Chapter 7: Breaking Points
The mead was good, the fire was high, and the young couple’s voices wove an exquisite harmony, fit to soothe the soul. The accompaniment of the lute was perfection, over the the distant buzz of conversation and the crackle of the flames. Presiding over the feast was a tall, handsome, man with a bare reddish hint to his sandy hair, seated in a well-made chair of ironwood. Holder Talman Brightblade leaned back into it, enjoying the mix of the wind’s chill and the campfire’s warmth, placed a hand on Jaima’s shoulder, and gave it a squeeze. She sighed and leaned into his arm. “This is really something, if I do say so myself. I’m glad you do this for them.”
For the the past few years, the Holder had invited farmers, carpenters, peasants, and everyone who depended on him to his own Harvest Festival. The Cerelia hadn’t been observed in Travan for hundreds of years, not since the Fall reduced everything to ashes. What it had rebuilt had been cold and hard: maybe too hard. But it had been decades since Travan had last gone to war. Count Ervallyn had been squeezing him for every penny, and worse, squeezing his people. They deserved some hope, some taste of what they were working for every day. He owed them that. They were good folk. Now they were all here, hundreds of them. Redhold was more prosperous than most.
Tinah, over by the fire, gave him a warm smile. Slim, dark-haired, and sloe-eyed, she made a lovely painting in her deep red gown. When her drunken husband had abandoned her and her young daughter, Talman had personally helped her get her farm back on her feet, and forgiven her debt. He’d never asked anything in return, and never would. But the gratitude in her eyes wasn’t entirely innocent. Watch it, the ever-present feminine voice in his mind reminded him, I lent you to Jaima, but you belong to me always.
You enjoy being married to her as much as I do, Talman thought, amused, maybe more.
He sensed a chuckle tickling through his heart and mind. Yes, and wasn’t that the surprise? Now, behave.
You know I will. Talman smiled into the distance, then turned his gaze back to his wife. “It turned out beautifully, my love, and I have you to thank for pulling it off. The laborers enjoy it, and they need to know we’re on their side, with taxes rising three times in two years. Besides, what better way to spend a night?”
Jaima was dark-haired and dark-eyed, with porcelain skin. He remembered when she was wispy as a nymph, but the curves she had earned in the birth of his son made her even more attractive. She could be rough as a file or sweet as wine as the mood took her, but she was always self-possessed, and never accepted less than perfection. She and a dozen of the farmers’ wives had organized the gathering, to see that the menfolk didn’t ruin it entirely. Most of the sweets and baked goods were courtesy of them, though their husbands had engaged in a fierce competition to decide who could provide the best home brew. Talman was enjoying the efforts of the winner, who had earned a nice little purse. Jaima’s eyes flashed with a warmth and a heat that was hers alone, and her lips curled. “I have a few ideas.”
She kissed him then, and her lips tasted of raspberry wine. Only then she looked up, and groaned, pulling away.
“What is it now?” Talman asked, with a hint of irritation. Olrik had finally started sleeping through the night, and the circles around Jaima’s eyes had begun to fade. He’d so been hoping, finally, for a night of peace together.
“Don’t look,” she replied softly. “We have an uninvited guest.”
Talman wished he could take his wife’s advice, but he had responsibilities. Right now, those included greeting four tall and armored visitors, in Talyk’s colors. Damn. “Lord Toram, what a pleasure to see you. I had no idea you were coming. Please, sit. Would you like something to drink?”
Toram pulled up an empty chair on the Holder’s left, joining him by the fire. His three armsmen remained standing. “I think I’m insulted, Holder. You’re holding a party, and you never invited me. As for that drink, I’ll have what you’re having.”
Talman glanced around for a server. The harvest festival was in the village common area, where multiple farms met, their barns backing up against it. To one side was a table that held fruits, nuts, berries, breads, and a great keg of mead. There had been a young man standing by it to serve the mead, but he had gone to answer the call of nature. Most everyone else seemed to have fled from Lord Toram’s arrival, but there was one woman still here to ask. “Tinah, would you mind filling a goblet for our guest?”
The woman nodded, and turned to go, but Toram, snakelike, grasped her by the wrist. “Tinah, is it? I remember you. You’re the girl who whined and begged, ‘Please, my Lord, I don’t have anything to pay taxes with!’ But here you are, in a new dress, wearing pretty jewelry, and drinking fine wine. You’ve been holding out on me, girl.”
Damn and double damn. Toram’s shit list was too long to keep track of, but Brightblade regretted drawing his attention to the poor woman. “My Lord, perhaps you should let her fetch the wine? This is a feast. Afterward is soon enough to handle business, is it not?”
“Ah yes,” Toram sneered, and sat back in his chair, “you stuck up for her last time, too. Your mead had better be something extraordinary.”
Tinah stumbled off towards the banquet table, clearly nervous. She filled the goblet quickly, and handed it, still foaming, to Lord Toram, who waited impatiently.
Toram, unfortunately, was the eldest son of Count Ervallyn of Talyk. The Count himself was bad enough: capable of cruelty, but competent enough to keep it on a short leash. His son, on the other hand, had been chomping at the bit for years, eager for any scrap of power his father would let to him. Lately, that was little more than the collection of taxes. Rumor was, the Count trusted his third son Morgren’s intelligence more, and the eldest bitterly resented it.
The young lord downed the mead in a single draught, and winced. “Took you long enough. A pity your competence falls so far behind your beauty, girl, or you might amount to something. This was all foam! Another!”
Shaking, Tinah moved to comply.
“Be at peace, my Lord,” Talman urged. “You are of course most welcome, but you seem surprised to find us here. What brings you tonight?”
The Count’s son rolled his eyes. “Wasn’t it you who asked I hold my business until later? No matter. There’s trouble in the South, and the Count is asking that we call in the levies. I’ll have half again the grain tax, and thirty fighting men from you. We’ll need them both in a week’s time.”
Brightblade’s eyes widened. That was going to be a difficult request to meet. “As you will, my Lord, but if I might ask, what happened?”
The visitor gritted his teeth, and Jaima shook her head slightly. She knew better than to object, but a powerful man out of composure offended her sensibilities, and she was protective of the Hold’s sons. “Never you mind,” Toram replied, “Just you see it done. And your best men, mind you - ”
At that moment, just as Toram swung his arm accusingly to the Holder, Tinah had nervously extended the tankard of mead to him. The collision between them sent drink and foam spraying everywhere, leaving the Lord soaking and furious. Tinah reflexively cowered as his rage spewed forth. “Demons above, girl, haven’t you the sense God gave a cockroach? First you refuse to pay your lawful taxes, then you show up dressed like a whore’s impression of a Lady. Now you throw your drink on me! Tell me why I shouldn’t have my coin out of your hide!”
“My Lord,” Tinah gasped. “The Holder said I din’t haveta pay. These were from my wedding. I - I’ll pay everything I can, but I still don’t have hardly nothing. Honest, my Lord. See for yourself.”
Toram’s expression was cruel, even for him. “That sounds like a wonderful idea. If your Holder won’t make you pay, then I will. With interest. Come, let’s discuss this in private. Armsmen, follow me, and wait outside.”
Talman’s mouth opened, and he started to rise, but Jaima’s fingers were suddenly claws, grasping desperately at his arm. “Don’t go,” she whispered intensely. “You can’t help her. We’ll lose everything.”
He is nothing. He is an ant beneath your feet.
Talman watched helplessly as Toram dragged Tinah outside of the light. He was headed for a nearby barn. Her barn. It was possible he was checking how much grain she had stored there. Toram was a monster, but even he had limits. “Jaima, she’s one of ours, and we have to deal with the Count’s son eventually.”
“Deal with him?” Jaima replied. “Have you hidden an army somewhere I don’t know about? You’re a strong man, but your pride will kill you yet. Do you recall when Eirenhold rebelled twenty years ago? Ervallyn near to burned it down, and had the Holder torn to pieces. Think of your people. Think of your son. There’s nothing you can do. Have the sense to admit it.”
There was a cry, and other muffled noises he couldn’t identify. The armsmen kept their eyes forward. The once harmonious voices of the entertainers faltered, and began to drift out of key. No, he couldn’t bear this, not a second longer. Talman stood, gently removing his wife’s hand from his arm, and pleaded to the voice inside of him, the one who had always spurred him through hard times. The one who had time and time called him to be a man when Toram had spat upon his people. This so-called Lord is too far gone. I need your help.
Finally, the hard feminine voice replied, you stand up like a man should. It’s about time. Use my strength. Make it count.
Jaima’s soul was in her eyes, but she said nothing. The storm rising within him was implacable. There was nothing she could do but wait it out, and she knew it. The realization only fed his determination.
Outside of the barn, an armsman raised his hand with chuckle. “Stop, Holder. You don’t want to do this.”
Talman snarled, and grabbed him by the chest, lifting him against the barn wall with a single hand, chain mail and all. “You have no idea who you’re dealing with, and you really don’t want to. Go.”
Two armsmen complied. One didn’t. Talman’s punch shattered the iron rings of the wretch’s chain mail. He felt the armored man’s ribs break, and the fool crumpled to the dirt. The Holder opened the barn door, to find the Count’s son standing threateningly above Tinah as she wept. One of her hands was raised to a bruised cheek, and the other was at her breast.
“Get out, Toram,” Brightblade snarled.
The Count’s elder son laughed. “You’ve gone too far this time, Talman. I am the will of Talyk, fulfilling my duty, and you’re interfering with the law, Holder. You’re under arrest.”
Talman’s rage seethed, boiling within him. It was all he could do to keep from ripping this useless man apart, and hang the consequences. “This is my Hold, and these are my people. If you need money, talk to me, and we’ll work something out. But don’t you dare touch her.”
Toram drew his weapon, and laughed. “You really are willing to throw away your life, and that of your family, over this little whore. Pity.”
Talman’s sword split Toram’s skull like a melon, in a single downward strike. Idiot. “Tinah, are you alright?”
The poor woman stared a moment at the body, blanched, then ran from the barn. Talman examined the cold and grisly lordling at his feet for only a moment, then stepped slowly outside, and shut the door.
The Count will never accept the death of his son without a fight. It is time to become more, my love. Are you ready?
The Holder ignored the voice, and walked slowly, wearily, back towards his wife. He had cleaned his sword, but a streak of red stained his tunic, one that thickened until it reached his blood-soaked hand. “My love.”
“What did you do?” Jaima whispered, staring in horror at her husband, and his gore-soaked lower arm.
“I think,” Talman replied, “that I’ve started a war.”
The feminine spirit had been within Talman as long as he could remember, in every waking moment. Sometimes she had been hard within him, sometimes amused, often disappointed, and in rare occasions vividly sensual. There were fevered nights where she possessed his dreams, rattled him to his bones, and let him hungry for more. She shared his emotions, saw through his eyes, and felt every physical sensation. She was deep within him, and yet she wasn’t him. She urged him on with a will of iron, hammering out his weaknesses and insecurities. But he never doubted for a moment that she loved him. Now, when his world was being turned inside out, she was - pleased, more so than ever before, almost triumphant. Yes, it will be a war. You’re finally becoming the man I remember. You were meant to be so much more than a glorified farmer. This is your destiny, my love. It’s time to embrace it.
Jaima stared at him, frightened, but when he offered his left arm, she burrowed into him, and pressed against his chest. Tinah had returned to the fire, reluctantly, and was curled up before it. She was weeping still, and her face was full of fear. However, when she saw his eyes, she managed the ghost of a grateful smile. Talman, however, clenched his fist. So be it. The Count and his men think they can terrorize my people? No more. Now they learn to fear me.
Anna laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it. She had been on edge ever since the news had come. Half of Marin, burned to the ground! And what of Pearl Bay? Were her parents safe? The visitor, Duke Charlienne, claimed the fighting hadn’t come to her home - yet. God send that was still true. Even if Pearl Bay was safe, her parents were merchants, and their fortune depended on caravans and sea-going ships. Duke Charlienne had nothing to say about their fates. She couldn’t imagine how war in Margon would would touch her family, or her betrothal.
Stranger still, Ironwood itself was packing up and preparing to simply leave. Was such a thing even possible? Erik seemed to think Jacob would find a way to deal with the Kharshe. She hoped so. Too many people would never go, under any circumstance, and what would happen to them?
Liliana refused even to discuss leaving. It was hard to blame her. As much as she wanted to get back to civilization, Anna realized that she would miss it here. There was a rustic charm to the place, and a kindness. So many people had gone out of their way to make her welcome, even knowing she couldn’t stay: Liliana, her friends, Erik, the girls who had rushed to congratulate her at the festival, and even the Baron. People walked lightly around him, but he was always good to her.
Liliana, of course, was in a category all her own. Heavy with child, she had spent the last several months preparing her nursery, picking out new furniture, and knitting the loveliest of blankets. Everything had to be perfect for the little boy or girl she was going to bring into the world. Now she moved with awkward care, sweating even in the cool autumn air, to place tasteful and aromatic plants throughout the room. Anything to better prepare for the new life she about to live, the sacred sisterhood of motherhood she was about to join. She refused to admit those dreams were fraying, that the town itself was coming apart with anxiety and dread. Yet Liliana still had the grace to joke about small imperfections in her string of pine-cones, while Anna helped her hang them.
“Will here do?” Anna asked, feeling like an interloper in Ironwood, for the first time in months. “No, let me put that side up. It has to go high, and I won’t have you climbing on chairs so close to your day.”
“Very well,” Liliana returned with a glowing grin, and leaned back against the wall, fanning her face. “I don’t remember hanging decorations being such work.”
“You push yourself harder than any woman I know,” Anna accused her friend, “As pregnant as you are, there’s no need. Sit a spell, and let your friends help you out.”
“It keeps my mind off things,” Liliana replied. “The news has been so bad lately, it’s nice to think that some things never change.”
Anna had no idea what to say, because important things were certainly about to. She was dying for more information, especially about Jacob. It was horrible to have things up in the air. “I guess that’s true,” she replied, though she knew her face betrayed the lie.
The clopping of a horse outside was a welcome distraction, and Anna practically leaped to the window to look. A lone man in Margonian finery was riding toward the keep. Even from the window, she could see the red velvet coat and cap were expensive, to say nothing of his blue silken hose. He looked very stately, with dark hair and a mustache, and with his thin sword swinging to the rhythm of the mare’s steady gait. But it was the speaking trumpet hanging from his side that gave him away.
“Well?” Liliana asked. “Out with it.”
“I thought you didn’t want to hear the news,” Anna replied teasingly. But at her friend’s tired gaze, she repented. “It’s a herald, I think, from the king or one of the pretenders. Looks like he’s headed to speak with the Baron.”
No fewer than four nobles had claimed Margon’s crown, when the war of the Sorcerers broke out, or so Charlienne had claimed. He also admitted to having been one of them, though he had since given his allegiance to Whitehall. Anna suspected he hadn’t joined the war to win, but only to improve the size of his lands. That strategy seemed to have worked for him; he was even going to claim the folk of Ironwood. King Illandielle was rumored to have fallen, along with the capital city of Maragon. Apparently, he had been completely unaware of what he faced. Whitehall had gone through his army like a hot knife through butter.
“More news,” Liliana noted sourly.
“Yes,” Anna replied, taking a seat by the windowsill.
“Well?” Liliana asked, slowly moving to her own feet, one hand on the small of her back. “Aren’t you curious what he has to say?”
“But I thought - “, the younger woman objected.
“Follow me,” Liliana instructed, and took her hand, leading her down the stairs.
Lifting her skirts with her free hand, Anna complied, and followed Liliana into her bedroom.
“This is our secret,” Liliana warned her, as she entered the room. “Understand?”
Anna nodded, then watched curiously as the Baroness-in-waiting slowly removed a large stone from her wall, and then a second, until a narrow hole appeared to the adjacent room, obscured on the other end by a silk tapestry. Her friend motioned her to her side, but kept a warning finger to her lips. A pompous voice filtered through hole.
“… of King Whitehall the first. He formally requests your recognition and obeisance.”
The Baron’s reply was too soft to hear, but it must have been acceptable, because the herald continued. “Very well. The King graciously accepts your service. To the second point, then. Your King has been made aware of Duke Charlienne’s request, that you and your people abandon to the town of Marin. He bids you accept the Duke’s offer.”
There was another pause, before the herald continued, arrogance dripping from his lips in a manner the words themselves could not convey. “Even if your son does make terms with the sons of Kharshe, it is of no consequence. You must redouble your speed, and head westward at once.
“Count Dorman, refusing to submit to the King’s service, has begun to flee from the West. He and his army may arrive at Ironwood within weeks, I fear. The King is occupied with the Sorcerers of Balina, and cannot safely extend himself beyond the Wall. Dorman will attempt to capture Ironwood, I fear, and this cannot be allowed to happen. Previous towns he’s captured were led against the King’s authority, and most of their populations slain. Even if he did not, the Kharshe will not permit Ironwood to remain in Margon hands. Nor will the King allow the people of Ironwood to rebel against its motherland, Margon. I know you are preparing to move to Marin, as you have been bid. It gives me no pleasure to warn you, but I must.
“Move swiftly, if you intend to live. It would be better for Lord Charlienne to use force against those who are too stubborn to comply than for all of your people to be lost. The King offers his authority on this matter to Duke.”
Liliana placed a hand over her mouth, and slowly close her eyes. Anna quietly replaced the missing stones in the wall, and sat silent at her side. To her wonder, the older woman began to cry. Silent tears streamed large and wet down her face, and Anna pulled her close.
“My son,” Liliana sobbed. “And Erik, and everything. We’re really going to have to leave.”
“It’s going to be fine,” Anna replied instinctively, and began to stroke the other woman’s hair. “You’re going to be fine. It’s just a move.”
“What if it’s not? What if the violence in Margon isn’t over? I-I was happy here,” Liliana continued.
Anna continued to shush her, rubbing her back, and playing with her hair. “The Baron will keep everyone together. You’ll be happy in Marin, and rich, and even closer to me in Pearl Bay than here. Everything will be alright, in time.”
But Anna had no idea if that were true, if the Baron would make things right for his people, or if they would move from wealth and security to poverty and war. For all she knew, things would be just as bad for her parents. She suddenly wished Jacob were here.
“Everything will be alright,” Anna said again, as Liliana cried endlessly on her shoulder. But she lied, and every time she repeated the lie, she believed it less.