Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Iron Lily (Part 3)

Halthor looked at the blue slate slabs of the roadway with a sense of melancholy. The royal road had been unkind to him over the last day and a half. When he left Starhaven, the auburn haired man found himself caught up in a caravan that promised they were headed to the south. The leader of the band said that he would pay Halthor good wages if he took it upon himself to guard them with his strong right arm. The new master builder thought it was a way to pass the time upon his journey. Then the trader's sons began to insist that it was their right to take from Halthor's goods. It lead to a scuffle between the youths and Halthor. That brief fight ended with the trader's sons battered and the man himself threatening to run Halthor through with his newly bought iron sword.

When the trader demanded blood price for his sons' injuries, Halthor spat at his feet and declared that the stones of the road would turn to dust before he did so. When dusk came, the trader was many a league behind him, most likely cursing Halthor for their parting. The second evil that came upon Halthor as he followed the road along its winding path was the thieves that burst from the coppice that stood on the heights of the first tall hill he came to. The ambush may have been noticed by a more experienced traveler, but Halthor walked into it unaware that four men laid in wait in the shelter of the pines he sought.

Snow fell fast and thick, making the slate road slippery beneath his boots. When the thieves burst free from their hiding places, Halthor stumbled. It was only by perverse luck that his stumbling resulted in a narrow miss when one of the more eager brigands swung his stave at Halthor's head. He straightened and grappled with his attacker for command over the stave. Wresting the red pine branch from the thin man's hands, Halthor found himself quickly fending off another assault. It was with great effort that the builder from Starhaven managed to defend himself. While Halthor was possessed of no little amount of strength, he was but one man against three.

The stave broke in two when the leader of the group brought down his heavy ironwood club. Halthor suffered a sharp blow to his head and staggered back. When his opponent made ready to bludgeon him again with his black colored wooden club, Halthor dropped the broken ends of the stave and took hold of the one thing he knew wouldn't fail him. Halthor pulled the hammer of Aleric from where he wore it at his waist. With a mighty blow, Halthor batted away the club and struck his attacker on the head with a sickening crunch. The club fell from nerveless fingers as the big man before him dropped to the ground. The others fled when Halthor turned to face them, their courage having fled with their leader's life.

Now, the twenty five year old builder found himself approaching a place where the rime of ice that covered the slate road was thick enough that it didn't crack under his boots. He was cold and wet, despite the wool lined leather cloak he wore and the wool hood. His feet were sore and Halthor wasn't sure if it was from the cold or from the ceaseless walking. The skies to the west had begun to darken to a color similar to the slate beneath his boots. Halthor sighed with disappointment, realizing that yet more snow was going to come with those clouds. When he crested the rise he was walking up, Halthor was surprised by the sight of fields and a village nestled in the center.

He moved a bit more quickly, judging he would reach the village not long before dark. Halthor's estimate was overly optimistic when twilight deepened the gloom that was rolling in with the snow. He stood at the edge of the fields with a sigh. His stomach rumbled for food. A part of him said that he should wait until he reached the village to worry about food, but his hunger was hard to ignore. Halthor rubbed his stomach absentmindedly as he walked forward. The night's darkness came quickly and he found himself stumbling on several poorly placed and cracked slabs.

As he entered the village, a dog barked at him. The piebald mutt trotted up to him with its tail wagging happily. Halthor looked at the dog and scoffed. When he walked to the inn, the city man found the inn keeper making ready to shutter his doors. The red faced man squinted at him and shook his head. "Bad night for a walk," he said. Halthor nodded. "Looking for shelter?" the inn keeper asked gruffly. Halthor nodded again. The villager looked down at the dog at Halthor's feet. "Go on," the man said, kicking out at the thin creature, "Get out of here!" The dog whined and shied away.

The inn keeper looked back at Halthor. The bruise on the right side of the builder's face gave him a troubling look and the dourness of his expression made the villager question if Halthor was going to be trouble. "I will be here only for the night," Halthor said, suspecting that the man before him was going to leave him to try to find shelter on the sly in a stable. The inn keeper opened his door a bit wider. He motioned Halthor in with a brief gesture, his attention switching from the traveler to the dog that was circling back in an attempt to sneak into the warmth of the inn.

Halthor walked in. The inn keeper shouted something and an enormously pregnant woman stood up from her seat by the fire. As she started to move towards where Halthor presumed the inn's cellery was, he said, "No. I have meat with me. Let her rest." The inn keeper glanced over at Halthor. As Halthor made his way to a table, the woman looked at her husband. After a moment's thought, the inn keeper motioned to his wife to sit down before walking to his cellery. Halthor was seated at his table and trying to massage the cold out of his fingers when the inn keeper set down a wooden bowl before him. Thick stew that smelled of goat and root vegetables sloshed slightly in the bowl. Halthor looked up as the inn keeper put a cup of ale down beside the bowl.

"No man leaves my board hungry," the inn keeper said, "You'll need your fare when you get into the wood. You can't hunt with a hammer." Halthor gave the older man a lopsided smile. "What happened with ... ?" the sandy haired man said, gesturing towards Halthor's bruised face.

"Met with some trouble on the road," Halthor answered, "They wanted my goods. I didn't want to give them away. They took offense to that." The inn keeper nodded. Halthor took a horn spoon out of the pouch he wore on his belt and dipped it into the stew. As he pushed the meat around, the inn keeper sat down on the bench across from him. Halthor looked briefly around the inn and discovered that it was all but deserted.

"Big man named Matias roams around here," the inn keeper said, "Carries a black ironwood club and ..." Halthor looked over at the inn keeper. "Matias is trouble," he said.

Halthor nodded as he turned his attention back to the bowl of stew before him. "I met him and his friends earlier. They were who I had the disagreement with," Halthor said. The inn keeper nodded and smoothed his apron. Halthor, who was in the process of taking a mouthful of stew, caught the gesture and glanced over. The man sitting with him looked troubled. "Matias won't be causing any trouble," Halthor said, "Not for anyone, now." The inn keeper's wife looked over. As Halthor looked at his host, it struck him that the man was not afraid of Halthor but of the brute named Matias who lay dead a half day's journey north. "I speak truly when I tell you that Matias won't be bothering you," Halthor said, "He lies in the road north of here, stone dead."

"Dead, you say?" the inn keeper's wife asked uncomfortably. Halthor nodded as he took a swallow of ale. She looked to her husband. "We're free," she said. The inn keeper looked between his wife and battered Halthor. "Did you hear him, Silas? He's gone. My brother is dead," she continued, sounding increasingly joyful with each word.

"Someone will find his body and demand blood price to be paid," the man answered his wife.

"He attacked me," Halthor answered indignantly, "gave me this bruise. I'm lucky I didn't have my jaw broken or my eye burst by him." The inn keeper nodded.

"As his living relative," the inn keeper's wife said firmly, "I am the one to whom blood debt would be paid. And you know it, Silas." Silas cringed slightly at the sharpness in his wife's tone. She looked at Halthor. "His attack on you means blood debt is to be paid to you for it," she continued, "In slaying him, I think that the blood debts are canceled. So would you say, traveler?" Halthor nodded.

"Then blood debt is paid and none can accuse you of murder," the woman said.

"We have only our word and that of a man who leaves us tomorrow morn," Silas argued.

"I swear it by the Lord of Light," Halthor said, "I did not seek to kill your brother. Only to defend myself." Silas made a noise of exasperation. Halthor was about to say something more when the door of the inn rattled on its hinges from a blow that was struck against it. The inn keeper looked over and his face paled at the thought of his dead brother in law arisen from the earth to torment him again. Halthor looked at the door, set his hammer on the table beside his bowl, and waited. Again the door shuddered from another frighteningly hard blow against it.

"Silas Aleman," a voice roared on the other side of the door, "Let me in." Silas swallowed hard and started to move towards the door. Halthor tried to figure out why the voice sounded familiar. As the inn keeper crossed the common room, Halthor glanced over at the woman sitting by the fire. Where she had previously looked relieved of some wretched burden, now she looked fearful. As Silas started to open the door, a man dressed in dirty clothes pushed his way in. Halthor recognized the first of his attackers the instant he cleared the doorway.

Halthor stood. The brigand saw him across the room and pulled a knife from his belt. "You!" he bellowed at Halthor as the builder stepped nimbly around the bench blocking his path. The second survivor of the ambush and a third man pushed their way in, all but shoving Silas to the ground in their efforts. Halthor stood but a few paces away from the knife wielding man, his hammer in his right hand. The brigand lunged for Halthor.

Halthor caught his wrist in his left hand as he swung his hammer with the right. A sharp crack came as the hammer struck his foe's ribs. The wounded man screamed as best his injured lung would let him as he fell to the ground. His compatriots came at Halthor with the intent to avenge their fallen comrades. As one man swung a cudgel at Halthor, Silas skittered back away from them with a cry of fear. Halthor ducked the sloppy swing and shattered the man's left knee. The third had jumped upon Halthor's back and hung off his shoulders.

Trying unsuccessfully to choke Halthor, the fourth man of Matias's band kicked his opponent in the back of the leg. Halthor reached up and gripped the back of the man's tunic. Halthor leaned forward and pulled him off his shoulders with a mighty motion. The brigand struck the ground hard. As he looked up at Halthor, the builder raised his hammer. The other man blanched and tried to get away. As he was rising to his feet, Silas struck him from behind with the dropped cudgel. The thief made a cry of pain and then turned to run from the inn.

The bailiff of the village had heard the stray dog of the village howling outside of his house. He walked out to see the trio of trouble makers demanding entrance into Silas Aleman's inn. As he cast his coat around himself in preparation of walking across the way to order them off to their respective homes, he could hear the commotion of a fight in progress. When he walked into the inn, he found Silas knocking one man across the back of the head with said man's cudgel in a bit of perfect irony. The bailiff looked at the scene before him and then to Halthor, a newcomer in his village.

"They ... " Silas's wife started when the bailiff raised his hand.

"I saw enough," the bailiff said before he looked at Halthor. "You met them on the road on the way here, didn't you?" he said. Halthor frowned, unsure what to say. "I have been trying to catch these four at this for the last half year," the bailiff continued. He looked down at the man who had attempted to attack Halthor with a knife. A look of disgust crossed over his face as he shook his head. "I told you idiots that you were going to meet a man who'd beat you black for this mischief," the bailiff said, "Now I expect Lord Wintrin will see you hang for it. I gave you boys a chance to straighten up. And this is how you repay me." The bailiff leaned down and began to haul the man at his feet up when Halthor stepped forward.

"He's badly injured," Halthor said. The bailiff nodded and continued to force the man to his feet. Halthor watched with a degree of horror as the other man coughed up foamy blood.

"Gods willing, they'll die of it," the bailiff said, "And then I won't have to trouble Lord Wintrin. After all, you were only defending Ysinda, right?" Halthor started to open his mouth to insist that wasn't correct when Silas caught his eye. The inn keep gave a slight shake of the head. Halthor shut his mouth and looked back to the bailiff. "You saved us some trouble, lad," the balding man said, "Running off Matias and all." The bailiff gave his prisoner a shove towards the door. "Silas, get Toby and Griff," he said, "They'll clean up this mess." Silas slipped out the door to seek out the deputies as the bailiff looked over at Halthor again.

"Where is a man like you going in this weather?" he asked conversationally, as though the prisoner he held on to wasn't in agony. Halthor stared at the bailiff for a moment, not fully comprehending why he wasn't taking the injured man away. And then it struck him and Halthor shuddered inwardly. The bailiff smiled as comprehension dawned in Halthor's face. "No matter," he said, "You've a long journey to go. I'm sure that Lord Wintrin will be hard pressed to find you. Though Wye owes you a hero's debt." The bailiff turned and marched his prisoner out into the dark even as his deputies arrived.

Toby and Griff hauled the stunned man up to his feet before ungently picking up the man with the shattered knee. As they left, their burden screamed in pain, waking up several of the villagers on their journey to the gaol. Halthor sat down to his meal, feeling sick at the realization that the bailiff was trying to kill his injured prisoners rather than have them face the judgement of their liege lord. "What manner of man ..." he started before looking over at Silas and Ysinda. The couple looked as though they had finally come to the end of a great ordeal. Halthor looked back at his food. He had done his best to not think about the fact he had killed a man earlier in the day.

Now, as he looked at the bits of goat meat in the stew, his stomach roiled and the image of Matias's face as the hammer slammed into him came to mind. Halthor shut his eyes against the sight, discovering he really couldn't escape memory. "I killed a man today," he said in a voice so low and quiet that his host did not hear him. "I am no better than my father," he continued, opening his eyes. He looked down at the food before him with an expression of such internal turmoil that Ysinda noticed.

"You have done the Storm Lord's work this day," she said. Halthor looked over at her.

"I pray that is so," he said, unable to keep the haunted horror out of his voice. Outside, the snow fell and the wind sighed about the door that Griff had so considerately closed behind himself in his passage.

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