The odd pair had not come far from Hareik before the bickering began.
“Why would you only pack water?” Damien’s voice was indignant.
“It’s good enough for Austre’s trees, it’s good enough for us.” The words were spoken through a clenched jaw.
“Wine. Spirits. Ale. Even that honey water you moss-lickers call mead would suffice. You could have chosen any of these possibilities!”
“If you are so concerned about our supplies, why did you not bring any?”
Damien grabbed the hilt of the sword by his side. “I did! I took care of my part.”
“Why don’t you stuff that in your mouth, then.”
“Hilarious. If you can provide no relief for my aching head – some priestess you are – at least spare me the grating sound of your voice.” He placed a hand against his forehead.
“You are the one who brought this up! Besides, what fool goes drinking the night before a journey?”
“I did not know I was going on a journey, did I? Nobody warned me of travels to Adalrik,” he retorted.
Gunvor stopped. “Perhaps if you are so ill-advised on this journey, you should return to Hareik. I can make my own way easily enough.”
He kept moving. “No, we continue.”
“Why?” She remained motionless. “What’s it to you?”
He looked back. “I swore to see you safely to Middanhal, and Damien of Montmer keeps his oaths.” He threw his head towards the road. “Come on.”
She began moving, staring at him in suspicion. “Something is not right.”
“You sniffed that out, have you? I thought Austre favoured harts, not hounds.”
“You might as well tell me.”
He cleared his throat, raising a hand to shield his eyes from the sharp sunlight coming from the east. “The only thing wrong is that my head is pounding, and all your talking is only making it worse.”
She quickened her pace to overtake him. “Hurry up, then! It’s nearly a month to Middanhal, and with your steps, it’ll take us two!”
“A dagger for a tongue,” he mumbled, moving faster to catch up.
“We should stop for the night,” Gunvor suggested.
“There is still daylight,” Damien replied, walking onwards.
“Because we are near solstice,” Gunvor retorted. “It’s not going to get dark, but we’ll get tired all the same.”
“It is barely night,” Damien argued. “Let us continue a while longer.”
She gave him a glance. “You’ve quite the energy, considering how you dragged your feet this morning.”
“As you said, it’s many days until Middanhal. The more ground we cover, the fewer days it will take.”
“You’re hoping we’ll find a tavern.”
“There is a certain sting in your words, which I do not care for.” He kept on walking, staring ahead.
“There’s also truth in them. You’re like a hog after chestnuts.”
He halted abruptly, looking at her. “Are you calling me a swine?”
“Only your behaviour, Lord Damien.” The title was spoken with irreverence. “Do you recall my name, milord?”
He glanced back at the road. “Of course,” he mumbled, taking a few steps forward.
“They’ve given me an addled drunkard for protection,” Gunvor said with exasperation.
“I am not addled!” Damien barked, looking over his shoulder. “Are you coming?”
“No. I am tired and would prefer to sleep now that we may have an early start tomorrow.”
“An early start,” the former knight exclaimed, “good grief!”
“As such, I am going to find a place to sleep here.” Gunvor turned from the road, walking into the adjacent forest. “You’re welcome to continue without me.”
Damien watched his charge leave him. With a quiet curse, he followed.
Despite Damien’s fervent wishes, they did not encounter any taverns or inns as they travelled south. The road cut through forest and did not touch any villages. On occasion, they strayed from the path to forage in the woods; this was mostly done by Gunvor, whose knowledge as a greenrobe made her well suited for this task. Damien followed behind her, swearing at the tree roots making him stumble.
“I will not listen to such language,” Gunvor declared at one point when they were on the road again. Ten days had passed with frequent displays of verbal hostilities, followed by long displays of silence.
“Seven and Eighth! What is it to you?”
“There you go again! How can people take your oaths as sacred when you use sacred language for such vulgar reason?”
“Oath and curse, the words are suitable to either cause,” Damien argued. “Whether I swear for one reason or the other, that is my business.”
“I suppose your disregard for the gods was to be expected,” Gunvor muttered.
“I have always honoured the gods,” he defended himself.
“Hah, I’ve heard differently.”
He reached out to grab her arm and pulled her around to face him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Let go!” She ripped herself free from his grip.
Colour flushed his cheeks. “Does anyone dare blacken the honour of Damien of Montmer?”
She returned his gaze without flinching. “You tell me. I’ve heard Damien of Montmer is an oath breaker. I heard he was a Templar, but the Highfather cast him out in disgrace. Is none of that true?”
Wrath filled his face, and his fists became clenched as he stared at the greenrobe in front him. “I did not break my oath,” he finally declared. “Not as such. Not directly.” His voice grew weak, as did his anger.
“But the rest? You were stripped of rank, your sword broken?”
He gripped the sword hilt by his side. “Maybe,” he mumbled.
Her expression became incredulous. “Is that the same sword? Is your only weapon a broken blade?”
“It is not broken,” he defended himself. “Just – brittle after being forged anew.”
“Well that’s a relief!” She threw her arms out, exasperated. “So it’ll last one blow before it breaks again! We’re safe as long as we’re only attacked by a single bandit. Thank the gods they don’t tend to roam around in packs!”
“Quiet!” he told her through gritted teeth, grabbing her arm and dragging her off the road.
“I told you not to touch me!”
He ignored her objections, covering her mouth with his other hand while pulling her behind a cluster of trees. “Silence,” he hissed, releasing her arm to point at the road. From a track in the woods, a band of archers appeared. They were clearly men of Vidrevi by their clothing, each armed with a bow and a quiver of arrows. They talked and laughed among themselves while still keeping a quick pace, moving south.
Once they were out of sight, the hidden pair relaxed. With a sudden motion, Gunvor grabbed Damien’s hand and pulled it away from her mouth. “Thank you, I’m not a child to be kept mute.”
“That was not the case a few moments ago,” Damien retorted.
“Why hide? These seemed like ordinary men. Brigands don’t travel along the Kingsroad.”
“They were not traders or farmers either,” Damien pointed out. “They travelled only with weapons. They were warriors, and they were going south. My guess is, they are smelling an opportunity with the war in Adalrik.”
“Even so, that is no reason to presume they would have hostile intent against us.”
“You turn a man into a warrior, and war will be on his mind, even in peace time,” Damien muttered. “I should know. I have spent most of my years among warriors.”
“Is that what has made you so quick to strife?” she asked with a bold look.
“No, that is just the family temper,” Damien retorted, suddenly barking with laughter. His mirth ended as swiftly as it had begun. “Let us get going. We are wasting the day.”
They continued on their march south.
One evening, when they had travelled for almost two weeks, they saw the flickering light of a campfire in the distance.
“We should head into the forest,” Damien declared. “Sleep there and let these people move ahead of us.”
“Or we could see if they are friendly folk,” Gunvor suggested. “We don’t have to think that everyone we meet is our enemy.”
“You don’t have to think that way because I do it for you,” Damien argued.
“Lord Damien, if I must spend the entire journey to Middanhal solely in your company, I shall go stark raving mad.”
He frowned. “Fine,” he conceded after a moment. “Wait here.”
She watched him creep forward. There was no sign of the stumbling behaviour or unsteady movement that had been his constant companion in Hareik; with the stealth of an experienced night raider, Damien moved quietly until the darkness enveloped him from her sight.
Gunvor leaned against a tree, waiting. She took out the box from the bag that she carried with her at all times, opening the lid. Inside lay numerous seeds, arranged in piles of dirt neatly divided by pieces of wood. They had been treated to be in a dormant state, ready to be wakened with water when the time came. They would be a boon to the gardens of the great Temple in Middanhal, providing the norns with healing herbs otherwise scarce to come by.
“It is safe,” a voice spoke quietly next to her.
Gunvor slammed the lid down as a start went through her. “I’m not the one you’re meant to sneak up on!”
“My apologies.” Damien did not sound particularly sincere. “They are a band of simple merchants. I doubt they can offer us any harm.”
“Let’s approach,” Gunvor suggested. She moved towards the small camp with Damien skulking behind her.
Even in remote and sparsely populated Vidrevi, travellers were common upon the Kingsroad, which over time had simply become the name for any road connecting the major cities of Adalmearc. Here and there, natural campsites had developed in the occasional clearing along the road. Each group of travellers making rest would cut down branches for firewood, and their beasts of burden would graze on the land; in this manner, the clearings slowly grew over the years. Inevitably, the different regions would at times be struck by calamity, usually war. The resulting drop in trade and travels would allow the forest to slowly retake the clearings until peace returned, and the merchants along with it; this increase in travellers would start the cycle anew.
At this particular campsite, two carts stood to the side, their goods protected by a coarse leather cover. The draught animals grazed nearby, and around ten people sat in a circle around a fire. Every generation from grandfather to father and son seemed present along with mothers, wives, and daughters. None of them was armed, not counting the knives in their belts that everyone carried for mundane purposes.
“Austre’s peace upon you all,” Gunvor called out. “Even if it is night and her eye at rest.”
The travellers turned to look at her, a few with alarm; they relaxed as they saw a woman in green robes. “The Huntress bless you, Sister,” one of the men called out. “Come, share our fire.”
“My companion and I thank you,” she replied, making a show of gesturing for Damien in his dark leather to step forward. His appearance caused a few more looks to be exchanged around the fire, but nobody spoke up, and room was made for the priestess and her protector to sit in the circle.
“What brings a sister of the green on the road?” asked an elderly woman with a kind face; she was already fishing out bread and breaking it up, giving one half to each of the newcomers.
“I am on a pilgrimage of sorts to Middanhal,” Gunvor explained.
“Bad times if they think a sister of the Hart needs protection for the road,” someone remarked.
“I am on a pilgrimage of my own,” Damien muttered. “Say, you would not happen to have a drop of ale on you? Or dare I hope for a taste of wine?”
“Apologies, friend,” came the reply. “We drank the last the other day.” A sound like that of a wounded animal escaped from Damien.
One of the children, a small boy, pilfered with the hilt of Damien’s sword. The former knight reacted swiftly, slapping the boy’s hand away. “Not to be touched.”
Unabashed, the boy stared up at Damien. “Are you a warrior?”
“No, I am a tailor. Be gone, boy.” He began stuffing the bread into his mouth.
“Come here, lad, don’t bother the man. He must be weary,” came the reproach from the boy’s mother.
“Why do you have a sword, then?”
“My sewing needle.”
“Have you killed anyone with it?”
“No,” Damien replied through the bread he was chewing.
“Isn’t that what swords are for?”
“It is not for killing,” the former knight replied, swallowing his food. “It is for protection.”
“Wouldn’t you need to kill someone at times in order to protect?” asked one of the men.
“That was never my fate as a protector,” Damien simply said. “Do you have water? I am parched.” Someone handed him a skin, and he drank greedily.
“Where are you good folk headed?” asked Gunvor.
“To Trehaf,” said the eldest of the men. “My sons and I usually make the trip to Silfrisarn, selling furs for silver, but with the war, we dare not go that way.”
“We hope there will be islander ships in Trehaf, happy to buy our furs instead.”
“Brought the family too, I see,” Gunvor pointed out.
“Hareik is getting too cold for my bones,” remarked the old woman. “My brother’s children are already in Trehaf, and they promised to take us in.”
“Trade is slow in Hareik,” came an interjection. “It’s always been too far north, too remote. Trehaf and the sea is where a merchant makes his fortune, mark my words.”
“You are welcome to join with us,” offered the old man. “At least until the road diverges between Trehaf and Middanhal.”
“I do not think –” the former Templar began to say.
Damien was interrupted by Gunvor. “We’d be delighted.”
He sent her a scowl; in the flickering light of the flames, she did not seem to notice. “If that is to be the case, I will retire,” Damien declared with a sour disposition. “We have plenty of walking ahead.”
“Why don’t you have any armour?” asked the boy.
“Seven and Eighth!”
“Mind your words.”
They followed the merchant family for a few more days until they reached a crossroad. The foresters went west, towards Trehaf and the sea; the pair went east, towards Adalrik and war. They separated with blessings exchanged and minor gifts, mostly food. Damien remained mute, keeping one hand on his sword hilt and the other on his belt; in the end, he simply started walking and forced Gunvor to finish her farewells and follow him.
Freed from the slow pace of the oxen pulling the carts, they moved faster through the landscape. The surrounding forest grew thinner as they progressed; eventually, it ceased altogether.
“We have reached Adalrik,” Damien quietly informed Gunvor.
“How can you tell with certainty?”
“These fields are not sowed. No menfolk around to sow them, I wager, because they are at war. We are in the jarldom of Isarn now.”
“Well, foresters or drakonians, they all respect a woman of the robe, I assume.”
“Hamar take me! You are lucky I am with you.”
“Lord Damien,” she said in reproach. “Mind how you speak.”
“The only thing that soldiers respect is this.” His hand, resting on the pommel of his sword, gripped it demonstratively.
“You see things too bleakly,” Gunvor argued. “Every bush may bear a rotten berry, but most of these are good, honest folk, I’d wager.”
“I am not concerned about the good, honest folk.” He spoke the last words with condescension. “One rotten berry can give us plenty of trouble.”
“I thought you were a mighty warrior.” Gunvor smiled sardonically. “Aren’t the Templars supposed to be the fiercest fighters in all the realms?”
“I am not a Templar anymore,” Damien muttered, quickening his pace into the lands ruled by Isarn.
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Bio: Indie writer with various projects, though The Chronicles of Adalmearc is the one dearest to me. Because of this, I have decided to make it free to reach as many readers as possible. If you enjoy it, I would ask you to consider joining my Patreon; certain tiers from $5 and above will earn towards receiving the full series as hardcovers. Advance chapters are available from $2 and upwards. See also my website for more information on my work and world.