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