Dripping water in his face woke him up. Turned out that ferns were great conductors of dew. Wiping the fresh wetness out of his eye, Anton rolled to his side and up onto his elbow. Birds sang busily in the trees and in the near distance he could hear the soft rustling of a small animal. Pushing himself to his feet he stretched out the lingering stiffness of sleeping on the ground.
The path was wide and he eyed it thoughtfully. Maybe best to stay off it, walk through the trees next to it as much as possible. He didn’t need any trouble. The sun was bright in the sky and he shaded his eyes as he glanced up at it through the branches. If he was moving eastward then, as the wagon driver had said, it would be a long road to Enstam. Perhaps the forest would be a more direct route. He eyed the expanse behind him. No. Something about the dark trees discouraged exploration, and there was likely to be only the one mountain path.
As he trod through the undergrowth he tried to figure out exactly what he was going to do once he reached Enstam. He should warn the magistrate that preparing for war would be a good idea, but he would have to be careful how he did it. Then a boat, and home to Port Adair. His steps quickened at the thought. Home. Seeing his sister again.
Thoughts of the aftermath of Ravens Water wove into his hope like a fog, twisting it. No. There was surely no reason for Malchor to attack his own cities. Surely they’d be safe. He strode on, steps not light now but heavy with a dread that he tried to dismiss. Port Adair was not like the western lands, ready to kill and throw out their elvish citizens. But then again, he had been with the army. He’d seen what men from Devnor would do. Knew what he had done. He ignored the tight feeling in his chest. Right now there was nothing he could do.
Food was something else on his mind. He did not regret giving his rations to the girl, she needed them more than him, but not only had he not seen any rabbits or birds large enough to feed him but the thought of killing any of the creatures in this wood sent shivers down his spine. It felt a bit like being welcomed into someone’s home and then leaving with all their possessions. Oh well, a few days without food would do him no harm. As long as he didn’t run out of water. He smiled ruefully as the first drops of a spring shower splashed down on his coat. Looks that wouldn’t be a problem.
It was getting on for midday when he stopped. He’d been forced back onto the path some time ago when the land on either side became increasingly marshy. So far it had seemed fine but he had no wish to discover a sink hole by falling in it. Something in the air seemed wrong, and he realised that the constant birdsong had fallen silent. His pulse quickened. He knelt down as if to adjust the laces on his boot and scanned the surrounding landscape through his lashes. A couple of small pebbles rolled quietly off to the side of the path up ahead, as if disturbed by a shifting foot. He palmed the dagger from inside his boot and as he stood he loosened his sword.
Moving forward as if lost in thought he listened intently. A second before the man jumped out from his hiding spot Anton heard the slight intake of breath as the bandit had prepared himself. His sword was out in a flash and his dagger held ready. The bandit pulled up but didn’t seem too perturbed. The sounds of shuffling feet behind him told Anton why; the bandit had company.
He shifted, letting his size give them pause. “I don’t want trouble”
The bandit grinned through his wiry reddish beard. “Of course you don’t, but I’m afraid trouble has found you. See, we don’t like soldiers in these woods. These are our woods and you aren’t welcome.”
Anton adjusted his stance to shift slightly to his left, he couldn’t quite see the man behind him but he could smell him; he smelled of cedar smoke and pig grease. A tanner maybe.
“I am not a soldier.” The words felt like ash in his mouth.
The bandit looked at him with disbelief in his narrow eyes. “Well, you look a bit scruffy but that’s a Devnorian army coat you’re wearing even if you’ve managed to rip off the emblem. Now I might be prepared to believe that you stole the coat, but a big man like you that coat looks like its been tailored to fit. No way you just picked that up.”
Anton tried a smile, it didn’t feel very disarming and from the increased tension in the bandit’s shoulders it didn’t look it either. He gave it up.
“What I may have been is beside the point, I am no soldier now. I don’t want trouble. I simply want to get to Enstam before the pass is closed.’
“How did you find the path?”
The voice behind him sounded very unlike the burly image of a tanner he had constructed in his head. He risked turning his head slightly but did not want to take his eyes off the man in front of him.
“I don’t like speaking to people behind me. Why don’t you come around where I can see you”
A soft laugh came in reply. “You answer the question and perhaps I might”
“A friend showed me the way.”
“A friend in a wagon?”
He debated whether to tell them. He wasn’t sure if they knew the wagon driver or not and he did not want to get him into trouble.
“A friend who didn’t ask as many questions as you” he said.
The man in front of him seemed to be looking over his shoulder at the one behind him. Anton tensed. He was ready either way but he hoped they backed down; his soul was worn with killing. The bandit shrugged his shoulders and put down his sword.
“Fine, on your head be it boy. You can put down your weapons, soldier, the master thinks you are vouched for.”
Anton kept hold of his sword and shrugged, a grim smile flickering across his face, “I think I prefer to keep them out until I have seen all your merry crew, Redbeard.”
A soft laugh came from right over his shoulder and he had to exert a lot of control not to jump. A slight figure in a dull green tunic walked around to face him. Golden hair curled roughly, looking rather as if it had been hacked off by an amateur. The boy had to be no more than 15, and his pale face had the fine bones of one more suited to a great hall than to rough living. Anton’s arms dropped. He stared at the boy and his mind whirled.
“Lord Daffyd now.” The boy replied in the same light voice “My uncle was killed in the coup.”
Anton looked at the boy’s face, the sombre eyes under delicate brows. “I am sorry for your loss”
Daffyd smiled tightly. “Are you? My uncle was not a very nice man. My cousin, however, was a very nice man and for that alone I could hate you. But then that wouldn’t get us very far would it?”
Anton stood for a moment, then compromised by sheathing his sword but keeping the dagger close in his left palm.
“I did not kill your cousin.” Visions of the chaos after the coup, the killings and the blood, pushed against his memories of two golden haired boys, scampering through the palace grounds. “I was against the executions, although at the time I admit I believed a change in regime was needed. But I would not have condoned the killing of a boy like Sir Alwyn. He was harmless. And a gifted musician.”
Lord Daffyd jutted out his chin, blinking away a wetness in his eyes.
He bent on one knee at the boy’s feet, eyes on the young lord’s face. “But I was responsible in part, for the support I gave Malchor. For that I ask your forgiveness.” Redbeard moved slightly closer, hand on his knife. The boy had a good protector.
Daffyd looked down at Anton, his eyes unreadable.
“Stand up. I am Lord of Nothing now and I will see no man kneel to me. I know who you are, Anton Baruch. I remember watching you on the training ground.” He smiled amid the bitterness twisting his face. “I wanted to be a soldier you see. Wouldn’t that have been something?”
Daffyd glanced at Redbeard who grimaced, but stood down, and stretched out his hand to Anton.
“You were once a good man, and if you have truly deserted then you might be a good man again. Our friend the wagon driver clearly thought so”
Anton hesitated a moment, his mind swimming. Pushing to his feet he put out his own hand; it trembled only slightly. The boys’ words rang in his head. You were once a good man. Be a good man again.
Dafydd stepped back, the look on his face belonging to a much older man. “Come, Anton, you will be in need of food. We have a pig roasting at the camp.” a glint of a smile lurked in his eyes. “I prepared it myself even if Bowman here thinks I burn water”.
Anton would have followed the boy as he turned and walked into the forest but his way was barred by Bowman. Despite the fact that the red bearded protector only came up to Anton’s chin, he held himself as if he was looking at someone far below him.
“You take one step out of line, you even look like you might hurt that boy and you won’t see the blade coming.”
He nodded. No need to say he could gut them all before they’d even had time to think about reaching for a weapon. The man in front of him cared for the boy and would die to protect him. Anton respected that and he had no intention of harming either of them. He put his dagger back in his boot and followed Daffyd into the trees, Bowman warily bringing up the rear.
From Redemption, first draft WIP waiting for revisions.