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Leaf and Branch
Published in Canada
Fiction - Fantasy, Fantasy

Print: 978-0-9958490-1-3
Mobi: 978-0-9958490-0-6

Date of Publication: 16 Dec 2016
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Leaf and Branch

Donald D. Allan

Published by Copper Penny Publishing

Find out more about Donald D. Allan: Author's website | Facebook | Twitter | Blog

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Synopsis

The New Druid Series Volumes 1 and 2 now available in one novel.

The Last Druid has just awakened his powers.

Visit Turgany County and the realm of Belkin: A quiet land quickly descending into chaos and turmoil where the druids have been eradicated and Gaea stands on the brink of wiping out mankind. Join Will Arbor as he awakens his legacy of druidic powers and begins a journey of self-discovery.

Enter a world where the Church of the New Order seeks to destroy the last druid, remove the Lord Protector, and regain their control over the lives of the people of the realm. The Lord Protector puts into motion events that will pit those who would protect the realm against those that would seize control over the minds and bodies of its citizens.

Will Arbor will find unexpected allies as he struggles to understand the balance of magyc and where he fits into Gaea's plans.

This novel is a compilation of the first two novels of the New Druid Series: Duilleog and Craobh. Both novels available for individual purchase on Amazon. Duilleog if the Dan Poynter's Global eBook Award 2016 Gold winner for Fantasy/Other Worlds.

Chapter One

South of Jaipers, 900 A.C.



 



THE HARD, SHARP edge of the iron knife pressed against my neck froze the blood in my veins. I went as still as I could, held my breath and waited to feel the blade slice across my flesh in a fiery line. Every nerve in my body screamed for me to fight and flee but he held me from behind in a vice–like grip I couldn't hope to break. His breath, foul and rotten, washed over me in waves, and I could feel his chest rapidly expanding against my back. I knew he had been running before he snatched me, still asleep, from the ground. He towered over me and his arms held me with strength beyond my own. Despite my struggles, I knew with a certainty that there was no escape. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.



The man had the fingers of his right hand painfully entwined into my hair, forcing my head back and exposing my throat. As a result, my mouth was forced open and now it was as dry as an old bone. He held me tilted back against him and where he moved; I was forced to follow. The knife in his left hand moved slightly and dragged across my neck and I felt coldness from the blade's caress. Immediately, pain shot from my skin and I cried out in shock. Panic gripped me. 



Here it comes! Not now! I can't die!



My eyes darted over my small camp – still dimly lit against the night by a small fire – to search for anything that could help me. My meagre fire warmed a beaten tin pot suspended by a hook from three branches draped over the flames. The pot contained a soothing tea made from herbs I had gathered the day before as the sun had just started to set. A small, dented, and scratched tin drinking mug sat on one of the rocks that surrounded the fire. A couple of feet away, my pack lay next to my sleeping roll, but it contained nothing more than some extra clothing, some food and the herbs I had carefully bundled and sorted in the way I had taught myself over the years. I couldn't forget my other possession; which was the small, sharp and pitted iron knife that was now pressed against my own neck. 



I was on foot with rags wrapped around my feet and I wore pieces of crude cloth hand sewn into a functional, patchwork tunic with matching pants I had tied to my waist with a cord. There was nothing that could help me escape and I had nothing I could trade with this man that could purchase my freedom. The cold and fear seeped into my flesh and I started to shiver uncontrollably. I was ashamed to hear a whimper escape my lips.



My single valued possession was buried in the soft dirt directly under my sleeping roll and I knew this man couldn't possibly have knowledge of it. He could not have seen me with it or using it – I was far too careful for that to have happened. I knew it was safe, at least for now. It was worth more than my life and I would never exchange it. I immediately dismissed it as an option. My mind raced in circles as I tried to figure out what he wanted from me. Here I was: destitute and barely scraping a living from the woods and hills that surrounded the nearby town of Jaipers. I had nothing to offer him for my escape. And so I waited. I waited to feel the knife open my throat from ear to ear. I waited for him to say anything – anything at all to break the fear and apprehension that mounted within me for every labourious second that passed. 



I was quickly losing my efforts not to cry out and I could feel tears streaming freely down my cheeks. My heart pounded painfully in my chest and loud in my ears. I was only sixteen years old and too young to die. It wasn't fair. I rolled my dry tongue in my parched mouth, looking for any moisture that would free my speech and let me start to try to reason with him. I felt the knife press deeper in response before I could get a word out. 



"Shut yer mouth, boy!" rasped the man in my ear. He whirled around, dragging me with him, to stare out into the darkness that surrounded my camp and I stifled a scream at the sudden movement. I could feel him turning his head above mine to look out into the dark. 



With the moon obscured by dense clouds it was a much darker night than normal. The light from my fire flickered and pulsed unevenly, reaching, at best, a short distance of ten feet into the surrounding area. My meagre camp was centred in a small clearing within a copse of maybe twenty trees. I was not far from the road that led into the town of Jaipers located three miles away to the north. I found the site to be perfect to my gathering needs as the trees and bushes were sufficiently thick enough to hide the light of my fire from the road. A small stream flowed a few yards away and had clean and cold water fed from the nearby mountains. It also contained small brook trout in the deeper shaded spots.



Some of my best herbs came from the along the stream's edge where the trees shaded them. I came here often to rest before striking into town to sell or trade my plants at the local open market. Gathering herbs was the one thing I could do well and it benefited me by allowing me to trade for those items I could not forage or make myself. The town folk knew me by sight and a few knew me by name; at least those who thought to ask. I had regular customers like Dempster, the cook at the town's inn, and my good friend Daukyns. Daukyns was a Wordsmith and led a small congregation in the Word from the town common hall and partnered with me with the salves and unguents I made from my gatherings. Most of the town folk had added my plants to their food or traded for my pots of unguents; especially the healing ones. I had worked the area surrounding the town for close to four years and it was starting to feel like home despite my normal reluctance to be anywhere near other people or confined within the town walls. Food was my usual choice for trade, but once, every few months or so, I would indulge myself and trade for a hot bath at the inn. As needed, I would trade for used cloth or shirts and pants to replace those of mine that were beyond repair. My discarded clothes I would turn into coarse thread to help make new ones. It was a routine I was happy with and it was better than my life from before.



I preferred the solitary life away from people. I had lived in the woods for a long time now and through trial and error I had found a way to co–exist with the wilderness. I now felt at peace surrounded by trees, plants and grass. The small animals in the area knew me and seldom ran from my approach. I sensed a deep empathy with the outdoors. I knew where to find my plants and recognised the benefits of plants intuitively. I tended the herbs where they grew and took only what I needed to trade for goods that would keep my scant possessions in good condition and my belly full. One day would blur into another and the seasons would pass as they were meant to pass: without my trying to mark them. The summers were hot and the winters wet and chill. Yet I persevered through the years. I was trim, fit and healthy. I wanted for nothing except peace and solitude.



Yet here I was, at the mercy of this madman. I tried to calm myself so I could think. After a time, I was successful, and I finally took notice of the absolute silence in the air. The crickets and frogs had gone still at the disturbance in their nightly ritual. The clearing and the surrounding area seemed to be holding its breath waiting for something. I sensed a feeling of dread from outside the firelight. It frightened me and added to my distress.



I looked into the darkness and observed that our combined shadow from the fire stretched out and melded with the dark. The night waited in silence and I waited for any sign from this man that could tell me what he wanted. With a grunt, he swung me around to stare across the fire into the dark. My night vision was long since shattered with the light from the fire and I could make out nothing. 



"Where are you, you Godless bastard?" he muttered under his breath and I realised with an intake of breath that this man was afraid of someone pursuing him and probably wanted nothing from me. I was merely a convenient hostage, I concluded. With this thought, I felt the first stirring of hope rise within me. 



He swung me around again to stare into the night.



His breathing continued hard and fast. The smell of alcohol and stale, stinking sweat were strong in my nostrils and yet I could smell something else above all this. It was a scent that touched the back of my mouth and left a faint metallic taste: the unmistakable smell of blood. My fear doubled. This man had blood on him! A lot of blood, or I wouldn't be able to smell it so clearly. He had killed already and could easily do so again.



A twig snapped behind us, startling me with the sharp and loud explosive sound in the silence. The man whirled quickly to face the direction it had come from and somehow managed to press the knife further into my neck. My flesh felt like it would split across the edge of the blade and I would soon see my blood fountain into the night air. I was now having trouble breathing, and I obscurely wondered when I had started to breathe again. I peered into the night through the fire, desperate to see anyone who could help me but, the light was too bright. The flames crackled. A spark shot high into the air and my eyes followed it, wishing I could join it, until it disappeared from view.



"Come out into the light so I can see you!" yelled the man, his voice loud and abrasive in my ear. His accent was strange, and I wondered where he was from. More importantly, I was sure I heard a note of fear in his voice and felt a glimmer of hope rise again within me. Someone out there made this man afraid.



We both strained to hear a reply from the darkness but there was none. The silence stretched until my assailant became increasingly agitated.



"I'll open this boy's throat if you don't come out into the light so I can see you!" he yelled again and tightened his painful grip in my hair. My ear was now ringing.



"I don't think you'll do that," came a quiet voice from somewhere beyond the fire. I recognised the voice at once. The voice belonged to the Reeve of Jaipers, a good man called Comlin. He had spoken to me many times in town and had been kind to me. "You wouldn't have anything to hide behind then, now would you? You do realise that you have a young man there who means pretty much nothing to me or anyone else around these parts. I'm not so sure you've thought this out too clearly."



As the magistrate for Jaipers, when I had first entered the town, Comlin had approached me wanting to know where I was from, how long I was staying in the area, and later, once I had traded my wares, where I had learned to gather herbs. He always wanted to know everything he could about me. And I had told him the truth – well, mostly. I hid from him the painful truths – stuff he hadn't needed to know. I wasn't going to open my past up to anyone. I had promised my mother to stay hidden and safe and I hadn't broken that vow. Thankfully, after the initial scrutiny, Comlin had pretty much left me alone but would often stop by to talk to me when I came to town. He would want to know if I had seen anyone suspicious in the area. It was easy to see that he took his job of defending the people of Jaipers quite seriously. Unexpectedly, I became his eyes and ears in the area surrounding the town and surprised myself by finding the role exciting in a small way. I enjoyed our arrangement if you could call it that. I also looked forward to seeing him in town and I had long ago noted his genuine concern for my wellbeing. 



I was relieved to see him here and now. I trusted this man and knew he would save me; although I honestly knew not how as I stood there in the madman's clutches.



"Blessed Father," muttered my captor. He raised his voice and called out to Comlin.



"Yer nuttin' but a small town Reeve. You've nary an idea wut yer up against. You need to go back to your town and forget all about this. Be smart, not stupid. This boy is only moments away from spilling his blood all over this ground and it will be your fault." 



"Well, that's an interesting concept," answered the Reeve in a slow, drawn out way, as if he was thinking it over as he said it. "I should just turn around and walk away while you hold that boy with a knife to his throat? Tell me something why'd you kill Bill and what did you take from his house? Answer me that."



The man growled in frustration.



"That business is my business," answered the man. "He wasn't supposed to come home when he did. This would have been a lot cleaner if he had stayed drinking at the inn. Not my fault and what's done is done. Why do you care about some old man?"



Silence was the only reply from the darkness. I waited, straining to hear anything that would show me where the Reeve stood. 



"Bill was a good man," came the soft reply. "You broke into his house to rob him. You killed him and then stole from him while his corpse cooled at your feet."



I heard the regret in the Reeve's voice. Silence followed. Then I heard a soft sound, like something being stretched, and wondered what it could be.



"You come out into the light, you bastard!" hissed the man, his spit spraying into the night air with his rage. "You have no idea what you are messing with. This is bigger than you can imagine."



A sharp thrum filled the air, and I felt, rather than heard, a hard, wet crunching sound explode next to my head. The man went rigid, and I felt him exhale in one long sigh against my cheek. Then he simply crumpled to the ground and his hand, still tangled in my hair, pulled me down with him. I was forced to spin around and bend over to release him, only to find myself staring down at the feathered end of an arrow, plunged deep into his right eye. His remaining eye was half closed and sightless. 



The arrow had pierced his head straight through and now the point was forcing his chin to his chest. I reached up and fumbling, freed his hand from my hair. It dropped with a heavy thud to lie limply beside his head in the dirt. I scrambled backwards away from the body and around to the other side of the fire. My eyes remained locked to the still form, waiting for him to rise. The man seemed to writhe on the ground through the flames of the camp fire.



I could see that he was dressed in dark leathers, and that the front glistened with what appeared to be drying blood. His face was rough and unshaven. His eyebrows were long and thick and shaded his eyes. I kept my eyes locked on the body, looking for any sign of movement as the Reeve emerged behind me into the light, patted my shoulder and approached the body. He carried a short bow in one hand and I could see he carried a small leather quiver across his back with the fletching of his arrows sticking out the top. I had never been happier to see the Reeve Comlin.



He glanced back at me briefly. "You okay, Will?" he asked.



When I nodded, he crouched down beside the body.



My hand crept up to my throat to feel for blood and came away with only a drop or two. I could feel a burning where the knife had scratched me. I was alive and unhurt; I realised with a start and suddenly began shaking. I drew my knees to my chest and tried to stop them from trembling. Suddenly, the warmth from the fire seemed distant, cold and remote. 



The Reeve smiled grimly at me and turned his attention to the body. He looked it over quickly and reached out, removing a leather purse that was tucked under the belt tied around the man's waist. He hefted it in his palm and I could hear metal clink. The Reeve untied the purse's drawstring, opened it and spilt the contents into his hand. I watched as his palm filled with a couple of silver groat and several copper pence coins. With a clink, a small red gem landed on top of the pile and the Reeve grunted in surprise.



"Not what I thought," he said. 



I opened my mouth to ask him what he meant but my teeth chattered so I clamped my lips shut. He held the gem up to the fire and it flashed in the light. It had an odd shape I couldn't quite make out. He shook his head and poured the coins back into the purse, dropping the gem on top. He cinched the purse closed and tucked it under his own waist belt. "This goes into the town treasury until we can sort out what to do with it." This time the Reeve looked at me, his gaze had a hard edge, as if he was, appraising me.



"You'll be alright, Will," he said. "The shakes will pass. You did good, and you held still and let me take that shot." The Reeve glanced at the arrow protruding from the man's face and shook his head. "I lost that arrow, though, and it was my best one, too."



He grabbed the flight of the arrow and lifted the dead man's head to reach behind it. I heard a loud snap and watched as he held up a steel arrow head covered in blood and something else that I didn't want to think about.



"This is worth keeping," he muttered and quickly wiped it on a nearby patch of grass. He reached over his shoulder and I watched as the arrow head disappeared into his quiver with a dull thud. He pried my knife from the dead man's hand, recognised it as my own, and tossed it over to land near my bedroll. I glared at it glinting in the firelight, the handle nothing more than tightly wrapped rags, the steel pitted and stained, and I was no longer sure I trusted my own knife. 



The Reeve looked the man up and down and started examining his leathers. He untied the waist belt and then opened the straps that held his tunic closed. The Reeve grimaced at the blood now on his hands. He felt around inside the tunic and extracted a folded piece of parchment, opening it carefully to avoid getting blood on it. His eyes quickly scanned over whatever was on it and then he folded the parchment back up and stuffed it into his own leather tunic. He checked the waist and trousers and then he reached the man's feet, where he wore a pair of black, soft–soled, leather boots. They were laced up with a strange leather strap that wound up around his calves. The Reeve removed them with strong tugs and, once he had them off, he tossed them over the fire to have them land next to me. I glanced at them, confused.



He looked meaningful at my rag–wrapped feet. "Yours. You earned them." 



He roughly removed all the man's clothing until he lay naked, and without much dignity, on his back in the dirt. I found my eyes returning to stare at the man's sightless eye. It haunted me. I watched as the Reeve squatted and bundled up the clothes; he tied the trousers legs around them to hold them together. 



He stood up and stretched out his back, groaning a bit before he whistled once, softly, into the dark. The sound startled me and I blinked. The Reeve looked down at me and stared for a bit, with an unreadable expression on his face, until I started feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny.



"I didn't mean it," he said cryptically. I had no idea what he meant, and I just looked blankly back up at him.



He chuckled a bit, and the sound startled me. He shook his head and smiled. "I lied to him to throw him off guard. You do mean something to the people around these parts. You have a gift with those herbs of yours. A rare gift, Will. The town appreciates your skills."



Out of the darkness emerged a large shadow that coalesced into a piebald horse I recognised as the Reeve's. It had responded to the Reeve's whistle. The horse looked down at me and startled me by seeming to duck its head for a moment. I had seen the Reeve with his horse numerous times before in Jaipers. I always had a strong bond with animals and this one was no exception. He was proud to be the Reeve's horse. His dark brown and white patches were distinctive and I could tell that he was well cared for. The horse stood proudly in the fire light and continued to watch me. I forced a smile at him and he finally looked away.



The Reeve walked over to the saddle and removed a hemp rope that hung from the saddle horn. He measured a short length, cut it off and quickly secured the trussed up clothes next to his saddle bag. He returned to the dead body and expertly tied the feet together with one end of the rope and secured the other end to a metal ring hanging from the back of the saddle. The Reeve checked the girdle of the horse and stroked its nose with affection before clucking at it and turning it so it was facing away from the fire and the dead body. I could sense that the horse was dreading what it seemed to know was about to happen and I didn't think it was looking forward to the effort.



The Reeve put a foot in a stirrup and swung himself up onto the horse with practised ease before he looked back at me. Still sitting on the ground with my arms wrapped around my knees, I now had to crane my neck to look up at him. It hurt, but at least the shaking in my legs had seemed to reduce somewhat.



"Come into town tomorrow," the Reeve said. "I'll want you to make a statement to the garrison officer on what happened out here. I'll arrange for you to get a hot bath at the inn as well. Fair enough?"



I nodded, not sure what else I could say. Time was starting and stopping and then rushing along. Nothing was making much sense. I wasn't at all sure what had just happened.



"These things happen, Will. You'll be fine now," said the Reeve as if reading my mind. "Take some time to work it all out in your head. You're a strong lad and you'll put this behind you. It had nothing to do with you – just remember that."



He clucked at his horse and it started to walk away, then he stopped it with a slight tug on the reins. He looked back at me again. His horse seemed to do the same. This time, staring into its mournful eyes, I was sure the horse was not happy about dragging the body back to Jaipers.



"One more thing, Will, one of the town folk has a high fever and could use your attention. She's not alone; many are sick." He waited until I nodded again.



My mind already started working on the problem. I had collected a few herbs that would knock a high temperature down. It wouldn't take me long to brew up a remedy.



I think the Reeve knew I was already thinking on the problem because a look of satisfaction settled on his face as he gave the horse its head. 



The horse slowly started to walk into t



South of Jaipers, 900 A.C.



 



THE HARD, SHARP edge of the iron knife pressed against my neck froze the blood in my veins. I went as still as I could, held my breath and waited to feel the blade slice across my flesh in a fiery line. Every nerve in my body screamed for me to fight and flee but he held me from behind in a vice–like grip I couldn't hope to break. His breath, foul and rotten, washed over me in waves, and I could feel his chest rapidly expanding against my back. I knew he had been running before he snatched me, still asleep, from the ground. He towered over me and his arms held me with strength beyond my own. Despite my struggles, I knew with a certainty that there was no escape. Time seemed to slow to a crawl.



The man had the fingers of his right hand painfully entwined into my hair, forcing my head back and exposing my throat. As a result, my mouth was forced open and now it was as dry as an old bone. He held me tilted back against him and where he moved; I was forced to follow. The knife in his left hand moved slightly and dragged across my neck and I felt coldness from the blade's caress. Immediately, pain shot from my skin and I cried out in shock. Panic gripped me. 



Here it comes! Not now! I can't die!



My eyes darted over my small camp – still dimly lit against the night by a small fire – to search for anything that could help me. My meagre fire warmed a beaten tin pot suspended by a hook from three branches draped over the flames. The pot contained a soothing tea made from herbs I had gathered the day before as the sun had just started to set. A small, dented, and scratched tin drinking mug sat on one of the rocks that surrounded the fire. A couple of feet away, my pack lay next to my sleeping roll, but it contained nothing more than some extra clothing, some food and the herbs I had carefully bundled and sorted in the way I had taught myself over the years. I couldn't forget my other possession; which was the small, sharp and pitted iron knife that was now pressed against my own neck. 



I was on foot with rags wrapped around my feet and I wore pieces of crude cloth hand sewn into a functional, patchwork tunic with matching pants I had tied to my waist with a cord. There was nothing that could help me escape and I had nothing I could trade with this man that could purchase my freedom. The cold and fear seeped into my flesh and I started to shiver uncontrollably. I was ashamed to hear a whimper escape my lips.



My single valued possession was buried in the soft dirt directly under my sleeping roll and I knew this man couldn't possibly have knowledge of it. He could not have seen me with it or using it – I was far too careful for that to have happened. I knew it was safe, at least for now. It was worth more than my life and I would never exchange it. I immediately dismissed it as an option. My mind raced in circles as I tried to figure out what he wanted from me. Here I was: destitute and barely scraping a living from the woods and hills that surrounded the nearby town of Jaipers. I had nothing to offer him for my escape. And so I waited. I waited to feel the knife open my throat from ear to ear. I waited for him to say anything – anything at all to break the fear and apprehension that mounted within me for every labourious second that passed. 



I was quickly losing my efforts not to cry out and I could feel tears streaming freely down my cheeks. My heart pounded painfully in my chest and loud in my ears. I was only sixteen years old and too young to die. It wasn't fair. I rolled my dry tongue in my parched mouth, looking for any moisture that would free my speech and let me start to try to reason with him. I felt the knife press deeper in response before I could get a word out. 



"Shut yer mouth, boy!" rasped the man in my ear. He whirled around, dragging me with him, to stare out into the darkness that surrounded my camp and I stifled a scream at the sudden movement. I could feel him turning his head above mine to look out into the dark. 



With the moon obscured by dense clouds it was a much darker night than normal. The light from my fire flickered and pulsed unevenly, reaching, at best, a short distance of ten feet into the surrounding area. My meagre camp was centred in a small clearing within a copse of maybe twenty trees. I was not far from the road that led into the town of Jaipers located three miles away to the north. I found the site to be perfect to my gathering needs as the trees and bushes were sufficiently thick enough to hide the light of my fire from the road. A small stream flowed a few yards away and had clean and cold water fed from the nearby mountains. It also contained small brook trout in the deeper shaded spots.



Some of my best herbs came from the along the stream's edge where the trees shaded them. I came here often to rest before striking into town to sell or trade my plants at the local open market. Gathering herbs was the one thing I could do well and it benefited me by allowing me to trade for those items I could not forage or make myself. The town folk knew me by sight and a few knew me by name; at least those who thought to ask. I had regular customers like Dempster, the cook at the town's inn, and my good friend Daukyns. Daukyns was a Wordsmith and led a small congregation in the Word from the town common hall and partnered with me with the salves and unguents I made from my gatherings. Most of the town folk had added my plants to their food or traded for my pots of unguents; especially the healing ones. I had worked the area surrounding the town for close to four years and it was starting to feel like home despite my normal reluctance to be anywhere near other people or confined within the town walls. Food was my usual choice for trade, but once, every few months or so, I would indulge myself and trade for a hot bath at the inn. As needed, I would trade for used cloth or shirts and pants to replace those of mine that were beyond repair. My discarded clothes I would turn into coarse thread to help make new ones. It was a routine I was happy with and it was better than my life from before.



I preferred the solitary life away from people. I had lived in the woods for a long time now and through trial and error I had found a way to co–exist with the wilderness. I now felt at peace surrounded by trees, plants and grass. The small animals in the area knew me and seldom ran from my approach. I sensed a deep empathy with the outdoors. I knew where to find my plants and recognised the benefits of plants intuitively. I tended the herbs where they grew and took only what I needed to trade for goods that would keep my scant possessions in good condition and my belly full. One day would blur into another and the seasons would pass as they were meant to pass: without my trying to mark them. The summers were hot and the winters wet and chill. Yet I persevered through the years. I was trim, fit and healthy. I wanted for nothing except peace and solitude.



Yet here I was, at the mercy of this madman. I tried to calm myself so I could think. After a time, I was successful, and I finally took notice of the absolute silence in the air. The crickets and frogs had gone still at the disturbance in their nightly ritual. The clearing and the surrounding area seemed to be holding its breath waiting for something. I sensed a feeling of dread from outside the firelight. It frightened me and added to my distress.



I looked into the darkness and observed that our combined shadow from the fire stretched out and melded with the dark. The night waited in silence and I waited for any sign from this man that could tell me what he wanted. With a grunt, he swung me around to stare across the fire into the dark. My night vision was long since shattered with the light from the fire and I could make out nothing. 



"Where are you, you Godless bastard?" he muttered under his breath and I realised with an intake of breath that this man was afraid of someone pursuing him and probably wanted nothing from me. I was merely a convenient hostage, I concluded. With this thought, I felt the first stirring of hope rise within me. 



He swung me around again to stare into the night.



His breathing continued hard and fast. The smell of alcohol and stale, stinking sweat were strong in my nostrils and yet I could smell something else above all this. It was a scent that touched the back of my mouth and left a faint metallic taste: the unmistakable smell of blood. My fear doubled. This man had blood on him! A lot of blood, or I wouldn't be able to smell it so clearly. He had killed already and could easily do so again.



A twig snapped behind us, startling me with the sharp and loud explosive sound in the silence. The man whirled quickly to face the direction it had come from and somehow managed to press the knife further into my neck. My flesh felt like it would split across the edge of the blade and I would soon see my blood fountain into the night air. I was now having trouble breathing, and I obscurely wondered when I had started to breathe again. I peered into the night through the fire, desperate to see anyone who could help me but, the light was too bright. The flames crackled. A spark shot high into the air and my eyes followed it, wishing I could join it, until it disappeared from view.



"Come out into the light so I can see you!" yelled the man, his voice loud and abrasive in my ear. His accent was strange, and I wondered where he was from. More importantly, I was sure I heard a note of fear in his voice and felt a glimmer of hope rise again within me. Someone out there made this man afraid.



We both strained to hear a reply from the darkness but there was none. The silence stretched until my assailant became increasingly agitated.



"I'll open this boy's throat if you don't come out into the light so I can see you!" he yelled again and tightened his painful grip in my hair. My ear was now ringing.



"I don't think you'll do that," came a quiet voice from somewhere beyond the fire. I recognised the voice at once. The voice belonged to the Reeve of Jaipers, a good man called Comlin. He had spoken to me many times in town and had been kind to me. "You wouldn't have anything to hide behind then, now would you? You do realise that you have a young man there who means pretty much nothing to me or anyone else around these parts. I'm not so sure you've thought this out too clearly."



As the magistrate for Jaipers, when I had first entered the town, Comlin had approached me wanting to know where I was from, how long I was staying in the area, and later, once I had traded my wares, where I had learned to gather herbs. He always wanted to know everything he could about me. And I had told him the truth – well, mostly. I hid from him the painful truths – stuff he hadn't needed to know. I wasn't going to open my past up to anyone. I had promised my mother to stay hidden and safe and I hadn't broken that vow. Thankfully, after the initial scrutiny, Comlin had pretty much left me alone but would often stop by to talk to me when I came to town. He would want to know if I had seen anyone suspicious in the area. It was easy to see that he took his job of defending the people of Jaipers quite seriously. Unexpectedly, I became his eyes and ears in the area surrounding the town and surprised myself by finding the role exciting in a small way. I enjoyed our arrangement if you could call it that. I also looked forward to seeing him in town and I had long ago noted his genuine concern for my wellbeing. 



I was relieved to see him here and now. I trusted this man and knew he would save me; although I honestly knew not how as I stood there in the madman's clutches.



"Blessed Father," muttered my captor. He raised his voice and called out to Comlin.



"Yer nuttin' but a small town Reeve. You've nary an idea wut yer up against. You need to go back to your town and forget all about this. Be smart, not stupid. This boy is only moments away from spilling his blood all over this ground and it will be your fault." 



"Well, that's an interesting concept," answered the Reeve in a slow, drawn out way, as if he was thinking it over as he said it. "I should just turn around and walk away while you hold that boy with a knife to his throat? Tell me something why'd you kill Bill and what did you take from his house? Answer me that."



The man growled in frustration.



"That business is my business," answered the man. "He wasn't supposed to come home when he did. This would have been a lot cleaner if he had stayed drinking at the inn. Not my fault and what's done is done. Why do you care about some old man?"



Silence was the only reply from the darkness. I waited, straining to hear anything that would show me where the Reeve stood. 



"Bill was a good man," came the soft reply. "You broke into his house to rob him. You killed him and then stole from him while his corpse cooled at your feet."



I heard the regret in the Reeve's voice. Silence followed. Then I heard a soft sound, like something being stretched, and wondered what it could be.



"You come out into the light, you bastard!" hissed the man, his spit spraying into the night air with his rage. "You have no idea what you are messing with. This is bigger than you can imagine."



A sharp thrum filled the air, and I felt, rather than heard, a hard, wet crunching sound explode next to my head. The man went rigid, and I felt him exhale in one long sigh against my cheek. Then he simply crumpled to the ground and his hand, still tangled in my hair, pulled me down with him. I was forced to spin around and bend over to release him, only to find myself staring down at the feathered end of an arrow, plunged deep into his right eye. His remaining eye was half closed and sightless. 



The arrow had pierced his head straight through and now the point was forcing his chin to his chest. I reached up and fumbling, freed his hand from my hair. It dropped with a heavy thud to lie limply beside his head in the dirt. I scrambled backwards away from the body and around to the other side of the fire. My eyes remained locked to the still form, waiting for him to rise. The man seemed to writhe on the ground through the flames of the camp fire.



I could see that he was dressed in dark leathers, and that the front glistened with what appeared to be drying blood. His face was rough and unshaven. His eyebrows were long and thick and shaded his eyes. I kept my eyes locked on the body, looking for any sign of movement as the Reeve emerged behind me into the light, patted my shoulder and approached the body. He carried a short bow in one hand and I could see he carried a small leather quiver across his back with the fletching of his arrows sticking out the top. I had never been happier to see the Reeve Comlin.



He glanced back at me briefly. "You okay, Will?" he asked.



When I nodded, he crouched down beside the body.



My hand crept up to my throat to feel for blood and came away with only a drop or two. I could feel a burning where the knife had scratched me. I was alive and unhurt; I realised with a start and suddenly began shaking. I drew my knees to my chest and tried to stop them from trembling. Suddenly, the warmth from the fire seemed distant, cold and remote. 



The Reeve smiled grimly at me and turned his attention to the body. He looked it over quickly and reached out, removing a leather purse that was tucked under the belt tied around the man's waist. He hefted it in his palm and I could hear metal clink. The Reeve untied the purse's drawstring, opened it and spilt the contents into his hand. I watched as his palm filled with a couple of silver groat and several copper pence coins. With a clink, a small red gem landed on top of the pile and the Reeve grunted in surprise.



"Not what I thought," he said. 



I opened my mouth to ask him what he meant but my teeth chattered so I clamped my lips shut. He held the gem up to the fire and it flashed in the light. It had an odd shape I couldn't quite make out. He shook his head and poured the coins back into the purse, dropping the gem on top. He cinched the purse closed and tucked it under his own waist belt. "This goes into the town treasury until we can sort out what to do with it." This time the Reeve looked at me, his gaze had a hard edge, as if he was, appraising me.



"You'll be alright, Will," he said. "The shakes will pass. You did good, and you held still and let me take that shot." The Reeve glanced at the arrow protruding from the man's face and shook his head. "I lost that arrow, though, and it was my best one, too."



He grabbed the flight of the arrow and lifted the dead man's head to reach behind it. I heard a loud snap and watched as he held up a steel arrow head covered in blood and something else that I didn't want to think about.



"This is worth keeping," he muttered and quickly wiped it on a nearby patch of grass. He reached over his shoulder and I watched as the arrow head disappeared into his quiver with a dull thud. He pried my knife from the dead man's hand, recognised it as my own, and tossed it over to land near my bedroll. I glared at it glinting in the firelight, the handle nothing more than tightly wrapped rags, the steel pitted and stained, and I was no longer sure I trusted my own knife. 



The Reeve looked the man up and down and started examining his leathers. He untied the waist belt and then opened the straps that held his tunic closed. The Reeve grimaced at the blood now on his hands. He felt around inside the tunic and extracted a folded piece of parchment, opening it carefully to avoid getting blood on it. His eyes quickly scanned over whatever was on it and then he folded the parchment back up and stuffed it into his own leather tunic. He checked the waist and trousers and then he reached the man's feet, where he wore a pair of black, soft–soled, leather boots. They were laced up with a strange leather strap that wound up around his calves. The Reeve removed them with strong tugs and, once he had them off, he tossed them over the fire to have them land next to me. I glanced at them, confused.



He looked meaningful at my rag–wrapped feet. "Yours. You earned them." 



He roughly removed all the man's clothing until he lay naked, and without much dignity, on his back in the dirt. I found my eyes returning to stare at the man's sightless eye. It haunted me. I watched as the Reeve squatted and bundled up the clothes; he tied the trousers legs around them to hold them together. 



He stood up and stretched out his back, groaning a bit before he whistled once, softly, into the dark. The sound startled me and I blinked. The Reeve looked down at me and stared for a bit, with an unreadable expression on his face, until I started feeling uncomfortable under his scrutiny.



"I didn't mean it," he said cryptically. I had no idea what he meant, and I just looked blankly back up at him.



He chuckled a bit, and the sound startled me. He shook his head and smiled. "I lied to him to throw him off guard. You do mean something to the people around these parts. You have a gift with those herbs of yours. A rare gift, Will. The town appreciates your skills."



Out of the darkness emerged a large shadow that coalesced into a piebald horse I recognised as the Reeve's. It had responded to the Reeve's whistle. The horse looked down at me and startled me by seeming to duck its head for a moment. I had seen the Reeve with his horse numerous times before in Jaipers. I always had a strong bond with animals and this one was no exception. He was proud to be the Reeve's horse. His dark brown and white patches were distinctive and I could tell that he was well cared for. The horse stood proudly in the fire light and continued to watch me. I forced a smile at him and he finally looked away.



The Reeve walked over to the saddle and removed a hemp rope that hung from the saddle horn. He measured a short length, cut it off and quickly secured the trussed up clothes next to his saddle bag. He returned to the dead body and expertly tied the feet together with one end of the rope and secured the other end to a metal ring hanging from the back of the saddle. The Reeve checked the girdle of the horse and stroked its nose with affection before clucking at it and turning it so it was facing away from the fire and the dead body. I could sense that the horse was dreading what it seemed to know was about to happen and I didn't think it was looking forward to the effort.



The Reeve put a foot in a stirrup and swung himself up onto the horse with practised ease before he looked back at me. Still sitting on the ground with my arms wrapped around my knees, I now had to crane my neck to look up at him. It hurt, but at least the shaking in my legs had seemed to reduce somewhat.



"Come into town tomorrow," the Reeve said. "I'll want you to make a statement to the garrison officer on what happened out here. I'll arrange for you to get a hot bath at the inn as well. Fair enough?"



I nodded, not sure what else I could say. Time was starting and stopping and then rushing along. Nothing was making much sense. I wasn't at all sure what had just happened.



"These things happen, Will. You'll be fine now," said the Reeve as if reading my mind. "Take some time to work it all out in your head. You're a strong lad and you'll put this behind you. It had nothing to do with you – just remember that."



He clucked at his horse and it started to walk away, then he stopped it with a slight tug on the reins. He looked back at me again. His horse seemed to do the same. This time, staring into its mournful eyes, I was sure the horse was not happy about dragging the body back to Jaipers.



"One more thing, Will, one of the town folk has a high fever and could use your attention. She's not alone; many are sick." He waited until I nodded again.



My mind already started working on the problem. I had collected a few herbs that would knock a high temperature down. It wouldn't take me long to brew up a remedy.



I think the Reeve knew I was already thinking on the problem because a look of satisfaction settled on his face as he gave the horse its head. 



The horse slowly started to walk into the darkness and down the deer path that led out of the clearing to the main road. The rope tied to the man slowly lifted from the ground until it hummed taught and unceremoniously, the dead man was pulled across the ground. The remaining shaft of the arrow sticking out the back of the head scraped a shallow furrow into the dirt and marked his passage. Appalled, I watched the head flop from side to side as he was dragged away; his arms trailing behind him until he was out of the light and into the darkness. I knew the image would stay with me forever. I wasn't sure how much of the man would be left by the time he arrived into town. Not much, I imagined, and shuddered.



Eventually, the soft noise of the horse's hooves hitting the dirt quietly faded into the night and the sounds of the crickets and frogs returned to fill the air.



I was alone, and I was afraid.



he darkness and down the deer path that led out of the clearing to the main road. The rope tied to the man slowly lifted from the ground until it hummed taught and unceremoniously, the dead man was pulled across the ground. The remaining shaft of the arrow sticking out the back of the head scraped a shallow furrow into the dirt and marked his passage. Appalled, I watched the head flop from side to side as he was dragged away; his arms trailing behind him until he was out of the light and into the darkness. I knew the image would stay with me forever. I wasn't sure how much of the man would be left by the time he arrived into town. Not much, I imagined, and shuddered.



Eventually, the soft noise of the horse's hooves hitting the dirt quietly faded into the night and the sounds of the crickets and frogs returned to fill the air.



I was alone, and I was afraid.









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