A test of honor, p.26
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       A Test of Honor, p.26

           Justin Hebert
 
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  Chapter 26

  "When Aidan returns, he will likely find Caledonia much in the same shape he left it. Whether this is a disappointment or a comfort will depend upon how much the War in the Heavens has changed him."

  - Katisha Franklin, 20 Joolie, 1788 AC

  When Aidan and his fifty or so survivors identified themselves at Barrowdown's gate, armed civilians serving as Guards were quick to open the doors, and a party of men armed with cudgels and mismatched weapons and wearing random bits of plate escorted them to the Manor Keep. The town was quiet, though Aidan could see signs of a terrible battle. They passed burnt-out homes, huddled bands of armed men and women helping themselves to the contents of crates and barrels of smoked beef and salted pork, and even a hastily-constructed gallows on which hung naked bodies of seven men whose muscular builds betrayed them as likely House retainers.

  Woodsen was sitting atop the stairs of the Keep, eating what looked like sweet yellow cake and he smiled like a child whose father had come home at last from a long journey. Beside the staircase was a single gallows on which dangled the body of a Saukasi woman, her body mercifully covered with a simple burlap dress.

  "Heaven's Bark!" Woodsen said, strutting down the steps and stuffing his last bit of cake in his mouth. Small crumbs flew from his face as he continued his greeting. "You lot are a sight for weary eyes, let me tell you. Running a rebellion's not easy, you know!"

  "Good to see you, Woodsen," Connel said, dismounting and giving him a hug. "Glad to see things went your way here in town."

  "It was easy, really. The fighting men were busy with you, and those they left behind were lacking both in prowess and, eh," he winked at Ygretta, who just shook her head and laughed, "social graces."

  "I see you hanged them near the entrance," Aidan said, his blood beginning to boil as he recognized the woman who swung from the nearby gallows. It was her wavy straw hair that gave her identity away. "And what did the poor daughter of Kiefernwald do to warrant such treatment?"

  Woodsen sneered at the woman's body with cold contempt. "She was always going about in her fancy dresses, showing off how Lord Kiefernwald squandered the town's taxes on her every whim. Let her die like a peasant, that's what the people said. And what am I if not a servant of the people?"

  Aidan was breathing faster now, his rage building but his body far too weary to act on his violent whims. It wasn't supposed to be like this. We're supposed to be better than this. "And the young Sir Kiefernwald?"

  "Him we locked away. His being a Knight and all."

  Aidan's left hand gripped the pommel of his mace, white-knuckled beneath his gauntlet. He could draw the weapon left-handed and bash young Woodsen's brains out before anyone could stop him, before Woodsen himself even knew he was in danger.

  "Cut her down," Aidan growled as he pointed at Lady Kiefernwald's swinging corpse and gripped his mace tighter still. "Bury her in the Family grove, and apologize to her brother."

  Woodsen looked as though Aidan had just eaten the last piece of sweet cake without leaving any for him. He looked almost wounded, almost like poor Rodrig when the spear that killed him first hit its mark. "Begging your pardon, M'Lord, but you don't under-"

  Aidan drew his dagger with his right hand and held it to Woodsen's throat, applying just enough pressure to make the boy worry, but not breaking his skin. Yet. "Gods help me, Woodsen, I would rather spill your life on this cobbled stone than repeat myself. Be grateful that a man I love died today. Your life would be forfeit here and now if not for him."

  He held the dagger there for a moment longer, feeling the bounce of Woodsen's rapid pulse as it pushed against the blade's edge. Woodsen himself looked terrified, and Aidan smelled the scent of urine suddenly sting his nose. He pushed the young spy away, seeing for the first time the confused and perplexed looks of those around him. Ygretta glared at Woodsen with a burning hatred, but Connel was raising an eyebrow at Aidan.

  "All of you have your orders. Get to work," he growled, dismounting and marching up the steps to enter the Keep and seek out some dinner. They had discussed assignments on the march, and Aidan needed some time alone to try and set aside the horror he had just witnessed. He couldn't help but picture his own sister there, hanging lifeless and alone.

  The only food in the pantry was some pickled cabbage and strips of salted pork which Aidan ate out of the barrels, not bothering with a plate.

  "Your dinner wine is tears, I see," Charlene said glumly as she stepped through the open stone arch and pulled a handful of salted pork from the barrel, stuffing it in her mouth as though starving. Aidan felt his cheek and saw that she was right. He hadn't even realized he'd been weeping, but tears were soaking the stone counter where he sat with his pathetic dinner.

  "This is not as I thought it would be," he confessed, feeling the day's weariness as it soaked deep into his bones.

  "Nor I." She smiled playfully between mouthfuls. "I thought for sure we'd be dead, having our feast in the life to come."

  He smiled at her gallows humor, once again glad for her company. "Did I do the right thing, Charlene?"

  She considered his question, pausing before stuffing her mouth with pickled spiced cabbage. "You did what you needed to do."

  Aidan nodded, but felt no satisfaction. "But was it right?"

  "That's not a question I can answer for you." She put her hand gently upon his and looked into his eyes. "Nor is it a question that will give you the peace you seek. The fact that you've just asked the Bandit Queen about battlefield morality should tell you that."

  He nodded, and they ate in silence. He had also pictured, in his moments of preparing for this victory, that the two of them would make love in his old bed. But he saw that for the fantasy that it was. The persistent ache that pulsed through his bones told him that the nanite magic given to him by the doctors during the War in the Heavens had run its course. He was mortal once again.

  "Come with me," he said to Charlene as he stood to leave.

  "Another quest?" she asked in between mouthfuls of salted pork.

  "Come and meet my family." At those words, she froze, her hand in midair ready to dive once again into the barrel for more food. She looked at him, several of her skull braids pulled out casting frizz over her hair and face, looking as though she might faint at any moment. To him, she still looked beautiful. She stood and straightened what remained of her war-torn cloak, pulling its corners around her armored feet.

  The Family Grove was the one thing he truly recognized, even as the day grew late and evening's dark fingers crept across the sky. The iron gates were propped open, and within was a massive orchard of various trees - maples, dwarf sequoias, pine, and even a few unwieldy oaks. His mother's tree, a willow of six years, stood near the wall of an adjacent building. He placed his bare fingers over her name carved into its bark, tracing the letters and picturing her face.

  "My mother's name was Eleanor," he told Charlene, who stood silent and reverent nearby. "She was fond of theatre and song. When she left us, my father had great difficulty watching plays or singing songs."

  He bowed his head and silently remembered her.

  "My father's name was Quendon," he said coming to a much younger oak planted next to the willow. "He was a stern man, but very fair. He ruled Barrowdown with justice, and encouraged his children to do the same."

  Again he traced the letters of his father's name, Quendon. Again he bowed his head and pictured his face, his hands, his smile, his tears.

  "My sister's name," he came to the small red maple by Quendon's oak, tracing his fingers in the letters of her name, "was Katisha. She was gentle, but brave and strong."

  Another moment of silence before he came to the final tree he had come to visit. A young pine tree already growing tall and firm.

  "My brother's name was Troy. He loved to read and study. He had it in his head that some day he'd be the King's Herald. He was smart, cunning, but also kind."

  After his final heartbeats of reverent silence,
he turned to Charlene to see that she was quietly weeping, tears streaming down her cheeks in rivers. Before he could say anything, she embraced him hard, once again nearly squeezing out his air. For a long time they held each other, weeping.

  "Would your family have liked me, do you think?" Charlene asked, still clutching him tight.

  "If they didn't, I wouldn't care," he said, surprised by his own frankness. He had spoken the truth, and he knew it; he loved Charlene more than he'd ever loved anyone before. She was more precious to him than Barrowdown itself, and he knew for a certainty that he would trade his life for hers if it was needed.

  Three days later, his muscles finally began to move as they ought. Lord Kiefernwald's remnant army had shown up and attempted to mount a siege but given up the day before, no doubt with the hungry bellies of an army without adequate supply. Kiefernwald himself had taken time for an obscene gesture before quitting the field and fleeing in the direction of Klauston, no doubt to appeal to the King himself. Aidan laughed as he considered the pointlessness of that gesture. A Landowner who lost a battle to an enemy less than one third his own number and suffered a rebellion in his township while on campaign had clearly overstepped his title.

  The Deputy's loss to Aidan's rabble army had inspired independence among more than a few Duchies, and the Royal Army had already been deployed to those places where the Lieges no longer felt like paying their yearly tribute. At least for this year, Aidan and his newly promoted Knights were safe from Royal intervention.

  The Heralds of Gardenrose, Herringwood, and Braxton had arrived that morning and requested an audience. He put them off until after lunch, enjoying a carefree morning practicing at swordplay with Sir Connel and Ygretta and losing a marksman challenge with Charlene, who fletched the center of a target three times in a row.

  "My Lords," Aidan said, glad he did not sup with them. He had a decent notion of what they were about to ask and already knew his answer.

  "Lord Aidan," Gardenrose said, noticeably more polite now that he was not surrounded by bandits, "my Lord wishes to congratulate you on your victory and pledge his undying support for your claim."

  "Glad to hear it," Aidan answered, waiting for the other two to begin their flattery. Instead, Herringwood looked as though he had just bitten into an unripe peach, and Braxton appeared so pale that Aidan thought he would surely faint at any moment. After what felt like an eternal silence, Herringwood snapped.

  "Winning battles is well and good, but our troubles have just begun. My Lord asks, Lord Aidan, what do you plan to do next?"

  "Manners, man!" Gardenrose chided, shaking his head at his colleague. "Lord Aidan should not be addressed as though he were some-"

  "Outlaw?" Herringwood asked the word loudly and slowly, flabbergasted at Gardenrose. "Fellows, make no mistake, we will have little time for pleasantries and courtly manners when the Crown seeks retribution."

  "Thus far, the Crown has been very silent on the matter," Aidan said. "I am currently selecting my own Herald to attend His Majesty and press suit for him to declare House Franklin's claim on Barrowdown as legitimate."

  The Heralds looked at Aidan with surprise, all three of them, and Herringwood shook his head and said, "My Lord, that possibility died with your family."

  Before Aidan could protest, Gardenrose intervened. "Loathe as I am to agree with my colleague, he is correct. King Ethan could have protected your claim while you were fighting in his name, but he did not."

  "Instead," Braxton interjected, finally making his voice heard, "he usurped your land and didn't even bother to send a message. Have you truly never asked why?"

  "I have never stopped asking why since returning home!" Aidan was standing, but he didn't remember getting up. His voice echoed through the halls with a boom that silenced all ancillary activities. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. "Meadows has been growing stronger, and the King is looking for allies to avert civil war. I was planning on offering vassalage for-"

  "Forgive me for interrupting, my Lord," Gardenrose spoke, politely bowing his head as though about to deliver unfortunate news, "but the Deputy and the King reconciled yesterday. The Deputy has betrothed his son Duncan to be married to the Princess Rosalyn."

  Aidan's heart sank. Paper alliances were flimsy things, easily broken if they were on paper alone. But ring alliances held a special power, and the few Houses who had broken them had not survived longer than one generation past their offense. Betrothal meant that something changed.

  "They unite against us?" Aidan was incredulous, his mind desperately trying to navigate the labyrinthine pathways of what this might mean.

  "The Battle of Graydon Forest has stirred the hornets," Braxton said, his ancient lips curling into a smile. "Even now, they are busy putting out fires all over the world that have been ignited by the spark of your discontent. Apparently, you are not the only Noble who is unhappy with the current leadership."

  "All the more reason we reconcile quickly with the King," Aidan argued, curious that he was suddenly the voice for peace amid these old men whose life mission was preventing the kind of war they now spoke of so casually.

  "And betray our brothers-in-arms?" Herringwood exploded once again, flabbergasted at Aidan's words. "Lord Aidan, we had a certain arrangement with your father, and while it may-"

  "I know all about your treason," Aidan said, giving himself a moment to enjoy their surprise, "and I thank you for your loyalty. You honor Quendon's memory by supporting his son. But I long to set down my spear and sword, to sow crops and gossip idly with friends."

  "Then do it," Herringwood spat, "lay down and roll over for the Tyrant Ethan. Defend the world your father was prepared to tear down. But do not wonder, then, why he sent you away in the first place."

  Aidan drew his mace and took a few steps toward the Herald, who had gone much too far. He squeezed the hilt so hard that his entire arm was tense. He had wondered so often why his family had kept their treason a secret from even him. Now he had his answer. I am part of the problem.

  Instead of bashing Herringwood's brains out the back of his skull, he sheathed the weapon and walked to the balcony window. In the plaza below, traders were standing before their carts, shouting prices for their wares as people passed to and fro, seeking out vegetables or dinnerware. A minstrel was singing as he played his lute and sat along one of the low walls, children dancing and chasing each other. Here was the Barrowdown he missed, the everyday bustle and laughter of regular life, free from the worry and uncertainty of war. This was what they were asking him to give up.

  "My Lord," ventured Braxton, his face stern and determined, "your father did not enter into this lightly, and we can all relate to your desire for peace. But turning to the King is not the answer, not if you hope to protect your people from his wrath."

  The ancient Herald reached inside his coat and produced a small red book with gold lettering that was almost too faded and warn to read. But Aidan knew the title without needing to read it. The Roadmap to Empire. The book Nadya had given him when he stumbled upon his family's treason. The teachings of the Ancestors. His heart filled with a warm, holy reverence for this little book, which offered so much peace and brought the Galaxy so much strife.

  Aidan sighed. One day, we will put this war behind us, teach it to children in schools, talk about it as though it is long past. But not today.

  "Then tell me, gentlemen," he handed the book back to Braxton, who placed it back into his coat, "where do you suggest we begin?"

  They talked and planned throughout the day, taking their meals in a skylit room in the Keep's east wing, which now served as a War Room. Aidan was declared as interim Marshal of their allied forces until they could unify with the Coastland and Southern Lords, who had declared their independence only a few days before. Messengers would be sent to the regions where discontent was already spreading like wildfire. The Heralds were impressed when Aidan recommended sending men like Woodsen to coordinate popular resistances in critical areas. S
uggesting it had made Aidan feel low and ashamed. I hate skullduggery because it's cowardly, but I can't argue with its results.

  In the evening, the Heralds departed and took with them pledges addressed to their own Lords and the surrounding likely allies, each bearing Aidan's signature and Tulip seal. He felt strange, using his own seal rather than the entwined trees of the Redtail band.

  He took his meal on a tray and sat on the eastern balcony, savoring every bite. The camp cook, whose name he realized he still didn't know, was serving as his chef until someone suitable could be found. As Aidan slurped the last drop of the beef and pea soup, shaking the bowl above his mouth to wriggle loose a few final droplets, he decided the search could wait. Apparently, the man was skilled both in making passable food for large numbers and food fit for the King. Rare to find someone skilled with both.

  "Eating your supper outdoors?" Charlene's familiar voice chimed behind him, and she pulled an empty chair nearby so that it was closer to Aidan. "You must really miss camp life."

  Aidan smiled, biting into his bread roll and nodding in agreement. "Sorry I missed dinner. Even reheated, it's fantastic."

  "Barkton was a master chef for some Noble House and got himself mixed up in unsavory business. Saving House money by purchasing lower-quality food."

  "Steward probably put him up to it." Aidan had heard the story, but didn't realize the Barkton the others referred to was the chef.

  "His House thought so, too, which is why he was arrested. Barkton only just escaped."

  "What happened to the Steward?"

  Charlene hung her head and grew morbidly silent. "They hanged him."

  Aidan froze in place for a heartbeat, mouth open as he anticipated another bite of roll. He put it down and suddenly had no more appetite. "Terrible."

  Charlene's shoulders shook, and he thought for a moment that she was crying, weeping for some Steward she'd never met. She brought her head back and revealed fully that she was laughing at him, that once again he'd become the butt of her joke.

  "Do you enjoy painting me as a fool?" he asked, more than a little grumpy from the day's stress.

  "Gods help me; I do. Don't be mad, my love." She stroked his cheek with the back of her hand, and his face warmed to her touch.

  "Funny thing, I guess; story could be true. They'd have the right to hang him, if they fancied it."

  "The people wouldn't stand for it."

  "If he were well loved, then they would probably cause trouble for their Liege. But if he kept to himself, if he were simply another face in the Household crowd, they would shrug and pray that no such fate befalls them."

  "Why, Aidan," she smiled, though he could clearly see sadness in her eyes. "That was positively poetic."

  "Yes, Katisha must have rubbed off on me."

  Charlene nodded, but her smile was quickly fading. "You're going into battle again, aren't you?"

  He took a few heartbeats to think, deciding that the most direct answer was best. "Most likely. Our little display at the edge of Graydon has inspired others to stand up. To say no."

  "I've never heard of a King who enjoys hearing 'no.'"

  He nodded, removing his copy of The Roadmap to Empire from his inner coat pocket and handing it to Charlene. "That must be why the ancestors warned us to get rid of Kings as soon as we could."

  Charlene ran her fingers over the gold-embossed words of the book's title, opened it, and stared for a long time at the inside cover, on which Aidan had sketched the Redtail Crest, three trees entwined in roots and branches. She smiled, still sadly.

  "You promised me that once we took Barrowdown, our struggle would be over."

  "I am sorry for that." He looked at the floor of the balcony, the close-cut triangular stones that were fitted together so tightly that you could only see the mortar if you held your eye practically to the ground itself. "I don't often break promises."

  "You were a fool to make that one." Aidan looked, expecting her usual sardonic smile and seeing only an angry frown. "You shouldn't promise what you can't control."

  "You're right." He hung his head, shame creeping into his bones as cold covers a man who falls through the ice on a frozen lake. "I'm sorry."

  "I know. Don't do it again."

  She handed him the book, and he held his palms up. "Keep it, for now. Read it and tell me what you think."

  "Lucky for you my Ma taught me how to read."

  "Yes. I am lucky." His words were so heartfelt that she looked into his eyes, at first appearing suspicious that he was playing a prank of his own, and then blushing at his sincerity, her loving smile confirming that she understood his meaning.

  "What do you think, my Queen?" he asked, smiling playfully. "Shall we set right the wrongs of Caledonia once again?"

  "Many men have called me Queen," she said, brushing one of her ropey braids out of her face, "but you're the only one who makes me feel like one. And I'm not letting you out of my sight."

  He smiled at this answer, and she leaned in and kissed him deeply, desperately. She pulled herself back and sat straight and tall, looking every inch a Noble Lady. He closed his eyes and took a moment to enjoy his accomplishments. He ruled his family's rightful seat once more. His enemies were in disarray. He had transformed an outlaw rabble into an army that defeated a force three times their size. And he had found a woman he knew he would love more than life itself, his precious Bandit Queen.

  For a long time they sat in silence, gazing at spires of smoke that swirled upward in the distance like slender dark towers against the deep orange of sunset. Here were the fires of war his father would constantly watch for in the spring. Aidan sighed sadly as he wondered how many new pyres had been lit by his spark.

  THE END

  Glossary

  Lord - A Noble who owns an Estate. Used both as a title and to denote station. A Lord ranks just below the King.

  Knight - A Noble who either owns a fief or is the son of a Lord. They are addressed using "Sir" or "My Lord, and are the professional military class of Caledonia.

  Keep - A tall defensive stone structure, the central part of a Castle or Estate. The last line of defense in a siege.

  Saukasi - The most powerful and least populous people group of Caledonia, the Saukasi are recognized by their light complexion. Most Nobles are Saukasi, and most wealthy merchants.

  Mardoni - Caledonia's most populous people group, the Mardoni generally have brown skin and dark hair. They are composed of hundreds of tribe and very diverse. They often serve as specialized servants or farmers.

  Iridonians - Second in population to the Mardoni, the Iridonians have black skin and curly hair that is often braided. They usually serve in such specialist capacities as smiths, fletchers, and tanners.

  Crests - Each Noble Family has a Crest, consisting of a symbol (typically from nature) surrounded by a circle.

  House Gods - Each family has particular gods they beg favors from or thank for good fortune. They vary greatly and are often combined at marriage.

  Wizards' Guild - The keepers of Caledonia's history and technology, each major House has a Wizard serving as an advisor. Their production facility at the Magic Tower provides all of the Plaz, elemental ordnance, Kannitick Plate, and other technologically advanced weapons and tools.

  Author's Note

  The book you are holding in your hands is very special to me - it's the first novel I've ever finished. I've tried to write books dozens of times in the past, but this is the first one that I really stuck with, the first novel-length story I brought into the world. I hope you enjoyed reading it, and hope that you are looking forward to reading book 2. I know I am!

  Why did I succeed at finishing this book? What about this story, this world of medieval mindsets and futuristic technology, held my attention long enough to get the story out of the gate? The simplest answer I can conceive is this: I wrote something I would want to read.

  People often ask who my influences are, and I'm always intimidated by the question. I g
enerally group them into two categories - classic and contemporary. In the field of classic Science Fiction/Fantasy, I would have to answer: Frank Herbert, Ursula LeGuin, and Isaac Asimov. Among contemporary authors, I'd pick: George R. R. Martin, Saladin Ahmed, and Scott Westerfield. Each of those authors comes to mind easily when I think of the genre, and when I read their words I feel excited and inspired.

  As the cover says, this book is part 1 of a trilogy called, "Aidan's War." The events within it depict the beginnings of the war inspired by Aidan's bold defiance of the corrupt King Ethan and his Deputy. Book 2 will span a much larger area (meaning a much bigger map - possibly more than one!), and involve lots of new characters with many different reasons for wanting to see King Ethan's crown tumble from his head. How well these competing interests can work together will determine the fate of Caledonia, and its place in the new Galaxy that is already emerging as the War in the Heavens comes to a conclusion.

  To anyone who is reading this right now and wondering whether now is the right time to write a book of your own, or take another shot at your acting or painting career, or even start your own business, I say to you yes - now is absolutely the time! Don't try to read the tea leaves or interpret the rabbit's liver, just take a step toward that goal. It doesn't have to be anything dramatic or fancy. If you wrote a page every day, at the end of a year you'd have the rough draft of a novel. Follow your dreams, and take steps of whatever size you need. Know yourself, and know your task, and you will be victorious, to paraphrase Sun Tzu.

  Thank you for reading. I hope to see you again once Book 2 is ready for prime time!

  Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed reading about Sir Aidan Franklin's adventure as much as I enjoyed writing it!

  Please do me a huge favor and leave a review somewhere - Amazon, Goodreads, Kobo, wherever! Reviews not only help me grow as a writer, but help to increase a book's visibility. Whether you loved this work or hated it, I want to know what you think!

  If you're on Instagram, Tumblr, or Twitter, turn the page for a fun way to give your review a personal touch and share what you think with me and my social media followers!

  Want to let the world know what you thought of this book? Write your review in the space below (and the next page, if you're feeling wordy!), take a photo, and upload it to Tumblr, Instagram, or Twitter and include the #TOHReview tag:

  Acknowledgements

  First I'd like to thank my patient and supportive wife for all the nights I stayed up late writing this book. Without her love, I doubt I would have gotten past Chapter 2. I must also thank my parents and siblings, all of whom helped nourish my imagination and provide me with encouragement in times of need.

  Also, great thanks to the creative minds behind the following Podcasts:

  - The Self-Publishing Podcast

  - The Creative Penn

  - The Rocking Self-Publishing Podcast

  - Writing Excuses

  Your creativity, business wisdom, and desire to share your passion and success with the world helped give me the courage I needed to stop talking about the books I would write some day and actually sit down and write one. Thank you for your wisdom and inspiration.

 
Thank you for reading books on BookFrom.Net

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