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Part 2 - The Ruins

 
Emeric picked up his long-axe with one hand while finishing off a piece of deer jerky in the other. He stepped towards the doors and silently contemplated Rikard's advice. At length, the Velian cleared his throat and offered an alternative. "I can stay with the horses. If there's anything coming this way, I can close the doors and call out for help if something or someone is coming. You lot can take a bit of time to explore and see maybe what you can dig up from the ruins while I keep watch."

"If you stay to stand guard then I stay too," Cuthred said. "It's not wise for any of us to be alone, I think." Back home when there were families feuding, his father had always told the housecarls and other men never to wander without a companion. His father had also always said that if you were stupid enough to be caught alone in an ambush, it was a good retainer's duty to scream very loud as he died so everyone else would know what had happened.

Cuthred held up his armor and frowned at the rust nibbling at the steel squares' edges. He picked at the corrosion with a thumbnail. "But for my part I think it might be best to move on. This tower's a bit run down but it's still a good shelter. It's got a good command of the area. After last night, I think there might be a good reason no one's moved in to take it."

With the two young warriors standing watch over the horses, the others gathered their things and made for the stairs. They watched in solemnity as the remaining travelers began ascending the ancient stair, their gear of war clattering with each long step upwards. The rain continued its endless song, and the gods still beat upon their war drums as Tristan led the group into the throat of the watchtower. His keen hunter's eyes were led by the orange glow of the torch he held aloft -- its flame burning hot and bright. Rikard was close behind, mail coat gleaming. With her spear in one hand, and a torch in the other, Braithe followed quietly behind.

Each step that was taken released centuries-old dust into the stale, cold air. The tower stair twisted upwards, leading them out of sight of the small makeshift camp below. They could still hear the horses whinny and wicker nervously, but they could only see the stone walls on either side of them. On more than one occasion, Tristan nimbly guided them across many obstacles. Broken stone, smoothed steps, and debris long forgotten littered the stair.

Eventually, the group came to a break in the stair case. Where three steps would have been, there was a gap where the stone had collapsed. Looking into the hole, Tristan could see the stair below. Beyond the break, the stair continued a few steps and stopped where a doorway sprung up. The oaken door was shut. There was only enough space for two people to stand at a time before the door.


Emeric made his way to the entrance, his blue eyes gazing on the outdoors. Resting his back against one of the doors that they had pushed open to get a better view, he slowly slid downwards, eyes closed, to a sitting position opposite of Cuthred. His eyelids shut, he drew in a deep breath followed by a sigh that was just as deep. It had sounded like contentment. The warrior's axe head rested against the Velian's shoulder and it was still stained from the blood of raiders.

Opening his eyes, he contemplated the long axe and holding it by the end of its shaft, he let the rain's song wash away the dried blood slowly, pretty pink droplets falling from steel to the earth below it. At length, Emeric's voice rose above the tumult of the outside. "What will you do after you find this Toli and exact your vengeance?" It was a simple question, and one far removed from all the shouts and the battles that they had so far. The Velian was of mood to talk, if for just a little while.

"You mean if the gods smile on me and I actually manage to do him in without getting myself killed in the bargain?" Cuthred smiled, then shrugged. "I suppose I hadn't really thought of that."

He leaned against the stone, crossed his arms over his chest. "I could go back home. . .well, back to Linden. Not to my father's lands, though. I'd need good men to take them back. Not that you and our friends up there don't have the mettle, but it'd take more than five to fight off my mother's kin."

Frowning, he added, "Besides, I'd have to kill my uncle, and I quite like my uncle, all things considered." He kicked at some flaked stone and pebbles on the floor, sending them skittering into nearby puddles. "But even if I did take back what's mine, what'd be the point? My father was a better man than I'll ever be and he lost it all the same. My uncle will probably be the one to lord over it once my grandfather dies. He'll be a good earl. And I'd. . ."

The thought trailed off. Cuthred stared down at a patch of floor, pensively tapping his toe. At length he brightened, raising his head and seeming to shake off the black mood that had come over him. "So, I guess there's more of the world to see. There's always money for a decent fighting man, right? Maybe I can fake being one well enough to make a living."

He glanced up at a rumble of thunder then turned his gaze back to Emeric. "What about you? Home to Velmark or on to yet more grand adventures?" As if the gods were underscoring his sarcasm, a spout of rainwater tumbled down from the broken roof and spattered Cuthred's head. Grumbling, he stepped aside.

The warrior smiled grimly at the thought of any of them utterly failing. The thought was not a pleasant one, but he supposed they had to plan for that alternative. The Velian continued to listen as Cuthred voiced his ideas, his plans. Emeric nodded in assent most of the time.

"Plenty of the world to see, provided you can fend for yourself. But I wouldn't be so eager to dismiss your ability to lead. If you have never tried it, you probably wouldn't know. I have, trying to lead my kin across from Linden to the mainland, and look where they ended up." he said, pausing for a while.

"I pray to the gods that my kin lives on in the Vale. They are the ones I am searching for mostly. Once that is done.. I probably won't be adventuring much. Settling down sounds like what I want to do at this stage." he concluded, gazing outside as the rain continues pouring down from the heavens.

The man turned when the other group left and lowered his voice. "What do you think of Rikard and Tristan so far?"

"Don't flog yourself, Emeric," Cuthred said. "That storm would've blown up whether you led well or poorly. For what it's worth I suspect you did well enough. . .they did follow you, after all."

The talk turned towards their companions upstairs. "Good men. Not much for company though, especially Tristan. Though I can't say I blame them for that, given what's happened." All the others had lost something in the storm. Emeric's people, Braithe's children, Rikard's and Tristan's brothers in arms. Cuthred's losses had come earlier, and though the pain remained keen, they were fast fading. Sometimes he forgot why he'd made the journey to the mainland for whole minutes at a stretch.

Not lately, though. The encounter at the ruined hut had driven Toli back to his thoughts.

"Rikard reminds me of my father, a little. A leader, but a bit. . .dour. Sad, even. What do you think of those two?" He broke into a sly smile before adding, "I'd ask what you think of Braithe too if it weren't obvious even to a halfwit like me."

Rikard frowned at the crumbling stair. Curiosity was one thing to indulge, but to risk greater danger without reason was to be revealed a fool. He looked at Tristan appraisingly. "It would be fairly simple for me to cross with a trustworthy plank. But without, I suppose we will have to trust to strength. Did we happen to bring any rope up?"

Emeric nodded. He knew it wasn't really his fault, but deep inside he couldn't help but feel responsible. They hadn't really followed the son of their leader by choice, but by necessity. With rudimentary knowledge of plants and herbal remedies, the elderly and the helpless had come with him for the crossing. Most of them were trying to avoid being absorbed into the other nearby clanholds. This fate they thought would be worse than the attempt to join with their kin back in the Vale.

If only he had known.

"I cannot lay the blame on either Rikard or Tristan, same as you. They are trustworthy, though I've always wondered what Rikard planned on doing with Tristan and his men once he returned. No doubt their intentions were different than what they are now." he paused as Cuthred likened Rikard to his own father and the young Velian could not help but stifle a laugh. "You speak the truth, and truth be told, Rikard seems to be a father figure for the both of us, for I also liken him to my late father. Stern, full of controlled anger and his mind..." he smiled. "...it is like tempered steel the way he has kept his cool when I have spoken out of line. Perhaps he is better at that than my father, in fact."

The man scratched his chin pensively. "I think Tristan is a bit of a mystery to me still. A quiet, reliable man who probably revels in always having something to do, something to strive for. Which seems to be sticking with Rikard, for now. He's knowledgeable, but hard to approach if you ever want instruction or tutelage. He's a bit dry, to tell you the truth. Though did you get to listen to what he had to say last night? He probably knows just as much as we do as far as what the future looks like."

The Velian's cheeks went briefly red as Braithe was mentioned and he struggled to put thoughts into words for a little while. "I just like her and hope she likes me back just as much." he offered, stammering a little, but slowly regained his composure. "If I ever settle down, I'd want a woman like her: Strong-willed and caring." he nodded, staring at the pouring skies outside and grinned. "While we're on the subject of women. What about you? Think there's one for you in Stromland?"

Cuthred chuckled at Emeric's brief bout of fluster. "You could do much worse than her, that's for certain," he said. However, his expression turned somber when Emeric brought up Cuthred's own romantic prospects.

"Never was one in Linden. Why would Stromland be any different?" he said. His tight smile failed to hide the edge of bitterness in his voice. He shrugged. "Honestly, never did much about. . .that. Not that I didn't...don't think about it. I suppose I always assumed I'd marry the daughter of some other earl to seal a pact and that would be that."

Now it was the Lindener's turn to redden, but his brighter smile returned. "I remember when I had just turned sixteen. . .I was running through shield drills with my father's lendmen. The old man dragged me away during a break. 'What in the name of all the gods is wrong with you, boy?' I started blubbering that I'd try harder, that I wouldn't fall for Old Alfred's tricky footwork again.

" 'Not that,' he said, 'you're sixteen years old now. When I was your age there wasn't a slave girl safe from me.'"

He laughed at the memory. "I didn't know what to say. He took that to mean I was ignorant, so he told me in rather excruciating detail how to go about it." He shook his head. "I promised him I'd try, but I never did. Truth is, I'd rather face down a screaming Quadan horde with nothing but my bare fists."

His mouth twisted into a wry expression. "Fights are much less frightening than women. Don't tell the others I said so, though, all right? Or any of the rest I said. They think I'm foolish enough as it is."

He ran a hand through his hair. "I've been meaning to ask, how did you and your people end up in Linden? There's always a few Stromlanders that settle along the northern coast, but I've never heard of Velians making home there before."




 

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