Southern Oweris on the Rissiyan Peninsula –
The edge of the Verdalund
One of them was already bleeding.
Obrin watched with growing interest as the two men circled each other at the crossroads. The ground was uneven with cart-rucks, the mud dry under the sun. The younger duellist seemed to see with his feet, moving light and easy. His sword was dripping.
His opponent was fully armoured on his torso, broader and a head taller. Even his sword was larger. His feet scuffed at the dirt as he tried to reach the younger man with lunging swings. In Obrin’s estimation the man was probably not from nobility, a lowborn who had risen to become a pactor, swearing his sword to some minor lord.
The big pactor missed, stumbled. The other man’s thinner blade nicked him between the plates of his suit. The pactor’s arm dropped. So did his shield.
The young swordsman turned aside as he came on, whirling away from the big man’s last dogged swing. His arm straightened and his blade flashed. The point and a few inches tore into the pactor’s neck from the side. The blood began to bubble, then squirt, washing across the big man’s breastplate as he fell sideways, his shield arm raised, empty hand reaching.
The victor bowed, almost in parody of tradition. His breathing showed that he had been pressed hard by the fight. Obrin could tell that if the younger man had been held longer, he might have been the loser. The boy – he couldn’t be older than sixteen – was a good fighter, but by no means exceptional. Fast, but not strong.
Without further ceremony, the boy sheathed his sword and knelt to strip the armour from his foe. The watchers began to return to their business, the farrier and the carter arguing over their wager. Obrin waited until the attention of most was elsewhere and slipped forward to talk to the duellist.
‘Thanks. Friend.’ The boy’s voice sounded young, to match his looks. He frowned warily up at Obrin, taking in the elder man’s battered mail, the long knife at his belt. The boy had green eyes, quick to take in detail. ‘Is that a longbow?’
Obrin’s longbow was unstrung, wrapped in canvas across his back.
‘Yes. Sharp eyes, you’ve got. Are you an archer then, as well as a sword?’
‘No. You going to help me with this?’ the boy gestured at the dead pactor. He’d got the breastplate off and was working on the backplate straps.
‘No lad. I’d rather not. I’ll drink with you when you’ve sold the steel, but I don’t want to see the sharp end of frontier law – the war’s not far away lad. They’ll hang or head you for stealing.’
‘It’s mine by right!’ The boy stood up, affronted. ‘All the Lords and the Three Fathers decreed that a contest of honour gives the victor right ownership of a pactor’s armour. If he’d had a horse, that would be mine as well!’
Obrin smiled. ‘Their law, lad, not ours. The contest of honour is for the pactors. Are you a pactor?’ The boy shook his head. ‘No. So if another sworn man comes along; a captain or just someone that knew this poor sod, and wants your head for it, they’d get it.’
‘Shit.’ The boy looked around quickly, then got down to pull off the man’s mail coat. ‘This’ll be the last one then. Thank you, Coz.’
Obrin laughed, ‘I’m near twice your age, so don’t make me your cousin. You’ve done this before?’
‘Every inn along the coldroad from Greenwheat Keep to here. Four men. Never get the armour’s worth, of course, but I get it off my hands and get to sleep on feathers. And what do you do, Uncle?’
‘I’m not your uncle either. Call me Obrin, or Bowman.’ Obrin waited for the boy to gather up his spoils. They walked off the crossroads and across the yellowed grass towards the inn.
‘Ameryn,’ the boy said at last. ‘My name.’ He seemed loath to give it.
‘Worried that will mean something to someone? I reckon you’ve come further than from Greenwheat. Am I right?’
Ameryn looked evasive but he was smiling. ‘Buy me beer and we’ll see where I come from.’ He shook his dark fringe out of his eyes, keeping his grip on the pillaged armour. ‘Looks like some new freemen are in off the coldroad. Might be one of them needs some good steel.’
Obrin looked back over his shoulder at the crossroads. The pactor was diminished, seeming naked despite his padding. Ameryn had left the boots, at least, but one of the peasants or another wayfarer would get them. Two labourers were already dragging the corpse to the side of the road, laying it in the shade of a hayrick. One of them straightened and shielded his eyes from the high sun, staring darkly back at Obrin. The bowman shrugged slightly and turned back to the inn.
The innkeep poured dark beer into clay tankards and left them to it. Obrin drank and found it was clean and full flavoured, which was a surprise.
‘I’ve not had a drink this good since Delverkeep. In a little hamlet just off the coldroad, good strong cider they gave me. This is good too, but I didn’t have to pay for the cider.’
‘You stole it?’ Ameryn asked.
‘No lad. They gave it me. A gift for going to join the fight, down in the Verdalund.’
Obrin mused on the plan as he drank. He still wasn’t sure of it. The bloody Verdalund. A hundred years ago it had been Sufower, the southern stretch of Oweris. What’s it to me? Hay and root crops, and some good vines in the warmer north, near Greenwheat town. Not my town, not my land. But a hundred years before that, the whole of the Skalderlund had been Rissiyan. Rissiyans would fight for it, even if they had to fight the Skaldermen.
‘Bloody Skaldermen,’ Obrin said aloud.
‘You hate them, do you?’ Ameryn asked, bored, eyes scanning the inn.
‘Nah. Not as such.’ Obrin tipped back his tankard. ‘I’ll fight ‘em, kill ‘em if I can. If I can get paid to do it, at least. I’m going south to find a decent company. If they’ll have me I’ll sign up. It’s not got much to do with hate. I’m too well seasoned to hate the men I kill.’
Ameryn didn’t seem that interested. Obrin cursed the young for their youth.
‘Well I have bought you beer, lad, like you asked. Where’s home to you?’
‘You first, Bowman.’ Ameryn’s reluctance to talk about himself seemed a little forced. Obrin shrugged.
‘Alright. So I’m from Yastaris. Big land, nearly as big as here. East and north.’ Obrin found himself doing that fool thing men did, trying to draw a map in the air with his hands.
‘I know where Yastaris is,’ Ameryn said scornfully. ‘What are you doing in Oweris?’
‘You’ve been educated then. Most people here don’t know what lies twenty miles away. And I’m here to earn a fortune by the stretch of my bow. And you’ve still not told me where you’re from.’
Ameryn shrugged, making a show of draining the very last of his beer from the tankard. Obrin snorted, amused by the lad’s bravado, and waved over one of the inn’s girls.
‘More beer for both, fill us up, pet. You’d like Yastaris, lad. The sun is warm in the north, and it’s all easy slopes and olive groves.’
They said that in the south, the mists would freeze solid, binding the forest together, tree to tree. Obrin doubted that tale, but cold was cold. He was not marching south for the weather.
Before Obrin could try the boy for more of his past, more armed freemen came into the inn, and Ameryn became focused on selling his loot. He sold the greaves and pauldrons to an infantryman from Lord Randin Westower’s foot regiment. The plate harness went to a captain from Lord Pollyn Daysong’s pikes, for twenty silver risi. It wasn’t quarter of what the armour was worth, but the man looked suspicious and Ameryn didn’t seem to want to give him a reason to ask questions. Understandable. Lord Daysong would lose his lands if the Skaldermen won through and came north. If Ameryn was accused of murder or even theft, the lord wouldn’t hesitate to take his head.
‘I’m from Ousinghall,’ Ameryn told Obrin halfway down his third tankard, with all the armour sold, ‘but my mother came from Silrada. I favour her, looks-wise.’
‘Freeangbhari lass was she?’ Obrin asked. ‘You’ve the right colouring. Skin with a touch of sand, my papa would call it. Olive-dark.’
‘Does it matter?’ Ameryn asked tersely. He put his drink down.
‘Not a bit.’ There was silence between them for a while, while the inn filled up with officers and their men from the road. Obrin drank comfortably, unbothered by his companion’s attitude. He wondered where the lords’ regiments were making camp.
‘So you’re bound south to fight?’ Ameryn asked at last, as if he hadn’t believed the longbowman the first time.
‘If I can find the right company to march with, yes. Otherwise I’ll keep myself to myself. The risk of death is one thing, but I don’t aim to fight under fool pactors who’ll get me killed quick, or lords who’ll get me killed quicker.’
‘I heard the Lord of Westower is a good commander.’
‘A successful one, yes.’ Obrin chuckled. ‘He earned that reputation fighting the lords of Highower, and he won all his battles. Spent too many men to do it. Some lords will spend men like copper, but I’m worth more to me than coin. A free company won’t waste its men if it can help it. It’s good to fight a war you can win, as long as it’s a war you can survive. No coin in the other sort, not that you can spend afterwards.’
Ameryn considered Obrin over the rim of his tankard. ‘You’ve no more honour than me, Bowman.’
‘Leave honour for the pactors. Talking of sworn men, it’s not many lowborn lads that can fight and kill a proper warrior like you did – you’ve been trained. I know it. C’mon, tell Obrin, and he’ll keep it to himself.’
‘Do keep it to yourself, or you’ll die before you ever smell a Skalderman.’ Ameryn grinned to show how little he meant it. ‘I was an armiger for Gorday Cassimer.’
An Armiger. It made sense. Ameryn moved like he’d been trained to fight and he had natural talent, but he didn’t have the character of a pactor. He lacked the finish that came with the weight of baptismal honour; the refusal to fail.
‘Did you ride with Pactor Cassimer at Stow Point?’
Ameryn scowled. ‘No. I’m not much good on horseback. He took his son. I was a better armiger than Verilyn but he always out-tilted me. I’d put him on his back in the melee though, that’s for damn sure.’
‘When did you get out of his service?’
‘When I deflowered his niece at harvest feast.’
Obrin snorted dark beer as he laughed. He put the tankard down and wiped his mouth and nose, still chuckling. ‘That would get you out of his service, aye.’
‘She wanted me as much as I wanted her.’ Ameryn was melancholy, Obrin saw. The boy was staring across the dark room, his hair falling across his eyes. ‘She had to cry rape, didn’t she? Else Gorday would have given her to the Bowl Sisters. He’s very religious. Fornication is a sin.’
‘So is lying about something like rape,’ Obrin pointed out. ‘You should have run away with her if you wanted her that bad. Or otherwise kept it in your britches.’
‘I don’t blame her for it.’ There was a slight quaver in Ameryn’s voice. He shook himself and tipped back the last of his beer.
‘I fucking would.’ Obrin watched his companion with an odd sense of compassion. The boy wasn’t anything to him, sure, but he was a poor little fool. Some advice couldn’t hurt him. For a moment Obrin considered suggesting that Ameryn join him in searching for a banner to fight under, but he dismissed the idea at once. He was a veteran and he knew green boys well. Ameryn wouldn’t last in the press, against a veteran Skaldermen army.
A lot of green boys would die before summer ended, green boys fighting over green land. They would bleed red.
‘You should go north,’ Obrin said after a while, ‘forget about the girl. Silly cunny would only have brought you grief. Or children. Or both, most like. Go north, Penhower, or Owervayle. Silrada maybe. See the city your mother came from.’
Ameryn considered the advice, turning the empty tankard in his hand, so that the clay grated against the table. His eyes were distant but he nodded. ‘Yes. Maybe I will. Maybe I should. I’ll never be a pactor, but there’s other work for an ordinary blade in Silrada.’
‘So I hear.’
‘Thanks, Obrin. What will you do?’
Obrin looked into the depths of his beer and shrugged. ‘Drink this up. Find a company. Loose arrows at some hairy Skaldermen. Live and come back north with money in my purse, or die and see if my spirit really does get poured into God, like the Bowl Brothers say.’
‘Luck, Bowman Obrin.’ Ameryn gripped the older man’s arm as he rose.
‘Aye. Luck, Ameryn of Ousinghall.’
Try not to get killed.