By J. F. Nacino
Three warriors rode the road to Buckhannah Keep that night.
Dressed in black brigandine leathers and ermine fur as well as half-and-hand swords strapped on their backs, the three ignored the salt-tainted winds off the coast of the Waldamyr Sea. Stitched on the tunic of their left shoulders was the Halnathi sigil, a standing golden lion on a triangular field of blue: the Lions of Alnæthi.
Lludluth ys Faltha, was the first to rein in at the sight of the keep and the surrounding forest. The others halted beside him: Mafanwy ys Cormuir and his twin Gwalmach ys Sundræg. Mafanwy sneezed as the heavy wind blew felled leaves and dust.
“Ach, I smell a storm coming,” he muttered as he wiped his nose on the back of his glove. Luth ignored him as he studied the moss-grey stone walls in the distance.
Gwalmach’s grinning face was sly as he said, “Trust your nose to scent out danger, eh? The evil rain, that dastardly wind…!”
“The stink of a dastardly bastard, you mean,” Mafanwy interrupted. “And that’s only because anyone with a nose can smell you a mile away, Gwai. Ever thought of taking a bath?”
Before Gwai could answer, Luth snapped, “Grow up, the two of you!”
As the abashed brothers turned to him, he relented. “Neither of you have to do this, you know. This is not your fight.”
Mafy shook his head while Gwai said, “We’re of one mind, Luth.” Mafy added, “Aye, and don’t even think of running out on us.”
Luth sighed. He had expected this. No matter how much the wizardly geis bound his soul, he still had the wit to get around it.
“That’s settled then,” Luth said, “One last stop and we’re to the keep.”
As their horses cantered down the road with the twins still arguing heatedly, Luth thought of the geis. For generations, the Halnathi kings had used their half-brothers to guard the throne using geis, a wizard’s spell that bound their souls. And for years, the Swords of Vertu—mockingly called the Bastard Swords—followed the geis as if their decisions were their own.
Because of this, the royal lineage was saved from the potential chaos of civil war and rival claimants to the throne. At the same time, it gained loyal adherents for their king.
As one of the bastard offspring of King Gilad Angwydd, Luth was raised with his half-siblings that would guard their royal brother once he took the throne. Since he was a child, he had never questioned his destiny or his geis: Faltha or ‘Justice’ in Old Wadron.
But that was then.
The brothers followed Luth off the road and into a narrow path leading through the wood. When they reached the edge of the forest, the three horsemen reined to a stop before a small field, a graveyard of wood and ivy markers with hardy little star-shaped alhanan blossoms growing on the sparse ground.
As Luth bade the others stay, he dismounted and dropped the reins. He said, “Wait for me. And keep the horses and yourselves quiet, will you?”
For a moment, he could see the geis of his brothers looking back at him: Gwai’s steadfast spirit and Mafy’s compassion. The brothers nodded and he entered the graveyard.
The darkness made it hard for him to see but there was enough light from the rising chalk-white moon. He looked for the gravestone that marked his wife’s resting place.
As his gaze tracked through the yard, he remembered his last meeting with the old king’s wizard, Brangwent after three months tracking him down. When he’d confronted the old man at a dilapidated inn on the outskirts of the southern city of Myrkae, the wizard was as calm as a man meeting an old friend.
Brangwent takes a piece of tobacco from his pocket and puts it in his mouth. It was why the brothers derisively call the wizard ‘The Dragon’ behind his back.
The wizard gestures quickly and a small ember flares from one end, the tobacco puffing by itself to keep it lit.
“For a man who’s about to die, you look pleased,” Luth says.
Brangwent replies, “My boy, when a man’s lived as long as I’ve had—-and I’ve lived a long time, mind—-you tend to view each moment a victory.”
“I’m sure I remedy your problem of longevity,” Luth promises.
“Hear me first. Give an old man a chance to say the last word. Afterward, you can use your sword to chop me up to your heart’s content,” the wizard says and with a smirk, “Or at least you can try.”
Bristling, he asks, “Why should I?”
Brangwent waves a hand. “Boy, there’s more to solutions than a sword’s edge.”
Luth looks at the wizard for a moment before nodding. Brangwent draws from his tobacco and exhales a great smoky swathe. The smoke slowly shifts and forms figures within the cloud.
“I was still a young wizard when old King Kernios died and his sons went to war against each other. It was a terrible time,” he says sadly, watching as the smoke coalesces into scenes of battles. Luth watches and thinks the tale he’s being told is a thousand years ago.
“So I did what I thought best: I chose a side and used my sorcery to gain the boy Anmaviel the throne. And for a while, there was peace again,” he says.
“But though Anmaviel was a good king, he could never be satisfied when it concerned women. And when he died, he had three sons and eight bastards ready to go to war again.”
Now the smoke shifts and Luth sees the old king on his death bed with a number of hawk-like young men around him. And he sees the young Brangwent watching them with rage. The smoke darkens and he watches as the sons are brought to the dungeons of Buckhannah Keep where they are strapped to a familiar wooden wheel.
And in the shadows of the smoke, he sees the wizard carrying a newly-forged sword.
“Aye, that was when I thought of casting the geis binding the brothers to the king. And it worked,” the wizard says in a bitter tone.
His foot hit something solid and brought Luth out of his reverie. He looked down to see a wooden circle marker with the inscription:
Gilyana of the House Cavridan
The White Swan of Halnathi
Beloved of the Gods
Gilly, he thought numbly.
He took the sheathed blade that hung at his back and laid it before the grave. He muttered, “I told you I’d be back, my love. With my sword, I will bring you vengeance.”
Then he took the large war-hammer that swung from his belt. “With this hammer,” he promised, “I will bring you justice.”
He heard a twig crack and jerked to his feet. A glint flashed in the darkness and five horse-backed figures stepped out of the surrounding woods.
For a moment, Luth thought they were lich or ghouls. But as they came closer, he saw they were ordinary men: flesh and blood wrapped in brigandine and furs. They came after all, he thought as he recognized the group, his half-brothers: Gerthdein, Caldwaln, Audglynn, Hendwyrn, and Mannanan.
Two of his brothers were still missing. The ever-questioning Orsleith had been sent by the king across the mountains to the Bright Ice. And young Trevhael had run away in desertion despite his geis of loyalty, which was how Luth had learned that the wizard’s spell could be subverted.
Three against five, he thought. He still had hopes that some of his brothers would join his cause.
As they came closer, he cried out, “So you got my message.”
Eldest of them all, Mannanan’s grizzled face looked troubled. Meanwhile, the giant Audglynn grumbled as they halted their horses, “Aye. And you’d think we’d do this meeting and arguing someplace warm. But no, we got to be doing this in the cold…”
Luth smiled while Manno sighed.
“Quiet, Auddo,” Manno admonished and turned to Luth. “That we did, brother. But I thought you’d be here first, decided we’d get to talk to you before… we present you to the king.”
Luth shook his head. “It doesn’t matter if we do this now or later. Someone has to answer for Rhoddaer’s crimes.”
Caldwaln’s handsome face distorted in disgust as he spat on the ground. “Oh, ho! So now you have geis to answer eh? So says the high and mighty Luth!” mocked Cald.
Luth sneered back in disdain. Though others saw Cald’s geis as bravery, Luth thought he was nothing more than a glory-dog.
He felt almost palpable rage and turned to see the silent Hendwyrn. He shivered, knew it would be dangerous to turn his back to this brother with his geis against oath-breakers.
“Well, you’re here then. Listen to what I say and tell me false: our king is mad. Are we to let a mad ruler overthrow what we think is right because our geis says naught?” Luth demanded as he looked at each brother in turn.
“You’re nothing but a pile of steaming horse shit, traitor!” Hendwyrn finally spoke, white with rage.
Manno interjected, “We follow the king’s decree, Luth. His word is the law of our kingdom. Without it, there would be chaos.”
“And what’s the worth of the king’s word against true justice?” he retorted.
Auddo turned away. Though visibly pale, Manno did not. Suddenly, the wind died down to a bare whisper as the clouds covered the moon. A faint rumble echoed throughout the night.
Cald snapped, “Wyrn’s right, you’re full of horse shit and that’s all there is to it! Rhoddaer is our king! We swore our lives to him with our dying breath!”
Luth replied: “Not mine! Never my king! I would rather cut my own throat and be done with it!”
“Stand down, Luth,” said Manno in warning, “I’d not have this sort of talk, not if you want to live longer.”
The silent Gerthy suddenly turned to scan the surrounding forest. Gerthy knows the twins are here, Luth realized.
“As you wish then,” Wyrn growled in a cold voice, “Kill the traitor and be done with him.” He quickly drew his sword out and Cald followed suit.
Luth took a step back even as Manno maneuvered his horse in the middle of them. “Hold! There’ll be no killing until I say so!” Manno cursed them. “Put up your blades!”
“Are you all blind to his sins?” Luth pointed his sword at the distant keep. “What of dead Queen Melinmar? He killed his own mother! What about poor Trevhael, abused like a child’s toy? What about the dead of the village Haraleah, massacred in their beds?”
“What,” he said, suddenly feeling very tired, “what about the wives of king’s men taken away when their husbands are away on king’s business? And all in the king’s name?”
Luth looked at them all, seeking justice that he could not give himself. He shook his head.
“What about it?”
As if on signal, lightning flashed across the night sky and illuminated a figure emerging from the woods. Despite the boom of thunder that drove the brothers’ mounts to rear in surprise, King Rhoddaer easily controlled his nervous horse.
“What’s his majesty doing here?” whispered a puzzled Auddo.
Manno ignored him and started to his king, “Your Majesty, it’s not safe here…” But the king silenced him with an upraised glove.
“Don’t tell me what to do, dear brother,” said Rhoddaer with a crooked smile. Though the night air was cold, he was dressed only in a white tunic, a leather jerkin and trousers. The only concession he had to his position was a small golden coronet on his forehead.
He reined in and looked at all of them. “I wanted to get some fresh air so I decided to go for a night ride. And what do I find here? My siblings—the infamous Bastard Swords—set to decide the fate of a traitorous kin without my say-so.”
“Your majesty…” Manno said once more.
“Silence!” Rhoddaer. Another streak of lightning slid through the sky and thunder boomed again. Luth saw it then, the madness in the king quickly suppressed.
“King Rhoddaer Angwydd Giladson!” Luth proclaimed. “I charge you with crimes against the kingdom!”
Rhoddaer burst out laughing and the brothers looked at each other uneasily.
Chuckling softly, Rhoddaer said, “I’m the king, Luth. I am the kingdom! How can I commit crimes against myself?”
“You’re mad to think you’re not answerable for your actions,” Luth snapped, the night slashed again and again by lightning. His ears ached in sympathy as thunder lashed the air.
The king snarled, “Don’t call me mad! I am not mad! Not! Not! Not!” he cried, shaking his head, the coronet falling to the ground. He snapped his head towards Manno, “You! Why haven’t you slain the traitor yet? Didn’t I tell you to kill him on sight?!”
“But Your Majesty…”
“Kill him! I order you to kill him where he stands!” Rhoddaer screeched.
Before anyone could react, Cald spurred his horse forward and swung his sword. Luth brought up the war-hammer in defense, barely remembering he’d left his sword behind. He deflected the edge of Cald’s sword with a jarring peal and let the hammer’s momentum swing him around.
As Cald raised his sword for another blow, Luth slammed the hammer solidly against the other man’s ribs. “Whoouf!” Cald groaned as he fell off his saddle to the ground.
As Manno and Auddo hesitated, Wyrn tried to maneuver himself closer but Luth dodged behind Cald’s riderless horse. “Wyrn, enough!” shouted Manno but his brother wasn’t listening, edging his mount towards Luth.
Suddenly, Gerthy cried, “’Ware! Riders coming!” and lashed his mount forward. Luth spared a glance and saw Gwai and Mafy thundering across the field.
“Gerthy! No!” shouted Manno. “Auddo, stop him!” The big man nodded and followed his brother. Like a charging bull, Auddo sent his mount crashing into the three that sent all of them tumbling like nine pins.
“Damn you all! Do I have to do everything myself?” Rhoddaer snarled as he drew his own sword. “Your Majesty…” Manno said as he interposed himself. He didn’t get any further as Rhoddaer buried his sword hilt-deep into his chest.
“I relieve you of your duties, Mannanan,” the king whispered to his brother’s disbelieving face. Then he pushed Manno away and watched him slide off his horse with satisfaction.
“Manno!” Luth shouted. Feeling a breath of wind behind him, Luth ducked Wyrn’s attack. When Wyrn kneed his horse to close in, Luth swept back his hammer. In an eye blink, he remembered:
“It was the only way!” Brangwent argues.
Luth shouts back, “You crippled our souls!”
“It was for the kingdom!”
He spits at the ground and draws his sword.
“Is that your reply?” asks Brangwent, taking the tobacco from his mouth and stubbing it in the dirt. “You’ve got a one-track mind, boy. But remember this. I live with the consequences of my actions. But what about you? Can you live with yours? Can you do what I did?”
“I’m nothing like you.”
“That’s what you think. Even you have to pay for the redress that you seek. The sword cuts both ways, my boy, and there’s a thin line between the justice you seek and vengeance. Happily, there’s a solution to that thorny problem of yours.”
Luth shakes his head. “Speak plainly, old man. I tire of this conversation.”
“I can give you justice, Luth,” Brangwent says. “I can also give you the freedom that you seek, for yourself as well as your brothers. Consider this as my parting gift to the kingdom that was once my home.”
The wizard bends down from where he sits and uncovers a bundle at his feet. It’s a war-hammer, head to spike to haft plain and unadorned. Luth shivers, thinks it’s an ensorcelled weapon like the sword he bears.
The warrior looks at the hammer for some time before turning to wizard. He says, “What do I do?”
“Die, traitor!” Wyrn cried as he swung his blade.
Luth angled his strike so that it hammered into the flat of the sword. When the blade shattered, it did so with an explosive blue flash that almost blinded Luth. On the other hand, Wyrn jerked back and fell off his horse with a thump.
Everything stopped in their tracks then, as Wyrn screamed and screamed while clutching at his head.
“What have you done?” gaped Cald in horror from where he crouched on the grass in pain. Rhoddaer stared in bewilderment, muttering, “That’s impossible! The swords are supposed to be invincible!”
As raindrops started falling, Luth flipped over Cald’s sword on the ground so it lay against a rock. Eyeing the king, he said matter-of-factly, “No sword is unbreakable, Rhoddaer. You of all people should know that.”
Then he swung down and smashed Cald’s sword into two in a flash of blue light. Cald’s screams joining Wyrn’s in a chorus of pain.
“No!” shouted Rhoddaer and turned his mount to flee. “You’ll not get me!”
Luth watched the king’s retreat figure and only turned when his brothers came up behind him.
“What magic is this, Luth? Are you a wizard now?” muttered Mafy while his twin warily gazed at the keening Wyrn and Cald. Auddo had Manno’s head on his lap and was shaking in grief.
Chuckling bitterly, Luth wiped the rain from his face. He thought of his own broken blade in its sheath, its pieces lying before his wife’s grave like an offering. “They’ll live. And I’m still the same brother you used to trip and trick when we were young.”
“But why, Luth?” asked Gwai.
“For the freedom they denied us at birth,” Luth replied. “If we’re to bring justice to the land, we’ll do it of our will, not because some wizard’s spell forces us to do so.”
“What… what do we do to make this happen?” asked Gerthy warily, his sword in one hand.
Surprised, Luth looked at Gerthy and gestured with a hand towards the sword his brother carried. “Trust me with your lives.”
“Afterwards,” he said, turning to look at the keep in the distance and the promise that lay there, “Afterwards, we live—not as swords—but as men.”
Tags: Joseph F. Nacino