Root and Sword
Damien rubbed his eyes. When he was done, he still saw an empty spot where Gunvor had gone to rest. Her belongings were not to be seen either. With some difficulty, he got on his feet and limped around the remains of the campfire. There was an impression in the ground where she had lain, and footsteps led back towards the road.
Damien turned around; as he collected his own things, he noticed a long branch placed next to where he had slept. It could serve as a crude walking staff, and upon it was carved the name of Hareik. A gift and a message in parting from Gunvor. Picking it up along with his possessions, Damien hobbled back to the road and began following it east.
Predictably, his progress was slow. After an hour that had seen him move one mile closer to Middanhal, he had to stop. He unwound the bandage around his ankle; the swelling seemed worse, and the skin was miscoloured. He took out his knife to whittle at his walking staff, making it more even and smoother to hold. With a few deep breaths, he bandaged his ankle again and resumed walking.
After two hours and a few more miles, his luck turned. A peasant driving a cart overtook him on the road. “You in need of help?”
“Friend, you have been sent by the gods,” Damien responded. The farmer halted his wagon to let Damien climb onto the driver’s seat next to him.
“The gods help those that help others,” the driver remarked, setting the cart into motion again. “In times like these, more than ever. Where do you hail from, friend?”
“I have come from Hareik,” Damien responded. “My destination is Middanhal.”
“You look the part, but you don’t sound like a forester.”
“I was born a riverman,” Damien confirmed.
“That’s more like it,” the old man nodded. “Never been that far south. I was born in Isarn, and I reckon I’ll die in Isarn. That’s more likely these days than ever,” he added darkly.
“Yet you are not afraid to be on the road?”
“Few got reason to harm an old man with naught but wool in his cart. Unless their hearts are colder than my wife’s feet at winter solstice,” he added laughing. “What about you, friend? What brings you limping down the Kingsroad?”
Damien paused. “Pilgrimage. Going to the Temple.”
“You won’t make it in time for solstice, sorry to say it.”
“As long as I make it.”
When the farmer stopped for the night, he was visibly surprised to find that Damien insisted on continuing. “But – it’s dark! You can’t do more than hobble anyway! Why not sleep? Spare your leg and drive with me in my cart tomorrow.”
“I am in a hurry,” Damien simply explained. “But perhaps we will meet again down the road.”
The old man scratched the back of his head. “I can’t rightly make sense of this, but as you wish.”
“I appreciate your kindness, good master. May Egnil bless your harvest until the end of your summers.”
“You’re a strange fellow, but not a bad sort,” the farmer replied. “Rihimil keep you safe.”
“He always has,” Damien assented. Touching his brow with his hand in a gesture of farewell, the warrior continued down the road.
The next morning, Gunvor spent it as usual. She found some roots and fruit to break her fast along with the dried meat in her bag. When she had slaked her thirst as well, she checked the seeds lying in their box; satisfied all was in order, she returned to the road.
She looked towards the south-east, where Middanhal lay. Before starting her day’s journey, she glimpsed towards west and saw a shape in the distance. Her eyes narrowed; disbelief filled her face. In the end, she began walking west, approaching the other person.
“Is this some trick? Some form of punishment?” Gunvor asked when the distance between them had lessened.
“You tell me,” Damien retorted. “You are the one who left me behind.”
“I thought you would return to Hareik.”
“What for? What is there for me in that city?”
“I don’t know. I just thought –”
“You just thought it was the opposite direction of you,” Damien interjected. “Well, I am a free man, and I chose this direction.”
“You must have walked – or limped – all night to catch up with me. Are you mad?”
“On the contrary, I would say that betrays good sense. If I had spent last night in sleep, you would only have put greater distance between us.”
“Your foot must be killing you,” she scolded him. “Sit down, for heaven’s sake.”
He quickly obliged. “It does feel a bit worse than yesterday.”
She sat down to remove boot and bandage from his ankle. The skin was purple and black. “This will take many days to heal,” she said in reproach. “I can’t believe you were so reckless.”
“Nothing reckless about it. I swore to see you in Middanhal. I keep –”
“Yes, yes, you keep your oaths. I know. I hope you are happy. We are stuck here for days, at least.”
“With that in mind, I would ask you to promise me that you will not abandon me again.”
She gave him a look. “You think I am that eager to get to Middanhal?”
“You did not abandon me before because I would slow you down.”
She turned her eyes down, staring her hands. “No.”
“You did not trust me. You still do not trust me, I wager.”
“Hard to say.”
“It is possible I make bad decisions from time to time,” Damien admitted.
“Likely,” he granted. “But you may still have need of me before the road ends.”
“Maybe. Or maybe I will be fine on my own.”
He hesitated. “Well, I have need of you. To make things right. To have the Highfather lift his curse upon me.”
“I thought you were simply thrown out of the Order.”
“The Highfather felt I deserved worse punishment.” Damien swallowed. “He was right. But I cannot go on like this.” He stared at Gunvor. “Please. Promise me you will stay.”
She nodded slowly. “I promise. But since we are trapped here for now, I will make better use of my time and collect a few useful herbs.” She rose to her feet.
He looked up at her. “You will come back?”
She glanced down at him. “You will have to trust me on that.”
Gunvor returned an hour later. Sitting in the shade under a tree, Damien made no remark as he saw her approach, although he had been scouting the horizon the entire time she had been gone.
“It would have been best if we could get you to a cold stream,” she considered, looking down upon his ankle. “But there doesn’t seem to be any near here. At least I found these.” She extended her hand, which held a bundle of roots and herbs.
“Those are odd berries.”
“Funny.” She used some water from one of the skins to clean the roots of dirt before giving them to Damien. “Chew on them. Slowly.”
Cautiously, he accepted the stringy plants and put them in his mouth. He quickly pulled a face as he began chewing. “Bitter.”
“That’s how you know it works. Keep chewing. You want it all released.”
“This is the strangest form of torture I have ever endured.”
“So funny. It’s owl’s root. It’ll help with the swelling.”
“You would know.”
“Yes, I would.” She gave him a few herbs as well. “When you are done with the owl’s root, chew these after. Slowly!”
“Dying with laughter.”
“What do these do?” He finally swallowed the roots.
“They will ease your hands and – other symptoms.”
“My hands? Oh. Thank you.” He looked down to see them tremble slightly.
“You’re welcome. I should search for water,” she considered. “If we are here for several days, we’ll need more.”
“I would not worry,” Damien declared with a casual air. “I am sure the gods will provide for us soon enough.”
“Don’t mock them.”
“I do no such thing,” he claimed. “I meant it. Give it time, and I am confident that our plight will be amended.”
She gave him a suspicious look. “I didn’t expect that from you.”
“In the meantime, I will sleep.” He lay down and did as proclaimed.
When a cart carrying wool and an old farmer rumbled down the road three hours later, Gunvor widened her eyes. She turned to rouse Damien from his rest with excited words. Her expression turned into a scowl as she saw him laugh. Shortly after, they were seated on the cart, driving eastwards.
Days later, they parted ways with the farmer; as the road split, he went north towards the summer fair of Silfrisarn, while they continued east towards Middanhal. By now, Damien’s ankle had recovered enough that they could continue on foot.
“I never thanked you for this,” he said in sudden realisation. He hoisted the walking staff in his hand.
“Oh. Of course. I couldn’t leave you entirely crippled and alone.”
“Your lettering could use work, though.” He let his thumb glance over where the name of Hareik was carved.
“My – oh, so hilarious. I have actually never carved anything before.”
“I thought that would be an obvious pursuit for a priestess of Austre.”
“It would, but it isn’t the case for me,” she explained.
“If I remember, you have never left Hareik before. Why did the gydja choose you for this task?”
“I grew up in the forest,” Gunvor told him. “But I have rarely left Hareik since joining the order. Our duties towards others necessitate that we dwell where others dwell, after all.”
“This displeased you?”
“I felt that I was neglecting my duties towards Austre. The forest is her domain. If I could choose, I would not serve her in the cities, but elsewhere.”
“Anywhere with a forest and people,” she smiled.
As their conversation continued, their attention turned from their surroundings to each other; by the time they realised that a band of warriors was approaching them, it was too late to hide.
“I do not recognise those colours,” Damien mumbled. “They are not Isarn’s men.”
“They will recognise mine,” Gunvor declared confidently. They remained standing, waiting; Damien shifted his weight, hiding that he was favouring one leg over the other.
“Hail,” said one of the warriors, ostensibly the leader. He was clad in mail and had a sword by his side. His followers had leather for armour and a variety of shields; most wielded axes. “This is dangerous land to travel.”
“Indeed, but sacred duty requires it,” Gunvor replied. She took out the box of seeds from her bag. “I have been charged to bring these seeds to the Temple in Middanhal. As gods-fearing men, you have no objection to this, surely.”
“Indeed, Sister, we will not hinder your way,” the leader promised. “But you are aware that we are at war. Besides keeping this land safe, Jarl Isarn has charged us with collecting toll on the road to pay for his defence.”
“Has he now,” muttered Damien, standing tense.
“Of course,” Gunvor assented loudly. She opened her coin purse to take out several eagles. “Thank you for keeping the roads safe.” She let them drop in the palm of the leader’s hand.
“Much appreciated, Sister.”
“What about that box?” asked one of the soldiers suddenly. He had his eyes on Gunvor’s bag. “Show us what’s inside.”
“As you wish. As I said, it’s only seeds.” She dug out the box again and opened it, revealing its content. “See?”
“Why you need a swordsman with you just to protect some dirt?” asked the same warrior. Greed was beginning to take hold of his expression. “Chief, I’m betting you there’s gems hidden inside.”
“Upon my word as an ordained sister of Austre, I swear to you, we have no wealth,” Gunvor declared. Behind her, Damien gave a growling sound.
“Let’s see for ourselves,” insisted the soldier, pushing to the front and reaching out.
Damien stepped forward, raising his staff as a weapon. “The sister has given her word. I have watched her carefully tend to those seeds every day for weeks, and I will not let your oafish hands rake through them and destroy her work.”
“That’s a lot of lip from a man on his own,” sneered the soldier. Ignoring Damien, he reached out to grab the box from Gunvor’s hands. The former knight used his staff to slap the warrior’s hand away, spurring several of the warriors to raise their weapons. In turn, Damien threw his staff behind him for Gunvor to catch, and he raised his open hands before him.
“Listen! You boys are all drakonians, I take it,” Damien said, looking at the leader, who nodded.
“What of it?” He had not drawn his sword, preferring to take a step back to stand amongst his men.
“I am Damien of Montmer. You might have seen me years ago, winning the grand fight at solstice.”
“Nonetheless, it is true. Believe me that if any of you touches that box, I will cut his hand off. We paid your toll. Now let us be on our way.”
The leader glanced from Damien to his men; they seemed as divided in opinion and courage as he did. “You’re really him? The oath breaker?”
“Yes.” The word was forced past gritted teeth.
“He’s lying, chief. Let’s kill them both and sort through their things!”
Damien moved one hand to grip his sword. “If need be, I will kill each of you to protect the sister and her seeds. To me, dying over a box of dirt seems foolish, but I am prepared to oblige you.”
The leader spent another moment considering the outcome. “Let them pass. They paid the toll. We’re not thieves.” He gestured for his men to stand aside on the road.
All of them did save the soldier who had already tried his luck once before. Without warning, he took a step towards Damien, raised his axe, and struck.
Swifter than a falcon’s dive, Damien’s sword left its sheath. It met the soldier’s axe and turned it aside. The impact broke the blade in twain; undeterred, Damien swung the remaining edge around and cut into several fingers.
Howling with pain, the soldier dropped the axe and clutched what remained of his hand. Damien swiftly kicked him to the ground. “I will let you keep the rest of your hand. Consider yourself fortunate.”
He knelt down slowly, watching the remaining warriors, and picked up the piece of his blade that had broken away. Nodding to Gunvor, he gestured for her to follow. Keeping their distance to the soldiers, the pair passed them by and continued along the Kingsroad.
When they had lost sight of the patrol, Damien cleaned his sword and placed both pieces in the scabbard.
“I am sorry you had to fight and break your sword.”
“No matter. It was bound to happen.”
“At least the rest didn’t want to fight.”
Damien shrugged, taking his walking staff back from Gunvor. “They were a poorly disciplined lot. I could have beaten them all, broken blade or not.”
“I am sure you could have.”
“It would have been a nice challenge. Part of me regrets I let them get away.”
“Why did you?”
“You might have become hurt in the fight. As I am sworn to protect you, that seemed an ill course of action.”
“I suppose it does.” She gave a smile. “Perhaps you are not the worst protector to have.”
“High praise,” he snorted. She laughed, sounding relieved, and eventually, he joined in.
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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.