Castle Roland


by David McLeod


Chapter 9

Published: 15 Dec 2014


by David McLeod

An Elven Prince

Tyler visited the Elven boy's sickroom as often as Jon would allow. Within a tenday, the boy's healing was complete. Tyler no longer had a reason to visit, but found enough to do at the Temple. Besides helping the healers, James insisted they all continue weapons training. The horses needed to be exercised. Herbs had to be gathered. The plague of leprosy had taken more than a hundred lives, and would have taken more except for the work of the healers. After six months, the number of patients with the new disease dropped to a trickle, and then stopped altogether. James called Jon into a private room.

"Jon, once again we must leave a place of safety. The Elven boy? It seems he's a great deal more than that. He is a prince, Prince Richard, and may be the only survivor of the legitimate ruling family of Elvenhold. His home was raided last night; he and Severus, his tutor, escaped and came here. Their escape was bought at the cost of the lives of all their followers. We believe no one knows that they are here, but we can't be sure. They must leave immediately.

"Camphire and I will escort Prince Richard and Severus back to the monastery. Will you and your companions accompany us?"

"Of course," Jon said. This time, he knew better than to ask Tyler and Morgan if they would follow him. He relayed James' request, and said that he'd agreed. Morgan nodded. Tyler looked enthusiastic. "Yes!" he said. "I'm getting bored."

The journey began on what had once been the Royal Road, but which now was an unkempt, if wide, track through farms and forest. They had not traveled a half-day from Algoropolis when men on horseback boiled from the washes on both sides of the road. Brandishing swords and whooping like madmen, they charged the companions. Brigands thought Tyler. Bounty hunters thought Jon and James.

An archer jumped up from where he had lain in hiding. His arrow found Prince Richard's horse. The animal stumbled and dropped to its front knees. Richard pitched forward; his left foot caught in the stirrup. The horse tried to rise, but then sank to the ground. Bright blood poured from its mouth and nostrils. Richard wriggled free.

One of the attackers spurred his horse toward Richard, sword in hand. The reward offered was for the boy alive, or for his head. It really didn't matter. Tyler controlled his horse with only his knees and held his sword in both hands.

"Don't move!" he ordered Richard. Tyler's horse stopped directly between the prince and the attacker. The man swerved, but still he came close enough–or too close. Tyler's sword spun a disk of light. It cut through the air–and the man's neck. The horse, still carrying the newly dead body, ran into the forest.

Tyler looked around assessing the situation. "Quickly–up and behind me," he ordered the prince. Tyler stretched out his left hand. Richard grasped it, and swung himself into the saddle. The boy's arms held fast to Tyler's waist.

"Go!" the prince said. "Go! Jon needs help."

Two bounty hunters, one on each side of him, were harassing Jon. His sword flashed from side to side. So far, he'd managed to keep them at bay, but that couldn't last much longer. Tyler spurred his horse. "Hang on!" he called, both to Jon and to the prince who rode behind him.

The man on Jon's left turned at the sound of Tyler's voice. Idiot! flashed through Jon's mind. He struck with his poniard, held in reserve until this instant. The bounty hunter's horse reared, and Jon's poniard pierced not the man's kidney, but his thigh. Behind the man, only yards away, Tyler appeared.

Jon's decision required no thought. He turned away from the injured man and concentrated his attention on the second bounty hunter–just in time to block that man's sword. Jon leaned hard to the right and toward that man. Jon would have fallen from his saddle had he not braced his left leg behind the horse's neck. The extra inches he gained thereby were enough. Jon's sword swept through the man's back and out his abdomen. The man crumpled.

He's not dead, Jon thought, but he will be before he can raise his sword again. Jon sat up in his saddle and looked around for another enemy. He saw Tyler's horse rear, but Tyler and the prince kept their seat. The horse's hooves came down on the chest of a bounty hunter who had been thrown from his saddle.

The others? Jon thought. He and Tyler both looked around, but the battle was over. Six bounty hunters lay dead or dying. An arrow from Severus' bow had found the archer before he could shoot a second time. Five of the bounty hunters' horses milled around; two horses had followed the other into the forest and were long and far away.

No one had been hurt. Jon put down Prince Richard's horse. Healing and killing, two sides of a coin, two uses for the same power, he thought. I'm glad we found these people. I'm glad Tyler has someone better than me to be his role model.

Prince Richard rode on the horse of one of the dead bounty hunters. He'd been reluctant to leave his place behind Tyler, but had understood the need for speed and endurance, both of which would have suffered had they ridden double. Gentian led the remaining horses of the bounty hunters.

That night, camped in the forest a furlong from the road, Tyler sought out Jon. "Jon, I knew you had killed in war," the boy said. "I never wanted to kill, but I did, today."

He shuddered. "I saw, we saw, that boy's death on the operating table. It was the first time I'd seen anyone die. And there were others. The mercenary who tried to kill you. I was upset, even though I knew you had defended both yourself and me."

"Killing is not, in and of itself, evil," Jon said. "Killing in self-defense, killing to protect someone you love," he said, "that is not evil."

Tyler nodded. "I know. I just needed to hear you say it." He reached out, and felt Jon's arms holding him tightly.

The midday sky boiled with black-green clouds. Thunder crashed, and the wind whined through the trees. Neither the sounds of the storm nor the hoof beats of the horses blotted out the baying hounds of their pursuers.

"The river!" Jon called to James. "If we can cross, we can hold them from crossing. If we cannot, we are trapped. We need a diversion."

James nodded. "Tyler, Richard, Gentian, Severus, and Camphire," he pointed and signaled: ride hard. Jon pulled alongside Tyler.

"Take Richard and the boys across the river," he yelled. "Be prepared to defend the crossing."

Tyler obeyed, but Jon saw the pain in the boy's eyes.

James, Jon, Morgan, and Lawsonius dropped back. "Now," called James. The quartet stopped and spun their horses to face the oncoming bounty hunters and their dogs.

Jon, Morgan, and Lawsonius had already unshipped their bows, and in an instant, three arrows sped away. Each struck the horse of a pursuer. The horses fell. A second volley was less accurate; only two arrows hit. It was enough, however. The pursuers had slowed. James' spell was effective; vines and brambles seemed to grow from the ground between him and the bounty hunters. It's not growth, Jon thought. Not enough time for that. Osmotic pressure and plants that normally lie close to the ground rise up a foot or two. Will it be enough?

"To the river!" James called. "I've done all I can."

They again wheeled their horses and rode pell-mell toward the river they knew to be past the trees. When James' party reached the river, Tyler's party were nearly across. The rear guard urged their horses into the water. They had reached midstream when Morgan cried out, "Jon!"

On the riverbank behind them, a lone figure–one who had found his way through the vines and brambles–stood. His arrow had found Morgan's horse, and the animal had thrown Morgan into the water.

Jon grabbed at the boy, snaring his sleeve. Don't tear! Jon thought, and felt power course through his arm. He heaved, and pulled Morgan out of the water and onto Jon's own horse. "Hang on!" Jon cried.

"Aim short!" James urged Tyler and the others. "Lure them toward us."

Morgan alit from Jon's horse. "Take Richard and Tyler and the horses into the forest, at least 100 yards," Jon ordered. Tyler heard, and cast a stricken look toward Jon, but Jon was already facing the river with his bow at the ready.

James swung his arms briskly, gathering magic. "This is going to be noisy," he said, "but it can't be helped. Are they all present?"

Jon nodded. His senses, enhanced by training and magic, saw their attackers.

James hurled the gathered power across the river where their pursuers milled about. Seven men fell backwards, dead. "Shoot!" James called, and three arrows sped across the water to end the lives of the remaining men.

The farms became fewer the farther north the companions rode. An occasional cart path–often little more than two ruts of beaten down vegetation–suggested the presence of a holt or small village deep in the forest. The trees grew thickly on both sides of the road. It was a natural thickness, and not the forced growth of the Druidic Clerics.

Despite the density of the forest that surrounded them, Jon felt exposed and vulnerable. It was on a road like this–paved with ancient stone blocks, and lined with mud-brick houses rather than trees–that an improvised explosive device killed two of my squad-mates and injured me, he thought. Am I remembering, or am I foreseeing?

Jon drew alongside James. "I am suddenly uncomfortable," Jon said. "This path, the forest, it's all too easy to mount an ambush."

James nodded, and rode from one member of the party to another, offering a word of caution and encouragement to each. Discretely, they reformed.

Tyler rode behind Prince Richard. "I can see you and danger that might approach," he assured the boy. Richard nodded, reluctant to let Tyler out of his sight.

Jon rode on Tyler's left. James rode on the prince's left. Richard followed Camphire. Gentian and Lawsonius were in the vaward–the most inexperienced were also the most exposed. Still, they were within eyesight of the seasoned fighters. Severus and Morgan rode behind Gentian and Camphire.

The attack came from one of the cart paths, at what Jon judged to be nones. The attackers rode from the direction of the setting sun. There was no need to warn the companions–the thump of horses and the breaking of vegetation did that. James assessed the situation well before the brigands–more bounty hunters, thought Jon–well before the brigands reached the column.

"Spear left!" James called.

In well-rehearsed movements, the companions stopped, wheeled their horses, and reformed in a tight triangle facing the attackers. James was at the apex. He controlled his horse–a seasoned destrier–with his knees and his mind.

He had drawn his sword and poniard before the horse completed its turn. Richard was immediately behind James, and flanked by Camphire and Jon. Gentian, Morgan, Lawsonius, and Tyler formed the next rank. Severus took his place in the rear, and drew his bow, already strung. He would warn of flanking maneuvers, and pick off attackers when opportunity presented itself.

The attackers had counted on surprise and shock. The quick reaction of the trained companions negated the element of surprise. The staunchness of their horses and the steadfastness of the companions, themselves, resisted the shock of the brigand charge. None of the companions' horses moved; none of the companions flinched. James thought he saw fear in the face of the lead brigand.

The man swerved to his left to avoid running headlong into James. Whatever emotion had been in the man's eyes died with him when James and then Camphire struck the man with their swords. The man fell lifeless at the feet of Gentian's horse.

On the other side of the triangle, Jon and Tyler were at a disadvantage: both were right-handed, and they'd have to wield their swords across their horses' necks. They had practiced, however, and two more charging brigands died trying to pass those boys.

Depending on the disciplined companions to hold their positions, Severus loosed an arrow that sped within inches of Jon and Tyler before piercing the eye of a brigand who was riding straight toward Jon. Jon pulled the reins of his horse, and the animal reared. The approaching horse, carrying a dead man, turned aside, skidded, and fell. The crack of a cannon bone pierced the sounds of the battle.

As Jon's horse reared, so did Richard's horse. Perhaps the horse was frightened. Perhaps in his excitement, Richard had pulled too hard on the reins. In any case, Richard dropped the reins and clung to the saddle.

"Jon! On your right!" Tyler called. Jon sidestepped his horse to the left. Instantly, Tyler sheathed his sword and rode to Richard's side. Tyler grasped in vain for the flying reins. The horse reared again. He's going to buck! Tyler realized. He dropped his poniard and grabbed Richard as the boy flew from the saddle.

"James! On your left," Tyler called. James had no time to react. The prince's fear-maddened horse caromed off James's horse before running headlong into the horse of a brigand. James's destrier recovered quickly; the brigand's horse did not. Its rider fell under the hooves of two rearing and bucking horses.

"Circle!" James called. The companions reformed into a circle with Tyler and Prince Richard in the center, James looked around. The maneuver had been unnecessary. The battle was over.

"Jon! This one's alive," Camphire called.

Jon hurried to where Camphire knelt beside a brigand. Carefully, slowly pulling power from the magical field, Jon examined the man. Severe internal injuries. His abdomen was opened up by the horse's hooves, Jon thought. I can do nothing for him. Yet . . .

Jon channeled power to the man's pituitary gland and began the chain reaction that would produce endorphins. He lent power to the man's heart and lungs. "Get James, please," he instructed Camphire.

The brigand's eyes opened. "How did you find us?" Jon asked. The man sneered. Jon pumped more power into the pituitary. The brigand's face relaxed and his eyes brightened.

"How did you find us?" Jon asked gently.

Lulled by the endemic narcotic that flooded his body, the man smiled. "The mage followed the boy's dagger."

Jon looked at James, who nodded. The brigand had told the truth.

Jon ceased powering the brigand's heart and lungs. The glow in the man's eyes faded.

"Jon! Over here," Tyler called. He was kneeling over Lawsonius, pressing hard on that boy's thigh.

Jon ran to Tyler's side. "Your patient, Tyler."

Tyler did not hesitate. "I'll need a large bandage." He turned his attention back to Lawsonius.

"No arteries were cut." Tyler said several minutes later. He wrapped a bandage around Lawsonius' leg. "Your injury was severe, but not life threatening. The major veins have been repaired. The severed muscles are beginning to fuse, but you must not walk on this leg for a while. Must not; do you understand?"

The boy nodded, and Tyler continued. "We'll work on nerves and capillaries, later."

"We must leave here," James said. "And with haste. But first, we must deal with the dagger."

Richard had not been reluctant to give up his dagger. He had not received it in ritual. Those who sought him had something that linked with it. "Sympathetic magic," Gentian explained.

The companions debated what to do with the dagger. "Too bad we can't feed it to an alligator, like in Peter Pan," Tyler said.

"Huh?" Morgan asked.

"The alligator would swim off, and the bad guys would follow it," Tyler explained. "I'll tell you the story, later."

"We could strap it to a horse, and release him," Camphire suggested.

"The horse might follow us," James said.

"If they found the horse and dagger, they'd know we knew about it," Jon said.

"What if the dagger isn't the only thing?" Lawsonius asked.

The others' saddlebags yielded clothes for Prince Richard. When dressed, he looked quite the ragamuffin, but he grinned. "My clothes, too," Severus said. A robe from James' saddlebags fit Severus quite well. "It's not unlike what I wore when I was a student, so many centuries ago," Severus said.

"Even this?" Richard said. He took a sept medallion and its chain from around his neck. The last rays of the sun struck the golden spear from which enameled flames rose.

"Even that," Severus said.

Richard's dagger was tossed into a pile of leaves. "It may appear to have been lost," James said. Richard and Severus' clothes were burned in a funeral pyre with the bodies of their attackers.

Jon took the sept medallion and broke the chain. Richard gasped. "We will likewise leave this here. If they find it, they may believe it to have been broken off by force. Those rocks," he pointed. "I'll put it between them. Perhaps someday you may return to recover it."

Richard nodded. "Thank you, Jon."

A fine rain, sometimes no more than a heavy mist, had been falling since early morning. Low clouds concealed the tops of the trees. The clouds filtered the sunlight, robbing it of the energy needed to color the world. The companions and the trees through which they rode appeared only in shades of gray. Even the blood that seeped from the bandage on Lawsonius' leg was more black than red.

At Jon's insistence, James signaled a halt. Gentian helped Lawsonius from his horse while Jon cut and sterilized bandages. The rest of the companions remained mounted, and established a defensive perimeter, with Jon, Lawsonius, Gentian, and Richard in the center. James rode from one to another, offering instruction and encouragement. At the same time, he assessed each one's condition. When he reached Tyler, James spoke quietly to that boy's ears, alone. "If you push yourself too hard," he said, "you'll be of no use when the crisis comes. You didn't sleep at all last night, did you?"

Tyler, bound by an oath of obedience more than by the knowledge that James was a Sembler, shook his head. "I was watching–" he began, only to be interrupted by James.

"We had assigned watches," James said. "For a reason. You not only deprived yourself of sleep, you also signaled that you do not trust your companions. Is that the case?"

Tyler's stomach lurched. "No! I . . . no!"

James smiled. "I did not think so, nor did I think you had thought of that. Lack of sleep also affects judgment. Were you well rested, I do not doubt that you'd have understood and acted differently. Tonight, you will not stand watch. You will sleep."

James smiled again. "Will you be able to do that, or do I need to spell you asleep again?"

Tyler grinned, remembering the first time he had encountered these clerics. "No," he said, "I'll sleep. Uh . . . and . . . James? Thank you."

Jon and Gentian had carefully, quietly poured power into Lawsonius' leg, and then re-bandaged it. When the companions rode on, Jon sought out James. "Lawsonius' leg is not healing well. The stress of riding is too much for it. We can continue, but it's going to deteriorate."

James nodded. "Can you–can he–can he ride for four more days?"

"The risk is great," Jon replied. "May he be relieved of watch? May he be allowed to sleep through the night?"

"That would leave fewer to stand watch," James replied. "I've already told Tyler that he must sleep this night through." James pondered. "You are right, we must do this. We will stop early."

The ground was soft from the rain, and they could not completely hide the tracks made by the horses. James, too, was fatigued, and could muster only a little power, but the grasses over which they rode sprang up after their passage. "That and darkness will have to be sufficient," James said.

Jon nodded. I only hope it's enough, he thought.

The rain had stopped, but the ground and their blankets were sodden. Tyler grinned and brought blanket after blanket to Jon who snapped them dry. "Do you remember our first night on this world?" Jon whispered to Tyler.

"I do," Tyler said. "I was so glad you were with me." He paused. "I'm still glad. I love you so much."

Jon paused in his task to give Tyler a kiss. "I love you, too, Tyler. But, James said you were to sleep the night through, so no boy magic."

Tyler returned the kiss. "I'll take a rain check."

James had set the watches, and then spelled both Lawsonius and Tyler to sleep. Prince Richard was exhausted, and quickly fell asleep between Lawsonius and Tyler. James and Jon exchanged glances and smiles when the young prince put his arms around Tyler before falling asleep.

A finger over his lips wakened Jon. At first, the darkness was absolute, but then Jon saw a faint glow on the horizon, a harbinger of dawn. "It's nearly dawn," James said. "Would you take the last watch, alone? Gentian fell asleep moments ago."

Jon nodded, realized that James likely could not see him, and whispered his assent.

A faint dawn provided barely enough light by which to see when Jon woke Lawsonius. The sleep spell had worn off hours ago, leaving the boy in a natural, if exhausted, sleep. "How does your leg feel?" Jon asked.

Lawsonius gingerly rolled onto his back, sat up, and flexed his toes. Jon saw pain flash across the boy's face. "It's okay," Lawsonius said.

"Pain," Jon began, "means that things are not okay." He concentrated and looked at the boy's wound. No infection, he thought. At least we can control that. The major arteries and veins are still connected, but the muscle isn't healing, and the nerves and capillaries are not binding. He may not lose the leg, but he'll be crippled if we don't immobilize him, and soon.

"Jon!" Tyler's urgent whisper drew Jon's attention from Lawsonius.

"I found a path in the forest, just beyond those trees." Tyler pointed.

Jon had been aware that Tyler had wakened and stumbled off to piss. Now, Tyler's voice broke Prince Richard's sleep. The boy woke and realized he was not cuddled with Tyler. He sat up, and looked around. Seeing Tyler, he smiled.

"Game trail?" Jon asked.

"No, made by wheels, two ruts," Tyler explained.

"Wake James," Jon began. "Tell him, please, and ask Gentian to come and help here," he continued.

"The path leads north," Tyler reported. "I followed it a few hundred yards and smelled wood smoke–and bread. Well," he continued, "at least yeast."

"A holt?" James mused.

"Do you suppose we'd be welcome?" Jon asked. "We need a rest." He looked at James and then at Lawsonius. James understood, and nodded.

"I will ride to the source of the smoke," Tyler offered. "If they offer welcome, I will return with word–"

"No," James said. "I'm the only Sembler. I will go. Jon, I know you eschew command, however, you will lead the others if I do not return."

Jon nodded. He was oath-bound, and he understood James' reasons.

James mounted his horse, and set out. Jon immediately began to prepare the others to depart. "If he finds welcome, we will need to be ready to accompany him. If he does not, we will need to be ready to flee.

"Listen!" Gentian whispered.

Jon looked in the direction the boy indicated, and cupped a hand behind his ear. He heard a creaking sound he'd learned to associate with wooden axle bearings. The "two-wee, two-wee" whistle that came from the same direction was James signal that all was well. Jon relaxed. My first command, he thought. I'm glad it's over.

James walked into the clearing followed by two men who maneuvered a tumbrel between the trees. Jon dismounted, and walked to meet them. The rest of the companions, lacking instructions to the contrary, held their positions.

"These are Albert and Neal," James said. "Their home, and that of their families, is about a mile down the track. They have welcomed us, despite the danger to themselves."

James phrase was the second signal that all was well.

Lawsonius was lifted onto the tumbrel. Jon's offer to help pull was politely declined. The companions followed the tumbrel down the track to a farmstead.

Glances of understanding were exchanged as the farmstead came into sight. Like the monastery, it was surrounded by fields and pastures. Like the monastery, it was fortified, although its walls were wooden save for stone towers in the corners and at the gate.

After bathing Lawsonius, Jon re-bandaged his wounds, and laid the boy in a trundle. Jon, himself, would sleep in the bed nearby.

"You are truly a healer?" a boyish voice, filled with awe, asked.

Jon turned to see Carlo, Albert's son, standing in the doorway.

"I saw light leave your hand," the boy said. "It's like boy magic, but even more beautiful."

Only the greatest mages can see magic, Jon thought, remembering what Morgan had said, and the monks had confirmed. Jon sat back on his heels. "Yes," he said. "I am a healer. Did not James tell your father that?"

"Well, yeah," the boy answered. "But I thought you'd be like Grampa. He's a healer, but he doesn't use magic–just herbs and stuff." The boy's voice showed his distain. "I want to use real magic," he said. "But father won't let me. He said it was dangerous. But you–?"

"You must know two things, Carlo," Jon said. "First, your Grampa sounds like a skilled herbalist, and no healer in this world can succeed without a thorough knowledge of herbs. That is something I am still learning. Second, your father is right. Using magic is dangerous until you have learned how to control both the magic and the noise it makes. Evil men who hear that noise will seek you out, and find you by it."

"Noise?" Carlo said. "Noise?"

One day of hearty food, and one night of uninterrupted sleep were sufficient to bring all but Lawsonius back to top form. Jon and James spoke to Albert. "The injured–the wounded–boy needs at least a tenday to heal. Otherwise, he will likely lose the leg. This would be a burden and abuse of your hospitality–" James began.

"We, like yourselves, are servants of the Light," Albert countered. James and Jon were stunned. No one in his right mind would acknowledge that, not in this day and time, Jon thought.

"Oh, come now," Albert said, chuckling at the expressions that flashed across Jon and James' faces. "James spoke the truth when he said that you were fleeing men who sought the life of the Elven boy you are protecting. James offered a gift of trust when he told us that. That gift is precious to us. The Elves–the Lucernae–once held this part of the world against Darkness. We remember, and we remember our debt to them. Further," he looked at Jon. "Further, Carlo told me he saw Jon's magic when he healed the wounded boy, and that Jon's magic was golden. Even more, he confessed that Jon had corrected his misunderstanding of his Grampa's skills, and reinforced a warning I had issued.

"Frankly," Albert concluded, "you can be nothing but Good."

"Jon?" Carlo's voice once more came from the doorway. Jon looked up.

"Jon, would you share boy magic with me? Father said I might ask."

He's so young! Jon thought, and then realized, he's a boy, and he's probably older than Tyler–perhaps older than I am. By custom, by whatever law still exists in this light-forsaken world–his request is legitimate. Morgan said any boy could ask, with permission. And he said he had that. Oh, shit. What should I do?

"Carlo, come here, please," Jon asked.

Carlo knelt beside Jon at the trundle where Lawsonius lay.

Before Jon could speak again, Carlo took his hand. "Please, Jon? I know you have to take care of Lawsonius. Won't my magic help?"

Before Jon could answer, Lawsonius spoke. "He's right, Jon."

When the companions rode from the farm, they were one more than when they entered. With the blessing of his father, Carlo rode with them. "You must know," James had said, "that he may never return. You must know that he may die in the service of the Light."

Albert had nodded. "It is his wish, and, I believe, he has found the path that he must take."

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