Chapter Two


Havor's Holding


The smell of fresh pine logs burning first seeped into his half conscious senses. It was indeed that soft, sweet clean scent that woke him and then he suddenly remembered the noise of men wading towards him.  He opened his eyes expecting to find again the terror of that swamp, but he was sensible enough to control his fear and lay very still while he gathered his wits.  What came to him instead, were warm family sounds, the smells of a home and the controlled noise of the inhabitants of the house, trying not to wake him he guessed.

He lay without moving and only used his eyes, taking stock of this new situation very slowly, moving his head with utmost caution, for he knew not where he was, nor if he slept amongst friends or under the guard of enemies.  There were no windows in this house and there were no other doors save the one that opened to the world less than two steps from his bed.  Through that open door the sun streamed in, lighting the trodden earth floor and the rude appointments of the place. There was a platform loft above one half of the room, that part furthest from the door, with a rough ladder leading to it.  The bed he occupied was constructed of a hay filled mattress laid on a low platform of planks.  Other than that the walls were stacked with home-made shelves and cupboards and a large table stood before the hearth at the other end of the room, with two wooden chairs and some stools and benches drawn up to it. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he made out the features of the three thin barefoot children who were eating from bowls at the table and the woman who breast-fed her baby in one of the chairs.  

They were undoubtedly the poorest of people, dressed in homespun clothes and without shoes of any kind, their garments made from the same gray-brown cloth as the blanket that covered him.  Yet they were not dirty, nor did the home have the smell of stale human odors hanging about it as he would have guessed of such a place.  Two of the children were boys and although their clothes were little more than rags, their hair was cut and they acted with deference towards the woman who was obviously their mother.  The other child was a girl about thirteen years old with long shining hair tied up close to her head, to fall down her back like a horse's tail.  

He lay there for quite a while watching the five of them, noticing that there was no man present and trying hard to remember a past that eluded him even as he tried to conjure it up.  His total history before he had woken in this place was that nightmare of the swamp, which might in truth have been no more than a nightmare at that.  However all doubts soon left him that the battle and resulting death and destruction, vividly engraved in the small memory that he did have, were only a nightmare as he cautiously examined himself with both his hands and eyes.  There were scars where the remembered wounds had been, some still soft and not yet fully healed into scar tissue.  As he began checking the head wound that had split his scalp and let his memory escape him, he found that his hair had been chopped to within an inch of his scalp.  This upset him, for he felt he had reason to be proud of longer hair, though why this should be so he could not fathom.  In fact he began to wonder how it was possible for one to have opinions without the benefit of memory, however he passed that up immediately, for he did indeed have opinions, wherever they might have come from or upon whatever they might be based. 

He was so deep into this philosophical debate with himself that it was a shock when, without warning, the woman was standing beside his bed holding a beaker full of milk and smiling at him as if they were relatives, which for some reason shocked him even though it should be obvious that they might well be.  The children had come up also and they fidgeted behind her, being halfway between frightened and curious, trying to see everything, yet avoiding any real eye contact with him.  He finished the milk in quick order and had a fresh beaker put into his hands by the tallest of the children, the wide eyed girl, who looked as if she needed it more than he did.

"Where am I?"  He asked, feeling that his helplessness made it almost unimportant. 

"You are in the house of Casper Havor, in the Nation of Natan."  The woman answered with some respect in her voice.  

"Do you know who I am?"  He asked and that is not an easy question to ask he found when one is battling with the vanguard of total insecurity.  

"No Sir."  She replied, looking more than a little worried even as she said it.  "All I know about you is that six nights ago Kirene found you at the edge of our clearing, all torn up and unconscious.  We brought you in and tended to your wounds and since then you have slipped in and out of being conscious only long enough for us to feed you a little soup and now you've woken up.  That is all we know of you, Sir." Again that worried look crossed her face but it was gone almost as fast as it came this time.  He refused to let it go at that however.  

"You know nothing else of me?"  He demanded of her, not knowing how he would react if she were to relate to him that she did.

The worried look changed into one of puzzlement as she replied. "Well. I know you to be a soldier of the Brotherhood, because you were wearing the blue tunic of one, just as my husband Casper did when he left to fight at the side of his lord, the Prince Jarin of Natan."   Her confidence had begun to increase as their exchange had developed and she looked at him somewhat differently than before as she asked quietly,  "Did the blow that split your head also kill your memory then?"

"So it would appear Madam."  He replied, feeling both vulnerable and relieved to be able to share his feeling of helplessness with a fellow human being at last.

The conversation then dropped into silence for a while as she looked over his wounds without further inquiry or comment. At last he felt the need to keep up the exchange and as she replaced his blanket, satisfied with his progress it appeared, he asked yet another question.  "When will your husband return good lady, so that I may thank him for assisting me and no doubt saving my very life?"

She smiled suddenly for a moment, but then the worried look returned and this time it stayed on her face.  "I don't know when my husband will come back Sir.  Like I said before, he went off to fight with his Lord some months ago and none of us have seen or heard from him since then, so I guess they've not won the war yet.  I'm no lady either Sir, I'm just the wife of Casper Havor the charcoal maker, so don't you go calling me one.  I've got no taste for pretty lies, so's you call me Mother, like everyone has for more years than I care to think about."  

With that she turned to the girl and took the baby from her.  Being closer to the girl now, he saw that she had waist-length hair, dirty knees and feet and the biggest pair of startling blue eyes.  As she was the only girl in the room, she was obviously the Kirene that had found him.  Then without any show of modesty the woman, who had insisted that he call her Mother, unlaced her dress to display a heavy breast that she deftly maneuvered into the impatient mouth of the child, directly in front of him!   It seemed to him, though he knew not why, that a real Lady would not do such a thing in front of a man and a stranger at that.  Before the blush reached his face however, she had turned and returned to the chair on the other side of the room.  The child was now happy and quiet again and he found that he actually envied the child, for he had no such feeling of security.  He was in fact experiencing a foreboding that he was very much lost and although he was in these people's home, he felt very much alone.  


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Over the next few days he grew stronger, fed on good fresh cow's milk, home baked bread and a wholesome rabbit stew which Mother kept simmering in a black iron pot over the fire.  It became his habit each day to go outside immediately after breakfast and walk until he grew tired, then he would rest for a while in Casper Havor's chair on the porch and when his strength returned he would walk again.  This routine would continue all day, broken only by eating and drinking until sunset and while he regained his strength in this manner the Havor family worked their Holding.   All of them, mother and children alike, excepting only the baby whose care was entrusted to him for a great deal of the time, worked from dawn to sunset each day.  Mother Havor was a hard task master to her children, refusing excuses or slacking in any way, yet asking far less of the others than she herself put into the labors they had to perform. 

The years had been hard on Leana Havor, for that he discovered from the children to be her true given name and by careful adding upon what few clues she gave out, he realized she was not yet out of her twenties and would not be for a few years.  Yet she appeared old in so many ways.  Looking at her daughter one could recognize the likeness, but hard work, lack of education and giving birth to seven children, of whom only four had lived, had left her used up in many ways.  Her hair was always dank, even after she had just washed it, which she did not do very often and her body carried more fat than it should have, the result of her habit of taking snacks all day long and eating at least a second portion during the tasting breaks she introduced into her routine every time she cooked anything. Her attitude to housework was simple, that was why she had a daughter and she kept Kirene well informed of the fact from morning to nightfall.    

Mother Havor had a simple way about her in dealing with the children he was soon to discover.  When she wanted to be a mother to them she would laugh and play with them but the Gods help them if they demanded attention when she was not in the mood.  Her hurtful accusing words and tone of simple irritation, which she did nothing to hide, would bring tears to the small one's eyes.  Yet she saw herself as a good mother, she even considered herself close to them, while he was to watch, as fate would have it, as year by year she would alienate them from herself.  Mother Havor had an instinctive, if unintentional, self concern that she was able to justify to herself or anyone else at the drop of a hat.  She seemed to believe that she could never hurt anybody just because she did not wish to, nor could she ever admit to doing so when it happened as often as it did.  So she would arrogantly explain why she wanted everyone to fall in with what suited her, as if it were the listeners fault for not understanding her needs when something did not happen the way she had planned and she would do it with a look of hurt on her face that would soon make you want to agree with her.   

Of all of the children, in those first few weeks he saw most of Kirene and he soon came to understand that Kirene was expected to be both housewife and child minder, spending her day cooking and cleaning for the rest of them.  Yet somehow she managed to find time to help her mother and her brothers with both the gardening and the back breaking labor of charcoal making and all the other historically pointless tasks which make up a poor family's existence.  She was a very quiet child, the sort you suddenly notice after she has been with you in the same room for hours.  Often he would feel her watching him and when he turned to look at her he would get a quick shy smile, before she bowed her blushing face and hurried to be busy.  She seemed to be able to guess the needs of all of them, for whenever a beaker of water was required, Kirene would appear with it before you had the time to ask her for it or to go and get it for yourself.  

The boys, Kirdi and Hatrir, on the other hand, seemed lost in a world of their own most of the time, not noticing or caring what the rest of them were doing at all.  Kirdi was the eldest and was a gangling boy caught in that embarrassing stage between youth and manhood, who seemed to be all bone and muscle and not yet fully acquainted with his own motor values.  Of the two Kirdi was the leader, his dark hair bobbing along head and shoulders above the younger Hatrir's tow-colored head, as he led his little brother from one scrape into another.  Hatrir was a softer character than his brother, pudgy where the former was thin and he was naturally quiet whereas Kirdi always had his own opinion and never hesitated to voice it.  Although a stranger in their home he often felt a little protective to the quiet little Hatrir as he watched him following his brother around like a small adoring puppy, always seeing Kirdi as the ultimate hero in their self contained little world in the forest.   

During the working hours the boys spent their time cutting wood and stacking it into piles, over which they would then pack turf and damp soil, but it was Mother Havor who always set the light to the stacks, making the act a ritual with her muttered prayers to the Gods as she touched the flame to the dry tinder in the center of the wood.  Each day they would build a new stack and then uncover one that had completed it's burning time.  The whole family worked together to bag the charcoal and to carry and stack each sack in the barn behind the house.  It was Mother however, who made the whole endeavor run smoothly.  The woman also went out to set the snares each morning to catch the rabbits and other small animals, which would be skinned, gutted and boned outside the house, with the waste being thrown to the dogs, before the meat was dropped into the ever simmering iron pot that hung above the family's hearth.  

As the weeks passed he established for himself that Kirene was obviously being taught the tasks of a future wife by her mother, with compliments and scolding as the occasion demanded.  She milked the cow each morning and tended the vegetable garden alongside the house and she was assistant for every other duty the family performed as and when the shout came from her mother or brothers, which he noted early on was more often than events would seem to dictate.  

He soon came to feel something like being a beggar with no true affliction, as each day he did nothing save eat their food, sleep in their house and watch them sweat and slave from first light to nightfall from the ease of his chair, or rather from the ease of Casper Havor's chair.  However strong his pride might be, it was obvious to all of them that he had no choice but to be the helpless invalid that he was, for even walking for just half an hour tired him to exhaustion and without regular rest periods he developed searing headaches which made even the shadowed light of the porch unbearable.  It occurred to him often that the time leading up to the battle in the swamp must have been very hard, for he was no more than skin and bones and had looked like a man who had starved for many years in some dark dungeon, when he had arrived at Havor's Holding. His body had produced many sores which Mother was treating him for with strong medicines made by boiling herbs, vegetables and fruits into nauseating tasting brews he was made to drink, yet for his exhaustion there was no cure except rest.  His confinement had obviously added to his poor physical condition and his skin welcomed the sunlight he gained by walking to remove the yellow pallor of illness and deprivation.  Mother treated him like a stupid child most of the time, as if his state of being was something he had done to spite both her and himself and yet she also showed kindness and understanding, when another might have nagged a grown man who spent most of his time just walking or sitting around and she kept the children quiet whenever the headaches or weakness overcame him.  

She insisted that he call her Mother, as if it were some regal title, although he guessed she could not be much older than himself and in fact might even be younger when one considered what a life as hard as hers had been could do to a woman.  To show her final acceptance that he was destined to live and as if that fact had only just been ascertained, on the seventh day after he came out of his coma Mother presented him with a tunic and trousers made from the same homespun cloth that she and the children wore.  He had thought to ask her what had become of the clothes he had been wearing when they found him but, remembering the state they had been in when he had regained consciousness in the swamp, he guessed that they had probably been burnt without any second consideration as soon as he had been placed in the bed by the door. The event of him being given the everyday clothes of a peasant turned into a celebration of sorts and Kirene, all blushes and bowed head, trying hard not to show how much his appreciation of her gift could mean to her, presented him with a rough pair of laborer's boots fashioned from rabbit skins attached to a leather sole.  He understood that Kirene had spent many hours making them for him and so he spent several minutes examining them and complimenting her on her needlework.  Her eyes shone as she moved aside for his next gift to be presented.  Kirdi, the eldest of the boys at twelve years old, handed him a comb he had made from a piece of wood and quiet little Hatrir gave him a belt made of twisted twine with strands of colored wool woven into it.  If his thanks were a little theatrical they pleased the children and of course their Mother, whose pride shone from her smiling eyes with every compliment he paid to her offspring.   

The next morning he dressed in his new clothes, glad to be out of the blanket that had been his only covering for so long and he walked down to the river to admire himself in it's reflection.  Again Fate gave him a shock.  His cheeks had not felt a razor for many weeks for of course there was not one in the house, as Casper Havor had taken his with him when he had gone off to the war.  So the face that looked back at him from the water was the face of a peasant, bearded and topped with the cropped hair of a poor man unable to afford the services of a barber.  Yet the gray eyes which stared at him from dark sockets and the white streak of hair, that was the result of his head wound, he guessed, gave the face a strong, somewhat mystical look.  In fact it frightened him that someone with the insecure feelings he had most of the time could possess such imposing features.  He felt a great deal less confident than the strong countenance reflected in the slow moving waters of the river would indicate and in the end he dismissed it as a trick of the light and decided that a real mirror would show a far less imposing reflection of the truth.   

The banks of that small river soon became his favorite haunt, for there was peace in the continuity of life he felt there. Where it rose he knew not, but it flowed into the clearing from the north east and it was a good thirty feet across and some ten or twelve feet deep or so Mother assured him.  The house had been built near the only ford for miles she said and because of that fact there was scarcely a month without some traveler passing through the clearing, heading either for some great city or another.  To her that little piece of knowledge seemed to justify her constant attention to the appearance of the place.  For him however it was the natural beauty of the clearing that captivated him.  Many willow trees grew along the grassy banks of the river, throwing deep shadows on the opaque green waters and the clearing seemed to slope very slightly in both directions down to it's banks.  The clearing grew in size every year he was informed, as the Havors gathered wood for their charcoal fires.  Mother told him that since Kirene had been born it had almost doubled in area.  It was a peaceful place, the grass was thick and green and wild flowers added color to the landscape in blankets of perfection that perfumed the air both in the daytime and during the starlit nights.  Song birds filled the sky with their calls and the great forest surrounded it in a silent watch that at times convinced him the world ended some little way behind that wall of trees.  

He was soon to discover that the soil in this place was thick yellow-green clay beneath a mantle of black compost that seemed able to grow anything.  The vegetable garden behind the house provided the family with a steady harvest of herbs and roots, green vegetables and berries.  Fruit for the table was in abundance, for Casper Havor had been a good husbandman and had planted fruit trees around the house, partly for the beauty and perfume of their blossom, which had been the man's joy he was informed and partly for the fruit they produced for the family to eat.  It was without doubt the finest of places in which to recover from a war. It was over two weeks before he had the strength to do any work at all, save act as nursemaid to little Maer, but when he could manage it Mother took him with her to walk the trap-line that produced the meat they ate each evening and after a few days the responsibility of inspecting the traps and snares each morning became his.

 * * * * * * *

* * * * * * *

 The Simple Life  

The days moved into weeks and the weeks became months in that simple place, far faster than he at first realized.  Simple though the life might be, for the tasks demanded by such a life far from civilization are boring and mundane for the majority of the time, yet it seemed that every day was full from dawn to sunset.  As his strength returned he became involved in the labors of the family and soon became as one of them.  His particular joy was the vegetable garden and it's constant need for attention brought him much pleasure, enough satisfaction in fact to easily offset the back-ache it's tending brought him.  He doubled it's size in less than a month, much to the pleasure of the two mongrel dogs who were kept inside the walls that surrounded it to defend the crops from hungry vermin.   

On Herthesday they would walk the forest paths as a family after their attentions and thanks had been directed to the Goddess in the morning.  On these walks Mother would point out plants which they could add to their garden and they would come home carrying baskets of cuttings and full-rooted plants and new herbs.  They had no plough, nor draft animal to pull it, so the whole family took turns at digging the new ground to plant these additions, although as time passed most of the labor in their garden became solely his own.  He also discovered that there were fish in the river, but it appeared that none of the Havors had ever been taught to swim and therefore had always avoided it's banks except when they went to the ford to draw water.  It was a strange fact of his loss of memory that certain things were still known to him, without history or understanding whence he gained such knowledge.  One of these things was the knowledge that he knew he was not afraid of water, as were the Havors and he was convinced that swimming was probably as natural to him as was walking.  He was not such a fool however as to throw himself into the deeper stretches, so he stripped off and entered the river at the ford and tested his abilities in shallow water at first.  He was gratified to learn that the art of swimming was indeed known to him and he doubly enjoyed the fact that his ego had not led him to a death by drowning.  After some experimentation to fully convince himself of his ability, he took it as a duty to teach the others and within a week both Kirene and the boys were enjoying themselves like water babies.  There were no words however that would persuade Mother to venture into the water.  He joked with her that she was more worried of letting the sky see her naked than she was of the water itself and she walked away scolding him while actually blushing.  Whatever the true reason however, there was no doubt that swimming was as frightening to her as learning to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping his arms would have been to him.  She sometimes came and watched them but she did it from the safety of the bank and a good five or six paces from the edge.  There she would sit with Maer playing around her,  sewing  and mending or peeling vegetables, like a cat will watch her kittens romp, with herself maintaining an air of superiority at the whole proceedings.  

Once he felt safe in the children's ability to swim, he decided to teach them how to fish. Another of those strange remembrances,  for no sooner did he set about it than the ways of manufacturing rods and hooks, lures and baits, also returned to him.  The rods they made from long and straight new growth they cut from the abundance of the willow trees which grew along the bank.  They prepared them first by stripping off the bark and then they dried them by laying them against the surface of their working charcoal mounds.  They made the lines from an old bird net Mother found in one of her many cupboards which, after they had rubbed it well with beeswax, proved to be both strong and serviceable.  It gave him a sense of great accomplishment he discovered when he finally saw it attached to the poles.  Kirdi carved floats from some alder wood and they made hooks from the wire which was used to bind the charcoal sacks.  He hammered the wire into shape, filed the barbs with the old file Casper Havor had purchased to keep an edge on his axes and he formed the rings to attach them to the line and then fired his little creations in the ashes of the fireplace to strengthen them.  The weights for their fishing lines they made from one of the lead tags that were kept in the   to fix to each sack of charcoal to identify it as theirs.  It delighted Mother and the children that he was able to read the writing on the tags, for the whole family had never learned to either read or write.  On each tag were stamped the word "Havor", "Natan", "Vanaten 28".  This gift, the ability to read, also just happened to be there without any need on his part to work at it, he had just looked at the words and numbers and knew immediately what they were and what they meant.   

It took the three males in the family two days to prepare for their first fishing expedition and the long awaited morning arrived like a festival day.  They walked some way to a part of the river he had decided would suit them best, where it fed into a large pool surrounded by willows.  This shining pond had been formed where the waters had come upon an out-growth of rock, creating a small waterfall that had in turn carved out a depth unusual in their small river. At first it was hard for him to convince the children that without silence the fish might well be frightened away but soon everyone had settled down and there were four lines in the water.  The four small floats soon became the focus of four hopeful and concentrated minds.  They had baited their hooks with some of Mother's fresh bread squeezed into little balls and they had to wait no more than five minutes before the first float disappeared.  Kirene, whose float it was, got so excited that she almost lost her footing twice before he got to her and helped her play the fish into exhaustion.  Finally they brought it close enough to the bank to hook with the home made retriever he had fashioned from a small branch the night before.  He lifted the two pound fish ashore and proceeded to hit it hard across the skull to prevent it from flopping back into the water.  Then one of the boys shouted that his own float was bobbing and retreating away towards the center of the pool, anxious not to lose his rod he slithered and slipped back to catch it.  Soon they had two fish ashore, but the process of providing fish for the table did not sit well with the girlish reactions of Kirene and she announced that she did not want to fish anymore.   

Mother saw the whole thing as something only men and boys could ever enjoy and soon the two of them had taken Maer and left the men of the family to do the fishing.  A few hours later they had taken no less than twenty fish from the pool and returned home with their booty as proud as if they had just defended the holding from bandits against hopeless odds.  The female members of the family could not quite understand their elation, however they joined in as best they could and the day went down in the history of the Havor family as an auspicious one.  

Winter begins in the tenth month of the year in the forests of Natan and continues through into the third month of the new year.  Sometimes it is just wet and cold, whereas in other years the snow may last for two or three months and the frost will be hard enough to split the trees.  In the milder winters, he was told, it seemed that every day brought rain or showers, which turned the earth into a spongy, mud puddled carpet.  In hard winters the frost turned the land into a frozen solid and the rain and showers came as sleet and snow, driven before a blood„chilling wind from the north, piling snow banks around every obstacle in its path.   It was such a winter that first year he spent at Havor's Holding.  Long fingers of ice hung from every branch and around the eaves of the house and the river froze over to a depth of several inches.  During the day they could hear the cracking sound of branches breaking under the weight of snow in the forest around them, while at night the frost itself split the trees and the sky and land were so still that the charcoal cones continued sending their gray smoke into the cloudless star flecked midnight blue sky like solid vertical columns of gray glass.  

That particular morning the boys and he had risen at dawn and built and lit a new kiln and had then gathered armfuls of bark and discarded branches to carry back into the house where the heat of the fire would dry the wood out sufficiently for it to be used as firewood.  They were struggling through that frozen landscape pulling the firewood laden sled towards the house where hot food awaited them, when the first of the outlaws came out of the forest some way off, obviously heading for the house.  They reached the house before the outlaws and once inside dropped the bars across the door before the outlaws could get to them.  Looking through the small peek-holes in the door he counted their numbers and assessed their next move.  There were eight of them, three wearing the blue cloaks of soldiers of the Brotherhood, while the others were bundled in an assortment of rags.  They looked more like beggars than men to be afraid of and yet they possessed a quiet determination as they circled the house and they were all heavily armed.   

Their leader, whose tattered blue cloak covered a maroon tunic obviously once the property of a Church Trooper, was the first to address them.  "This is still the Nation of Natan, is it not?"  He shouted at the closed house,  "We are soldiers of the Brotherhood, we share the same blood as you, don't we?  Why do you lock your doors against us then?  We mean you no harm."

"You come here armed and ask us to just let you in?"  He shouted back after a moment,   "You must think we are fools if you expect us to believe we are in no danger in this situation.  Move on, for you will find us well able to defend what is ours.  Go find easier victims!" 

"Gods man." The outlaw leader replied,  "You are not our enemies, we only seek food and drink.  We are damn near starving and two of my men have frost-bite from sleeping out in the forest.  You have my word we mean you no harm, we just need your charity for an hour or so."  

Mother had already sent Kirene and Maer up into the sleeping loft and had armed herself and the boys with the largest knives she could find.  He stood at the window with his woodsman's axe beside him and his bow and a dozen arrows were leaning against the wall, yet he knew that if the outlaws got into the house they would have little chance against them outnumbered as they were.  However, as he watched them he realized that they were in no way preparing to attack them.  Several of them carried crossbows or long bows hung across their backs and yet they had made no move to take them up ready for an attack.  Neither had they removed the rags with which their hands were bound to keep out the cold and there was no way that they could wield a sword or a battle axe unless they took those things off.  It became apparent to him that they might even move off if the inhabitants fortified within the house did nothing and he began to understand their plight.  What if every door stayed locked against them?  How would they survive?  

Without consulting Mother, he decided to test his theory. "What is your name?  You.  The one doing the talking."  He called through the shutter.  

"Peran.  Peran Vanquestor. Captain of the Line in the Legions of Asiga."  The man shouted.  

"All right then Peran.  Move your men into the barn.  They can light the brazier up there to keep warm.  If you move back we shall put a bucket and some soap outside the door so that they may wash."  

The outlaws all moved back several yards and Kirdi lifted the bar on the door so that Mother could place the iron bound wooden bucket and two bars of home-made soap outside.  He notched an arrow to his bow, just in case they tried anything, but the door was closed and the bars dropped back into place without any incident whatsoever.  He returned to the peephole when the bars were back in place and shouted at them again.  

"Send one of your men to pick up the bucket Peran.  They can fill it with snow and then boil it up in the barn." A man shuffled forward through the foot deep snow and did as he had said. "When we see all your men leave, you may come to the door Captain Vanquestor.  We will bring you inside one at a time and feed you and minister to your wounds as best we can.  Then when you have all eaten, I want your word that you will leave our holding without harming us in any way."  

"You have my word Sir." The Captain shouted back at him and they watched as his men moved up the small incline and into the barn.    

A few minutes later a spiral of smoke sifted out of the barn chimney and they called the Captain of the outlaws forward.  Peran Vanquestor was younger than they had expected him to be when they let him into the house and he stank as if he had not washed in several months but he had left his weapons outside of the door when he had been asked to.  That had surprised them greatly, until they realized what the men in the barn would do to them should they in any way harm the Captain.  Mother fussed over the Captain like a long lost relative, bringing him a large bowl of steaming stew and half a loaf of bread and asking if he knew her husband.  He knew nothing of the fate of Casper Havor and he was obviously close to starving but he had the sense to eat slowly until the bowl was cleaner than if it had been rubbed with river sand.  Kirene and the baby sheltered well back, out of sight as they had been ordered to do, hidden in the loft above the kitchen table where the outlaw Captain ate his meal.  Then when Captain Vanquestor had finished eating they led him to the door and told him to send another man down from the barn.  They had no fear of his men having crept back down to the house, to be waiting outside the door ready to charge in as their leader was led out, for Kirdi and Hatrir had kept watch on the barn ever since the outlaws had entered it.  Nevertheless the knife he held was close to the Captain's back as Mother slid out the bar and opened the door for the outlaw to leave.  

"Thank you Woodsman." The Captain said as he bent to retrieve his weapons. "Your hospitality will not be forgotten." And with that short "Thank you" he trudged through the snow to the barn.   

Some hours later they had fed each of Vanquestor's men in turn and had done the best they could for the two who had frostbite and the one who had an arrow wound in his left thigh that might otherwise have turned septic had Mother not ministered to it.   It was late in the afternoon by the time it came for Peran Vanquestor and his men to leave and the family was beginning to doubt the sense of their generosity in helping this band of desperate men.  They had watched as the renegades had eaten their food, proving that these soldiers of a Lost Cause's usual diet consisted of far less nourishing or inviting fare than they had given them.  They had observed the outlaw's desperation and knew how inviting their warm home must be for men who had nothing to look forward to other than damp and freezing quarters such as the forest might offer them.  The time had come to see if their honor and gratitude would outweigh their need and greed.  As it was the outlaws kept their part of the bargain to the letter and although he kept watch for a couple of nights and none of them left the immediate area around the house for days, they did indeed never see that particular band of men again. After that outlaws did come to their home occasionally but they came knowing the drill and called to the house for permission before they left the forest.  Eighteen times in all they fed and ministered to such refugees and sometimes even the women and children who traveled the wilderness with them.  Once they even fed warm milk to a baby not three months out of it's mother.  However, it was obvious that Captain Vanquestor was living up to his word of not forgetting their hospitality, for on several occasions their guests referred to the protection that the good Captain's friendship now gave them.  

It was during the visits of these outlaws that it became necessary for him to have a name, something that had never been necessary when only the six of them had been around, for they had all referred to him simply as "boy".  So it was that he took for himself the name of  "Rune" which had an old  meaning of "mystery", which they all thought quite fitting when he chose it.  

He learned much from the people who made up those who were outlaws in Khanlar after the defeat of the Asigan Alliance and with whom the Havor family was to develop a symbiotic relationship over the years.  Strange as it might have seemed to the rulers of Khanlar, the life of the outlaws was not so different from that of many of the peasants who worked the land for their noble masters, without the stigma of being outside the law.  When they had taken to the back lands and forests after the War the outlaws had taken their families with them, and miles from the cities and main trade routes they had established their little hamlets, hidden deep in the forest, or lost in forgotten coves or high valleys.  Nor were they cut off from civilization as much as the Priests and the Army would have liked to believe.  Having regular, if rare, contact with the likes of the Havors, they were able to gain access to everything that the peasants working legally across Khanlar had for themselves.  In fact, in many ways, they were better off than their free peasant cousins, for no Landlord or Priest could demand their labor, or the favors of their pretty daughters. 

There were times when Rune wondered who was really the most free in the true sense of the word, the slave-like peasants who lived their lives at the whim of their masters, or the self determining outlaws who answered to no-one save themselves?    Later in life he  as to discover that most of the people such as the Havors, even in Nations that had not been part of the Asigan Brotherhood, did not fare anyway near as well as they did.  Their outlaw ex-enemies who had fought for the Brotherhood saw most law abiding people as still being their enemies and they understood the value of fear in their ongoing war with the Church and it's supporters.  The atrocities which were committed in those places fulfilled their purpose of instilling fear and the captured loot taken during such raids sustained many an outlaw band during the years that followed the Great War.  The Havors in fact prospered greatly in their trading with the outlaws, as did many others in the growing hidden economy funded by outlaw attacks on their erstwhile enemies.    


* * * * * * *

The End of the World and Beyond

Despite Mother's statement that they lived on a trade route, no-one save the outlaws and the charcoal buyer Vanaten had visited their clearing in the first year he lived with the Havors.  That first year Vanaten had made his rounds only three days before Kirene had found him and the second year they had thought it wise if he stayed out of sight in the forest until the charcoal buyer had gone.  It was when he returned to the house that evening after Vanaten's second visit that he realized important and unwelcome news had been brought by their visitors.   The whole family sat before the fire in silence and although he could not then put it into the words he would be able to use in coming years, he could see that their accepted satisfaction with their lot and the simple belief in the right of good over evil that they had held, had in fact become the very understanding that threatened them at that moment.    Stacked on the table were the best things from the trade goods they had bartered their extra bags of charcoal for with Vanaten but those luxuries were ignored, as were the other items still piled on the porch outside the door.  

Mother looked up at him as he entered, silently pleading for help, her eyes filled with tears that she obviously kept in only by determination.  She was controlling herself for the sake of the children he knew but it was obvious that inside her she felt helpless and she was trying hard to overcome and conquer it, rather than frighten the young ones.   

"The War is over Rune."   She said.  "The Church has re-established the Kingdom of God within the Land and every man who wore the blue tunic of the Brotherhood is in chains."  She let a sob escape as she handed him the document she had been clasping to her chest.

"Master Vanaten  told me what's in it Rune.  Does it mean I shall never see my Casper again?  What will become of us?  I don't understand." The sobbing finally came, tearing from the frightened woman as she clasped her children to her.  Her face seemed to lose muscle control and there was only the pride she always needed in front of her family to hold her from complete hysteria.  The children were confused, frightened and still trying to trust that she would soon put right whatever it was that frightened her and therefore threatened them at this moment.   

"Come, come.  It's never as bad as it would at first seem."  He said as he moved towards her and she rose to allow him to hold her for the very first time since he had arrived.   He comforted her, holding her close and whispering reassurances.  Finally she relaxed enough to sit down again but her face was still white and her eyes were red with tears that brimmed within them ready to fall again onto her already wet cheeks.  If the truth be told he felt more like sobbing with her than he did in comforting her with soothing lies but, as is often the way, in comforting her he found he was himself comforted.  At that moment in time he could not see what news could be worse, however the children's confusion was starting to border on helpless hysteria, so he dealt with that problem first.   

"Kirene, take Maer and comfort her, she doesn't understand.  Hatrir get me something to drink out of.  Kirdi find out a jug of your mother's wine and get your mother a beaker."  

It was amazing but with something to do, everyone suddenly started working together and the moment of collapse was past.  Holding back his own worst fears, he said to one and all:  "Let's have some quiet while I read this paper." As he read what was printed on that proclamation however, his stomach began to contract and he understood the confusion and helplessness Mother had exhibited when he had come in.  He read the proclamation twice to be sure of what it told and before the second reading was done he knew that, saving a death in the family, it was probably the worst news any of them would ever hear.  The paper was printed in bold black letters that emphasized the power and authority which backed it, but worse than it's cold, arrogant language, was the actual wording itself which had the ring of religious fanaticism.  It spoke of those who have sinned against all men, all righteous thought and even against the Will of the Gods Themselves it talked in harsh terms of the retribution that was the right of common good but the worse words were the little ones which denied even humanity, justice or honor to those who had followed the degrading heresy of the Brotherhood Somehow he managed to compose himself, although within him an ever increasing feeling of horror and anger fought to overcome him, yet finally he spoke to those gathered around him who were waiting for him to somehow make it all good again.

"We must just carry on as before but we must take pains to never show any liking for anything or anyone, to do with the Brotherhood."  He said to them quietly after he had finished. Mother however, was not in the mood for just words, 

"Read it to us, all of it and hide no part."  She said calmly, then added "I trust you to do that for me Rune."  

He thought about it for a moment, then read the document to them word by word.  When he finished reading Mother's face was as gray as the wood ash in the fireplace.  There is something desperate in the way that simple people can be shocked when things that they have heard happen all the time to others, actually begin to happen to them.  Mother, in her selfish determination to convince the whole family that she was in control of everything and that Life owed her peace and happiness, had over  the years convinced herself of the same lie and now that disaster threatened, she had no defense except to convince herself it was wrong and therefore could not be happening to her.  

"They talk of us as if we were animals."  She said quietly, "Do they grant us no rights at all, just because we followed our Prince, as we are bound to do?" Again she was trying to defend herself against fact.  She had not wanted this to happen, therefore she could have done nothing to bring it about, therefore it was not her fault, therefore it was wrong and she had a right to be angry about it.  Someone had got it all wrong, obviously.  She did not want to be involved and she had not done anything to be threatened this way, so she was angry, in the helpless concentrated anger of a pampered child who is refused something they want to believe they have a right to, when they know they have no right to it at all.   

"The Priests are frightened I guess."  He answered,  "I don't think they ever questioned their right to do whatsoever they wished before, nor did they ever believe that it might be questioned for them.  Maybe they never expected to come so close to being destroyed either and now their fear makes them see danger to their continued place at the top of things in everything about them and everywhere they turn.  But the words say `those who bore arms' and `those who conspired' against them.  If we can make them believe that we did neither, then it would appear we can continue to live as we always have but with new masters.  We can be no real threat to them, therefore maybe the document is just meant to frighten us into obedience, rather than actually threaten us."  

" But you did wear a blue tunic. . ."  The words had no sooner come out of quiet little Hatrir's mouth than his Mother's hand slapped hard across his face.  The slap brought shocked tears to his eyes, for Mother rarely raised a hand to any of them except in threat, her way was the loud voice and the cutting opinion launched before any physical action was necessary.    

"Wipe that out of your mind!"  Mother shouted, almost beside herself,  "Rune is my half-brother and was too slow-witted to go to the War."  

"What did you say?"  He asked incredulously.  

"I've always told everybody that's who and what you were, from an accident. . .  the scar across your head was proof to everyone." She answered.

"Thanks!"  He said, feeling both thankful for the disguise and outraged at her audacity at the same time.   

"They believed it before, so why change it now?"  She said, oblivious to the fact that his feelings might be hurt by her unfeeling way of stating it.  

Mother had found a reason why things were happening the way they were, with no blame that could be laid at her door.  That was it, responsibility absolved, she could now get on with her life and the fact that others might not like the way she explained everything away or directed their lives for them, never seemed to be any matter.  


* * * * * * * 

Lost in the Backwoods  


The buyer came twice to Havor's Holding every year in the third month after the Winter Feast and three months before it, therefore they had to accept that the problems were theirs alone to worry about and deal with, for they would be unable to discuss the meaning of the Church Declaration with anyone for a further half year, unless an unexpected traveler happened by.  So the whole matter became one of wait and see, and so, like working people always do in such situations, they went about their lives hiding their fears behind the honest concentration of their labor.  Each day their chores around the holding had to be done and then Rune would take the axe and the boys and he would go into the forest, to cut and pile wood for the charcoal making.  In the evenings they would eat only after the lack of daylight halted their labor.  After dinner Mother and he€would sit on the porch and talk for a while about the state of the weather, the distance to useful stands of timber and other daily considerations, before crawling into their beds to sleep the sleep of exhaustion.  

And so the days passed, Summer following Spring and then becoming Autumn, before anything else of note happened.  The Declaration however had changed Mother in a way that was not easy to see at first but with the passing months it became more obvious.  She had lost her blind faith that all things were for the best and that hard labor was the justification of everything.  The outside world had come uninvited into her life and had shown her that she was helpless against the powers that existed outside of her little clearing in the forest.  It was not something she talked of, but it affected her and her simple outlook on life was gradually eroded away, until it became something different to what it had once been.  Her confidence was not so certain and her indifference to what others did in the cities and other parts of Khanlar increased.  It soon became something she would rather not face and therefore she banned all talk of such matters, just in case it might affect her and her loved ones.   

They lived so far from any center of national life, that in time they were able to push aside all fears created by the Declaration with a dogmatic refusal to think about it.  They sent those fears into the private reaches of the mind that only bother you on a night when sleep is hard to obtain.  And so it was a rude awakening for him when Rune encountered the refugees.  

It happened totally by chance.  He was in the forest one crisp Autumn morning when he smelled smoke.  Of all the warnings that can frighten a forest dweller, none come near to the fear that the unexpected smell of burning can bring, so he ran towards it not knowing what to expect and suddenly blundered into the clearing where the refugees were encamped.   They were grouped around a tiny fire beside a tributary brook which fed their own small river, a man, his wife, two small children and a one-armed youth.  In his haste, he all but careered straight into them and their shock was as real as his own.  The man was on his feet in immediate reaction, yanking his spear out of the ground and taking the defense-attack stance of someone well trained to such action.  The youth had a short sword in his left hand almost without Rune seeing how it got there and he faced Rune calmly, as if this was a situation he encountered every day.  For several seconds they just looked at each other, even as Rune realized that he had also reacted out of instinct and had taken a balanced stand holding his axe ready to defend himself.   

"I mean you no harm."  He said carefully,  "I smelled the smoke and came to investigate, that's all."  

The woman moved fast to empty a kettle of water onto the flames, killing the fire in a cloud of steam.  Her two children scampered around the fire to put it between Rune and themselves.  Their faces showed that a regular diet was something none of them had known for a very long time.  The woman and both of the children had runny noses and the bone structure of their faces showed through beneath taut and blotchy skin.   

"Are you Church or Brotherhood woodsman?"  It was the youth who spoke and Rune realized that the one-armed man had somehow managed to move several paces to command a position on his right side.  Between them they had him well to rights, for if a fight indeed developed, he might down one of them but the other would stick him for sure, long before he could change position to counter a side attack.   

"I wore the blue tunic of the Brotherhood."  Rune replied, for if they were hiding in the woods they were no ex-Church troopers, that was obvious. "But my War has been over for a long time now."  

"Put down your axe."  The older man spoke this time, so quietly Rune almost had to ask him to repeat what he had said.  Rune relaxed his grip on the axe and let it slide head first to the ground, yet not actually letting it escape from his grip entirely.  Then they surprised him by relaxing so fast one would think they had in fact actually recognized him as an old friend.   

"Which Legion did you serve in?"  The younger one said and Rune's hesitation brought a sudden look of distrust onto the youth's face. I do not know."  He said, then pointed with his free left hand to the obvious scar on his "I took a sword stroke which left me a future but removed my past."  He inclined his head so that they could see the old wound more clearly, shown up as it was by the shock of white that ran like a paint stroke through his dark hair.  The young man smiled without any humor and returned to the now dead fire, squatting down into the position he had held when Rune had stumbled in on them. 

"I lost an arm, my mother here lost three sons and you lost your memory. all for a Cause that was itself lost even before the first sword was unsheathed."  

"It's not over as long as we live."  Said the older man defiantly, as if he wanted to believe his own words more than he really did. "The Gods will not allow such an injustice to happen that would turn good people into skulking animals, hiding in the woods and living on nuts and roots forever."  

"Forget it Father."  Said his one armed son, his tone indicating pity. "The Gods don't give a damn, that's if there ever were any Gods in the first place."  His words made the old man sink into what was obviously a well-practiced dismay.  The older man's cloak was tattered and clung to his bony frame like a death shroud, his head was now dropped forward and Rune saw the sores on his scalp beneath the thinning gray hair.   

"It's over all right."  The young man said, returning his attention to their visitor, "We were with the Zorian Legion, although in the end it was more like a gathering of the old and crippled and we were the last of the Brotherhood.  We had the honor of fighting for the last City of the Alliance to fall, though it didn't seem like much of an honor at the time.  Gods damn the man who ordered it.  It was no battle, just the slaughter of the few of us still able to carry weapons.  First they besieged us until half of us were either dead of starvation or sick beyond being able to walk and then when we finally offered it out of desperation they refused our surrender.  We knew from that moment we were damned, there was no way we stood any chance whatsoever against them.  Gods we were naive, we actually believed they would give us the chance to survive, seeing as we were long past being any threat to them.  We knew we  would end up as slaves or rot in some prison camp, yet we were so far down even that seemed preferable to dying right then." He rolled his eyes like a cynic.  "They beheaded the men who carried our surrender to them.  Made a real big thing of it to, just out of range of our walls.  Then they marched in six abreast, with drums and horns and banners flying and us with hardly the strength to fire one good flight of bolts into them.  There are no Gods.  No God that I was ever told about would have allowed that murder.  Them in their smart new uniforms, with shiny new weapons, bands playing and banners flying. . .  while they axed and piked men and women and not a few of the children too weak or scared to run away from them, with their damned Priests always there leading them on and encouraging them with promises of Eternity in the God's gardens for the horrors they were committing.  Gods blind the idiot who says War is a noble undertaking, I saw no noble acts in three years of it."  

Rune was so affected by the young man's cold and contained anger that he said nothing. 

"We were lucky."  The youth added with a grimace of a smile, "Father found a chimney to hide in and me they threw down the city well to drown, after they had destroyed my sword arm with a brick.  I nearly bled to death while I hung there, waiting until they set fire to the place and then marched away singing hymns, leaving a whole city burning from end to end.  The stench was awful my friend for the streets were littered with cooking corpses and the air rang with the screams of the injured and the sick who burnt to death for lack of a caring soul to pull them clear.  It took me a long time to get out of that blasted well and a damn sight longer to get away from the City.  I lost two days in a fever and another four holed-up with some deserters in a cave.  Cowards they may have been, or maybe they were the most intelligent men amongst us, but they saved my life.  One of them was a medic, he took my arm off and then sealed up the stump with pitch, otherwise I would not be here today.  They fed me too, until I regained strength enough to look after myself.  Then Father here arrived to save me and the lot of us ran into the backwoods." One of the children started crying and the old man picked her up and comforted her with a hug and a soft patting on her back.  

"That was a long time ago."  The old man said, "We picked up what was left of our family and what belongings we could carry and we've been running and hiding and going hungry ever since."  

"Where will you go from here?"  Rune asked helplessly.  

"I have an old aunt who lives in the Nation of Thar, she has a holding on the coast there."  The woman who spoke for the first time, obviously spurred on by her son's confidence in him. "The War did not go into that Nation as bad as most, so we're hoping no-one will disbelieve our story that Golar. . .  "  She pointed at her son,  " . . . lost his arm in a farm accident."  

"We think she may take us in."  The old man added,  "Her husband is a fisherman and we got on well before the War and he was always saying he could find a place on his holding for good workers.  Of course he may have changed his mind since then seeing as his Prince sided with the Church, but it's the only real chance we have, so we have to take it."  

"How long do you think it will take you to get there?"  Rune inquired, wondering as he did so if any of them would survive the journey in their destitute condition.  

"We need as much time as possible to pass before we turn up there."  Said Golar,  "If we had gone straight there, there's no doubt people would have questioned any story we put up and someone might have informed on us to the local troopers, that's why we are moving slowly and keeping to the woods.  When we turn up there can be no possibility of us being anything else than family from a Nation that was loyal to the Church.  The longer the war is over before we get there, the better our chances of just melting in with our relatives."  

"Are you sure there is no hope of reviving the Brotherhood, even now?"  Rune asked, not knowing why he asked the question save for a feeling that something most dear to him was ending before it's time. "There must be so many people like yourselves with no-where to go."  

"I am very sure, Woodsman."  Golar stated in a matter-of-fact tone. "We hide in the woods and consider ourselves privileged to be able to half-starve most of the time, most of our comrades are either in chains or are lucky enough to be dead.  As long as those cursed Priests can raise a thousand bigots ready to die for the Gods for every able-bodied man we can put into the field, you might as well forget any brave thoughts about reviving our Lost Cause.  Even if we could put together an army, who would lead it?  Prince Megaran of Zoria was the last of the Royal Blood within the ranks of the Brotherhood and I watched those cursed Priests and the morons they led, chop off his hands and feet and then feed that kind little old man to the hogs, before they threw me down the well.  I listened to his screams and their jibes and laughter for a long time before he finally died."  

"The Brotherhood is over."  Stated the old man sullenly, "They have killed everyone loyal to our Cause who had the least drop of Royal Blood, right down to babes still in their mother's bellies.  No man will follow a Cause without a Prince of the Blood to lead him.  From what we have heard along the way, foreign Princes and not a few Bishops are already adopting the titles of the Nations of the Brotherhood, so you can bet that in a century or less the very War itself will have been forgotten.  The likes of us have been forgotten already lad.  The Priests keep the  History Books and they are already writing us out of Khanlar's past.  The Brotherhood is dead and we must become new people if we want to survive the coming years.  We died in the War, all of us in the Brotherhood did Woodsman, it's just some of us go on pumping blood and breathing, that's all."  

Suddenly Rune realized that even as they had talked to him, they had been preparing to move on and were now packed and standing ready to leave.  

"Look to yourself, Woodsman."  Golar said offering Rune his hand, "Be grateful that your past is already gone, you are one of the lucky ones.  Now we must move on and you must forget us, we were not here, we never met."  And without ceremony the little band of refugees left him alone in the clearing.  

He sat there for some time after they had gone, wondering how men could create such a situation.  It always seemed that both sides in any war were able to convince themselves that they were right and supported by the Gods of course.  Then, in doing the right thing and being loyal to their Cause, they killed and maimed people they would never have harmed in their normal lives before or after the madness Mankind called War, they even seemed able to live with themselves when it was over.  How many men since the beginning of time must have murdered other men in the name of a Cause and defended their madness afterwards by calling it "just doing their duty".  

For hours he tried to make some sense out of it all, but at last he gave up.  Instead, he walked slowly home, feeling that perhaps the Hell that the priests talk of all the time was in fact what they were already living, every frightened and helpless day of their all but meaningless lives in this uncaring world.  He never did tell Mother about that day, not because he wished to hide it from her, but because he knew she would have never understood it and he had no desire to hear one of her simplified explanations which were designed only to fend those fears of hers away. 


* * * * * * *


Chapter Three

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