Chapter 1: The Kerk

When a man comes to think that his brother must become a man too soon, he may do many things.

Both Lorne and Kamron were half-drunk. Lorne’s guard Wallace Mungo, a big man both had known all their lives, was drunker. Wallace leaned against a hay bale, gnawing on a leg of poultry, his sword wedged into the straw.

Lorne squinted into the late afternoon sun, shading his eyes with his hand.

“If you make the shot into the sun, I’ll give you the bay gelding,” he said. Such a big gift for an older brother to make; Kamron knew the horse was Lorne’s favorite.

Kamron grinned. Five years younger, he had a boyish softness to his face, while Lorne had lost all of his if he had ever had any. He felt a dry squint at the corners of his eyes as he judged the shot. If there were any in the family he was like, it was his mother Laura. Kamron was a young version of their father.

“You’ll give me nothing,” Kamron said, laughing. “I know you. You’ll find some excuse.”

“I’ve got to give you a wedding present,” Lorne said. “The best I can, since it’s you headed for Kestrel Point and not me.”

“Thank you for reminding me again,” Kamron said, smile fading. He took a long swig of wine from his skin before handing it to Wallace, who eagerly poured more down his gullet and wiped his mouth with the back of his thick-knuckled, greasy hand.

“Is it true what they say?” Wallace asked.

“The sun does rise each day,” said Lorne.

“No,” the big man said, chuckling. Kamron nocked his arrow and took aim at one of the three targets at the other end of the proving ground. “They say the redling’s taller than you, and twice as strong.”

“And thrice as ugly,” said Lorne. “My brother will be riding a wild red-haired steed from the west soon.”

“Steed?” asked Wallace. “From what I hear, it’s more like cow.” This made Kamron laugh, but Lorne saw the tight line of his brother’s mouth — he didn’t really think it was very funny. It was not that either of them would care whether Meria d’Avia was beautiful or not. They were sons of Ewan Ancaster, Elector of the Seven Ridings, and would do what their father said. Though the wars of Dark Magic were long gone, they still had to look to the north where the Helmanders threatened. And the south and the men of the Red City as well, Lorne thought, though his father disagreed.

Someday, the Ridings would all be Lorne’s, but that day was far away. Following this marriage, Kamron would take charge of Kestrel Point, securing the narrow mountain pass to the north. The Ancasters would control their steel and weapons. To make that certain, Kamron would live in the shadow of the Antler and smell the black smoke from their forges and foundries day and night. He would hear their rough talk in their strange language. Watch them follow their strange rituals to their woman god.

The Seven Ridings were rich, certainly, but their smiths were in no way the equal of the Guilds of Kestrel Point. And that scrap of land and all of its foundries belonged to Astá d’Avia, Guardian of the Pass. She had but a single daughter, and it was this notorious red-haired wildling promised in marriage to Kamron. Kamron was all of seventeen years, and though he seemed hardened to the marriage now, he had cried to their mother upon hearing the unwelcome news from his father.

That pitiful scene, Lorne was not likely to share with Wallace Mungo or anyone else. If their father had heard, he would have certainly beaten Kamron. Lorne and their mother had held their tongues.

Feeling soft toward his brother, Lorne said, “The young women they sent here are not so bad.” He took a small sip of wine, then felt his lips curling upward. “After they were cleaned up! I rather like the tall, slim one.”

“The green-eyed one? She’d claw your eyes as soon as look at you,” said Kamron. He released the arrow and the shot went wide, hitting the grass and digging a small trench between the targets.

Groaning and huffing, Wallace left his spot and lumbered across the grass to retrieve it.

As soon as the big man was out of earshot, Lorne turned to Kamron, putting his hand on his shoulder.

“You will be five days from the West Riding,” he said. “If you find it impossible to stay after you get the redling with child — send for me. It can be arranged.” Lorne left out the part about the war getting worse — perhaps full Helmander attacks — if such happened he would get Kamron out safely. On that, he would stake his life.

Kam’s brow wrinkled. Tears welled in the corners of his pale blue eyes. “I’ve only ever been with Vinesa,” he said. “I don’t want to be with anyone else.”

Lorne grinned. “You can send for Vinesa. Six of our girls will go back for Meria’s household. What would one more slip of a girl be?”

“It will be weeks,” Kam said. “A season!”

“Oh, weeks and days,” said Lorne. “I cannot imagine how you’ll ever survive without having that girl telling you that you’re as big as a stallion every night. Brother, I shall someday take payment for what I’ve heard.”

“What –” said Kam.

“Do you both think I’m deaf?” Lorne fluttered his eyes in a mockery of feminine flirtation. “Oh, Kamron, you’re so big,” he said in a falsetto. “Kamron! Kamron!” He paused for effect. “My stallion.”

Kam shoved his brother in the chest. “Shut up! She doesn’t sound like that.”

“She sounds exactly like that,” said Lorne. “In future I would advise you to find a quieter one. The ears at Kestrel Point are not so friendly. There’s no telling what that Helbitch Astá might do if she heard you weren’t doing your duty by her daughter.”

“You’re making this a hundred times worse,” Kam snapped. He wiped his eyes and nocked another arrow. “I will get it this time.”

“You had best,” Lorne said. “You’ve lost your chance for the bay now. Perhaps I’ll give you a hen if you make it near the bale.”

“I’m nervous,” Kam said.

“You’re no good,” Lorne said. “You don’t listen to me, and you don’t practice nearly enough. You don’t listen to Wallace either — you pay no attention to him at all.”

The big man was drawing close, breath heavy and brow sweat-slicked from retrieving the arrow. Lorne acknowledged him with a nod. Wallace was a mad fighter. Lorne would not have cared to face him in a true fight, even gone to fat as the old man had. Even drunk and winded as he was right now.

Kam released the arrow. The string sang. This time, the shot was true. The arrow slammed into the center of the target almost up to the fletching.

“I do listen to you, brother,” Kam said, smiling.

“Well-done,” said Lorne. Though he wouldn’t say just then, he would give Kam the bay gelding in time for the trip to Kestrel Point. The gift would soften the bad news that he was not likely to be at the wedding. If the raids by the Helmanders continued — even became full battles — it would be a long time before Lorne was at any wedding, including his own, not that he pictured any such event for quite some time. But with Kam’s marriage, they’d have the steel from Kestrel Point, and perhaps, even the fire magic as well, though Lorne misliked the thought of magic instead of arms fighting on his behalf.

“If I have you at the wedding,” Kam said, “I know it — “

He paused, then stumbled and coughed. His bow fell to the ground, while the fingers of his left hand clutched at something unseen. His blue eyes went wide.

Lorne’s ears had heard the arrow, although his mind did not fully-comprehend it.

“Brother!” He rushed to catch Kam as he fell.

An arrow shaft half again as wide as the light, swift arrows the brothers had been shooting protruded from Kam’s back. A widening oily stain marred the front of his light leather jerkin.

There would never be words for what Lorne felt at that moment.

Wallace, eyes wild, lurched forward and leaned down to hold Kam steady.

Lorne would have no help. With his free hand he indicated the rough palisades around the proving ground. A clock tower loomed beyond them. “It came from the tower!” he screamed. “Get him!”

The big man’s face, now totally sober, was a mask of fear, shame and rage. He ran off with heavy steps, calling for guards and marshals — anyone.

“What –” Kam said, his mouth full of blood.

“Don’t try to talk,” Lorne said. What was on his face? Blood?

Tears. He’d seen a hundred men dead and killed five. Not one tear. But now —

Kam refused to listen. “Brother,” he said. Lorne’s heart trembled and tore as he saw his brother’s eyes film over. “Take care of Vinesa. Tell her that I love her.”

“You can tell her yourself,” said Lorne.

But it was already too late.

He cradled Kam in his lap. As his brother’s skin grew cool, Lorne’s mind darkened and his heart grew empty. After a moment, hearing the cries of other men rushing into the proving ground, he turned his brother over and examined the arrow.

The fletchings were unmistakable: sky blue and gold. Lorne had seen enough of these arrows, along with heavy hide shields, poleaxes, hand axes, and long, heavy, brittle swords.

A Helmander shaft, swift, hard and deadly.