Hold Your Friends Close
Terin and Mikkelson entered the supply area, a cavernous chamber with high vaulted ceilings and arches that displayed a mix of ancient black stone and fresher white stone and mortared repairs. The crowded area was filled with rough wooden shelves built in among the support columns, their narrow aisles exposed to view, separated from the entrance by a massive wooden waist high counter. Dozens of young men and women in dusty green overtunics bustled among the aisles carrying gear of varying sorts, or pushing laden handcarts through aisles towards a large open dock in the far corner, a dock that apparently led to a complex lift capable of holding a full sized wagon. A pair of thin clerks manned the desk, both occupied with working through what appeared to be a thick bill of lading, casting frequent glances towards a pile of gear spread across three carts just behind the counter. Both clerks remained preoccupied with their work, paying no attention to the entrance of Terin and Mikkelson. The entire area was the most well lit interior that the pair had yet seen inside the Caer, with dozens of oil-burning lamps mounted high upon the walls, polished mirrors of beaten metal behind the flames reflecting their light in broad fans of shifting yellow.
In one far corner, Terin could see an enclosed area of rough wood panels, making a separate space that was set up as an office.
Craning his neck, Terin spied the fat form of Drummond sitting in the small office area just as expected, but rather than being alone, sleeping in a chair as Terin hoped to find him, he saw instead that the Quartermaster had company, and moreover he had company that was well known to Terin.
Sitting across from Drummond, an improvised table made from a barrel and a plank between them, dressed all in dark green leather, sat one of the few true friends Terin had, Arlen Finnegan, the Green Adder, Weapon Master and operator of the personal combat school that bore his name.
Master Finnegan sat with his back to one of the wooden walls, able to look out towards the main area of the storehouse, and as soon as Terin entered Arlen noticed him, and smiled, beckoning him to come back to the office.
Terin hastily took advantage of the situation, motioning to Mikkelson to stay close, and moved rapidly around the wide counter to walk straight back. Neither clerk busy at the counter looked up as the two passed. Quartermaster Drummond turned in his seat to see who Master Finnegan was waving to, and from his expression it was plain to see that he was very unhappy at the interruption.
Master Arlen Finnegan, Weapon Master, Teacher, the famed Green Adder, was a thin man that gave the impression of being short even while sitting down. His hair was all of a flaming red, and he kept it close cropped to his skull so that it looked almost like thin fur, the skin of his scalp readily visible.
Rare amongst borderlanders, he was completely clean shaven, but he would never be considered good looking by the ladies of the duchy. His nose was flattened where it had been broken many times, he was missing two of the upper teeth on the left side of his jaw, and had matching heavy scars around the left side of his face that twisted his grin and stretched his smile back towards his left ear.
Faint scars from shallow blade cuts marred most of the rest of the left side of his face and exposed neck. The same kind of shallow scars covered the backs of both hands and his wrists.
Arlen wore the required public symbol of his mastery as a brooch with its eight pointed golden star on a background of sky blue, the little symbol of a sword shown within the star point down. To Terin’s eye, however, the dead giveaway as to Arlen’s chosen profession was the incredible thickness of his wrists and forearms, and the incredibly defined cords of muscle in his shoulders. Despite all the physical signs of a trained and master warrior, the man radiated a rather calm, quiet bookish manner.
In contrast, Quartermaster Drummond was a large man with a florid complexion, his once stocky frame running heavily to fat. Sweat perpetually beaded on his face, and the skin on his balding head was visibly flaking where the man rubbed it, a nervous gesture he made frequently when negotiating a personal deal. He wore a tailored uniform that completely failed to hide his fat, the sturdy cloth grubby with dirt, one of the few things that Terin was pleased to see, since it did show that the man worked when he had to instead of making all of his assistants do everything in his stead.
As Terin and Mikkelson approached the office, Terin could see that the two had been bent over a game board that showed a game of Thrones, about halfway through a match. Thrones is a game of strategy popular amongst formally trained military officers, and Terin knew well that Master Finnegan enjoyed it. Terin had played the game with him quite often, and knew that on a good day he was fairly evenly matched with the Weapon Master, but he had had no idea that Quartermaster Drummond shared an interest in it.
Terin came to rest, standing in a non-threatening manner in front of the two, and raised his hand in a greeting towards Finnegan that could have been taken as a greeting for them both. Smiling, he said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. I hope I am not interrupting your game at a particularly inopportune moment.”
Quartermaster Drummond scowled, but Master Finnegan only smiled broader, saying, “Ah well, I’m sure Jakob here is most displeased, but you’ve given me a bit more time to think on my next move, and for that I give you my thanks. If you’ve never played against this one, watch your back, for he is a most devious opponent in the back game.” Master Finnegan eased back in his seat and said, “Enough about that, tell me, who is your lad there?”
“Ah, my apologies, gentlemen. Allow me to introduce to you my new Squire, Lars Mikkelson. He has the dubious distinction of being the best swordsman from the entire current class of trainees at the Academy, and for his sins he must now endure my personal instruction. If you’ll remember, Arlen, this is the lad I was telling you about during my last visit.”
Master Finnegan examined Mikkelson with a great deal more interest, while Drummond twisted fully in his chair so as to better face the two intruders. Drummond eyed Mikkelson up and down swiftly, noting his attire and boots, and then broke into a gentle smile.
“Ah, Baron Trendel, a great pleasure it is to see you here amongst us supply types once again. I so look forward to your infrequent visits. Why, just the other day, an item came in that I imagine would be the perfect thing for a noble warrior with such exceptional skills as yourself in the sword.”
Terin looked with appreciation at Drummond, and said, “Well, out with it man, what treasure did your survey teams unearth this time?”
Drummond chuckled. “Ah, unearthed is the right word for it, milord. I have a team digging amongst the ruins of an old stone fort south of Lake Marmeluke, and they sent back a fine specimen of a sword, apparently untouched by the passage of years.”
Drummond painfully stood up, and moved past Terin and Mikkelson to a nearby shelf piled high with gray woolen blankets. Rummaging under them, he found what he was looking for, and made a pleased sound as he turned to face them, holding a broadsword sheathed in a plain brown leather scabbard.
“Here we go, milord, just you take a look at this!”
Drummond grasped the hilt of the broadsword, and smoothly pulled it from its sheath. He turned it around, proffering the hilt to Terin, and said, “Just you take a look at the inlay work on the hilt. And the markings on the blade itself.”
Terin took the sword by the hilt, and examined the blade closely. He could see the markings, runic characters of the old Arkadian script, stamped into the flat of the blade, clearly marking the sword as being part of a supply issue of swords for the Imperial Arkadian Scouts. The markings seemed to be genuine, and if correct dated the sword as being forged during the times just prior to the first outbreak of the War of Darkness.
As Terin turned the blade over in his hands, he could see that the steel had a faint bluish sheen, and seemed altogether unmarred by its incredible age. Testing the edge gently against the skin on the back of his left forearm, he could feel that it was as sharp as if freshly over a stone, and when he held tip and hilt in both hands and flexed, he could feel that it remained as supple and as resilient as the best of the blades he had ever seen. Altogether, the sword was in perfect condition. Terin had seen Imperial Scout blades in the past, as they tended to last nearly forever if they didn’t suffer enough trauma to break them, and the ancient battlefields of Felwaithe had been strewn with the remains of the dead when the first borderlanders returned. This sword, however, was the first that he had seen that did not already have a claim made on it previously, and from what Drummond had said, it was possible that this one might still be open for haggling.
Terin glanced at Master Finnegan. “Arlen, have you already had a look at this?”
“Oh yes, Baron, the Quartermaster invited me here for a few games, and indeed, the subject of his latest find managed to somehow make it’s way into our conversation. Of course, I prefer the blade I carry, as I have had it for quite a long time and am well used to its idiosyncracies. But alas, as I run my own school, and am not actually in the Dukes’ command structure, I do not have the privilege of requisitioning from the Quartermasters’ supplies in any event. As our friend Jakob here was so deferential in pointing out to me.”
Terin looked to the still smiling Drummond, and said, “Does this mean that, as of yet, no one has claimed the sword? It is still open to request?”
Drummond deftly took the blade from Terins’ hands, and resheathed it in one smooth motion. He moved back to the chair in his office, and heavily sat down. “Ah, Baron, you are quite correct. This just came in yesterday, and I have not, as of yet, had the chance to post notice of its arrival to the household officers and staff. Perhaps it is fitting that I haven’t, as now I can make sure it is placed in your hands, that you might choose to use it to better equip yourself, or possibly your Squire.”
Drummond seemed to jerk, as though a sudden thought had just occurred to him. He looked among the papers strewn across his messy desk, before apparently finding the one he sought. Swinging back towards Terin, he reread the paper in his hands, and a sad frown crossed his face.
“Alas, Baron, it seems as though I will be unable to pass this sword into your keeping, after all. I had quite forgotten, this letter just arrived in the post this very morning! Apparently you have been replaced as Commander of the Academy by Captain Hennesy of the Border Guards! Well, that is a terrible shame, indeed, since that means that, as you only served in your post at the discretion of his highness the Duke, that you are not only no longer responsible for the supply chain of the Academy, but in fact, you are no longer a member of the Doneghal military system at all.”
Quartermaster Drummond looked closely at Terins’ face, and although he continued to appear sorrowful, there was a twinkle in his eye as he said, “In fact, I’m not sure why you came to visit us this morning, unless it was to see my friend Master Finnegan, here. I’m afraid there is simply nothing I can do to help you, as you are no longer in the supply chain.”
Terin maintained eye contact with Drummond, his face impassive. He reached into his pocket, withdrew Duke Arneghasts’ letter and unfolded it, and handed it wordlessly to the Quartermaster to read.
Drummond broke eye contact to glance down at the piece of cream parchment, staring at it as though it were a viper about to strike. Finally, he reached out and snatched it from Terins’ hand, reading it through. As he read, and then read again, his face got redder and redder, until Terin became convinced the man was about to have a stroke.
Terin said, softly, almost gently, “As you can see, the Duke has asked me to visit him, and to pick up a few things along the way. In fact, I only need a few things for the journey… a small notebook, a scout surveying kit, field rations and grain for two men and four horses for at least a three week trip, water-proofed saddlebags and two pack saddles, extra water skins, and good solid cold weather gear for both myself and my Squire. As you can see from the Dukes’ invitation, we anticipate hunting with the Duke during the winter season, and the cold weather gear must be sturdy, and adequate enough for stays of a week at a time in the deep snow. Oh yes, and additionally, I’ll need proper field load out appropriate for a scout, leathers, chain, helmet and shield, for Mikkelson here, as all he has that fits is training leathers.”
Quartermaster Drummond remained silent, his face red as an apple, looking as though he might faint, his eyes fixed on the text of the letter. As Terin paused, apparently finished speaking, a hint of color began to return to his features. You could almost see him daring to believe that Terin had finished his list of requirements.
Just as Drummond raised his eyes to look hopefully at Terins’ face, the Baron added, “Oh yes, and I do think that, as Squire Mikkelson does not have a sword of his own issued to him at this time, and shouldn’t be forced to continue his education with a lesser blade, perhaps I should see to it that he has the finest sword suitable to a young man of his rank. I think, in fact, that I could entrust his care to no less than a well proven blade with a long provenance of duty and success. He shall use the sword I have called my own for the last three years. It is in exceptional condition, and has been put to exceeding good use. Sadly, this would tend to leave me without a sword of my own with which to make the journey overland. It is fortunate that I have recently learned of a sword that would be well matched to a Baron, and Knight of the Order of Radiance, that served at the Dukes’ pleasure and was rushing to attend to the Duke at his command. I’m sure the Duke will agree when I speak to him in a few weeks.”
Terin reached forward, and gently pulled the sheathed broadsword from the Quartermasters’ unresisting grip. Drummond visibly sagged, and mumbling a few words about getting the staff busy assembling Terin’s gear, he stumbled towards the front counter as if in a dream. Terin, Squire Mikkelson, and Master Finnegan turned to watch him go, the Green Adder with a satisfied smile on his face.
“You know, you’re lucky he has a good sense of humor, Baron. I’m sure it hurts him most grievously just now to part with that sword, but give him a few days and he’ll come to appreciate the humor in your getting the better of him, especially due to his over-eagerness to brag when he felt you were a safe target. In the short term, you’d best watch him very closely if you care to have equipment that doesn’t fall apart or rust within the first five miles.”
Master Finnegans’ eyes crinkled at the corners as he smiled. “I was going to send you a note, ask you to come up and visit me. Sounds to me as though you’re going to be busy. Wherever it is you’re going, do you know if you’re coming back?”
Terin grimaced and shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
Terin glanced around to make sure he was out of earshot of the clerks or Drummond, before he continued.
“The fact is, just between us, that I’ve been summoned by the Duke, as the kind of reward we both know best that a master will show when you’ve done a good job and are no longer needed where you are. The feeling I get is that I’m going to be gone for quite a while, and I have no way of knowing if the Duke will send me this way again. You know the Duke retained me specifically to build the Academy and apply my experience directly towards getting it up and running as fast as possible. He told me he wanted me to give his men a taste of the hell I went through, and prepare them for when the war with the Orcs spread our way. You know the principle, you teach your students the same way. The more you bleed in training, the less you bleed in battle. Nothing he ever said indicated he intended to keep me on as the Commander of the Academy forever, though.”
Master Finnegan nodded his head in agreement, but he had an annoyed scowl on his face when he glanced at Terin. He shifted his attention to the efforts of the clerks, scurrying to fill orders. In a distracted tone, he said, “I don’t suppose you have the time in your schedule to head back down south and spend a day at my school, do you?”
As Terin started to shake his head no, Arlen interrupted him quickly, “You see, I have a book that a student sent to me, that I know you would be interested in reading. It fills in some of the empty spaces in what we were discussing about the Elven influence on Arkadian infantry tactics. I was hoping to have the chance to hand it over in person.”
Terin just continued to shake his head. “The Duke may have phrased his invitation as a request, but you know me well enough to know that the request of a commanding officer bears the same urgency as a direct order. So long as I have been assigned to assist him by Knight-Commander Geoff, I must look upon him as my commanding officer. Therefore, where my master calls, like a good hound, I shall come running.”
Master Finnegan sat back in his seat in the small office, grumpily slapping the armrest with his hand. “Damn it all, Terin! This really irritates the hell out of me.” He cast his eyes pointedly at Mikkelson, standing patiently at Terins’ shoulder, and said “Considering Drummonds’ state of mind, don’t you think it would be a good idea to have your Squire keep an eye on the supplies?”
Terin agreed readily, seeing that his friend had words he wished to keep private. “Lars, supervise what the Quartermaster is doing. Check the inventory of the equipment yourself, make sure everything is there, and verify the quality of it all with care. Once everything is gathered, get it staged with the rest of our gear in the stables. When you’re done, come find us, we’ll be at the Golden Gecko having a mead or three.” Terin fished around in his belt pouch for a minute, and came up with some silvers. Handing them to Mikkelson, he said, “Make sure you ask the stable boy politely to look after the gear when you’re done there, and tip him well.”
Master Finnegan grinned at the idea and got smoothly to his feet. As the two warriors turned to leave, sheathed broadsword still gripped in Terins’ hand, Squire Mikkelson said “Milord, beggin’ yer pardon, but what’s a gecko?”
Master Finnegan answered for Terin. “There is a stall in the courtyard very near to the supply exit that bears a green flag with a yellow lizard embroidered on it. That lizard, my lad, is a gecko.”
“Yes,” said Terin, “And I assure you we’ll be having our meads, ‘without’!”
With that, the two men left the well-lighted supply area chuckling, headed for a leavetaking that Terin had hoped to avoid.
Baron Trendel and the Green Adder strode swiftly up the dark stone passage, neither of them speaking as they passed the horse drawn carts and foot traffic, most of it headed the other way. Only once the two had reached the daylight of the open courtyard did Master Finnegan remark, “That lad of yours has a likely way about him. It looks like the Scout bloodline still breeds true.”
Terin grimaced as he let his eyes adjust to the sudden light. “Yes, he does, but it makes training him a problem. His reflexes and natural ability are better than most well trained swordsmen, and he has no drive to push himself to be better. He only enlisted in the first place for ready money to support his families’ farm, and he has shown no pride in his heritage, no desire to compete, and no fire of ambition beyond earning a wage. It was only by trying to overwork his abilities that I was able to draw him out of his shell at the Academy, and all that succeeded in doing was proving that, when his back is against the wall, he has an excellent instinct to do whatever he has to, to survive and win. Unfortunately, just yesterday he had his most challenging match, against a pretty well coordinated team of boys. He won, but one of the boys took offense to a groin blow, and called challenge.”
As the two men made their way across the dung littered sand towards the patio area of the Golden Gecko, Master Finnegan spat in the sand and asked, “Is that why you finally took a Squire? To get him out of the camp after he had to kill a boy? I wondered what would cause you to change your mind about taking a lad into the kind of hell you grew up in.”
“No,” said Terin, “it’s worse than that. The boy who called challenge had a brother there with him, it was the two of them and a friend that Mikkelson fought. I said nothing at the time, but from the way the brother acted, I get the feeling that the one had a habit of keeping the other hothead out of trouble, and had been a bit protective. Maybe over-protective. We were supposed to hold the duel this morning, but it turned out that the boy took his own life in the night.”
They reached an empty table with three stools at it, and each took a stool and moved them a bit to get comfortable before sitting down. It occurred to Terin in passing that both of them had naturally moved their stools so as to be able to have a clear view of the half of the courtyard area just over the others’ shoulder.
Master Finnegan shook his head, and said “A bad business all around. But I understand your decision to take Lars out with you. If he’s as good as you’ve said he is in the past, he’ll be a good one to watch your back for you, no matter how lacking in motivation he is to learn.”
Terin raised his hand to a waitress, and when she came over, ordered a mead for himself, and another for Arlen. He waited until she returned with them, the thin head overflowing the top of the rough wooden mugs, before replying.
“I felt better about the thought of training him before this morning, in truth. The whole ride from the Academy, the boy kept silent, he said not a word or gave sign of any feelings at all. I don’t know exactly what is going on in his head, but I would have thought there would be some sign of sadness, or anger, or something, at least over the boy dying, or having to leave the Academy so suddenly, or something. Mayhap it’s nothing, and he is just working things out for himself, but it makes me uneasy when I see someone unaffected at all by the death of one who had been a comrade, of sorts. I’ve seen far too many of the sort that kills as easily as he rides, and with less feeling. I want nothing to do with training one that has no conscience or remorse.”
Master Finnegan took a draught of mead, and then eased back on his stool. “The trouble with you, Terin, is you’re a thinker. And sometimes you think and analyze too damn much. He may be a heartless killer, or maybe he may just be quiet, or maybe he respects you and looks up to you, and just thinks that if he shows emotion in front of you that you’ll think him weak or a coward. Give him a week before you start inventing troubles. I’ll offer you a caution, though. If you start suspecting him of being untrustworthy, expect him to notice that you’re treating him different. Scout bloodlines are touched by magic, and Scouts have been known to see small changes in behavior and interpret them as clearly as they read what an opponent will do next. It’s all in the body language, whether in relationships or personal combat.”
Terin snorted into his mead, and drained it off. He signaled the waitress for another, and said “Well, you know I’ll take your advice seriously. But in the meantime, what did you have to say that you didn’t want to share in front of Mikkelson? If he is so sensitive as all that, he can’t help but to have seen you shuffle him off for a reason.”
Master Finnegan, surprisingly, looked embarrassed. He refused to meet Terins eyes, pretending to be focused on watching a pretty maid in a bright green dress crossing the courtyard amongst the crowds. After a few moments, he finally ventured, “Well, frankly, the Dukes’ timing sucks.”
He turned to look at Terin. “You know I’ve told you how impressed I’ve been with your performance the last few months in our little sparring matches. You really have improved a great deal in your fine control, and you absorb my instruction like a sponge.”
Terin felt his ears get red at this unexpected praise, but knew better than to get a swelled head. If Master Finnegan started out with a compliment, then it was only to make the pain of the lesson sting all the greater to last the longer later on.
Master Finnegan snorted at Terins’ discomfort. “Oh yes, you’ve gotten better, and you weren’t all that bad before I met you. For all that you spend most of your time training on your own while struggling with running that Academy, you’ve improved more than most of my full time students since I’ve known you. You take your skills seriously, and you work hard, and you are blessed with a great deal of natural talent.”
“That is why I had wanted to surprise you, by arranging for your testing.”
Master Finnegan laughed at the startled expression that sprang to Terins’ face.
“That’s right, for the last week I’ve had my students constructing the testing structure and outlying framework for a formal Master of Combat evaluation. Your next visit I was going to surprise you by running your ass through it. You bastard.”
It was just at this moment that Squire Mikkelson walked into Terins’ field of view. He approached the table, and motioned towards the open stool. Terin distractedly waved for him to sit down.
Mikkelson announced that the supplies had been gathered up, packed securely, and were in fine shape. They were at the stables with the rest of their gear, and they could be ready to continue on at a few minutes notice.
At Mikkelsons’ arrival, the two warriors sat silently for a few minutes, finishing their mead. The companionable moment they had shared seemed lost, as though, like a thick glass, it had felt strong and enduring, but at a sudden blow had shattered and changed his impression of things.
Master Finnegan interrupted his thoughts with a question that Terin failed to hear the first time. Shaking his head as if to cast off a fly, he looked inquiringly at Finnegan.
“I said, it’s about two weeks ride from here to the Dukes’ Hunting Lodge. Are you planning on riding straight through, or are you going to take the time to head north a few days and visit Father Arkanos at the Church? You know there aren’t any actual Priests at any of the chapels east of here, and as far as representation of your Order, I think you’re about it this side of the duchy line.”
Looking at his recently acquired squire, then to his mentor and friend, Terin let out a quiet sigh. There was no frustration in it, just a wistful longing for more time in the day.
“No, I’ll not tarry here, head south to visit you despite the attractiveness of your plans, nor will I bend aside to take trips that might delay us, no matter how much my soul needs counsel.”
“As Drummond has kept his reputation for being quick and efficient, I’ll keep my own for being a stubborn headed fool and pushing on ahead.”
Baron Trendel reached across the table and clasped his friends’ arm for a moment, before letting his hand slip back to his side.
“Arlen, I too have felt my improvement these last several months, and though I greatly desire to visit you and prove myself worthy of the praise and honor you give me, I must do as my oaths require. Timeliness is of the essence on our journey. I give you my word though that I will return to the academy and take you up on that offer when I can. And don’t forget to hold that tome for me!” he said, with as much of a grin as he could muster.
Flagging a waitress, Terin ordered a last round of drinks, as well as a bite to eat for all three of them. As they ate in silence, the conversation touching only on light things of the moment in consideration of Mikkelons’s presence, Terin knew that he was going to miss Arlen greater than he had expected.
For a moment, a cloud passing over the keep cast a shadow that chilled Terin, and left him feeling a sense of foreboding, and his stomach felt cold and heavy with the meal he had just finished. Looking both at Arlen and at Mikkelson, he wondered as always when the Duchy of Doneghal would fall under the inevitable flame and steel of an Orc invasion.
Filled with a sudden need far stronger than mere desire to be moving, to do something active, he stood up and said his final farewells to the master of the Green Adder.
“I do appreciate your consideration and kind thoughts, Master Arlen. It is a fine thing that you intended to have me tested, and I know why it was important to you that I earn the title and rank that would accompany a success. You are a good man, and I am honored to call you friend.”
“But I mean to be on the road while the light is still high and there is traveling that can be done. My heart calls me to go south with you, but my duty carries me east. You can be certain I’ll be giving thought to you, and I’ll be keeping up my training on the road. But for now, it’s best time I be gone.”
Master Finnegan stood up, and reached out to shake Terin’s hand. “Aye, I’ll not be keeping you. I know that look in your eye, when a sudden thought having to do with your duty has caught you and there is nothing for it but to go rushing off to see to it right away. But keep in mind I’ll be expecting you to darken my door as soon as you’re back from your business to the east. Now go on with you, and get yourselves on the road.”
“And fare you both well and may Tyr keep you safely in His hand along the way.”
Terin sketched a sharp salute to Master Finnegan, who returned it and then sat back down to the remains of his meal and signaled for another mead.
Turning around and heading for the stables, Terin lead Mikkelson to retrieve their gear, and took the time to check over the lads’ efforts at preparing it for the jjourney.
To his satisfaction, he found that everything was fastened securley and required only to have the saddles and bags and other gear placed upon the horses and strapped down, and they could be on their way.
Mounting, the sun riding high in the sky, Terin took one last look around the courtyard bazaar of Doneghal Keep, before nodding to Mikkelson to get a move on. Clucking gently to his horse, he rode out of the gate for the start of the long journey to the foothills of the east, and his meeting with the Duke.