The Brothers Candril

The Brothers Candril

by

Elaine Young
copyright 2009 © All Rights Reserved

“Iliard, wake up!”

Iliard Candril rolled away from his brother’s grasping hand.  “Leave me alone, Bert.  I haven’t slept in two days.”

Bertrand grabbed his brother’s shoulder and yanked him back over.  “You have to get up now!”

Iliard’s eyes flew open and he shoved Bertrand away from him.  “What in all the hells is wrong with you?  Just because you don’t need sleep doesn’t mean I don’t.”

“We have to get out of here now,” Bertrand replied as he grabbed his backpack and started shoving his things into it.

Iliard sat up.  “What did you do now?”

“I didn’t do anything,” Bertrand snapped.

“Then why are we running away?”

“Because the city guards are coming.”

Iliard got out of bed and started pulling on his breeches.  “The city guard?  Why?  What happened?  What did you do?”

“I told you,” Bertrand retorted, “I didn’t do anything.  I’m the one who got robbed.”

Iliard finished pulling on his shirt.  “Robbed?  If you got robbed, then why is the city guard after you?”

Bertrand threw Iliard’s backpack on the bed.  “When I tried to get my money back, she screamed and hollered until someone called the guards.  She told them I tried to rape her.”

“She?!  You mean that girl from the tavern?  Blessed Asaeria, Bert!  Why is it that every time you see a pretty face and a pair of overlarge breasts you turn into a blithering idiot?”  Iliard buckled on his sword belt then asked, “I’m not sure I want to know, but how did you get away from the guards?”

“I…well there were only two of them at the time.  I knocked one of them out cold and the other one…”

When Bertrand stopped speaking, Iliard’s eyes went wide.  “Please don’t tell me you killed him.”

“I don’t know,” Bertrand replied.  “He drew on me.  I cut him, but I don’t think I killed him.”

“Don’t think?!  That’s your problem, you don’t think!  Taelerion’s beard!  We just got to Narsacalius and now we have to leave.”  He turned away from Bertrand, muttering to himself as he pulled on his boots and loaded up his backpack.  He tied back his shoulder-length brown hair and tied his money pouch to his belt.  He buckled on his shoulder sheath and said, “Let’s get out of here before they hang us both.”

Bertrand opened the door then quickly closed it again.  “The guards are downstairs.”  He turned the key in the lock then threw it on the bed.  “We’ll have to go out the window.”

“We’re on the second floor!  Damn it Bert!”  Iliard picked up his backpack and opened the shutters to the warm night air.  Looking at his brother’s height and broad shoulders, he said, “You’re going to have a hell of a time getting through there.  You’d better go first.”

“Why, so you can push me out?”

“The thought crossed my mind.”  Iliard tilted his head.  “You should go now, they’re coming up the stairs.”

Bertrand went to the window and threw his backpack out.  Turning sideways, he put one leg through, eased his shoulders out, grabbed the sides of the narrow window and brought his other leg around so he was sitting on the small sill.  With a grunt, he pushed himself off the ledge. 

Bertrand’s cursing from the alleyway was drowned out by the pounding on the door.  “Open up!” the guards shouted.

Iliard threw his backpack out the window and dove after it headfirst, somersaulting in midair and landing next to Bertrand, who was still picking himself up. 

Bertrand glowered at him.  “What, are you part cat now?”

“Ranger, remember?” Iliard replied.

“Showoff is more like it,” Bertrand muttered.

The sound of splintering wood and shouting came from above them.  Iliard grabbed his backpack, threw it on, and started running, with Bertrand following close behind.

“Where are you going?” Bertrand panted from behind.

“The portals,” Iliard replied.

The portals, four obsidian archways that rose to a height of one hundred feet, stood in the center of Narsacalius with each pointing to a different portal city on Ranwar.  Even at this late hour there was a line of people waiting to pay their silver piece to get through.  Iliard and Bertrand only stopped running when they were within sight of the giant archways.  Crouching low, they stayed in the shadows of the nearby buildings.  “Now what?” Bertrand whispered, still panting heavily.  “There are guards at every portal.”

“I’m thinking,” Iliard whispered through gritted teeth.  “You should try it some time.”

“You know little brother,” Bertrand growled, “when we get out of this, I’m going to pound you into the dirt.”

“I’d like to see you try,” Iliard retorted.  Before Bertrand could respond in kind, Iliard put up his hand.  “Shh, I have an idea.”

“What?”

“Look over there at that wagon waiting to go through,” Iliard said softly.

Bertrand saw a merchant’s wagon drawn by two horses about to go through the nearest portal.  “And…?”

“Watch the horses,” Iliard whispered.  “And get ready to run when I tell you.”

As Bertrand watched, the horses began to paw the ground restlessly.  Then they started to shake their heads and whinny.  The driver jumped out of his seat to try to calm them.  This only made the situation worse.  The horses reared away from him and backed into the wagon, pushing it into the line of people waiting behind.  Now people were shouting and guards around the gate stepped in to try to calm things down.  As soon as the guards moved away from the portal, Iliard said, “Now!”  The pair raced toward the portal at full speed.  By now, all attention was on the wagon and the frantic horses, so no one noticed the pair as they ran through the portal.

Driving rain and bitter cold met them on the other side.  A guard’s shout barely penetrated their minds as they continued their headlong flight away from the center of the new city, but the sound of crossbow bolts whizzing past their heads got their attention.

“What the hell?” Iliard shouted.  “Why are they shooting at us?”

“You brought us to Nel Burath, you idiot!” Bertrand yelled back.  “They charge a tax coming and going!  Run!”

Now Bertrand took the lead.  Iliard had never been to Nel Burath and had no idea how to navigate through the narrow streets and tightly packed buildings.  The sounds of pursuit hastened their strides as they dodged in and out of alleyways in the pre-dawn light.  “I don’t believe it,” Iliard said, “They’re chasing us down for two silver pieces.”

“You don’t know Nel Burath,” Bertrand replied as he ducked under a low hanging sign, “The people here are plain mean—every one of them.”

“Maybe we should just stop and pay it,” Iliard said.

“Too late,” Bertrand barked.  “Now they’re out for blood.  We’ll have to outrun them.”  He took a sudden sharp turn to the left.  Ahead of them was a low wall.

“Now what?” Iliard asked.

“We jump,” Bertrand answered and did just that.  Iliard hesitated for a moment, but he heard the guards closing in, so he followed his brother over the wall.  A split second later, he found himself waist deep in icy-cold water.

“Holy Gods!” he gasped, “What is this?”

“Aqueduct,” Bertrand growled out.  “Keep moving.”  Bertrand slogged upstream, battling the heavy current caused by the downpour.  Iliard saw a low bridge ahead of them.  Bertrand was heading for the dark tunnel underneath.  They made it to the tunnel just as the guards were crossing the bridge.

The water under the bridge was up to Iliard’s chest.   Before long he was shivering in the frigid water.  “How long do you think we need to stay here?” he asked Bertrand.

“A while,” he answered.  “They won’t give up easily.”

“I don’t understand,” Iliard said.

“I told you,” Bertrand snapped.  “Everyone here is miserable, just like the weather.”

“You can’t tell me that every one of the million people in this city is miserable.”

Bertrand snorted, “Would you like wager on that?”

Time passed at a snail’s pace.  The rising sun did little to alleviate the gloom or warm the air.  Iliard lost feeling in his feet.  “Bert,” he said hoarsely, “we have to get out of here before we freeze to death.”

Bertrand nodded, too cold to speak.  He went to the edge of the tunnel and listened.  “I think they finally gave up.”  He peered out further and said, “All clear.”  He stepped out beyond the tunnel, looking for a likely place to get out.  Finally grabbing hold of a protruding rock, he climbed out of the aqueduct and back over the low wall.  Iliard could not reach the rock, so Bertrand leaned over and held out his hand.  “Come on, runt.”

“Don’t call me that,” Iliard growled.  He grasped his brother’s outstretched hand and pulled himself up enough to get hold of the rock, but his numbed feet could not get a foothold on the slope.  He slipped and fell back into the water and was pulled under by the swift current. 

“Iliard!” Bertrand jumped back over the wall, into the aqueduct.  He grabbed his struggling brother by the front of his shirt and hauled him up sputtering and gasping.  “Are you all right?”

Iliard nodded.  “I think so.”

“Here,” Bertrand said, guiding Iliard back to the slope, “You go first.  I’ll give you a leg up.”

With Bertrand’s help, Iliard reached the rock.  When he started to climb the slope, he let out a sharp cry of pain.

“What’s wrong?” Bertrand asked.

“I can’t put any weight on my right leg,” Iliard replied.  He gritted his teeth and continued his ascent, finally getting over the wall.  When Bertrand reached him, Iliard was leaning against the wall with most of his weight on his left leg. 

“What happened?” Bertrand asked.

“I must have twisted my ankle when I slipped.  It hurts like hell.”

Bertrand pointed to his left leg.  “You’re bleeding.”

Iliard looked down and saw a long gash on the outside of his thigh.  “I didn’t even feel it.”

“We should get a room and get out of the rain and these wet clothes.”

“I like that idea,” Iliard replied.

“Where did you put your money?” Bertrand asked.

“On my belt, where I always put it.”

“It’s not there.”

“What?”  Iliard looked down at his belt.  The pouch was gone.

“Where is it?” Bertrand asked angrily.

“How the hell would I know?” Iliard snapped.  “I tied it on my belt before we left the room.  It could be anywhere.”

“Maybe if you weren’t such a show off you’d still have it.”

“Maybe if you weren’t out whoring around we wouldn’t be here!”

“You little runt, I’m going to pound you!”

“Go ahead and try!”

Bertrand took a swing, which Iliard easily ducked.  Without thinking, Iliard took a step back, putting his full weight on his injured ankle.  He let out a strangled cry as his leg collapsed and he went down, hitting his head on the stone wall along the way.

Bertrand knelt in the mud beside his brother and pulled him into a sitting position.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.”

Iliard groaned and gingerly touched the lump on his head.  “Damn it Bert, why do you have to do that?”

“I know, I know.  I’m sorry.”  He pulled Iliard’s arm across his shoulders and pulled him up to his feet.  “Come on.  Let’s get out of the rain.”

Iliard blinked and held on tight as he tried to regain his equilibrium.  “How are we going to do that without any money?”

“I’ll think of something,” Bertrand replied.

“Damn it,” Iliard murmured, “I left my long coat at the inn.”

Bertrand sighed.  “So did I.”

Unfortunately, Bertrand’s assessment of the inhabitants of Nel Burath appeared to be accurate.  No one would help them or even give them a small space to sit for a while out of the rain.  Iliard was beginning to have difficulty walking for any length of time and his unsteady gait made people think he was drunk.  It did not help that both of them were soaked and filthy and looked more like homeless vagabonds than warriors.

Night was falling when they came upon a small inn and tavern tucked in the midst of several shops.  Bertrand peered in the window.  “There aren’t a lot of people in there.  Maybe they’ll let us sit for a while.”  Iliard nodded wearily. 

When they opened the door, the delicious smell of hearty beef stew reminded them of how hungry they were.  They stood just inside the door, enjoying the warmth.  Bertrand noticed that the bartender was staring at them.  He met them man’s gaze with what he hoped was a pleading expression, silently praying that he would take pity on them.  But it seemed there would be no negotiating with the bartender.  A man almost as large as Bertrand came across the rooms towards them saying, “Oh no you don’t.  You two, out.”

“Please,” Bertrand began, “My brother…”

“I said out.”

Bertrand’s hand went towards his sword hilt.  “Damn it…”

Iliard grabbed Bertrand’s arm.  “Come on Bert, let’s go.”  He limped back out into the night with Bertrand following reluctantly.  The rain had finally stopped, but the air was bitingly cold. 

Iliard turned down a narrow alleyway that ran next to the inn, stopped and slid down the wall to the ground.  His whole body was trembling from the cold.  Bertrand knelt down next to him.  “Come on, we have to keep moving.  We’ll just look for another place.  Someone’s bound to let us in eventually.”

Iliard shook his head.  “You were right about this place.  I didn’t believe you.  I can’t walk anymore, it hurts too much.”

“We can’t stay here,” Bertrand said.

Iliard’s head dropped and he closed his eyes.  “I’m so cold.  I just want to sleep.”

Fear ripped through Bertrand.  Shaking his brother he said, “Iliard, you have to stay awake.  You can’t sleep now, it’s dangerous.”

Iliard lifted his head and forced his eyes open.  His speech was slurred.  “I know.  I’ll try.”

Bertrand pulled off his backpack and opened it, hoping that maybe something in it was dry enough to cover Iliard.  Everything in it was just as soaked as they were.  Bertrand put his head in his hands as he tried to think.  After a few moments he said, “I’m going to get us some money.”

Iliard roused from his stupor.  “Bert, don’t.  You’re not a thief.”

“I’m not going to let you die when there’s something I can do about it.  We can both make our penance to Asaeria after you’re healed.”

“Bert…”

The sound of someone clearing their throat interrupted them.  They saw the bartender from the inn standing at the entrance to the alleyway.  “You two seem like decent men.  Not very bright, but decent.”  He gestured for them to follow him.  “Come, Malook will give you a good meal and a place to sleep.” 

Both men just stared at him, jaws agape.  “Who’s Malook?” Bertrand asked finally. 

He smiled, touched his own chest and said, “I am Malook.”  Putting his hands on his hips he added, “Well, are you coming?”

Bertrand got to his feet and pulled Iliard up.  “Yes.  Thank you.  Thank you very much.”

Malook brought them back into the tavern and led them to a table right next to the hearth.  A barmaid placed two large, steaming bowls of beef stew in front of them.  “Eat,” said Malook.  “When you are finished, I will take to you to your room.” 

At first Iliard had trouble eating the stew because he was still shaking so badly from the cold.  After a while though, the hot meal and the warmth of the fire penetrated his chilled body.  They had almost finished their meal when Malook came back and put a small blue bottle on the table.  “For the young man.”

Iliard stared at the bottle of healing potion.  With an effort he rose to his feet.  “Malook, you are a great man.  I am Iliard Candril and this is my brother Bertrand.  We are eternally in your debt.”

Malook waved him back down.  “Sit, sit, young Master Candril.  You owe Malook nothing.  The gods watch all of us and we all must do what we can to right the world.”

“I just hope we can repay you some day,” Iliard replied.

“Pah!” Malook responded with a wave of his hand.  “Take your medicine and eat your stew.  I have a room ready with a bath for each of you.”

“Yeah, eat your stew little brother,” Bertrand said under his breath.  “And stop trying to get us deeper in debt.”

*****

Iliard slept all through the next day.  On the third day, he woke to the early morning sunlight shining in his face and Bertrand thudding and thumping about in the room.  He groaned and rolled over.  “Why are you making so much noise?”

“It’s about time you woke up,” Bertrand replied.  “We need to get going soon.  I got us some work.”

Iliard sat up.  “Already?  How did you do that so quickly?”

“Because I’m that good,” Bertrand said with a grin.  “Besides, you slept an entire day away, so it wasn’t all that fast.  Malook told me about a merchant who needed a couple of swords to ride with his caravan.”

Iliard made a face.  “I hate riding caravans.”

Bertrand shrugged.  “We need the money.  We can’t be too choosy about the jobs we take.”

Iliard got out of bed and went over to where his now clean, dry, and mended clothes were hanging in front of a fireplace, and started getting dressed.  “I know,” he said, “but, don’t you sometimes get the feeling we should be doing something…more?”

Bertrand rolled his eyes.  “Rangers.  You always have to have some cause to fight for.”  He shook his head.  “Look little brother, we’re out here to make our fortune.  Fighting for a cause gets you nothing but an early death.”

“Not always,” Iliard countered as he pulled on his shirt.  “Look at Mother.  She’s over 300 years old and she’s been fighting for causes all her life.”

“She’s a Novadi, they’re different.”

“I might be a Novadi one day,” Iliard said wistfully.

“Yeah well, right now you’re an 18 year old Ranger just barely out of the stronghold and fighting for causes will only get you killed.”

Iliard sighed.  “I suppose.”  As he buckled his sword belt he said, “What are we going to do about staying warm?  We don’t have cloaks.  Damn it, I wish I hadn’t left my long coat behind.”

Something heavy landed on his bed with a dull thud.  “Wish granted,” Bertrand said.

Iliard stared open-mouthed at his brother.  Picking up the heavy leather coat he asked, “How did you get them back?”

“The caravan owner gave me a five gold piece advance.  I paid my way through the portal and went back to the inn.  I got that stable boy who worships the ground you walk on to find the coats and bring them to me and gave him a handful of silver for his trouble.”

Iliard frowned.  “Stable boy? You mean Dakim?  He does not worship the ground I walk on.  I just helped him with the horses a few times.”

“Well now he wants to be a Ranger,” Bertrand replied.  “I could hardly get him to shut up long enough to do what I asked.”

“I hope you didn’t scare him,” Iliard said.

“He looked pretty happy when I left.”  Bertrand shrugged into his long coat.  “Are you ready?”

Iliard pulled on his long coat and strapped his shoulder sheath on over it.  Grabbing his backpack he replied, “Yes.”

As they headed towards the stairway, Bertrand stopped and said, “Look, do me a favor, don’t spread our family name around so much.  We don’t need the problems.”

Iliard nodded.  “All right.”

When they got downstairs, they were met with the sight of broken tables and chairs strewn about the bar.  Malook was kneeling on the floor picking up pieces of broken, dark blue glass. 

“Malook, what happened?” Iliard asked.

Malook looked over at them and Iliard saw that there were tears in the portly man’s eyes.  “There was a fight in my tavern last night.  Poor Sardik got a broken arm.”

Iliard looked over at Bertrand who put up his hands and said, “It wasn’t me.  I went to bed early last night.”

“I wish Master Bertrand had been here,” Malook said sadly, “He could have helped.”

“I wish I had been here,” Iliard said ruefully.  He knelt down beside Malook and started picking up pieces of glass.

“Thank you young master,” Malook murmured.  He sniffled slightly.  “This vase has been in my family for three generations.  My grandmother bought it when my grandfather first opened this inn.  Now, it is nothing.”

“I’m sorry,” Iliard replied.

Bertrand cleared his throat.  “Iliard, we have to go.  We can’t be late, the caravan will leave without us.”

Malook stood up.  “Please, please go.  You would not want to disappoint Merchant Karis.”

Iliard sighed and stood as well.  “I’m sorry we couldn’t help more Malook.”

“It is all right young master Iliard.  You are helping Malook’s friend.  It is enough.  Now go.  Merchant Karis always leaves on time.”

Outside the tavern, Iliard asked, “Why didn’t you tell me about the fight?”

Bertrand shrugged.  “Why?  There was nothing either of us could do about it.  It must have happened long after I went to bed.”

“But still…” Iliard protested.

“Look,” Bertrand said impatiently, “it already happened and there’s nothing we can do to make it UN-happen.  I’m sure it’s not the first time there’s been a fight in that bar and it won’t be the last.  Let it go.”

“Damn it, Bert.  Don’t you care about anything?  He helped us when no one else would.”

“Of course I care,” Bertrand retorted.  “I tried to give him the rest of the gold I had on me.  He wouldn’t take it.  He’s just of those people who likes to help people.”

Iliard shook his head and muttered under his breath.  After a long silence, he asked, “Where is this caravan anyway and where is it going?”

“The caravan is lined up by the docks and it’s going to Bentorlia.”

“Bentorlia?  That’s over 500 miles.”

“Probably longer, he’s taking the shore route so there’s less chance of an ambush,” Bertrand replied.  “It’ll be two weeks out and two weeks back.”

“I hope he’s paying us well for this,” Iliard said irritably.

“Fifty gold apiece,” Bertrand said.

Iliard’s eyes widened.  “He must have quite a cargo.”

“He’s got fifteen wagons and a hundred guards.”

“A hundred guards?  That’s a small army,” Iliard replied.

Bertrand nodded.  “It is a small army.  He even split it up, fifty pikemen, twenty-five archers, twenty-five cavalry.”

“Then what does he need us for?” Iliard asked.

Bertrand shrugged.  “He said it was in case the caravan is attacked by someone more than your average highwaymen.”

“That’s not likely to happen with a hundred guards,” Iliard said.

“Yeah, I know,” Bertrand replied.  “It’ll be an easy hundred gold for us.”

The quartermaster looked up at Bertrand.  “Taelerion’s beard you’re a big one.”  He pointed into the stable behind him.  “You’ll have to ride the bay in the last stall on the right.  He’s the only one who’ll be able to carry you for the whole ride.  You don’t fight from horseback, do you?”

“Not if I can help it, “ Bertrand replied.

“Good, ‘cause that horse can’t move like that.”  He looked over at Iliard.  “What about you?”

“I fight wherever I need to,” Iliard said with a smirk at his brother.

“Oh, one of those,” the quartermaster said with a slight roll of his eyes.

Iliard frowned.  “One of what?”

“Rangers,” the quartermaster replied.

“How did you know I was a Ranger?”

“I been doing this a long time,” the older man replied.  “I know a Ranger when I see one—and hear one.  Skinny and cocky.”

Bertrand chuckled, “He’s got you there little brother.”

Iliard glared at his older brother.  “At least I can run and I’m not in danger of killing any horse I ride.”

“Listen, runt,” Bertrand growled, “you’re going to have a hell of a time running from me for the next month.  Just remember that.”

“Stop calling me that,” Iliard retorted.

The quartermaster let out a piercing whistle.  “You two better calm down.”  The brothers stared at him abashed.  “Do that a lot, do ya?”  Iliard’s face turned bright red and Bertrand mumbled something unintelligible.  “Thought so.”  Looking at Iliard he said, “I’ll give you a chance to prove how good you are.”  He pointed towards the left side of the stable.  “See that black horse with the white blaze?”  Iliard nodded.  The quartermaster went on, “I bought him ‘cause I thought he’d make a good cavalry horse.  Instead he’s been nothing but a nuisance.  He fights the saddle and the bit.  Once you get his tack on, he won’t pay any mind to his rider.  If you can get him trained, I’ll give you an extra ten gold at the end of the ride.  Think you can do it?”

Iliard nodded again.  “Sure.”

“Good.”  He reached inside a chest on the ground and pulled out a small pouch.  “Here’s your five gold advance.  Your brother got his yesterday.”

“Thank you,” Iliard replied.

“You two had breakfast yet?”

“No,” they replied in unison.

He chuckled and gestured to the right with his thumb.  “Just go around the corner.  The cook’s got a chow line going inside the warehouse.  You’d better hurry before it’s all gone.”

When Bertrand and Iliard rounded the corner, they were greeted by the delicious smell of hot sausage.  There was still a line of guardsmen waiting to get their fill, so Iliard and Bertrand each grabbed a wooden bowl and joined them.  When they got to the cook, he glared at them.  “Who’r you?”

“We were hired by Merchant Karis to ride with the caravan,” Bertrand replied gruffly.  The cook grunted and threw a pile of sausages in each of their bowls. 

“Nice guy,” Iliard muttered as they walked away.

“Don’t mind him, he’s always like that.”

Iliard and Bertrand turned back to find one of guardsmen standing behind them smiling.

“Must be fun traveling with him,” Bertrand said. 

The man shrugged, “Don’t know, I just got hired on myself.  But I have to admit, I’m not looking forward to a month of travel with him.  At least he cooks a good meal.”  He held out his hand, “The name’s Marcus.”

Bertrand took the proffered hand.  “I’m Bertrand and this is my brother Iliard.”

“Brothers?  It’s good you two get along well enough to adventure together.

The brothers looked at each other and laughed.  “Most of the time,” Iliard said.  Noticing Marcus’ curly black hair and olive complexion, he asked, “Are you Narsacalian?”

“How’d you guess?” Marcus asked.

“We just came from there,” Iliard replied.

The discordant sound of dozens of wooden bowls tumbling to the ground interrupted them  “Go clean that up, you lazy wench!” the cook shouted.  “I ain’t got time to be pickin’ up after ye.”  

The cook aimed a kick at a dark-haired young woman who was scurrying about trying to capture the errant bowls as they rolled around the warehouse floor.  Luckily the young woman moved faster than the cook.  Iliard’s eyes went wide and his hand dropped instinctively to the sword at his side.

“Easy now, little brother,” Bertrand murmured as he placed a restraining hand on Iliard’s arm, “You’ll get us thrown off this ride before it even starts.”

“He shouldn’t be allowed to do that,” Iliard hissed through clenched teeth. 

“Don’t worry too much,” Marcus said.  “She’s tougher than she looks and a few of us look out for her.”

“But still…” Iliard protested.

“You heard the man, Iliard,” Bertrand said, “Let it go.”

Iliard looked at the young woman, who now had the bowls collected and in a tub of water.  He looked back at his brother and said, “Some things you shouldn’t let go, Bert.”

“Hey, you two.”

They looked to see a burly man in uniform headed their way, his long blond hair blowing in the sea breeze.

“Uh oh,” Marcus said under his breath.

“What?” Bertrand asked.

“Dugan, Captain of the guard,” Marcus replied.

The Captain strode quickly toward them.  “Are you the extra fighters Merchant Karis hired yesterday?”

“Yes,” Bertrand replied, putting out his hand, “I’m Bertr…”

The Captain waved away Bertrand’s outstretched hand.  “I don’t need to know your names.  If Merchant Karis had listened to me, he would have saved himself a hundred gold.”  Ignoring Bertrand’s deepening frown, he charged forward.  “I know he told you some idiocy about standing back unless there’s big trouble, well let me set you straight in words you can understand—if you see fighting, get in there with your swords and start swinging.  Got it?”

By the time the Captain finished his diatribe, Bertrand’s free hand was curled into a fist and his face was turning deep red.  Seeing an impending disaster, Iliard stepped between them and said, “What an excellent idea.  I cannot believe we never thought of that before.  Using our swords to fight.  Amazing.  Thank you so much for that advice, Captain.”  Taking Bertrand forcefully by the arm he went on, “Come on Bert, let’s finish our breakfast and then practice using our swords to fight.”

Marcus followed the pair as Iliard practically dragged his brother away from the Captain.  He looked back and chuckled.  “I think he’s still trying to figure out whether that was an insult or a compliment.”

*****

Iliard was coming back to the encampment from his morning run when he spotted the cook’s assistant struggling under the weight of a pile of firewood.  He ran over to her and said, “Here, let me get that for you.”

The young woman smiled at him.  “Thank you,” she replied a little breathlessly, “I think I bit off more than I could chew.”

Iliard took the wood from her and the pair started walking back towards the mess tent.  “My name is Iliard,” he said after a few moments.

“My name is Anna,” she replied.  “Iliard,” she went on thoughtfully, “that’s an unusual name.”

Iliard shrugged.  “It’s some family name on mother’s side.  My brother Bertrand is named after my father.”

Anna nodded.  “And your brother would be that very large, very hairy man I see you with most of the time.”

Iliard chuckled, “Yes,” and then began helping Anna load the firewood into the stove that protruded from the back of the mess tent.

“ANNA!!”

Anna shook her head.  “I’d better go.  Thank you again.”

“You’re welcome,” Iliard replied, frowning as he watched her run back into the tent.

Bertrand had just finished sharpening his sword in the pre-dawn light when Iliard got back to their tent.  “Where were you?”

“Running and then helping Anna with some firewood,” Iliard replied.

“Anna?” Bertrand asked.

“The cook’s assistant,” Iliard said.

Bertrand rolled his eyes.  “Iliard, let me give you some brotherly advice.  She’s not interested.”

Iliard looked at him.  “Interested?  What do you mean?”

“I mean,” Bertrand replied, “She’s not interested in what you have to offer.”

Iliard gave him a puzzled look.  “What in all the hells are you talking about?”

Bertrand let out an explosive sigh.  “By the gods boy, I mean she’s not going to bed down with you.”

Iliard threw his brother a disgusted look.  “Do you always have to be such a pig?  It’s not like that at all.  I don’t want to bed her.  I just think I should help her, that’s all.”

Bertrand shook his head.  “I don’t understand you at all.”

Iliard shrugged, “What’s to understand?  I do what I think is right.”  He pulled on a pair of fingerless gloves and buckled on his shoulder sheath.  “I have to go on a scout patrol.  I’ll see you at breakfast.”

“How’s that horse of yours doing?” Bertrand asked.

“Blaze?  He still fights the bit,” Iliard replied, “but at least I can saddle him without a fuss now.”

Bertrand rolled his eyes.  “Blaze?  You never could come up with good names for horses.”

“Shut up, Bert.  He’s not even my horse.  I only have him for three more weeks.”  Iliard shook his head.  “He’s a good horse, just stubborn and hand-shy.  Whoever owned him before beat him.  He has old scars on his withers and hindquarters.”

Bertrand made a sound of irritation.  “Some people don’t understand the value of good a horse.  Our barony wouldn’t survive without them.  Father never beats his horses.”

“Just his sons,” Iliard murmured.

Bertrand was instantly contrite.  “I’m sorry Iliard, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“I know.  I’ll see you later.”

“Damn,” Bertrand muttered to himself as he watched Iliard walk away.  He hated to see that look on his brother’s face.  He shivered in the cold morning air.  The sea breeze brought the damp that made the chill go right to the bone.  He pulled on his gloves, deciding he would check on his horse before breakfast.

As he was leaving the picket line he heard Dugan shout, “You!”  Bertrand kept walking back towards his tent.  Once again Dugan shouted, “You!” from right behind him. 

Bertrand stopped and turned so quickly that the Captain nearly ran into him.  “The name is Bertrand,” he said in low voice.

“I don’t give a damn what your name is,” Dugan retorted.

“You’d better start giving a damn if you want me to answer you.” Bertrand’s voice was as hard as steel.

“Why aren’t you on patrol?” Dugan asked.

“I don’t do patrols,” Bertrand replied tersely.

Dugan’s face turned red.  “You do what I tell you to earn the money Merchant Karis wasted on you.”

Bertrand’s hands curled into fists.  His voice rose a notch.  “Maybe you didn’t hear me—I don’t do patrols.”

“Listen, you…”

“Is there a problem, Dugan?”

The Captain of the guard started and whirled around to find the diminutive figure of Merchant Karis standing behind him.  “No, Merchant Karis,” Dugan replied.  “I was just trying to get…Bertrand to go on patrol.”

“Go on patrol?” Merchant Karis looked puzzled.  “I don’t pay him to go on patrol, I pay him to watch over this caravan.”

“Well, yes,” Dugan replied, “but going on patrol is part of watching over the caravan.”

Merchant Karis shook his head.  “You have one hundred men to send on patrol, Captain.  The two fighters I hired take orders from me.  Is that understood?”

“Yes Merchant Karis,” Dugan murmured sullenly.

After Dugan walked away, Bertrand said, “I’m sorry for getting into an argument with him, Merchant Karis.”

Merchant Karis put up his hand and shook his head.  “The man is an ass.  He really deserves the beating you were about to give him, but I need him for the rest of this ride.”

Bertrand threw back his head and laughed out loud.  “All right, I’ll try to keep my temper with him.”

“Thank you,” the merchant replied.  He walked back towards his wagon muttering to himself. 

“That was close.  I was sure Dugan was about to learn your name quite well.”

Bertrand turned and saw Marcus grinning at him.  His mouth lifted in a half smile.  “Yeah.  Merchant Karis didn’t seem too happy with him either.

“From what I understand,” Marcus replied, “Dugan is not his regular captain.  The other one had a death in the family—his father, I think—so he had to stay behind and take care of things.  Dugan is just filling in, but he really wants this job.  He figured if he could get through the ride without the extra sword swingers, Merchant Karis would be so impressed that he would be hired on permanently.  I think Merchant Karis has other ideas.”

“Guess so,” Bertrand replied. 

“Where’s Iliard?” Marcus asked.

“Out on patrol.”

“I guess he didn’t argue with Dugan.”

Bertrand shrugged. “Nah, he’s a Ranger, he likes going on patrol.  It gives him a chance to work with his horse.”

“So let’s get some breakfast,” Marcus said.

“Sounds good,” Bertrand replied. 

They had just finished their second helping of breakfast when Iliard got back, looking rather disconcerted.  “How did the patrol go?” Bertrand asked.

Iliard shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I think I need to go back to the stronghold for a while.”

“Why, did you miss something?”

“That’s just it,” Iliard said.  “I didn’t miss anything.  I saw something that wasn’t there.”

“What?”

“I was sure there was a trace of someone’s track, but when we all looked, there was nothing there.  They must have thought I was an idiot.”

Bertrand put his arm around Iliard shoulders.  “Don’t worry so much, little brother—everybody already knows.”

Iliard shoved Bertrand away from him.  “Do you always have to be such an ass?”

Bertrand chuckled.  “Don’t be so sensitive.  Besides, Merchant Karis said we don’t have to do patrols anymore.”

“But I like patrols,” Iliard protested, “and obviously I need the practice.”

“Oh stop worrying and get some breakfast,” Bertrand said.

“Well, I’d better get ready to move out,” Marcus said.  “See you on the road.”

******

After he finished his breakfast, Iliard walked toward the back of the caravan to see how preparations for departure were going.  To his surprise, he saw Marcus standing at the outer edge of the encampment looking out over the sloping fields beyond.  Iliard followed his gaze and saw a group of riders in the distance coming their way.  “Attacking in broad daylight,” Marcus murmured.  “That’s bold.”

Alarmed, Iliard asked, “How do you know they’re going to attack?”

“Never mind how I know,” Marcus replied as he drew a highly runed sword seemingly out of nowhere, “go get your brother.”  Iliard glanced back as he ran to get Bertrand and saw Marcus draw a long dagger from his belt and start walking toward the approaching riders. 

Marcus stood waiting on the crest of a small rise.  The lead rider and two others stopped about fifty feet away, while the remaining thirteen riders continued to keep their distance.  “Well Landras,” the lead rider said with a smirk, “it seems you cannot hide from me after all.  Why don’t you just give me the amulet?  Then we’ll leave and no one will have to die today.”

Landras shook his head.  “You know I cannot do that, Hadril.”

“A pity,” Hadril replied.

“Marcus!  What the hell are you doing out here?  Get back to your position.”

Hadril raised one eyebrow, “Marcus?  Not very original.”

“It served its purpose,” Landras replied.  He did not turn to look at the Captain of the guard as he marched toward the riders.  “Dugan, stay out of this,” he said flatly.  “Go back and tell your men to guard the caravan.”

“Who the hell are you to tell me what to do?” Dugan shouted.

“Who indeed?” Hadril said.  “You should tell him, although I doubt the name Landras Semina would mean anything to this worm.”

“Worm!”  Dugan was livid with rage.  “Take your men and go back where you came from, oaf.  I have a hundred men at my command.  If you do not leave now, you will not live to see another…”

A dagger that seemed to appear from nowhere lodged itself in Dugan’s throat.  Bertrand, who had just arrived, caught Dugan’s body as it slumped to the ground. 

“By the gods Landras, it’s an ogre in a Seldonian long coat,” Hadril exclaimed.  Landras looked briefly over at Bertrand, who nodded then turned his head to stare at Hadril.  “So ogre,” Hadril said, “can you move with all those muscles?” 

A dagger came at Bertrand, who deflected it with a quick movement of his left arm.  “Yep,” he replied flatly.

Iliard rode up to the other side of Landras.  Hadril shook his head.  “Is this it?  All you could get were a couple of cattle ranchers?  You’d better give up the Priestess now and save us all a lot of trouble.”

“I think you’ve talked enough, Hadril,” Landras replied.

“Indeed.”  Hadril raised his sword and charged forward, followed by the rest of the riders. 

The rider on Hadril’s left headed straight for Bertrand, intent on riding him down.  Bertrand stood his ground, legs planted in a wide stance, his sword aloft and ready to strike.  As the horse and rider bore down upon him, Bertrand deftly stepped aside and punched the horse in the side of the head.  The dazed animal reeled and went down on his knees, sending his rider tumbling forward over his neck and head.  “Let’s see you throw daggers from there,” Bertrand growled as he charged the unhorsed man.

Iliard did not wait for the riders to come to him.  Holding his swords at the ready, he leaned low in his saddle and shot forward, aiming himself at the rider who had been on Hadril’s right.  Sparks flew when their swords clashed and Blaze danced nervously away from the other rider.  “Easy boy,” Iliard murmured softly, “you can do this.”  Blaze shook his head and snorted, then followed Iliard’s lead back into battle.

Landras had managed to get Hadril off his horse and the two men were battling fiercely.  Suddenly, arrows started raining down on the enemy and, with a roar, the fifty pikemen of the caravan guard came charging into the fray.  The enemy riders surged forward and started wreaking devastation on the pikemen.  Within seconds, eight guards were dead.  The cavalry made a charge around the left flank of the enemy, coming from behind the caravan on the seaward side.  “Fall back, fall back!” Landras shouted over the din, “Protect the wagons!  Fall back!”

The lieutenant in charge of the twenty-five archers noticed that their arrows were having little effect individually.  “Concentrate on one man at time!” he shouted.  The archers focused their attacks on a single enemy, bringing him down.  As the archers were preparing for another volley, a ball of fire exploded in their midst, sending them flying in every direction.

Bertrand was bringing his considerable strength to bear on his opponent.  The smaller man ducked and danced beyond the reach of Bertrand’s sword, but was equally unable to get underneath the larger man’s defenses.  The explosion of the fireball startled them both, giving Bertrand the split second opportunity he needed to catch his adversary off guard.  With a roar he arced his sword down, slicing through his enemy’s arm and torso, cutting him in half.

“Mage!” Landras shouted in the midst of his own battle with Hadril.  “Get them out of here!”

Bertrand scanned the battlefield and finally spotted the Mage standing far separated from the rest of the combatants, flanked by two horsemen.  “Damn Magician,” he muttered.  He looked back at the battle and saw the pikemen being systematically cut down by the enemy riders.  The lieutenant in charge of the pikemen was standing off the battlefield looking dazed and horrified.  Bertrand ran over to him and said, “What the hell were you thinking?  They’re getting slaughtered out there.  Call them back.”

The lieutenant blinked and looked up slowly at Bertrand.  “What?”

“Call your men back!  Now!”

The lieutenant nodded, raised a small horn to his lips and sounded two short notes.  The pikemen did not hesitate to respond to the call to retreat, some of them running as fast as they could back toward the wagons.  As Bertrand was about to head back to the battle, he saw Anna, the cook’s assistant, come striding toward him.  “Hey, you shouldn’t…” he began, but she cut him off.

“Where’s the Mage?” she asked curtly.  Bertrand mutely pointed toward the trio.  “Razik,” she growled.  He watched open-mouthed as she pushed up her sleeves and started walking towards the Magician.

Iliard and his adversary were fighting so fiercely they barely noticed the explosion of the fireball.  His two swords were flashing like lighting against the onslaught of his opponent’s two swords.  Blaze had lost his timidity and was responding quickly to Iliard’s movements in the saddle.  The other rider finally got and opening and made a desperate lunge at Iliard’s chest.  Iliard twisted away from the deadly strike, at the same throwing his body towards his enemy.  Blaze followed his movement, bringing Iliard knee to knee with the other man, giving him the opportunity to plunge one sword into his adversary’s midsection and bring the other around to his neck. 

As the headless body of his enemy slumped in the saddle, Iliard became conscious of the mayhem going on around him—the pikemen running away from the battle, the archers putting out fires on themselves and their weapons, and the cavalry moving in on Hadril’s riders.  He searched the battlefield for Bertrand and found him standing just at the edge of the battle staring at the Mage and his two guards.  That was when he also spotted the slender figure of Anna striding purposefully towards the three.  The Mage raised his hands for what Iliard recognized as the beginning of a spell casting.  The other two riders raised bows and took aim at the petite woman.

“Holy gods!  Anna!”  Even as Iliard dug his heels into Blaze’s side, the riders loosed their arrows.  His stomach tightened painfully as he watched and waited for the sight of Anna’s arrow pierced body falling to the ground.  But the arrows, though aimed true, went well wide of their target, as did the second volley.  Anna took a few more steps forward stopped, raised her hand and spoke a single word.  A column of brilliant white fire roared down and engulfed the Mage, blasting his two guards off their horses.

Iliard stopped and stared open mouthed at Anna as he tried to sort out what had just happened.  Anna turned and looked first at him and then Bertrand and shouted, “What are you standing there for?  Help Landras!” 

Anna’s momentary lack of focus cost her.  The Mage managed to dissipate the flames and hurl a lightning bolt at the Priestess, throwing her flat on her back.  As Anna was trying to pick herself up, one of the riders started running toward her, sword drawn.  Iliard moved to intercept him, but Bertrand put up his hand.  “Wait!”  Pointing behind Anna he shouted, “Look!”

The archers had managed to reassemble themselves and their lieutenant had ordered them to take aim at the Mage and his bodyguards.  Anna had just gotten to her feet when a volley of arrows sailed over her head.  Anna raised her hands and the tips of the arrows burst into flame.  With no time to counter the attack, the Mage and his guard fell, pierced by the flaming arrows.  After the mage fell, Anna bowed her head and dropped to her knees breathing heavily.

Bertrand walked over to Iliard and said, “We’d better get going before she sends some of those our way.”

“But she’s wounded,” Iliard protested, “shouldn’t we help her?”

“She a Priestess,” Bertrand replied.  “She can heal herself.”

“But…”

Bertrand pointed over his brother’s shoulder and shouted.  “Iliard, look behind you!  The cavalry is going to get slaughtered if we don’t do something and we have to keep those other riders away from Landras or he’s a dead man.”

Iliard turned his horse to look back at the battlefield.  Landras and Hadril were still fully engaged.  The cavalry was making a valiant effort to overpower the nine remaining riders, but it was clear they were greatly outmatched despite their superior numbers.  “So what should we do?” Iliard asked.

“Maybe we can help the cavalry and still keep the riders away from Landras,” Bertrand replied.  “If we stay together, we can take them out faster.”

“I like that idea,” Iliard replied.  He leaned forward on Blaze and said, “Ready?”

“Yep.”

Iliard slowed his horse to match his brother’s loping run.  They came up on two riders who were fighting seven cavalrymen.  Iliard sliced through the arm of one while Bertrand pulled the other off his horse and ran him through.  Seizing the unlooked for boon, one of the cavalrymen skewered the one-armed rider.  He had no time to acknowledge the pair before they moved on to the next knot of riders.

Bertrand once again went to pull a rider off his horse.  This time however, the rider was able to pull away from him and kick him in the face.  Another rider swung his sword down towards Bertrand’s neck. 

“Look out!” Iliard shouted and charged between his brother and the deadly strike.  Iliard’s raised sword managed to deflect most of the power of the rider’s stroke, but the sword still came down hard on his left shoulder opening a long, ugly gash right through his leather coat.  Searing pain made his eyes cloud over and his grip on his left-hand sword loosened. 

“Iliard!”  Bertrand grabbed his brother’s right arm and pulled him upright in his saddle.  Before the other rider could take a second swing at Iliard, Bertrand drove his sword through his chest, lifted up his body and threw him onto another rider.  “You idiot!” he shouted at his brother, “What the hell were you thinking?”

Iliard shook his head and gritted his teeth against the pain.  His eyes cleared and he tightened his grip on his sword, “I was trying to save your life,” he growled out as he deflected another attack with his weakened left arm.  The action cost him dearly.  He let out a cry of pain and his sword slipped from his numbed fingers. 

The brothers found themselves surrounded now as the remaining riders began to realize where the real threat lay.  Bertrand stayed on Iliard’s left as a shield for his injury.  Iliard’s right-hand sword flashed and danced finding its mark more often than not.  Bertrand used his brute strength as his primary weapon, breaking limbs and pulling riders off their horses to better impale them.  

Seeing the turn of events, the cavalry lieutenant ordered most of his men to fall back to the wagons.  Taking five of his best fighters, he began to harry Hadril’s riders as they tried to take on Iliard and Bertrand.  This gave the brothers the edge they needed.  One by one Hadril’s riders fell beneath the swords of the Candril brothers until at last they all lay dead on the battlefield.

Hadril and Landras fought on, for the moment unaware of the reversal of fortune.  Both men were wounded and bleeding but neither was going to yield the battle.  It was only when he was facing the battlefield that Hadril saw all his men dead.  His eyes went wide for a moment and he took several steps back from Landras.  Holding his sword in both hands he said, “This is not over, Landras.”  His eyes closed in concentration, then flew open a second later in panic.

“Did you really think you were going to teleport away again?” Anna’s voice came from behind Iliard and Bertrand.  She walked toward them looking a little worse for the wear, a large burnt hole now adorning the right shoulder of her blouse.  “This time you’ll have to stand and fight like a Warrior.”

“You bitch!  I’ll kill you!”  Hadril raised his sword high and ran at Anna, but Landras was right there.  Hadril fought him with an insane ferocity.  Landras endured the onslaught, biding his time.  Finally, in his fury Hadril stepped too far into a swing and stumbled.  Landras used the bracer on his left arm to deflect the blow and drove his sword into Hadril’s chest. 

Landras pulled his sword out of Hadril’s body and bowed his head in weariness.  Anna hurried over to him, put her hands on his chest and murmured a healing prayer.  When the healing was complete, Landras let his sword fall to the ground, wrapped his arms around the petite Priestess and held her tightly.

Bertrand chuckled.  “I guess that answers that question.”  He turned to his brother, “I told you she…Holy Gods!”  Iliard was no longer astride his horse, but instead was lying unconscious face up on the ground.  Blaze was whickering softly and nudging Iliard’s shoulder to no avail.

Bertrand knelt beside him.  The left side of Iliard’s shirt was soaked with blood.  His face was ghostly pale.  Bertrand shook his shoulder, “Iliard!”  Frantic, he got up and ran towards the Priestess, “Anna!  Help him!”

Anna stepped away from Landras’ embrace.  “What is it?”

“Iliard, he’s wounded.  He’s dying.”

Both Anna and Landras headed toward Bertrand.

“Hurry please,” Bertrand said.

“Calm down, Lord Candril,” Anna said as she walked past him.  “And my name is Zytheria.” 

As Bertrand stood staring at her retreating form, Landras gripped his shoulder and said, “Don’t take it personally.  She’s always short tempered after a hard battle.”

“But, how did she know…?”

Landras chuckled.  “If you wanted to hide your identities, you should have changed your first names.  The Candril family is well known even in this dismal part of Ranwar.  Being the sons of a Seldonian high baron and a Novadi Wielder make it a little more difficult for you two to be anonymous.”  He jerked his head in direction Zytheria had gone, “Let’s see to your brother.”

Zytheria had just finished her healing prayer when they arrived at Iliard’s side.  Iliard opened his eyes and tried to sit up, only to have Zytheria gently push him back down.  “Lie still, you’ve lost a lot of blood.”  Looking up at Bertrand she asked, “Why didn’t you give him a healing potion before this?”

Abashed, Bertrand’s face turned red.  “We don’t have any. We didn’t have enough money to buy some before we started the ride.”

Zytheria’s brows shot up in disbelief.  “You mean to tell me that the sons of one of the richest men on Ranwar didn’t have even ten gold pieces to buy a small healing potion?”

“I…it’s a long story.  We’ve trying to make it on our own without our father’s money.”

Landras shook his head.  “Noble, but foolish.  Out here you need every advantage you can get, even if that means using some of your father’s money to buy healing potions.”

“Don’t blame Bert,” Iliard said, struggling to sit up, “I’m the one who won’t use the money.”  He closed his eyes briefly to fight off the dizziness, “I have my reasons.”

Zytheria frowned.  “You could have died today.  There are times when one has to think of the greater good.”

Iliard shook his head.  “You don’t understand…”

“I do understand,” Zytheria replied firmly.  “Nobility have very few secrets.  But you must understand, you and your brother are vulnerable out here.  To give up an honest advantage is simple foolishness.”

Seeing the stubborn set of Iliard’s jaw, Bertrand hastily intervened by asking, “I don’t suppose you could tell us why a Warrior Lord and a high order battle Priestess are riding guard on a caravan.”

“Look what you’ve done!”  Merchant Karis said angrily from behind Landras.  “You brought this…this massacre to my caravan.  There must be at least twenty of my guards dead, not to mention Dugan.  Some of those men had families.  What the hell are you doing here?”

“Oh dear,” murmured Zytheria.

Landras turned around.  “Merchant Karis, please accept my humblest apologies.  Zytheria and I have been given a quest by our goddess to guard a very precious artifact.  We thought we would be safely anonymous here.  We thought Hadril would not be able to find us.”

“Well you thought wrong, didn’t you?” Merchant Karis retorted.  “If it hadn’t been for Bertrand and Iliard, we’d all be dead.  What am I supposed to do now?  I still have three more weeks of travel with a quarter of my guard dead.”

Zytheria stepped forward.  “Merchant Karis, I give you my word as a Priestess of Asaeria that Landras and I will stay with your caravan to guard it from here back to Nel Burath.  I will do what I can for the injured and dead.  I am deeply sorry that this happened.  Please also know that you will be fully compensated by the temple.”

“Compensated!”  Merchant Karis opened his mouth to speak, closed it again, turned and marched away.

“Oh dear,” Zytheria said again.  “This is going to be an uncomfortable ride.”

Landras sighed.  “You’d best get started with the guards.”  After Zytheria left, Landras said, “I suppose I owe the two of you a more complete explanation.”

Iliard, who had managed to stand with Bertrand’s help replied, “Lord Semina, you don’t owe me anything.  I know the work you do for the temple of Asaeria and if you say this is important, then that’s enough for me.”

Landras smiled.  “You honor me, Iliard.  However, seeing that you both risked your lives to protect mine, it is only right that I tell you why.”  He paused for a moment as he watched Zytheria kneel down beside a wounded guard.  “Zytheria is wearing an amulet that is the center of a peace treaty between Lancasula and Tannereth.”

“Lancasula and Tannereth?  That’s all the way on the other side of the continent.”  Bertrand said.

“Yes,” Landras replied, “which is why we thought Hadril would not find us here.”  He shook his head.  “The amulet was a prized possession of the queen of Tannereth about 400 years ago.  It is very old and full of ancient magic.  The king of Lancasula coveted the power of the amulet until it nearly drove him insane.  He finally sent one of his agents into Tannereth.  The agent poisoned the queen and stole the amulet from her dead body.  Mad with grief, her husband declared war on Lancasula.  They have been at war ever since.”

“Four hundred years of war,” Iliard said, “That is madness.”

“I agree,” Landras replied.  “Which is why Zytheria and I were called to this task.  The current rulers of Tannereth and Lancasula want to end the war.  They are trying to create an alliance.  Part of the bargain is the return of the amulet to Tannereth.  Most of the people of both kingdoms are weary of war, but there are some factions on both sides that oppose any sort of reconciliation.  Most of the factions have been mollified or silenced, but Hadril’s was the most powerful.  Hadril sought to harness the power of the amulet for himself.  I think he had his eye on the throne of Lancasula.  He had been after the amulet for years.  He managed to take it once, but Zytheria and I got it back, though at great cost.  Since then, we have been constantly moving to evade Hadril in an attempt to avoid a battle that could start another war.”

“Why not just bring it to one of the temples?” Iliard asked.

“That was where he stole it from the first time,” Landras replied.

“How did he do that?” Iliard asked in surprise.

“It seems even Priests of Asaeria are corruptible,” Landras replied.

Iliard’s eyes went wide.  “Oh.”

“However,” Landras went on, “Hadril’s theft of the amulet taught us something very valuable.  The amulet can only be worn and wielded by a woman.”

“How did he find that out?” Bertrand asked.

Landras’ mouth quirked up in a half smile.  “He tried to put it on and it almost killed him.  Of course,” he added, “Hadril had no idea what the amulet did.  No one does.”

“So then why is the damn thing so important?” Bertrand asked impatiently.

“It’s a symbol,” Iliard piped up.  Then he flushed and murmured, “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be sorry,” Landras said.  “You’re right.  The theft of the amulet started this war.  It’s return will hopefully end it.”

“How will you avoid another war since you had to kill Hadril?” Iliard asked.

“It’ll be pretty obvious that he started it since he came all the way over here from Lancasula.  If necessary, Zytheria and I can call the two of you as witnesses.”

Iliard frowned.  “That might be difficult.  Bert and I don’t stay in one place for very long.”

“True,” Landras replied with a smile.  “But I happen to know someone who can probably find you no matter where you are.”

“What?” Iliard looked at him in shock, then shook his head.  “Of course, Mother can find us.”

Landras chuckled.  “The hazards of being the child of a Novadi Warrior.”  He gazed out over the battlefield, watching the uninjured guards help move the wounded and dead.  He let out a soft sigh and started to walk towards them.  “Come, let us undo as much damage as we can.”

******

 “I can’t believe you spent so much money on that idiotic vase,” Bertrand ranted as they walked away from the Nel Burath docks.

“It was my money to spend,” Iliard replied, glancing down at the wrapped package, “I wanted to do something for Malook.”

“Couldn’t you have just gotten him an ordinary blue vase?  Did you have to go spend all that money trying to make it unbreakable?”

“That was the point,” Iliard replied.  “His other vase got broken.  I wanted to make sure this one didn’t.  Too bad I couldn’t afford to make it totally unbreakable.”

Bertrand shook his head.  “You’re crazy.  That’s all there is to it.  You’re barking mad.”

“Shut up, Bert,” Iliard retorted.

“My Lord,” someone said quietly from behind him.  Iliard turned to find an armed man followed by a bedraggled looking couple and two young children.  “My Lord,” the man repeated, “will you help us?”

“Help you?” Iliard replied.  “What’s wrong?”

Before the man could reply, Bertrand said quietly.  “They’re runaways Iliard, just walk away.  You can’t get involved in helping runaways.”

“Slaves?” Iliard said.  He looked at the armed man and the family behind him.

“Please,” the man whispered urgently.  “They’re coming.”

In the distance and growing ever closer came the sounds of jingling armor and the shouts of the city guards as they hunted their prey.  Without warning, Iliard dropped his package, swung around and punched Bertrand square in the face.

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” Bertrand shouted.

“It’s your fault we got into this mess in the first place,” Iliard shouted back and hit him again.

“You little runt, I’m going grind you into the dust!” Bertrand swung at his brother, who easily dodged the much larger man.

“Go ahead and try,” Iliard taunted.  He danced around Bertrand, getting in jabs here and there as his brother tried to overpower him.  Finally, Bertrand caught Iliard off-guard and hit him in the jaw, sending him sprawling in the dust of the road.  Iliard leapt back up and rushed Bertrand, trying to grapple him to the ground. 

The pair were suddenly pulled apart by the city guards who were now surrounding them.  “All right, break it up!”

Both men were panting heavily.  Iliard wiped the blood off his mouth with his sleeve.  “Sorry,” he said.  “we were just having a little argument.”

“Well, argue someplace else unless you wanna spend a month in the city jail.”

“Right,” Iliard said.  “We’ll stay out of trouble.  You have my word.”  He grabbed his brother’s arm and said, “Come on Bert, let’s go.”

“Hey, wait,” one of the guards said.  “Did you see an armed man and a family come this way?”

Iliard shrugged.  “I wasn’t paying much attention to anything.”

The guard looked at Bertrand.  “What about you?”

Bert shook his head.  “Nah, I was too busy pounding this little runt into the dirt.”

“You wish,” Iliard murmured under his breath.

“All right, you can go,” the guard said.  “Just stay out of trouble.”

“We will,” Iliard replied.

After the guards left, Iliard went over to pick up his package.  He smiled with relief.  “It’s not broken.”

Bertrand just stared at him in disbelief.  “Mad.  Stark raving mad.”

The End