A test of honor, p.14
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       A Test of Honor, p.14

           Justin Hebert
 
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  Chapter 14

  "As I feel my mind transformed by the words of the Ancestors, I cannot help but mourn for the brave men and women who forged our House. Were the old days good? Perhaps. But it seems more likely that the old stories are simply told in a way that tricks us into striving for something that never existed."

  - Quendon Franklin, 34 Nayacem, 1787 AC

  Aidan drew his mace as he ran toward the blast. The other bandits were grabbing whatever weapons were nearby and running to join him from all over - some from tents, others from combat training, all snarling and ready for a fight. Despite his fear at the approach of an unknown enemy, Aidan smiled to see his men so eager and ferocious. If you can't be brave, be angry.

  From behind a tree walked a lone, unarmed man sitting atop a horse with cropped hair and ornate reins and trappings. Flanking either side were two brown-cloaked sentries, a man and a woman, who were glaring at one another accusingly.

  "I tried to stop him, M'Lord," the female sentry protested, her dark pocked face twisting into a scowl, "but he insisted on blowing that damned horn."

  "Viper," Aidan addressed the brown-cloaked male sentry who spat and rolled his crooked-set eyes as his fellow Guard spoke, "I thought the protocol was clear. The enemy blast is only to be used when the enemy is actually attacking. Two long blasts indicates a visitor."

  "Sorry," he muttered, looking around at the assembled men, "gods above, but you lads look the business. Couldn't hurt to let this asshole see what we're about, eh?"

  The men laughed, and Aidan couldn't hold back his smile, seeing their guest squirm and glare at the blatant insult. The invader was dressed in a snowy-white jupon displaying House Meadows' livery, an encircled red bear paw on a field of horizontal white and blue stripes. His hat was baggy, and its bulk sloughed off to the left side of his head, the whole thing covered in Northern Powdered Monkey fur, black at the roots and white at the tips. He looked to Aidan like the biggest ponce he'd ever seen.

  "Are you Aidan of House Franklin?" The ponce turned up his nose, and his eyes darted back and forth, glaring at every man who stood on the line.

  "I am Sir Aidan of Barrowdown," Aidan wasn't about to be untitled in front of his own men in his own camp, "and I will receive you in the command tent."

  Lord Meadows' Herald dismounted and danced a little, trying to keep his blue cape with white fur trim from touching the ground. They walked in silence to the large circular command tent, and Aidan took note that the Herald did not remove his cap when they entered. He refuses to treat me like a Noble; he means to insult me.

  "I speak for the King's Deputy," he curled his lips into a sneer as he listed the titles with flourish and contempt, "Lord Daniel Meadows of Harrington, the Duke of South Bend, on whose land you now trespass."

  "You claim to be the aggrieved party, then?"

  "I do. It was you, after all, who made an attempt on my Lord's life, and even now harass his caravans and subject his eldest son to shame."

  "Very well," Aidan smiled at the list of accusations, far too amused to be offended, "say what you came to say."

  "First, a question," the Herald removed his gloves, and produced a scroll sealed with the triple-crowned Royal Crest. Could that be the deed to Barrowdown? The puffy-hatted man smiled, and Aidan sensed a trap. "Do you wish to end the current conflict peacefully?"

  "I would like nothing more," he said, and as the words left his lips he realized they were only half true. He wanted only to return home and visit his family's trees in the Sacred Grove, but some deep part of him wanted nothing more than to take his mace full power into Lord Meadows' arrogant, vindictive skull. There can be no peace without justice.

  "I am here to offer you such a solution. No more bloodshed, no more living like an animal." He offered the scroll, and Aidan took it, doing his best not to seem too eager.

  The scroll was a deed, but it was labeled Whitneycrest County. He did recognize the landmarks that it described, however, and surmised that it contained the northeastern corner of Graydon Forest. He began to get an idea from reading about its borders exactly where it was, and was very confused.

  "This sounds like Whiteflax and Toronto Duchies," Aidan said. The Herald wore a smug grin.

  "Whiteflax and Toronto are being dissolved, and the County of Whitneycrest will take their place. You will be its first Count; you should feel very honored." Though his words and tone were kind and respectful, he still made no attempt to conceal his condescension.

  "Don't tell me how I should feel," he growled. "What of the former Dukes?"

  "The Peyrolans have a few vacant estates, very rich. They were only too happy to trade." He waved his hand and walked toward the fire smoldering in the covered pit near the tent's center. "They're always killing each other over there; I'm sure we'll have more vacancies in the future."

  Aidan nodded, remembering his father's tales from his days as an envoy to the Peyrolan Isle. The men there carried swords with the most ornate and beautiful hilts his father had ever seen, curled, twisted steel that was both strong enough to repel a hit from an enemy blade and elegant enough for them to wear with their dress clothes. Carrying those swords around seemed to make them all crazy, though; Father had said that he was nearly challenged to a duel himself on more than one occasion. They would fight each other to the death over even minor, unintentional insults.

  Aidan wasn't happy with the appeasement on the surface, but getting recognition of Nobility would afford him certain rights by which he could appeal the decision to reallocate Barrowdown to the former owners seven generations back. He read the title again, and only now realized that in very small letters right before Count of Whitneycrest was the word provisional.

  "Provisional Count? What does that mean?"

  "It's described near the bottom of the deed, but I'll spare you the need to read further." He smirked, and Aidan's blood burned at the not-so-subtle barb that perhaps he couldn't read. "It means that you will not have any voting rights and will be ineligible to run for office in the Royal Council for three years. During that time, you will not have any say over the personnel at Whitneycrest, and will only have the privilege of levying taxes and raising troops if called upon by the King. If you accept this title, you relinquish any claim to other properties and lose the right of appeal for any previous decisions by the council and its head, the King."

  Aidan scoffed, but nodded. He knew better than to hope for Barrowdown or full reinstatement. Half the planet probably still thought he actually shot at the King, and even those who sympathized with his plight probably thought him a terrible traitor after countering the Deputy's trap carriages. But without the right to appeal, he had no hope of ever returning save as a visitor. A visitor to my own home. And what would become of the Redtails, who had sheltered him and given him purpose during his exile? Accepting this deal would mean cheating them out of a reward for standing with him in his time of need. What would I think of a man who did such a thing?

  "Please inform the King and His Deputy," Aidan said, rolling up the parchment back into a tight cylinder and thrusting it back to the Herald, "that I respectfully decline."

  "I thought as much." He gave a high-pitched scoff and gladly took back the deed. "Lord Meadows will be pleased. He told me himself that he'd rather see you flayed and hanged than granted even your Knighthood back."

  Aidan took a deep breath, then chuckled at his guest's ham-fisted attempt to goad him into violence. "I don't fight unarmed men, no matter how rude they are."

  The Herald shrugged. "The same probably can't be said of the company you keep. There aren't nearly as many of them as I'd heard. Can't imagine you'll fare well against Barrowdown's ramparts."

  Aidan almost responded, but held his tongue. You make a poor spy, master Herald. There was no benefit to telling him that more than half the Soldiers were hunting in the forest, or how he had just killed three of the King's agents. "I thank you for your frankness. Please leave."

  The Herald stuck his nose in t
he air and marched out of the tent to the jeers and catcalls of the Redtails, who stood in two columns on either side of the tent's opening at mock attention and mock-saluting the dignitary. Aidan expected he would either cower in fear or shout back indignant, but he strolled through the jeering gauntlet with eyes forward and face set in a firm, arrogant glare.

  "One final matter, Sir Aidan." He unfastened a large burlap bag from his saddle. "If you refused, I was instructed to leave you this gift with the Lord Deputy's blessing."

  Aidan stalked to the bag, which sat lumpy and irregular on the ground. The Herald had galloped well out of sight by the time he reached it. He untied the drawstring and slowly spread the bag open, his breath catching in his chest as he realized what he was looking at. The bag was filled with bloody severed heads, the color still in their cheeks as though they were killed recently. The top one had a broken nose and facial hair interrupted by clustered scars, and Aidan easily recognized the ugliest man he'd ever seen.

  "What was all that about?" Rodrig asked, stopping to hold a hand in front of his nose when within range of the bag's foul rotting stench. "Is that ... Erick?"

  "We break camp tonight," Aidan said, tying the bag shut and standing. "Give the order!"

  Rodrig began shouting orders at the nearest groups, standing around with their weapons and armor, picking their noses and telling bawdy jokes. As several bands of hunters returned with fresh kills - deer, rabbits, and even a few hawks - they were told to dress the animals as quickly as they could and get their asses moving packing up their belongings. Smoke rose in the distance, and Aidan told himself it was from the immolation of the three spies who had so savagely revealed their true nature to Charlene. Why rape the woman I love? They've had more than a few opportunities to kill me since they've arrived. Throwing a grenade under his tent wall would more than do the job, and would be easy to accomplish at night. He meant to ask Windhill more about it later, but for the moment they had more pressing needs.

  The hunting parties continued returning in twos and threes, only a few carrying carcasses of already thinning animals. It was a slow but steady process, skinning the animals or plucking their feathers, butchering them, packing the cuts into small burlap bags with handfuls of snow, then detaching the poles of their green denim tents and rolling up the thick cloth that remained.

  It took about three hours, and Aidan sometimes felt the icy fear that their enemy would be upon them at any moment, but forced himself to recognize the impossibility. The group who had killed poor Erick and his band wouldn't be large enough to attack the Redtails. Fighting men were given double pay to campaign in winter, and Lord Meadows wouldn't shed such an expense until he were absolutely sure negotiations had failed. It would take a few days, but in that time, he wanted to be certain himself that they were ready to face the armored posse he was sure would be coming for them. Coming for me.

  In the crush of packing and supply loading, Aidan saw Marke standing with his clipboard and charcoal, no doubt checking his inventory list against the supplies being put into the common haul. There are still questions that need answering.

  Every step toward Marke was near agony to Aidan's soul, as if he were already condemning the man without trial. He did his best to shake the feeling away, but the doubt had already sunk its icy tendrils into his heart and threatened to break it wide open if he didn't get satisfaction from his lifelong friend, a friend who, he thought, had risked everything - his life, his fortune, his title - to join his cause.

  "We should have four of those, check again," Marke was saying to a young lad who Aidan thought was Woodsen at first, but his face was much darker than the cocky light-brown Mardoni lad. Marke nodded briefly at Aidan when he noticed his approach, then went back to examining his lists as he spoke. "I'll not have them stealing our smith's bundles when we're about to go to war. That would be tantamount to treason, wouldn't you think?"

  "Suppose it would."

  "It's hard not to treat them like thieves, since they are thieves."

  "As are you."

  Marke glanced up at Aidan, eyebrow raised in curiosity or confusion. He shrugged and scratched the paper with his charcoal, making a few jots and then one long line. "I suppose I am. How about that, eh?"

  "How well do you know your men?"

  Marke shrugged and focused on his paper as he answered in a vacant, distant voice. "I know a few, but most are strangers to me. Adventurers, underpaid caravan Guards, unemployed foresters, and the like. They came for the promise of spoil more than any loyalty to House Deumar."

  Aidan's blood boiled as he recalled the scene he happened upon - Charlene's cloak torn, her face bloody and bruised, the savage ferocity that overtook her senses as she stabbed one attacker brutally to death. Marke's story seemed believable enough, and he betrayed no hint of concern. I need more than plausible. I need to be certain.

  He grabbed the clipboard out of Marke's hands, and his old friend dropped the charcoal on the ground in surprise. He looked at first indignant and angry, then his eyes widened in surprise at Aidan's stern expression. Don't frighten him too much, just shake him up a little. The old interrogation lessons he'd learned fighting on New Mongolia came back with ease, as well as Troy's account questioning the servants. Make the subject uncomfortable, but not terrified.

  "Three of them were members of the Order of the Crown." Aidan spoke the words slowly and seriously, allowing their full weight to fall upon his friend's shoulders. Marke blinked in surprise, and they stayed wide open at the news. He seems genuinely surprised. I need to be sure. Aidan's instinct told him to press the advantage, bombard Marke with questions, but his training and discipline stopped him. Allow the silence to do its work, and wait for the subject to provide an answer. Stay in control.

  "Gods, what happened?" Marke began, as though searching for the appropriate words. "Where are they? Wait ... were ..."

  "The smoke on the far hill is from their corpses. Did you know about them?"

  "Did I ... is that what this is about? You think I would betray you?"

  "Your father already did."

  He allowed the accusation to do its work. It helped that he was half serious, remembering his harrowing and hopeless fight against the armored Guards whom old Lord Deumar had brought to Wishon on the night he came for dinner. Marke's eyes teared at the accusation, and he looked first shocked, then angry.

  "How dare you."

  His words hung in the air, but they had no effect on Aidan. There was a time for polite custom, for using titles and talking around difficult subjects. But they were at war now. The sooner they all learned to be direct and clear, the better it would go for them in the long run.

  "Answer the question: Did you know about them?"

  Marke took a deep, ragged breath as his face continued to turn an angry shade of crimson. "No, I did not."

  Aidan peered deep into his eyes for a heartbeat, seeing only indignation and outrage. Marke's fists were clenched, and he looked as though he might strike Aidan at any moment. He betrayed no sense of guilt or fear, and Aidan nodded, satisfied for now.

  "Good. Carry on." He started walking away, then felt the need to repair at least some of the damage he'd done. He turned back to his friend, who had already picked up his ledger and continued making notations and corrections. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry I had to do that."

  Aidan blushed at his own anemic apology, thinking of how he would react if it were Marke who had gone rebel and Lord Franklin who was now a hostage. Likely as not he would have killed him for suggesting that he were playing the spy. Marke engrossed himself once again and worked in his numbers book and answered without looking up.

  "Will there be anything else, My Lord?" His answer was cold and he spat the words "My Lord" as if he were cursing.

  "As you were, Sir Marke. I bid you good day."

  "And to you, My Lord."

  Aidan marched back to where they were loading bundles and heaps onto their pack horses and helped pick up the larger bundles, uti
lizing the strength afforded by the Kannitick Plate. He tried to put the filth of his predicament out of his mind, but it was always there. He had just accused his best friend of treason, and while it seemed like he was probably innocent, a lingering doubt refused to give him the peace he desired.

  They all slept that night in the still-erected command tent, which was warm and musty with the crush of around a hundred thirty men and women, most still very ripe from both the day's hunt and the labor of packing their belongings. The fire pit had already been stuffed away, and the snoring and tossing echoed off every wall.

  Aidan sat up and turned on a small utility light, which Windhill had given him earlier that day. The long metal tube emitted a small but very bright light from one end, which made his family's journals almost appear to be glowing. Rodrig stirred nearby, but simply muttered drowsily and turned to his other side. Aidan parted the pages of his sister's book and picked up his reading where he'd left off. It was mostly poetry and beautiful, ornate pen drawings of flowers so accurate he nearly tried to pluck them from the page. Then one passage got his attention: a list of summer visitors who were scheduled to come during Aidan's first year of deployment.

  "The Lords Gardenrose, Braxton, and Herringwood are all to come during the first week alone, and father is quite put out arranging adequate entertainment."

  It was the part about entertainment that caught his eye. Say what you will about Lord Quendon of Barrowdown, he never went out of his way to provide entertainment for anyone save King Ethan Himself. Singers and harpers would come through on occasion, and he would patronize them as he saw fit, but the traveling circuses knew better than to bother stopping by the estate, and stuck to Barrowdown's Inns. And the Lords Braxton and Herringwood would be better served by a demonstration duel by a couple of Father's Men-at-Arms rather than a juggler or fire-spitter.

  What are you telling me, Katisha? There was no doubt in Aidan's mind he had stumbled upon something - entertainment had to be a code. Perhaps co-conspirators? If so, he was glad that Nadya had the wisdom to keep this potential evidence out of the hands of the Order of the Crown. The "pox" that had killed his family no doubt would have spread farther, into the lands of these Lords and Knights whose names he now looked at with wonder. They would have stood with my Father. Will they stand with me?

 
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