Sherwyn and his brother toil to earn the brideprice Sherwyn needs in order to marry the woman he loves. But the nobles have their hearts set on owning the village, and they have no intention of letting any man remain free.
a story from the Unshut World
I Would Sing
by Stephen Measure
Wolves came down from the mountains that winter, prowling through the village at night, no wall yet built to hold them out. Young Sherwyn flinched at each howl, cowering in his seat against the table. The light from a small candle shone on the silent face of his brother, who sat across from him, both of the boys covered by thick blankets. In the loft above, their parents coughed, lost in a fever that had claimed so many others. And outside, the wolves. There was no more livestock to be devoured. Now there was only them.
Sherwyn buried his face in his hands.
“Why are you crying?” his brother asked.
Sherwyn raised his head. A tear ran down his cheek. He hated letting his brother see him cry. His brother was always so brave. Why can’t I be brave? Sherwyn asked himself.
On the table in front of his brother lay the family’s sword, passed down from generation to generation, its metal hidden beneath a coat of black paint. The world always seemed a little firmer whenever the sword was near.
Sherwyn wiped the tear off his cheek. “I don’t want to die,” he said.
His brother shrugged. “And what if you do? What if tonight is your time to die?”
Tears spilled out of Sherwyn’s eyes. He hid them from his brother with his hands. Wolves howled in the night. They sounded so close. Sherwyn’s shoulders shook.
“Will your tears make a difference?” his brother asked. “Will they keep the wolves away? Why cry at the end? If these are your last moments, will you spend them in fear?”
The candle flickered as the wind blew outside, mixing with the howling of the wolves. Above them, their parents coughed violently.
My last moments, Sherwyn thought, I don’t want to waste them. I don’t want to die in fear. But what else can I do? he asked himself. What else can I do when death presses in?
“What would you do?” Sherwyn asked.
His brother smiled. “I would sing.”
But Sherwyn’s brother did not sing that night. Nor did he sing a week later when they buried their mother and father in shallow graves carved in the frozen soil. He did not sing the following winter when it was he weak with fever and coughing in the loft above. He did not sing during drought. He did not sing during flood. Years went by and the brothers grew strong together. The seasons passed, crops grew, crops withered, but there was one constant through it all—Sherwyn knew the end had not arrived, not yet, for his brother never sang.
* * *
Sherwyn’s eyes opened to see darkness. A hand shook his shoulder.
“It isn’t morning yet,” he mumbled, turning onto his side.
“We have two fields to work today,” his brother said. “Best to get started.”
Sherwyn groaned, but he sat up. He rubbed his eyes as his brother lit a lantern.
“Perhaps if you had picked a woman whose mother had fewer children, then we would not have to work so hard,” his brother said, smiling at Sherwyn.
Sherwyn grunted and struggled into his clothes.
“Other fathers ask for less,” his brother told him, picking up his coat. “Why, I heard old Lang of Hidburg is offering a dowry for one to marry his eldest. Imagine that. A father paying for his daughter to be married!”
“All of Lang’s daughters are barren,” Sherwyn said.
His brother paused, one arm in his coat. “All of them?” he said. “When did that happen?”
“His eldest was betrothed this winter, but when viewed by the birthguide, she was discovered to be barren. The birthguide viewed the rest. All barren.”
His brother slowly finished putting on his coat. “And what are the villagers in Hidburg saying?”
“Nothing. But if another woman turns barren...”
“Lang is no witch! It could have been anyone. It could have been some vagabond wandering through the forest!”
“That’s why they haven’t hung him yet,” Sherwyn said. He hoped that they wouldn’t. Lang had been friends with their father.
Outside, the air was cool and the sky was full of stars. The moon shone down upon their fields, adding to the light of the lantern. Two of the fields needed to be tended today, work that would take up much of the day.
The brothers started slowly, their hands pulling weeds from the cold ground. Eventually the sun appeared, and their spirits rose along with it, the warmth invigorating them and pressing them to move faster. Sherwyn waved at their neighbor Treddion as Treddion passed through the village’s wooden gates and began to work his own fields along with his two sons. Other farmers joined the work, tending to family fields that covered the valley.
Sherwyn and his brother worked all day, removing their coats as the day grew hot, stopping only for brief drinks and a short meal. After years of tending for themselves, the brothers knew how to work hard, but two full fields were a lot to look after, especially with how much the red creepers had spread the past few years. The brothers usually only had a single field to work at a time, the second left fallow so it could recover for the next season, but the need to pay the brideprice for Lycetta had led them to plow a third field. The brothers needed a good crop. No, they needed an excellent one. Somehow Sherwyn needed to scrape up enough to pay the brideprice so that he and Lycetta could finally be married.
That evening when they passed through the village gates, they saw a large crowd gathered in front of the inn across the common green. The innkeeper was talking to three men on horseback: one a lean, harsh looking man, the other two small and obviously brothers, the larger of the two wearing a flamboyant purple cape that trailed behind him.
“What is going on?” Sherwyn’s brother asked the miller as they stopped beside him.
“The king is building fortresses all along the base of the mountains,” the miller said. “He is going to keep out the shades.”
“That is right,” the man wearing the purple cape said, overhearing the miller’s words. He walked his horse a step forward to address the crowd. “And Lord Cennoc has answered his call! He will build a fortress upon the hill to the west.” The purple-caped man pointed proudly at the location.
Murmurs rose from the crowd of villagers. Lord Cennoc’s manor was multiple days journey from their small village. They were accustomed to being alone, to being left alone.
“Yes,” the purple-caped man went on, “and there is greater news still. For the king has decreed that all open land between a lord’s manor and his fortress is hereby bound to the lord and its people along with it, putting all of you here in this humble village under the protection of Lord Cennoc!”
His statement, which finished in a flourish, was met by silence.
“What does that mean?” a voice in the crowd asked.
“Taxes,” another answered.
“Taxes? How much taxes?”
“Since when do we pay taxes?”
“We will have to work his fields too, that is the way of it.”
“And what if we don’t want Lord Cennoc’s protection?” Treddion asked, arriving at the back of the crowd with his two sons.
The innkeeper strode forward. “Of course we want, no, need—need!—the protection of good Lord Cennoc! Why, just think of the shades. What if a raiding party struck, coming for our wives, for our sisters, for our daughters? Lord Cennoc and his men can protect us!”
“Shadow men haven’t raided here for generations, not since we clustered our homes together,” Sherwyn’s brother said. “Their magic is useless when raiding, and man for man they are weak. They prey only on isolated huts and cabins.”
The crowd agreed, heads nodding all around.
“And what of the diggers?” the innkeeper said. “What if they swarmed down the mountain and into our village? I tell you that we need a lord’s protection, and Lord Cennoc has granted it to us!”
“Don’t be a fool,” Treddion said. “Diggers never leave the mountain. And they are no danger to any man who is not a shade.”
The purple-caped man raised his hand. “I tell you, you are now bound under the protection of Lord Cennoc, grateful or not, for the king has so decreed it!”
Murmurs rose again within the crowd, men shaking their heads as they discussed the development.
“No,” Sherwyn’s brother said, loud enough to break through all the voices. “You told us the king gave all the open land to the lord who built a fortress, but Achvale, our village, is not open land. It is already owned. It is owned by us. We earned it through the King’s Covenant. We have worked the land its required year. It is our land. We are free men. We are bound to no one.”
“The King’s Covenant has been revoked.” the other small man said, moving his horse to the side of his purple-caped brother.
“That might be true, but it would only affect new land,” Treddion said. “What is ours is ours. Not even the king has the right to give that away. And we are not interested in being bound to any noble!”
The purple-caped man rose up out of his saddle. “Enough, peasants! You are bound to Lord Cennoc! Accept it now or be forced to accept—”
But the other small man put a hand on his arm. “Calm yourself, Acwel. We come to offer protection, remember?” Then he turned to the innkeeper. “Is it true what they said? All this land was granted through the King’s Covenant?”
The innkeeper wrung his hands, swaying from side to side. “Well, Sir Arteir, if you get right down to it, then, that is, well—yes, yes it was.”
“Who are they to question—” the purple-caped Acwel began, but he stopped at a glance from the other, Arteir.
“We will consult with Lord Cennoc,” Arteir said.
The three men turned their horses and departed, the villagers murmuring to each other as the horsemen left. Grumbling, the innkeeper walked to his inn, a handful of villagers following after, looking for a bit of ale before they returned home to their families.
But Sherwyn had a disturbing thought, and turning to his brother and looking into his eyes, Sherwyn saw that his brother had had the same.
“Our third field,” Sherwyn said, “we haven’t worked it for a year. If the King’s Covenant has truly been revoked...”
His brother nodded.
“So what do we do?” Sherwyn asked. They had no other way to pay the brideprice.
“We continue onward,” his brother said. “Of what importance is a small field to a lord with lands as large as his? Besides, they don’t know whether a field was granted through the King’s Covenant or not, and no one in the village would betray us. We continue onward.”
Back at their home after night had fallen, Sherwyn had his brother write a letter to Lycetta. A farmer, his brother should not know how to read or write, but Sherwyn’s brother knew things he was not supposed to, having taught himself at one time or another. So it was with reading and writing, and so it was that Sherwyn asked his brother to write to Lycetta, to tell her of what the nobles were doing, and to assure her that Sherwyn would never submit himself to be bound to a noble—an action that would bind his future wife and children as well. He would never do such a thing. He was a free man now and he would be a free man when he had gathered her brideprice and married her, which he promised would be soon given how hard his brother and he were working in their third field and how bountiful the harvest was sure to be. Sherwyn only wished he felt as confident as his letter sounded.
Days went by, but the two noble brothers, Arteir and Acwel, did not return to the village. Instead, they sent the third man, their retainer, in their place to watch over the building of the fortress. Stoneworkers appeared and the fortress walls started to slowly rise upon the hill. The stoneworkers were rough men, and the villagers did not trust them, but only the retainer and master builder stayed overnight at the inn, the other men only visiting occasionally for drinks at the inn before staggering back to their camp in the dark.
None of the villagers asked about Lord Cennoc or his claim of land that was not his to claim. However, the innkeeper was often in quiet conversation with the noble’s retainer, who traveled regularly between the village and Lord Cennoc’s manor as he provided instruction and oversight to the building of the fortress.
* * *
“There is a mercer from Nearmount in the common green!” one of Treddion’s sons said one evening as Sherwyn and his brother returned from working their fields.
“A mercer?” Sherwyn said. “Here? Why? No one can afford their wares.”
And Sherwyn was right. They joined the crowd that had gathered around the small wagon. The mercer was standing proudly atop it, displaying silks and velvets for all to see, fabrics far too fine for farmers. The villagers eyed the cloth with amazement, each knowing the goods were all beyond their reach.
“And what news do you bring from the wide world?” the innkeeper asked, standing at the front of the crowd, the retainer at his side.
“Trouble!” the mercer said, spreading his arms wide. “Great trouble everywhere! Bandits have spread from Low Sebalath. They are found throughout the land.”
“Bandits?” an excited voice asked.
“Yes, they have confined their ambitions to hamlets so far, but it is only a matter of time before they attack larger villages as well.”
The villagers looked at one another in alarm.
“We have our wall,” the miller said. “We will be safe enough.”
“A wall with gates that we never close but in winter,” the innkeeper said. “A wall that was designed to keep out wolves rather than men.”
“How fare the other villages?” the retainer asked the mercer.
“Hidburg fares very well,” the mercer said. “They have accepted Lord Cennoc as their lord and they prosper for it.”
There were murmurs at this. “Hidburg are free men.”
“The men and women of Hidburg saw the benefit of being bound to a man as powerful as Lord Cennoc,” the mercer said. “All of them signed his contract, receiving the right to his protection and prosperity. Now we make regular trips to Hidburg, selling our goods.” He held up a piece of fine silk. The women in the crowd spoke excitedly to one another, imagining the villagers of Hidburg all clad in silks and satins.
“And how can we receive this same blessing?” the innkeeper asked.
“I have the contracts,” the retainer said, patting a satchel at his side. “You all have but to sign one.”
“I will sign!” the innkeeper proclaimed.
But no one else volunteered to sign, although the villagers looked back and forth at one another. The miller was in quiet conversation with his wife. He seemed to be eyeing the fabric more than she was.
“We are free men,” Sherwyn’s brother called, drawing all eyes to him. “When we rise, we are free. When we rest, we are free. Why would we trade our freedom for a bit of pretty cloth?”
The retainer glared at Sherwyn’s brother, but he spoke no word.
“It is more than just prosperity. It is protection!” the innkeeper stated. “Think of the shades. Think of the bandits!”
“We have cared for our own for generations,” Treddion said. “I will not sign.”
“Nor will I,” said Sherwyn’s brother.
“Nor I,” said Sherwyn.
The miller reluctantly agreed, and all the rest as well, leaving the innkeeper the only man to sign the contract.
Sighing, the mercer began to gather his wares. “We will return of course,” he said. “Though I fear your freedom will grant you little ability to afford our goods.”
The retainer stared at Sherwyn’s brother and Treddion. Then he whispered something to the innkeeper and they turned and walked back to the inn. The mercer started his wagon forward, turning around in the common green and heading back toward Nearmount.
“Trouble!” he called as his wagon drove away. “Pray that no trouble finds you before you seek the protection of Lord Cennoc!”
And trouble arrived the next morning when Sherwyn and his brother walked to their fields before dawn and were surprised to find a small group of men standing there waiting for them. The retainer was there, lean and harsh atop his horse, the master builder beside him. And behind them both towered two large stoneworkers, their thick arms crossed as they stared at Sherwyn and his brother.
“What brings you to our fields at this time of morning?” Sherwyn’s brother asked, facing the group of men under the lantern’s light.
“Ah,” the retainer said, smiling down at them. “But this field is not yours, now is it?”
The men were standing in the brother’s third field.
“You have not worked this field for a year,” the retainer continued, “and the King’s Covenant has been revoked. Therefore this field is part of the open land that is now the property of Lord Cennoc. And you are hereby forbidden to trespass.”
“But we planted those crops!” Sherwyn argued.
“On Lord Cennoc’s land!” the retainer said. “He forgives you your past trespasses but will not forgive you for future ones.” The retainer pointed at the two stoneworkers. “These men will watch and make sure you do not work land that is not rightfully yours.”
The retainer gestured at the master builder and the two of them started back toward the village. “Of course,” the retainer called over his shoulder, “a man bound to Lord Cennoc could be given permission to work Lord Cennoc’s fields.”
“For a price,” Sherwyn’s brother said under his breath.
The stoneworkers chuckled. “Off with you then,” one said. “You heard the boss.” He laid down on the ground. The other sat beside him.
“Come on,” Sherwyn’s brother told him, “we’ll work the other field today.”
But Sherwyn looked out over their third field, the crops visible under the moon’s pale light. How was he going to pay the brideprice now? What could he do? He had promised Lycetta...
The evening brought mercers to the common green once again, two this time, both standing atop their wagon. They passed bundles of cloth among the crowd and shared news as had been done before. Everything bad. Sightings of shades to the east. Rumors of bandits coming closer.
“Have you noticed that their news always leads us in one direction?” Treddion said to Sherwyn and his brother.
“Right into the arms of the nobles,” Sherwyn’s brother said.
Treddion nodded. “Funny coincidence, that.”
But Sherwyn only stared at the fancy cloth being passed through the crowd. Just one small bundle would be enough to pay for the brideprice. How was he going to pay it now? Just one bundle would be more than enough... “Are you claiming that the mercers are lying?” he asked Treddion.
Treddion eyed Sherwyn. “I saw the stoneworkers in your field,” he said. “I am sorry about that.”
“And the mercers?”
“The world is full of truth, Sherwyn,” Treddion said. “How much of that truth can fit within the news the mercers share?”
Sherwyn looked back at the mercers, their arms draped with colorful fabrics they were showing off. Behind them the retainer and innkeeper stood apart from the crowd, whispering to each other as they eyed Treddion and Sherwyn’s brother.
* * *
Sherwyn could not sleep. Worrying over the problem of the brideprice, he stared up into the dark. All their work in their third field—lost. Left alone, the red creepers would starve the crops within a week. What could he do? Had he no choice but to bind himself to Lord Cennoc? How else could he afford to marry Lycetta?
“Wake up,” Sherwyn’s brother said in the middle of the night.
“Why?” Sherwyn asked.
“Let’s go,” his brother told him.
“To tend to our field.”
“But the stoneworkers...”
“They will not be watching at this time of night. We will keep it healthy and then we will harvest what we can. They cannot watch the field every hour of the day.”
Sherwyn threw on his shoes and coat.
“What about the lantern?” he asked as they stepped out into the cold night.
“We cannot risk it. We will work by the moon and the stars.”
And they did, though it was hard work in the dark. They had to strain their eyes to see the red creepers and other weeds amidst the growing crops, but they worked for hours in that fashion before returning to their home to sleep the rest of the night until dawn.
A stoneworker was already in their third field when they arrived with the morning’s light. Sherwyn worried he might notice the freshly dug weeds, but the stoneworker only had attention for the clay pitcher he held in his hand, tipping it up and taking quick drinks of its contents. He was a small man, small enough that he reminded Sherwyn of the two noble brothers. But when Sherwyn looked at him, the small stoneworker smiled and held up the pitcher. “The noble’s wine!” he said, and then fell onto his back with a giggle.
Sherwyn and his brother exchanged a look and they both chuckled. With a guard like this, their midnight work would never be discovered.
Later in the day, Sherwyn’s brother pointed up at the hill where the stone walls of the fortress were becoming more pronounced. “Take a look at that.”
Sherwyn could see workmen far in the distance, scurrying about the site, along with a few men on horseback, one of which was wearing a flowing purple cape.
“Acwel sure does stand out, doesn’t he?” Sherwyn’s brother said with a smile.
“What are they doing?” Sherwyn asked.
His brother shrugged. “Inspecting the fortress I suppose.”
But looking at the far away figures, Sherwyn couldn’t shake the impression that Acwel was looking back at the village, pointing and speaking with the other mounted men in agitation.
* * *
The brothers did the same the next day as well, caring for their third field in the middle of the night and then rising later the following morning to tend to their normal field. Luckily, the small, drunk stoneworker was tasked with watching over their field again, giving them no fear that he would notice how healthy the crops continued to be. And Sherwyn was already imagining the harvest in his mind, already imagining delivering the brideprice to Lycetta’s father and claiming Lycetta for his own.
But it was a long hard day, and having worked in the middle of the night only made the day seem longer, so Sherwyn was happy to return to their home that night. Sitting at their table, he and his brother shared their supper quietly after darkness had descended over the village.
Then they heard a scream outside.
Sherwyn rushed out the door, carrying their lantern. He held it high, looking for the source of the scream. The common green was empty. Then the scream came again, to the side, from Treddion’s home. Sherwyn ran in that direction but stopped once he saw the men on horseback, their faces covered with black masks. They held swords and were carrying piglets and lambs, Treddion’s livestock. A small bandit stood before Treddion and his family, holding his sword’s point to the neck of Treddion, who stood protectively in front of his wife and daughters, his sons by his side, the women crying and clinging to Treddion’s shoulders.
Then a man ran past Sherwyn. Knocking the short bandit’s sword to the side, he placed himself between the bandit and Treddion. It was Sherwyn’s brother, black sword in hand.
Growling, the short bandit lunged forward with his blade, but Sherwyn’s brother parried. He parried again at the next attack, and again. Then Sherwyn’s brother pressed forward with an attack of his own, but the bandit defended, spitting at the ground by Sherwyn’s brother’s feet. The mounted men drew forward but stopped, seeming unsure if they should join the fight or not.
The short bandit knew his blade. He fought elegantly, as if he were demonstrating swordplay to a crowd of ladies. Sherwyn’s brother, however, fought effectively. Defending himself against each strike, he finally pushed the bandit’s blade far to one side before pivoting and driving his sword into the bandit’s gut. With a gurgle, the small bandit dropped his sword before falling to the ground, and Sherwyn’s brother turned to face the mounted men, who all reacted in shock.
“He killed him!”
“That farmer killed Arteir!”
“We’ll have your hide for this, peasant!”
The three men dropped the stolen livestock and advanced towards Sherwyn’s brother, swords at the ready. But other villagers had arrived, carrying pitchforks and axes. They stood beside Sherwyn’s brother, outnumbering the bandits. With a curse, the mounted men turned their horses and fled from the village, leaving behind a riderless horse and the corpse of their small, dead leader.
Treddion walked forward and removed the hood. He handed it to Sherwyn’s brother who wiped off the blood from his sword. Some of the black paint had been chipped away, showing the clear blade within—a blade that looked like no common metal. But no villagers took notice of the sword, for they were all looking down at the face of the dead bandit. It was Arteir, the noble, the brother of Acwel.
“Gather the men,” Treddion told the miller as he looked down at the dead noble. “There will be trouble tonight.”
And he was right. Only moments later, eight men galloped into the village. Three of them were still wearing fake bandit clothing although their masks were now gone, revealing them to be the retainer, the master builder, and one of the large stoneworkers. Other stoneworkers joined them now as well, along with the small Acwel, his purple cape billowing behind him.
“Murderer!” he yelled, pointing his sword at Sherwyn’s brother. “You will hang for this!”
Treddion stepped forward. “It is no crime to kill a bandit.”
“Arteir was no bandit!” Acwel spat, his sword at the ready, his eyes wild and staring at Sherwyn’s brother, his horse dancing nervously before them.
“His mask says otherwise,” Treddion said as he held up the black mask. Fresh blood dripped from it down to the ground.
“Seize him!” Acwel told his men, pointing at Sherwyn’s brother. “He will pay for what he did to Arteir!”
But the villagers stepped forward, standing shoulder to shoulder, a determined look upon every face. The mounted men dared not advance.
“Why do you stand by this murderer?” Acwel said, walking his horse before the crowd. “No, worse than a murderer—a witch! For how could a simple farmer beat my brother, a trained swordsman? It must have been witchcraft. Will you stand against justice for a witch? What of your womenfolk, men? Think of them. Would you see your whole village turn barren?”
“He is no witch,” Treddion said. The other villagers nodded in agreement.
“No simple farmer could have bested Arteir!” Acwel said.
“Perhaps Arteir was disadvantaged on account of the bandit’s mask he was wearing,” Treddion replied.
Acwel cursed and drove his horse toward Treddion, but villagers lower the points of their pitchforks, barring his way.
Snarling, Acwel pointed his sword at Sherwyn’s brother. “I swear upon Arteir’s grave that I will see you dead, witch!” Then he turned his horse away. “Bring my brother!” he commanded his men before galloping out of the village. Two of them dismounted, picked up the body, and threw it over Arteir’s horse. Then they left without a word. The villagers looked at one another with grim expressions.
“Best to start closing the gates at night,” Treddion said.
It was agreed, and men ran to each gate, watchmen set for the night, the rest of the villagers returning to their homes. The closed gate meant that Sherwyn and his brother could not work their third field that night, and Sherwyn worried about the crops, but it could not be helped.
The gates were opened in the morning, and the farmers walked out together to tend to their fields, everyone on edge and anticipating retaliation from the nobles, the black sword strapped to Sherwyn’s brother’s back. But there was no one in sight in the valley, not even guarding over the brother’s third field, so the men all dispersed to their own fields, although they worked watchfully the whole day. Their third field unguarded, the two brothers tended both of their planted fields, removing all the red creepers that had grown that night. However, as they looked up at the growing fortress, they saw a cluster of mounted men on the hill, pointing and speaking to one another, a purple cape flapping amidst them in the wind.
When the brothers returned from their fields that evening, there was a commotion at the southern gate. They ran to see the cause and found a small group of villagers blocking the retainer and master builder from entering the village. The innkeeper stood to the side, wringing his hands.
“I tell you, you are not welcome here,” the miller told the two.
“They are my guests!” the innkeeper complained.
“We cannot trust them within the gates,” a villager replied.
“You cannot trust us, yet you trust a witch?” the retainer said, pointing at Sherwyn’s brother, who stood among the crowd.
The villagers fell silent.
“If I had used magic, you would have seen it,” Sherwyn’s brother replied. “You were there, after all.”
The retainer grunted and scowled at Sherwyn’s brother, but the protests of the innkeeper were ignored and the gate was closed, the retainer and master builder left outside. Two guards were posted at each gate that night.
How long can we keep this up? Sherwyn worried. These men are farmers and simple villagers, not soldiers. And once again our third field cannot be worked tonight. Can we continue to work it during the day? he asked himself. Only two more weeks before harvest. Can we last for two more weeks?
But men appeared the next day in their third field, the retainer and a handful of stoneworkers, along with a horse-pulled plow.
“What are you doing?” Sherwyn yelled as the plow began its work of digging through the crops.
“This is not your field, farmer,” the retainer said from atop his horse.
“We planted those crops!” Sherwyn said, watching in despair as the plow tore them from the ground. He started forward, ready to stop them, but his brother caught his arm. “We will find a way,” his brother told him.
“Will you, witch?” the retainer said. His hand rested on the pommel of his sword. But in fields far and near, farmers looked up and watched, ready to join if needed, and Treddion and his two sons arrived and stood next to Sherwyn and his brother.
“What is this?” Treddion asked.
The retainer removed his hand from his sword and grabbed the reins of his horse. “We are plowing one of Lord Cennoc’s fields,” he replied. Then he turned away.
“They can’t!” Sherwyn said, rushing toward the plowman, but his brother and Treddion caught his arms.
“Let them be,” Treddion said. “I am sorry, but you must let them be.”
Sherwyn struggled against them for a moment before dropping to his knees. And there, kneeling in the dirt, he watched as the plow dug up any chance of him marrying Lycetta.
The work of destruction was finished quickly, their third field left a tangled mess, the crops all destroyed. Sherwyn was inconsolable. Depressed, he left the fields and returned to their home, sitting down by the front door to watch the sun slowly lower in the sky.
When evening came, the other men of the village began to return from their fields as well. Then Sherwyn heard the sound of a wagon entering the village, and looking up, he saw the mercers drive into the common green once again. Seeking a distraction, Sherwyn stood and joined the crowd already gathering around the wagon. One of the mercers was a lanky foreigner with the lightest skin Sherwyn had ever seen. The man had never visited their village before.
As in their prior visits, the mercers displayed their expensive fabrics. But they said nothing about bandits this time, speaking instead of the protection provided by the fortress and the danger from shades.
Sherwyn’s brother had arrived with the rest of the villagers. He listened for a moment before snorting and turning his back, starting to walk to their home.
“Where did you get that blade?” the light-skinned mercer called after him in a thick accent, seeing the black sword strapped to Sherwyn’s brother’s back.
Sherwyn’s brother turned around. His hand reached up to grab the hilt over his shoulder. “It is my family’s sword.”
“Such a blade,” the mercer said. “Such a blade. I would pay much for such a blade.”
“It is not for sale,” Sherwyn’s brother replied. He turned and walked away.
“What is so special about his sword?” the innkeeper asked after Sherwyn’s brother had left.
“Can you not see it?” the light-skinned mercer replied. The second mercer nodded beside him, both of them watching Sherwyn’s brother enter his home. “That which is unshut becomes shut all around it. Can you not see? In all my travels, I have never heard of such a thing.”
The innkeeper and all the village men looked at the ground. It was bad luck to see that which was unshut. The women in the crowd eyed the mercers suspiciously. More than one woman’s hand rested anxiously on her womb.
After showing off their wares with no one able to afford them, the mercers packed up their wagon and began the trek back to Nearmount. Sherwyn watched them go, thinking again of their precious cargo and how little of it would be required to pay the brideprice. And how was he to pay it now? With no third field to harvest, where would the money come from?
Then Sherwyn thought of the look in the mercer’s eyes when he saw their family’s sword. How much would they pay for the sword? Surely enough to cover the brideprice. The man had seemed so eager. And why should I not sell it? It is as much my sword as my brother’s, is it not?
But Sherwyn knew it was impossible. His brother would never agree to sell it, and Sherwyn would feel forever wrong if he sold it without that consent. Perhaps Lycetta’s father would permit me to delay paying her brideprice until after the wedding, Sherwyn thought, but to do so would be to start his marriage under a shadow of uncertainly and failure. No, he could not start their life together in that way. He could only hope that Lycetta would continue to wait.
The next evening, the retainer and master builder tried to enter the village again, accompanied this time by four large stoneworkers, all four of them carrying heavy hammers. But once again they were blocked from entering, all of the village men gathering with their makeshift weapons and standing against them. The innkeeper cursed at his fellow villagers.
How long before we come to blows? Sherwyn worried. There was a feeling of agitation in the air, a tenseness all around.
Thankfully, it was the mercers that came the following evening rather than the retainer and his men. They drove their wagon to the commons as they had before, and Sherwyn joined the crowd that met them there, although his brother avoided the gathering. This time there were no wares displayed. The mercers had come to make an announcement. Standing on top of their wagon, a mercer spoke with excitement about a festival and tournament being held in Nearmount in three days time.
“We have heard of the bad blood that has grown between your village and some of Lord Cennoc’s men. Let us set aside our differences here and settle them instead within the arena where they can be resolved without any further loss of life.”
The villagers looked from one to another. Festivals were not an uncommon event at Nearmount, but never had they received a direct invitation.
“And the winner of our tournament will be given fifty gold!”
Sherwyn gaped at the mercer. Fifty gold was enough to buy half of the village. With that money... he said to himself. Except it would be impossible for me to win against trained swordsmen like the nobles.
Then Sherwyn thought of his brother. What if he joined the tournament as well? Sherwyn asked himself. He might not be formally trained, but he has taught himself the sword well enough.
But even with his brother present, Sherwyn doubted they would be able to win.
“And every contestant will be given five gold!”
Five gold just for joining the tournament? It was an unbelievable amount. That was enough to pay the brideprice with some leftover besides. Sherwyn felt an excitement and release from the stress he had not even noticed he had been carrying. Suddenly the loss of their third field was nothing. He could earn what he needed by simply joining the tournament.
Excited talk spread among the villagers as everyone else imagined the great impact five gold would have on their families. Even Treddion was talking excitedly with his wife and one of his sons.
“I only hope that the unfortunate events of late will not permanently hold you outside the protection of Lord Cennoc,” the mercer continued, “for I have disturbing news to share: the village of Westfield is no more.”
Westfield was a small village to the southeast of Nearmount, two days travel from their own village.
“What has become of it?” the miller asked.
“Shades,” the mercer replied. “They raided three nights ago, killing every man, stealing every able woman, leaving nothing but their mercy payment.”
The crowd fell silent, all excitement at the tournament suppressed by the tragedy that had befallen the men and women of Westfield. Women leaned into their husbands, who wrapped their arms around their wives and daughters. Could the same happen here? many seemed to ask, and many eyes looked at the wooden walls that surrounded their village.
“What a pity they had not sought the protection of Lord Cennoc before it was too late,” the mercer said. “What a pity.”
And with that, he drove the wagon out of their village, leaving them to disperse to their homes, to talk excitedly about the upcoming festival, to talk worriedly about the attack in Westfield, to wonder at their own futures.
* * *
“Will you fight beside me?” Sherwyn asked his brother over supper that evening. His brother had not been present for the announcement, but Sherwyn had already told him of the bounty for joining the tournament.
“I do not trust the mercers,” his brother replied, shaking his head.
“But five gold!” Sherwyn said. “Ten if we both join! Think of what we could do. More than just the brideprice. We could buy more fields. We could buy a horse to plow them.”
“There will be no gold,” his brother said. “Why would they give five gold simply for entering a tournament? That makes no sense.”
“But the mercers—”
“The mercers despise us and want nothing from us but to see us grovel before Lord Cennoc.”
“They promised us five gold,” Sherwyn said, refusing to give up the easy hope offered by the idea. “That would be plenty for the brideprice with some left over besides.”
“Think, Sherwyn. Why would the mercers want us to afford new fields? Why would they want us to afford a horse? That is not what they want for us. How can you believe that it is?”
“They don’t want us to fight with the nobles,” Sherwyn said. “This tournament is a way to settle the bad blood.”
His brother scoffed. “Fight with the nobles? They don’t care if we fight or not. They just want to ensure that we lose! The mercers are the nobles, Sherwyn. They are one and the same. They want us to bind ourselves to Lord Cennoc. Everything they say to us, everything they do to us, everything is with the intent that we bind ourselves to him, that we give up our freedoms, that we become his peasants. Why do you blind yourself to their motives when they are displayed before you clear as day? That is what they want from us. They don’t care about a tournament or some silly festival. This is just one more scheme. I do not trust them, Sherwyn, and neither should you.”
“But five gold, just for entering the tournament!” Sherwyn said. “Why will you not join me? Trust them or not, we could have ten gold. Just think of that!”
“No,” his brother answered. “I raise my sword in defense of home and family, and of neighbors and friends. I do not raise my sword for the amusement of others. And I do not raise my sword under the rules of a man-made arena.”
A knock came to their door. Sherwyn’s brother stood and opened it. It was one of Treddion’s sons. He handed Sherwyn’s brother a letter. “I just returned from Nearmount,” he said. “This is for Sherwyn.”
Sherwyn’s brother thanked him and closed the door.
“Is it from Lycetta?” Sherwyn asked, rushing to see the letter. “What does she say?”
His brother carried the letter to the table and opened it. He squinted at the words, a look of frustration crossing his face. Although he knew how to read, it did not always come easily to him.
“What does it say?” Sherwyn repeated, feeling worried at the look on his brother’s face.
“Her father is forcing her to court one of the candle makers in Nearmount,” his brother said.
“What? Why would he do such a thing? We are to be married!”
“Lycetta promises to be true, Sherwyn. But she wanted you to know.” He sighed. “She asked if you had raised the brideprice yet.”
“If only we hadn’t sold our pigs for the extra seed,” his brother said. “They would not have been enough, but it would have taken us partway there.”
“The tournament...” Sherwyn began. Another man courting his Lycetta? How else could he gather the money in time?
“The tournament is a trap, Sherwyn!”
“Then we could sell our sword,” Sherwyn said.
“No,” his brother replied. “The sword is not for sale. It saved our family. We would not be here were it not for it. We would be nothing but shades, shadow men—if we even were at all. The sword is not for sale.”
Sherwyn’s head sank into his hands and he stared at the floor. But what other option was there? Binding themselves to Lord Cennoc was out of the question. How could he marry a woman into that? How could he bear a child into that? Which left only...
“Join the tournament with me,” Sherwyn said, looking up at his brother again. “With you there, maybe we would even win! Just think of what we could do with fifty gold. We would never want for anything ever again! I could marry. You could marry. Just think of it.”
But his brother shook his head. “Why do you place trust in people who have shown no sign of being trustworthy?” he said. “I will not take part. And neither should you. They mean you no good, Sherwyn. They mean none of us any good. They want to see us bow. They want to see us submit. Do not trust them.”
“Then what?” Sherwyn asked in exasperation. “Just wait until Lycetta is taken from me by another?”
“We will think of something,” his brother said. “We always do.”
But Sherwyn did not believe that they would. The tournament is the key, he told himself. It is the only way.
* * *
The brothers spoke little the next day even though they worked side by side in their field. Sherwyn was furious at his brother for not helping him earn the brideprice, and Sherwyn’s brother seemed disappointed in Sherwyn’s trust of the mercers. All day Sherwyn thought of the tournament, imagining how it would go, what he would do. If I am to compete, Sherwyn thought, then I will need a weapon. But he dared not ask his brother to use the family’s sword. So what then?
Toward evening, the brothers heard the bouncing of a wagon coming along the path from Nearmount. They looked at each other. It was early for a mercer to arrive in their village. Usually they appeared right as the men and women of the village were ending their day. Who could this be?
They watched as a small covered wagon winded its way along the dirt trail and through the village gate. Then they followed Treddion and his sons, who had also been watching the wagon, into the village to see the new visitor.
The wagon had stopped in the common green just as the mercers always did, but the man who had opened its back and begun to display his goods was no mercer. His bright red tunic and braided hair that reached down his back would never have been seen on so dignified a guildman.
“A peddler?” Sherwyn said in surprise. They had not seen one all year.
“And what brings you here?” Treddion asked, trying to appear nonchalant as he examined the goods within the peddler’s wagon.
“Just enjoying your beautiful country!” the peddler replied. He spoke with a loud voice and wore a constant grin. But there was a tiredness around his smile’s edges, as if he were weary of the need to always be cheerful.
“I have passed through a number of villages and towns and visited with many of your neighbors. Nearmount, Hidburg, Westfield—”
“Westfield? When were you in Westfield?” Treddion asked.
“Why, the day before yesterday if you must know,” the peddler said. “A fine village. Fine people.”
“We were told they were raided by shades four nights ago,” Treddion said.
“Shades? In Westfield? No, there must be some mistake. Why, I sold two iron pots there. The finest quality you have ever seen. Got them in Low Sebalath I did. A fearsome people they are, the low landers, but the quality of their workmanship is a sight to see. In fact, if you are lucky, I might have another one here to sell. Let me just...” The peddler poked his head into the back of his wagon.
“And what of bandits?” Sherwyn’s brother asked.
“Bandits?” the peddler said, pulling his head out of the wagon.
“We were told there were bandits roaming the countryside,” Sherwyn’s brother said. “Are you not afraid, being alone as you are?”
The peddler brightened at the idea. “Yes, bandits! Bandits are everywhere these days! A man must be armed, well armed, well armed indeed. You, sir, I see you carry a blade. That is wise. But the rest of you, where are your weapons? Now I might have just the thing...” he turned back into his wagon.
Sherwyn’s brother shook his head and turned to go back to their field. “Are you coming?” he asked Sherwyn.
“In a bit,” Sherwyn replied.
His brother nodded and walked away, passing through the village gate before the peddler pulled a cloth bundle from his wagon, multiple hilts sticking out. The peddler grabbed a hilt and lifted out a chipped sword.
“Now this is what every free man needs to protect himself from bandits and such ilk. You are free men, are you not?”
“We are,” Treddion said.
The peddler made a few feinted stabs with the sword. “Yes, this is a fine blade, a fine blade. From Cushlan itself. A fine blade.” He eyed the crowd. Treddion was whispering with his sons, the two of them looking excited.
“Do you take trade?” Treddion asked the peddler.
“For this? No, this blade is far too valuable for simple trade,” the peddler replied. He seemed to be offended at the mere idea.
And with that, the haggling had begun. They went back and forth, the final result sending Treddion’s sons running to gather one goat, three chickens, and a pig, all being exchanged for three of the most pitiful looking blades that Sherwyn had ever seen, like slabs of rust with hilts attached. But Treddion took the blades eagerly, handing one to each son. Sherwyn looked wistfully at the remaining hilts sticking out of the wrapped bundle, but he had nothing to offer for trade. Shaking his head in regret, he started to walk back to the field, thinking again of the tournament. A hand caught his shoulder. He turned around and saw Treddion, who held out one of the rusty swords to him.
“Take it,” he said. “Payment for what your family did for mine.”
“I cannot take this,” Sherwyn protested. “I did nothing. It was all—”
“It was your family,” Treddion stated, placing the hilt into Sherwyn’s hand and closing Sherwyn’s fingers around it. “Besides, your brother already has a sword.”
Treddion’s sons were standing a few feet away, both swinging their swords around like mad men. Sherwyn worried they might hit themselves, the blades dangerous more for their rust than their sharpness.
“Will you be joining the tournament?” Treddion asked him.
Sherwyn looked at the gate. His brother was nowhere to be seen. He turned again to Treddion and nodded.
“But your brother does not approve?”
“He does not trust the mercers.”
Treddion nodded. “He is right not to. But five gold... five gold can make a man trust one he might not otherwise be inclined to trust. With that money we would be less vulnerable to the nobles.”
“So you are you entering?”
“Me?” Treddion laughed. “No, I am too old for that. But my boys are, both of them. That gives us ten gold, which is plenty. It will be a good year, Sherwyn. And you?”
Sherwyn nodded. “Yes, I think I will.”
“And your brother?”
“I thought not. Well, best to be back to work.”
Treddion and his sons took their leave of Sherwyn, who walked to his home and hid his new sword underneath his pillow. Then he returned to the field to work with his brother, not saying a word about his plans for the tournament.
* * *
The night before the festival, Sherwyn’s brother entered their home late, an excited expression on his face.
“I arranged some work for us with the miller,” he said. “We are to make trips for him to Nearmount. The pay is small, but with a good harvest and the extra from this work, I believe we will be able to pay your brideprice within a year.”
Sherwyn sat with the rusty blade across his lap.
“What is that?” his brother asked with suspicion.
Sherwyn looked up. “I am entering the tournament tomorrow,” he said.
“Why would you do that?” his brother asked him.
“You know why.”
“But I found a way for us to pay the brideprice!”
“You found a way... maybe... in a year... And will Lycetta wait that long for me? Or will her father marry her off to someone else?”
“Her father cannot marry her off without her consent, and Lycetta will wait for you.”
“For a year? I could have the brideprice tomorrow!”
“So the mercers claim. And you believe them?”
“Why would I not believe them?”
“The mercers are for the nobles, Sherwyn. Why would they do anything that helped you remain free? Think, brother. Think of their motivations. Think of how they consistently act. They mean you no good!”
Sherwyn stood. “Do not treat me like a fool!” he said.
“Then do not act like one,” his brother answered.
“You are just a coward,” Sherwyn said. “That is why you will not fight!”
“A coward?” his brother replied. Then his voice grew quiet. “I am what I am to be. I do what I am to be doing. And tomorrow I will be where I should be. But where will you be? Where will you be when you are needed most? Where will you be, brother?”
Sherwyn pushed his way past him and out the door, slamming it behind him. The night was cold and cloudy, no stars shining down. He looked across the common green at the inn, seeing a few men enter in search of ale. He could do with a drink himself, but they had no money to afford it. I will have money soon, he thought. Plenty of money for what I want.
* * *
Sherwyn rose before his brother the next morning. He dressed, tying his rusty blade to his belt, and then grabbed a piece of hard bread for breakfast before leaving. The sun was breaking through, the common green filling with light. Home after home bustled with activity. It looked as if all the villagers would be attending the festival that day. All, that is, except for his brother.
Sherwyn saw Treddion then, readying to leave with his two sons, his wife, and daughters. The boys were swinging around their poor blades in clumsy excitement. Sherwyn raised his hand in greeting and walked over to meet them.
“So your brother truly will not come?” Treddion asked.
“No, he will not,” Sherwyn answered.
Treddion shrugged. “Best to leave someone to watch over the village anyway. Well, we must be going.”
“Did you hear?” one of Treddion’s sons said. “They have a captured shade! They are displaying him at the festival!”
Treddion chuckled. “Best to not believe everything you hear. Especially if it’s coming from the mercers.”
The statement gave Sherwyn pause. “Think of their motivations,” his brother had said.
But Treddion clapped Sherwyn on the back. “Off with us then,” he said, and they joined the rest of the villagers walking along the dusty road toward Nearmount. All of Treddion’s children babbled with excitement about the sights they would soon see, and Treddion himself seemed to bubble over with enthusiasm at the purse his sons would earn. Sherwyn’s misgivings faded away in the face of such excitement. The road rose up a small hill before returning downward again, leaving Achvale hidden behind.
Sherwyn turned and looked back one last time before he descended, seeing an empty village and empty fields, the almost finished fortress on the opposite hill towering over it all. Then he saw his brother walk out into the field, one man alone, his sword strapped to his back. “I will be where I should be.” Sherwyn remembered his brother’s words. “But where will you be?”
Sherwyn shook the guilt out of his head and continued with the rest of the villagers toward the mercer’s festival.
It was more than an hours travel between Achvale and Nearmount on foot, but the time passed quickly with the excitement of the journey. Soon they saw the stone walls of Nearmount and its large guarded gate. Mercers waited there, smiling at the villagers as they watched them enter. It made Sherwyn feel nervous. Why do they look so pleased? he wondered. The innkeeper stepped away from the crowd, talking in a low voice to one of the mercers, who looked back toward the village. Fearing treachery, Sherwyn put his hand on his sword’s hilt.
Then he saw purple within the gates, and looking for it, he caught a glimpse of a purple cape worn by a small man in a fancy festival mask. If there was treachery planned back at the village, then Acwel would certainly be part of it, Sherwyn thought. If he is here, then all should be well.
And there was Lycetta, a large white flower sticking from the top of her brown hair. Sherwyn had hoped to see her here but had not expected her to be waiting at the gate.
They embraced in greeting, both smiling in excitement. Travelers continued to pass along the road, so Sherwyn took her by the arm and walked proudly with her into the town.
“What of your father?” he said. “Shouldn’t I ask to have you accompany me to the festival?”
Lycetta blushed. “No, that is not needed,” she said. “He is not... Sherwyn, many in the town are angry at your village, at your refusal to bind yourselves to Lord Cennoc.”
“But we are free men! Why would we bind ourselves to a noble?”
“I know, I know,” she said, speaking softly and steering him away from the crowd so that others could not overhear. “But when your brother killed Sir Arteir...”
“He was defending our neighbor! Arteir was dressed as a common bandit and was stealing from Treddion. He threatened Treddion’s family with a sword!”
“I am sure he did,” Lycetta said. “But that is not how it is being told here in the town. Our only news of your village comes from the mercers guild, Sherwyn. And they do not speak highly of any of you.”
Sherwyn looked back toward the gate. The mercers were all walking in, having witnessed the village enter the town. The innkeeper was nowhere to be seen.
“And where is your brother, Sherwyn?” Lycetta asked.
“He did not come.”
“He does not trust the mercers.” Sherwyn grimaced, feeling a little shame. “He did not want me to come either.”
“Perhaps you should not have come, then.”
“What? Are you not happy to see me?”
“Of course!” Lycetta said, hugging his arm tightly. “But the mercers do not speak well of your village. Perhaps your brother is right to not trust them.”
Sherwyn looked through the crowd, spying Acwel’s cape again far in the distance. The small man held a clay pitcher in his hand. He was already staggering at this time in the morning. As long as Acwel is here... Sherwyn thought.
“Let us go and see what there is to this festival,” he told Lycetta, leading her back into the crowd. “And then you can watch me earn the gold for your brideprice in the tournament.”
Lycetta smiled at that, her earlier concern vanished, and the two of them made their way through the streets following the throngs of people.
The market square was packed, vendors pushed tighter together to make room for the exhibits that the mercers had raised: large, beautiful horses, jugglers, and acrobats. Sherwyn stopped Lycetta in front of an iron cage, looking in at a large wolf that lay lazily upon a pile of straw.
Lycetta hugged Sherwyn’s arm. “How dreadful!” she said.
But Sherwyn was not of the same opinion. “It looks old,” he said. “And fat.” He watched as it turned onto its back, putting its paws into the air, its mouth opening a little, revealing few remaining teeth.
Sherwyn shook his head and led Lycetta farther into the crowd. They could hear music and laughing. And here and there, small groups of people were dancing. Sherwyn thought briefly of asking Lycetta about the other suitor, but he decided against it, wishing to pretend that the other man did not even exist.
“What is that over there?” Lycetta asked.
Sherwyn turned in the direction she was pointing and saw a large crowd formed outside a black tent. They walked to it and Sherwyn asked a stranger what all the fuss was for.
“They have a captured shade in the tent,” the man whispered. “Can you believe it? A shade!”
So it’s true then, Sherwyn thought. But Lycetta let out a startled squeak. Her hand went instinctively to her womb.
“He is blindfolded of course,” the man said, seeing her shock. “No magic can be performed when one cannot see that which is unshut. His hands are bound as well. It is perfectly safe.”
Lycetta relaxed at that, although Sherwyn could still feel her tremble against his arm. They made their way forward through the crowd until they eventually found themselves in front of the tent.
An old, fat man stood by the entrance, his body covered in a luxurious silk robe. He held out his hand toward Sherwyn. “To see, you must pay,” he said.
Sherwyn looked at the outstretched hand. He had no money, and shame spread through him as he realized he would have to admit that in front of Lycetta. But, always so understanding, Lycetta saved him.
“He is one of the tournament contestants!” she said. “He should not have to pay.”
The man shrugged and waved them forward. “On with you then,” he said, giving a condescending look at the rusty sword strapped to Sherwyn’s side.
Sherwyn breathed a sigh of relief, and patted Lycetta’s hand in gratitude. Then they entered the tent eagerly, joining the small crowd that looked at a man clad in black robes who sat on a chair behind a rope barrier. He was bald and pale, his hands bound behind his back and eyes blindfolded just like the stranger had told them.
“Their skin really is colorless,” Lycetta said in a hushed whisper. “Do you think their eyes are truly colorless as well? How can that be?”
But as they came closer, Sherwyn got a better look, and he grunted in disappointment. “That looks like white powder to me,” he said. “And I see stubble on his head. He is not really bald.”
“Are you saying he is a fake? He is not really a shade?” Lycetta whispered, too loudly for Sherwyn’s comfort. A large man stood to the left of the chair, his arms folded. His eyes narrowed as he looked in Sherwyn’s direction.
“Let’s see what else there is to see,” Sherwyn said, dragging Lycetta out of the tent and leaving the fake shadow man behind.
They walked throughout the square, admiring the shops and savoring the aromas. It was a happy morning. The happiest morning that Sherwyn could remember in months. After all his work, all his desperation and disappointment, now he was finally with Lycetta. And by the end of the day he would have the money for her brideprice. Why, he could march right over after the tournament and deliver it to her father right then! Sherwyn smiled as he imagined how happy and proud that would make Lycetta.
A gong sounded and suddenly the crowd pressed to one side of the square, entering the arena. Lycetta stayed with Sherwyn until they came to the entryway to the field. There she hugged him, kissing him on the cheek. She made him swear to be careful, and then she was gone, blended in with the crowd. Glowing from her parting embrace, Sherwyn started for the field but was stopped first by a pair of mercers who took his sword and handed him a wooden practice one.
“But my sword...” he said.
“You cannot use real blades in the arena!” the mercer said, laughing with the other. “We would not want any of you fools to get hurt!”
Once on the field, Sherwyn looked around him at the other men who were entering the tournament. He saw many from his village, including Treddion’s two sons, but he saw none of the nobles. A voice was ringing out over the arena, announcing the tournament. Sherwyn could not hear it over the clamor of the crowd, who were yelling, clapping, and stomping their feet. Many of the onlookers were pointing at the contestants and laughing.
Where are the nobles? Sherwyn worried. Then he spotted the purple cape across the field, a small man winding his way among the men, the pitcher still in his hand. The man turned, no longer wearing a mask, and Sherwyn saw the small, drunk stoneworker who had once guarded their third field.
The stoneworker gave him a large grin. He held up his pitcher. “The noble’s wine!”
Sherwyn’s heart sank.
Where are the nobles? he asked himself. They were not there. He ran back to the entryway. It was locked.
“Let me out!” he yelled.
No one opened the door.
“Let me out!” he yelled again. Then he kicked the door in, breaking its latch, and ran through. The two mercers were standing there, watching him.
“Where is my sword?” Sherwyn demanded, still holding the wooden practice blade.
They gave no reply, only grinning at him. His sword nowhere to be seen, he ran, making his way through the crowded square, running along the town streets. Where are the nobles? he repeated to himself. All of the village was here. All of them except...
“But where will you be?”
Sherwyn raced out of Nearmount and up the dirt road, pushing himself as hard as he could go, unwilling to believe what must have happened, unwilling to accept that he could have been such a fool. Smoke rose in the distance. He pushed himself faster, his sides aching, his feet stumbling along the rough road.
“Where will you be, brother?”
The words dug into Sherwyn, driving him onward, the town far behind but the village too far ahead. The smoke became more clear, twin columns near to one another. Two of the homes in the village were burning.
Then he crested the hill and saw his village beyond, the fortress casting a shadow over the valley. He heard the clash of metal striking metal, and he heard the yelling of angry men—too many for one to stand against alone. Sherwyn sprinted down the hill, but he was too far away. He would never get there in time.
And above the clamor of metal and men, rose a voice calm and clear—his brother was singing.
Part of "The Ridge of Earth Collection".
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