong!”
“That is not likely,” replied Elven. “Rescuing a man from the Hut is not the same as rescuing a bird from a group of boys.”
Brandyé’s fists tightened. “Something should be done,” he said.
Elven looked closely at his friend, and saw a deep resentment in his eyes. Perhaps it came from a lifetime of isolation and being outcast, but Brandyé was clearly upset to learn of such corruption, and he knew his friend well. Brandyé would dwell on this, would not forget, and would, eventually, plot to do something about it. To frightened Elven, for he knew that such a course of action might lead to disastrous consequences. “You will stay here tonight,” he said. “Sleep; do not consider this further for now. Tomorrow, we shall venture out – there are people I would like you to meet.”
Brandyé was clearly still angry, but he did not speak. For some time, the two sat in silence, and finished their bread and wine. It was just as they were preparing to snuff the lantern and turn in, that there was a sudden fluttering at the window, and Sonora flew back into the room. To Brandyé’s surprise, there was a still a roll of parchment fastened to her leg. He turned to Elven. “You said she would not return without delivering the message,” he said.
“She has not. This is not my note.” Elven untied the tiny scroll, unravelled it, and read:
I thank you most full-heartedly for your message. I am gladdened to know you are well, and that Brandyé is with you tonight. I insist, of course, that we meet for lunch tomorrow. Perhaps you can suggest a good tavern? This is a most clever bird you have.
Warm greetings –
For a moment, the two looked at each other, and quite suddenly, began to laugh. There was such mirth in the idea that Reuel and thought to use Sonora to write back to them that Brandyé’s mood was quite improved, and for a little while, it felt to them as though they were once more under the branches of Soleheart, and free of any worries at all.
The following morning was spent, by Brandyé and Elven, in Elven guiding them around the town at a slower pace, and Brandyé was able to appreciate to splendor of the place. They crossed the bridge and passed by the Hut, which was even larger when one was close to it. They stopped by the Stone Rose, but Reuel was out, and they left word with Ron of their passing. By noon, they had travelled much of the town, and were both quite hungry, and so Elven suggested they find lunch. He led Brandyé to a quiet back street that was far from the crowds, and indeed looked much like the alleyway in which the fight of the previous night had taken place. At first Brandyé saw nothing of note at all, but as Elven led him to a door that hung crooked on its hinges, he saw a sign, pale and faded: The King’s Den. They entered and all was dim, and the air smelled of beer and mould.
There were a few men here, and most were sitting alone. They were rough; bearded, or unshaven, most with unkempt hair, and drab and beaten dress. There was much smoke in the air, and it drifted blue through a single shaft of sunlight that cast itself upon the floor. As the door behind them closed, all eyes turned to them, and what little conversation there was, ceased.
Brandyé was concerned; these men appeared dangerous, and he was certain he perceived at least one dagger hid beneath a tunic. He drew himself, up, and remembered the black dagger of his own, hidden beneath his own vest. He would not fight, he told himself; yet it was reassuring to be thus armed.
Yet his fears were unfounded; after a moment, the men of the King’s Den returned to their business, and Elven moved forward to address the keeper. “Good noon, Faevre,” he said. “Have you anything to eat?”
The keeper grunted, and replied, “Yeh know it, Elven – only the best!” and he grinned, and Brandyé saw missing teeth. “Some luncheon, yeh’re lookin’ fer, eh?”
“That would be gracious, Faevre. Tell me – is Aiden here today?”
“Aye, he’s in the back, as usual,” Faevre said. “Shall I bring yer meal to yeh there?”
“Please,” replied Elven. “Tea, also, if you do not mind.”
There was a curtained doorway in the back of the room, and through this they passed, into a small and secluded annex. Here there were also men, but in a group, gathered on stools around a table. They looked up as Elven and Brandyé entered, and one stood and confronted them.
“Good noon,” he said, and there was a note of warning in his tone. “Have you come to eat?”
“My friend tells me this is a good place,” Brandyé said.
At this the man turned on him. “I know you not,” he said. “If it is food you seek, you are welcome to find a table elsewhere.” To Elven, he said, “You are foolish, to bring him here. Return alone, or do not return.”
Brandyé, at his hostility, was indeed ready to depart, but Elven said, “Do not worry, Harmà; this is a friend. I have known him all my life, and I have seen he would be sympathetic to us.”
The man growled, but from behind him, another at the table spoke. “Do you trust him, Elven?”
“With my life,” Elven replied.
The man nodded, and bade them come forward. The man called Harmà grunted. “With all of our lives, more like,” he muttered, but he also returned to the table and regained his seat.
The man who had spoken to Brandyé leaned forward as he and Elven sat at the table. Brandyé looked upon him, and saw his crooked nose, dark eyes, and hair that draped his shoulders. Mostly, he saw the white scar than marked his cheek, and knew this man was Aiden, and commanded this group of people.
“Welcome, friend of Elven,” he spoke, and his voice rasped but was not threatening. “What do you call yourself?”
“I am Brandyé.” He had been ready to say more, but something held him back; a thought that, among this company, anonymity was desirable.
The man did not seem to mind. “And I am Aiden. I have heard Elven speak of you, in passing. It is good to see your face.”
“I regret I cannot say the same,” said Brandyé. I do not know who you are.” The man barked a laugh, and Brandyé was encouraged to ask, “How is it you come to be acquainted with Elven?”
“That is a matter of gravity,” spoke Aiden. “Should you hear it, you will be under oath among us not to repeat it, nor any other words that are spoken here.” Though he did not mention the consequences of breaking this oath, Brandyé knew from his voice that they would be unpleasant. Aide fixed him with a potent stare, and said, “Do you take this oath? You may choose now without penalty; if your answer is yes, we will speak. If your answer is no, you must leave now, and not return.” To Elven, he said, “Remember this, Elven – this man is your lifelong friend; if he now says no, you are no longer to speak to him of us, nor of any of our doings.”
Elven nodded his understanding. Brandyé gazed hard at Aiden, whose look was like steel. These men were a mystery, and whatever their business was, it was certain to be clandestine. Yet Elven was among them, and though Elven’s judgement was at times flawed, but his heart was never false. He would commit to these men, and take their oath, and as much he said to Aiden.
With this Aiden seemed satisfied; he leaned back, and folded his arms. “You have visited Daevàr’s Hut before now?” he asked Brandyé.
“Never,” he replied.
“You have seen the work of the Fortunaé.”
“Were you pleased?”
“I am not,” Brandyé said.
“Speak of why,” commanded Aiden.
“In my village, I have seen injustice at their hands. A boy of Fortuna found pleasure in the torture of animals; for their defense I was to receive lashes. His father is Garâth; for falling in mud he has risen our tax by eightfold, and has starved our people.”
“There is more, is there not,” said Aiden.
Brandyé looked down, and felt shame. “The villagers hold me accountable. The blame is mine, they say, for causing injury to the lord’s son. My grandfather also, for they believe he startled the lord’s horses.”
“You would seek vengeance,” said Aiden.
“For yourself, or your people?”
“Both,” said Brandyé. “I am punished through them, but they should not suffer for my deeds.”
Aiden nodded slowly. “The injustice you have seen is widespread. You have perhaps born witness to this since you have been in this town?”
“Yes. A man, last night – he was taken to the Hut for being struck down by another.”
“That would’ve been Howarth,” growled Harmà.
“You know of him?” asked Brandyé.
“He is a villain,” spoke another at the table. “He sought only the means to move to the country and raise sheep, but when the sheep died, he could not repay him. Men of Howarth threatened him with violence, and soon thereafter his wife was found drowned in the river.” The man’s voice became thick. “They say it was misfortune, but he knew otherwise; she could swim, and the river there is not swift. Now my wife and I have taken him in, and his two boys, for he cannot care for them himself, and their farm is derelict.”
Harmà lay a hand on the man’s arm. “Speak no more, Gordin. What is done, is done.”
Gordin lay his head in his hands, and was silent. Aiden spoke once more to Brandyé. “This is a taste of what the Fortunaé have wrought on our lands. Their power has turned to greed, and their greed has brought corruption. Men such as Howarth are permitted to act without penalty, and the coins they gather line the coffers of the Fortunaé. Even the other houses of power submit to their will.”
He would have spoken more, but their discourse was interrupted by Faevre, who pushed his way through the curtain, carrying platters laden with meat and cheese. “Here yeh are, lads,” he said as he laid their meal before them. “Dig in, and yer tea’ll be with yeh in no time.” He smiled favorably at Aiden. “On the house, nat’rally.”
He left, and Aiden turned once more to Brandyé. “You see what is happening to Consolation. Did you know ‘Consolation’ means comfort after sorrow? Our lands are no longer fit to bear their name!”
Brandyé looked at his food, and found he could not eat. “All this is tragic,” he said, “but is common knowledge to those who would seek it. What has the greed of the Fortunaé to do with you, and your need for secrecy?”
“There are those who would not have the foul hand of the Fortunaé upon them,” said Harmà. His gaze bore upon Brandyé: “Such men would be dangerous; they would be called out as dissenters but the lord house, and right so – they would seek the downfall of the Fortunaé.”
“Such men would have to need of discretion,” said Aiden. “Their discourse must be hidden from all who are not trusted. Only those within their true circle would be privileged to know of, and take part in, their deeds.”
Elven lay his hand upon Brandyé’s arm. “Such a group of men would be grateful for supporters; those whose passion is theirs, who could be trusted, and who could seek support outside of this town.”
“In the northern villagers, perhaps?” suggested Brandyé.
“Wherever such support may be found,” said Aiden. “This would be a community of those who tend the fields of the lords, and build the homes of the lords, and receive nought but punishment in return. Those who have shed their blood for their masters in vain. Their support would be sought far and wide. Their mark would be seen throughout the land.”
“What would that mark be?” asked Brandyé.
Harmà drew forth a piece of parchment, and laid it flat upon the table. Upon it, drawn crude and unmistakably in rusted blood, was a scythe, and its portent was clear: this was the mark of the suffering peasant, risen against his masters.