Chapter Four


The Renewing


It was at the end of Rune's second summer at Havor's Holding that Mother decided to "renew" the house.  Not knowing exactly what she meant, he joined in with them all as they built up their charcoal production to three stacks a day for a week.  They had increased the number of new mounds lit each day to two when he had added his labor to the family but three stacks meant that they often worked until well after sunset to catch up on other chores that had to be ignored during the day due to the extra workload. 

At the end of six days they were all exhausted and welcomed the day of rest allowed them by Herthesday that week, how tired they were was confirmed in that neither the boys nor Rune felt like walking the mile to their fishing pool.  The morning after Herthesday they rose for breakfast before dawn and the morning mist was still hovering in the clearing when they began renewing the house.  The plan was a complete mystery to everyone except Mother, so all of them just "did as they were told", without questions asked, or explanation given most of the time. 

Their first task was to remove every stick of furniture and everything that could be moved was included in that reckoning, into the barn, where Mother informed them they would also sleep until their task was finished.  It took the whole day to complete the removal of their belongings and all of the following day "seal up the house", as Mother called it.

This last activity was the strangest to understand, even as they were working at it, for none of them, except Mother of course, really knew why they were doing what they were doing.  The boys made endless journeys to and from the river to gather wet clay, which Mother and Kirene used to stop up every opening in the walls and eaves, they even sealed the cracks between the large planks that made the ceiling of the house beneath the thatched roof.  Rune's task in the affair was simple, if strenuous, in that he was sent up on the roof to drag up a large stone to cover the opening of the chimney, then he was instructed to take a bucket of clay and carefully seal it into place.

After every crack, hole and opening in the house had been sealed, save for the door itself, they were set to gathering dry wood which they stacked in the fireplace and then covered with live pine branches still clad in their bright green foliage.  Rune made a point of inquiring of Mother  whether or not the resin in these pieces might not flare up and set the whole house alight.  To this she screwed up her face while she considered it for a second and then told him it was alright. 

The final touch she added herself when she had inspected the fire, and agreed that it would serve she then laid large pieces of wadding on top of the fire they had built.  The wadding squares stank of some herbal brew and looked like they had been coated in fresh green cow dung.  Mother then struck the steel on flint with great ceremony and when the spark started the tinder smoking she blew on it softly until a little yellow flame burst into life.  With great care she then placed the now burning tinder in the little nest of dry twigs that she had laid beneath the other makings of the fire while they were building it.  They waited until the fire was burning well, which appeared to be signaled when none of them could either breath or stop coughing from the vile smelling thick smoke escaping from the fireplace and then they withdrew, fast!

Mother  and Rune quickly set to and applied great handfuls of wet clay to the gaps around the door until the whole house was sealed better than a wine flask.  Kirene appeared soon after that with platters of cold meat and fresh bread and butter and they all retired to the barn to watch the results of their day's labor.  All except the boys that is, who once they finished eating were put to hauling buckets of water up to the yard to fill the barrels which stood there.  

Mother explained this precaution very simply,  "Once when my father was renewing our old house the air got in and the place burnt down before we could bring water to put it out."

"It seems very risky to me,"  Rune said,  "What happens if the same thing happens to our house, there's not enough water here to put the fire out and if the thatch catches it would take more than you and I and the children to put it out."

"When my father did it wrong, and our house burnt down, my mother and us children were more than happy about it."  She  smiled at her memories as she talked,  "He had to get off his backside and build us a new and bigger house.  He'd never have done it if the old one hadn't burnt down."

"How many times did he manage to do it right, without the house being burnt down?"  Rune asked.

"Far as I remember we only renewed our house the one time and that time it caught fire and burnt down.  My father always was a pretty lazy man, he never did anything right, as I remember."  She was still smiling he noticed, almost as if it were all a fond memory.

"But other people do it right all the time, don't they?"  Rune persisted  ". . . and we are doing everything right today, are we not?"

"Who knows?"  This time she laughed outright,  "All I know is this is how my mother told my father it should have been done.  Believe me, I will never forget it, because she screamed it over and over at him for years."

With that she laughed again and went into the barn, calling at him over her shoulder "We'll know in the morning won't we?"

He was to spend the whole night watching the wraith-like smoke escaping from the house through the thatch as he sat in Casper Havor's porch chair in front of the barn.  The moonlight and the calls of the forest denizens did little to help his ease and neither did the occasional whining of their two dogs who sat beside him, their occasional doleful looks making it seem as if the were merely waiting for the inevitable disaster to happen. 

He slipped into a fitful slumber some time during the night and had nightmares of being trapped inside the house while it flamed around him and he awoke expecting at any second to be crushed beneath the weight of the thatched roof collapsing down upon him in roaring flames.  Instead he woke to find Mother standing beside him with a bowl of fruit and a beaker of milk and to feel a soft dew falling as hazy yellow sunlight bathed the clearing all around them.

For a moment that panic between dream and reality caught him and he jumped up expecting to see a pile of smoldering ashes.  The house still smoked but it was also still intact.

"That should have killed every flea, ant, beetle, spider and any other living thing that was unable to get out and stay out."  Mother said as she handed him the platter.  "And them's that think themselves able to survive will soon find they's got longer to go yet."

"So what's the next step in your renewal program?"  Rune asked, truly dreading that it might be further slave labor, which in fact and of course, it surely turned out to be, as usual.

"Few miles north east of here there's a swampy area where the reeds grow thick and strong and that's where you and the boys will be for the next few days Rune.  Should allow you all to build up a real appetite."  She laughed as she said it, but he knew it would be no laughing matter for the boys and himself, only he did not know then how prophetic his fears would prove to be.  It  took them the better part of two hours to walk to the place where the reeds grew, just as Mother had said it would and just as she had promised she set them all to work immediately.

Rune's first task after they arrived was to construct a rough sled that would carry the reeds back to the house, pulled by their cow and led by Mother and Kirene.  The boys were set to cutting the first load under Mother's direction, while Kirene and he catered to Maer's needs and lashed the branches he had gathered into a crude platform with two runners beneath it.  

The boys  complained greatly about their part of the operation and, knowing that soon he would be working alongside them, he could see their point of view.  The reeds grew thickly in this half moon shaped bend of the river, but there was no pleasure in walking through them no matter how pretty they looked.  The  main course of the river was some way off and the reed beds grew in a few inches of stagnant dark green oil-like water that never moved.  It also seemed that every insect the Gods had ever created had come to these reed fields to live and the air was congested with all sorts of flying bugs.  Butterflies and dragonflies hung in the air or were tossed in the occasional breeze and were beautiful to watch in their flying dance, however the midges, flies, wasps and other less beautiful insects, which liked to bite humans, were nothing less than annoying and sometimes absolutely aggravating beyond ordinary human endurance.  

Every step stirred up the black mud in which the reeds grew so abundantly, sending unseen worms and other small inhabitants of the slime, wriggling between their toes or slipping from beneath the palms of their bare feet.  The stench of putrid rotting death beneath the water which their moving feet stirred up with every step, brought up smells that gagged them.  Every movement through this evil smelling slime was enough to make them fear being bitten by something, from whose poison they would die in agony, or that somewhere beneath their toes some evil great snake-like worm of a creature was waiting to tear off a leg and the fear of quicksand seemed to lay beneath every conscious thought.

Mother made several faces which showed her disgust at the stench, but not enough disgust obviously, to wonder about the her son's discomfort.  She wanted reeds, therefore someone had to gather them and she had strong opinions about how it should be done.  "Not so high, Kirdi!"  She shouted,  "Cut them as close to the base as you can.  The longer they are, the less cutting you have to do."  "For the sake of Heaven Hatrir, watch how you swing the knife, I haven't got the time to sew your hand back on."  "Try not to sink in too deep before you move your feet Kirdi, or you'll feed the worms by nightfall."  "Kirene, get down here and help me tie the bundles."  "Rune, tie that stupid cow to the sled before she wanders off."

It never ceased to amaze him how Mother managed to keep talking and working without pause, even for breath, hour after hour, but she did so consistently.   As soon as the sled was piled high with the first harvesting of bundled reeds Mother took up a switch and set the cow moving back towards the house.  Kirene carried Maer on her hip and with her other hand held the lead rope for the cow.  When they were out of sight the boys and he took a break and ate some bread, washed down with the milk Kirene had gotten from the cow while he was building the sled.

"No point in her carrying any extra weight."  Mother had said before they left, covering the bucket with a cloth and telling them to use it to keep their strength up, while in fact she was denying them any excuse to slow their labors.  All that day and most of the next, the boys and he tested muscles they had forgotten they had, or had not used before or the boys had not realized they had prior to this date and they all gained some pretty impressive calluses from wielding the large gardening knives they used to cut the reeds.  Mother and Kirene however did not exactly have an easy time of it either and they walked many barefoot miles and unloaded many sled-loads, before they had stacked up enough reeds to satisfy Mother's wishes. 

The work that day was soul destroying and if they slept the sleep of exhaustion the first night, they slept the sleep of the dead the second.   When they awoke the fourth morning he was amazed to see that strings of smoke were still drifting skyward from the house and hanging about the dew dampened thatch like it was part of the roof itself.  

The family ate a leisurely breakfast that morning and afterwards Mother set them to work with less fervor than she had in the days before, for it seemed that she knew just how exhausted they all were and therefore was making allowances for them.  She rushed no-one, chided far less than normal and even pleased them with snacks and drinks every so often, during that day however they managed to harvest many sacks of meadow grasses from the fields around the house, which mother then flailed halfheartedly in the yard area before the barn to extract the grains.  After she had done that they piled the hay left over in front of the house and covered it with sacks to prevent it from blowing away.   When that was done, a good hour before sundown, Mother presented them with a cooked meal she had prepared on an open fire in front of the house and then allowed them all to retire early.  

Mother's understanding disappeared about the time she woke them the next morning.  Before the sun had topped the horizon, the boys and Rune were digging away in front of the house to clear the surface soil and expose the thick yellow clay that lay a few feet below ground level.  When they had cleared a circular  patch about a dozen paces in diameter, they were set to turning over the first foot of that sticky yellow stuff.  Then to Rune's amazement Mother had both the boys strip out of their clothes and tie about their loins the equivalent of a wrestler's loin cloth.  The youngsters both looked at Rune in some trepidation obviously hoping for an explanation, but he knew no better than they their Mother's intentions  at that time.  

Her next request was even stranger for him to fathom, for she asked him to turn the first of the water barrels over to spill it's contents into the pit they had just made.  Then, when he had done as Mother had bid him, she told the children to "jump in the pit boys, dance around and have some fun for a while.

The boys needed no second bidding and soon were screaming with glee as their prancing feet churned the water first to a yellow sauce and slowly into a morass of slimy ooze.  Into the pit Mother then started throwing handfuls of the chaff and hay and the truth came to everyone.  The boys stopped their happy shouts when they realized the work ahead of them and soon were plodding around the pit with all the joy of dray animals driving the heavy stone of a grinding mill.  Beneath their feet the hay and chaff were forced into the clay to produce a daub mixture, which had been the canny woman's aim all along.  

Leaving the boys to treading the grass into the clay Mother led Rune to the house.  The moment had come to open the door and then dowse the fire before the sudden influx of oxygen could raise it to it's potential fury.  If it had not been so important to their future, the two of them rushing into the smoke filled house to throw buckets of water into the fireplace before staggering out again coughing and trying to see out of red-rimmed watering eyes would have been hilarious.  

At last the danger was declared over and the smoke had all but cleared from inside the house and they began the hard work of dragging out the debris from the fireplace and knocking out all the smoke stained plaster from between the box like structure of the house itself.  Using a small trimming axe and a broken hoe head they spent much of that day exposing the old wickerwork of twisted willow sticks to which the old daub had been applied.  It was dusty and tiring work but by noon of the next day the boys were carrying buckets of new daub to force into the wickerwork to take the place of the old plaster they had removed.  They continued square by tiring square while Rune and Mother carried out the debris and cleared the floor of chunks of broken plaster.  By mid-afternoon everyone was working on the plastering.  Their hands ached as they forced handfuls of clay into the wattle, plunging their hands into conveniently placed buckets of water occasionally to make the work easier, for the clay dried out on the surface within minutes of being applied.  Soon everyone was involved in the task and they began to look like the mud-monsters that country mothers scare their children with when the youngsters fail to wash as often as they should.  It took them all of six days to re-daub the house inside and out and another ten to remove the old thatch and replace it with new.  The old thatch was taken some way from the house and carefully burnt by the two boys, with Rune supervising, and the ash gathered and either scattered over the vegetable garden or stored for later use.  

Then Rune took control of the situation for a while and convinced Mother that a couple of windows would be an advantage and he went off to construct a new door and shutters for the windows he wanted, while Mother and the boys finished the final clean-up tasks and sweeping out the dust that had accumulated in side the house. 

How happy they all were.   Rune with his adze and saw, Mother pounding her prized pieces of chalk into a powder and then mixing it with size and water to manufacture whitewash, while Kirene was scrubbing the stones of the fireplace with river sand and lye soap to remove years of grease and dirt, to say nothing of the thick film of soot the recent fire had deposited upon it.  The boys were given the job of clearing the old soot deposits from inside the chimney, and after that filthy task was completed, they were designated the task of whitewashing.  Forgetting that it was supposed to be work they were soon happily using the brushes he had given them to slap the creamy liquid on the semi-dry new daub  and like all such boy-like adventures, they eventually had almost as much on themselves as they had applied to the walls.  

The whitewash dried quickly and when it had Mother set the men to their next task.  Each of the boys was set to scraping all the timbers that were exposed inside the house, removing years of grime, soot from the renewing and recently splashed whitewash to expose the original oak surface.  She had the boys taking turns at the labor with a two handled scraper blade, that she had bought from the trader the last time he had passed through.  After they had been set to that, she brought out an old can from the barn and poured a little of it's evil smelling contents into a bowl and then added a pint or so of oil, and mixed it thoroughly with a stick.  Then she handed it to Rune, explaining that he should paint it on all the wood that showed, within the house and outside.  There was no need for her to explain to him that this was an insect repellent, made from an old recipe handed down through her family, although she did so anyway, for the stench was so bad it managed to repel everyone out of the house while he went about the task, even the dogs moved as far away from him as they could get.  It would be almost a week before the smell finally dissipated, but even he had to admit that it looked good, defining the evenly set timbers as it did, when he had finished his work.  

At last the house was done and stood empty and looking like it had only just been built and they all stood around enjoying it for a while.  Then mother and the children set to preparing the furniture to go back inside, rubbing off years of accumulated grease with a mixture of fine river sand and water, applied with pads of damp cloth and a lot of hard rubbing.  The smell of bubbling glue soon filled the air, rising from a pot suspended over a small fire in front of the house.  Mother inspected every joint of every piece of furniture and found most of them in need of strengthening.  It was during this operation that Rune had the idea to pave the floor of the house, however it was not received with the thanks he thought it deserved when he proposed it to Mother and the children.  Yet Mother was not the type to turn down an offer which might make her life easier and an hour after he had put the idea forward she was not only agreeing with him, but in fact seemed to be taking the honor of having first suggested it.  

The actual carrying out of the task took more sweat and concentration than any of them had expected, yet, just as Rune had promised, it was to change their standard of living greatly.  The first  thing they had to face was digging out half a foot of the existing earth floor, which had been battered into an almost stone-like strength by generations of bare feet.  Condensation and the occasionally spilled water,  milk, soup and Gods knew what else, had created a top layer some two inches deep with the density of aged oak and it took many hours labor with the axe to break through it and expose the clay beneath it.  As it was it took he and the boys two days to move out those few inches, leaving a deep excavation which the boys and he then filled with river sand dragged up to the house with their cow drawn sled.  That poor cow began the house renewing fat and happy and ended it sad-eyed and many pounds leaner.  

Finding the slabs of stone to pave the floor was no problem, for between the house and their fishing pool many outcrops of limestone had been broken for them by frosts and heat waves over the thousands of years since they had first been pushed up from the depths of Ladlo's Kingdom for Sinners below the earth, where the heat was so intense it could melt rock itself.  The boys loaded the slabs onto the sled and dragged them back to the house, where Rune chose from them and laid them into the pattern the floor was becoming.  Mother and Kirene stamped the stones into place, adding or removing handfuls of sand as was required to keep the surface flat and level.  Rune checked the level of the floor as it grew with a long plank he had found in the barn, allowing a slight run off to the door, so that they would be able to just throw down buckets of water, which could then be swept out of the door without leaving puddles.  The height of the floor came level to the foundation timbers, which stood several inches above ground level on their limestone foundations outside the house.  Beside the slab which served as a doorstep outside, Rune had the boys dig a deep soak away which they filled with small stones and chips of limestone and then covered with sand.  The finishing touch to complete his floor laying was accomplished with a mortar he made by mixing sand, limestone dust and clay together, which they then forced into the cracks between the floor stones with their fingers.  

At last the house was finished and although the timbers had already housed several generations before Casper Havor had brought his new young wife to the place, it looked as if it had only just been constructed.  Six weeks to the day after they had started, the house was renewed to Mother's satisfaction and all the lost sweat and strained muscles were worth it.  The little house gleamed like a white jewel in the middle of the emerald clearing, beneath a sapphire blue sky beside the silver river, as they looked back at it from the forest on their first Herthesday afternoon walk after it was completed.  There was no Prince more proud of his impregnable castle, nor Priest of his marble temple, than they were that day of their house lost deep in the forests of Natan.

* * * * * * *

The Wife of a Charcoal Maker

Mother knew  very little about the Asigan Alliance or the Brotherhood and seemed to care even less, except for the fact that it threatened her family.  She obviously cared that it had taken Casper Havor from her, but her expressions of loss showed that there had been little romantic love in her marriage, as she seemed to view the loss more as that of a father and provider, protector and guide, than as a person for whom she cared about deeply in any romantic fashion.  She confessed also that her lack of reading and lack of knowledge which traveling might have given her, left her with few real facts to put together a judgment of the whole affair.  All she knew was that some of the Nations or rather their Princes, had refused to pay some Church Tax or other that the Church had demanded they pay and because of it the War had come about.  Which Nations or Princes had decided to face the Church's wrath she was not really sure.  She knew that Natan and of course Asiga, had done so and she remembered that Casper had said Sedanna was involved and Rune was able to add Zoria to the list through his meeting with the refugees, but other than that Rune was unable to learn very much at all of the Brotherhood or the Asigan Alliance from Mother.  So it was that he was unable to know which Nations comprised the Alliance, nor for what they had fought, all for whose Cause he now found himself without memory working as a charcoal burner in the forests of Natan.  Come to that he knew almost nothing of the land within which he lived or for that matter exactly what a Nation was or how it was governed either.

It  was some months after they renovated the house, a few week €after mid-winter night, that two Church troopers rode into their clearing and asked for something hot to eat for themselves and forage and water for their horses.  It was a little after mid-day, but the sun was still hidden behind banks of lead gray clouds and the damp forest chill that had persisted since dawn that cold morning still held their clearing in it's foggy grip. 

The troopers hobbled their well-fed horses outside the house and Mother led the two men inside and began ladling some of her soup out of the ever simmering stock pot for them.  The boys and he were dispatched to fetch water from the river for the animals.  It had been colder that year than any the family could remember and they needed to break the ice that edged out into the water from the bank, to be able to draw that water.  They saw to the horses from the buckets and fed them a little of the hay from the now much depleted store they kept on hand for their cow, for the frost had left the grass in the meadow blackened and going rotten with the damp.  Their task done, they hurried back into the warmth of the house, sending out from their mouths great clouds of breath that froze before them as they ran.

The looks the two troopers gave Rune proved that Mother had again explained him away as her half-witted, half-brother.  It was confirmed when one of the men made the sign of Readu, he who keeps away bad spirits and demons.  Rune adopted a childish demeanor to strengthen the tale and squatted down just inside the door, beside the axe he always kept there.  Soon the troopers were ignoring him and talking to Mother about the tricks of Fate which brought on such loss, as if Rune were deaf as well as half-witted.  

"My eldest sister's third daughter was a half-wit. . ."  The older of the two troopers said as he refilled his mug with water,  "Strangest thing she was too.  She spent most of her life taking all her clothes off and running off into the woods to talk to the animals."  He chuckled as he related this part of the tale, "Made her real popular with all the boys in her village of course, "specially cause she was a mute as well.  Gods knows how many of 'em played a little time on her, but the poor little thing was pregnant by the time she was fourteen an' every year thereafter until some animal slit her throat for her. . .  what was she then?  Nineteen, twenty?  Anyhow all of her off-spring turned out fine, normal as Hell and nothing wrong with any of them at all."

The younger man finished his soup first and the heat of the hut and the strength given him by the hot meal and the talk about the older man's niece, turned his thoughts to his own manhood.  He rose and moved towards Mother in a way no-one could mistake, until a diplomatic cough and a sideways look in Rune's direction by the older trooper was enough to make the younger trooper reconsider his lust and return back to his seat.  Rune was bigger than either of the soldiers and the years of hard work had built muscle that identified the strength he possessed.  Also his axe was now across his knees and the blade was feeling the caress of his whet-stone, while his eyes watched silently every move the troopers made.

They sat at the table before the fire while he sat with his axe by the door which was the only exit from the room for them, every now and then glancing at them with the most sullen look he could muster.  Mother fussed over her stew pot without noticing the silent exchange or pretending not to notice, Rune knew not which.

"Is the half-wit dangerous?"  The older man asked after a while.  

"As long as you don't make any threatening moves towards me or the children, or try to touch that axe of his.  Sometimes I think he loves that axe more than anything in the whole wide world, you know it's so sharp I won't let the children go near it, in fact I often tell him he will wear it away the way he keeps working at it.  Gods know, you could shave with the thing it is that sharp."  Mother said.

"How does your husband take to him?"  The younger man questioned.

"Oh, my husband died a year or so back, but it was old age and the fever, not Rune, what did it for him."  Mother replied.

Rune watched these examples of the soldiers who had defeated the Brotherhood and noted that underneath their brave uniforms they carried more than their share of the fat of good living than any troopers should.  In fact without their helmets they were not very frightening to look upon at all, more like well-scrubbed religious farm laborers than real soldiers.

"Did your half brother he fight in the War?"  Asked the older man, a sly look coming into his eyes.

"The Church turned him down saying he didn't have enough sense to follow the simplest orders."   She replied, not stopping in her make-work activities.

"This is the Nation of Natan. . ."  the trooper stated, almost as if he had caught her out lying to him.   "How come it was the Church what turned him down, I thought all Natanese men followed their Prince like the sheep they eventually turned out to be?"  

"That might be in the City or in the towns, but out here in the woods we're Gods-fearing folk.  There ain't no way we would fight against their Priests, that would be sinning."  Mother said, with more seriousness than Rune would have believed possible of her in putting together such a lie.  She served them a second bowl of soup each and the talk died while they ate.

Rune realized right then that it was only their uniforms which set them apart from other men, for compared to their own homespun rags the troopers looked like lords in those well made maroon tunics with their carefully spaced brass buttons.  Their tailored tunics were also ribbed with black braid at cuff and collar and the same braid was repeated down the seams of their trousers.  They wore heavy leather belts hung with an assortment of polished leather pouches, matching in color and craftsmanship the sturdy knee boots they had stamped into the house in.  They did not however look "honorable and brave" in any meaning of those often misquoted words.  In truth they had that scared look of the man who preaches something he does not really believe in and is frightened he will be found out.  Several times both of them took time to nibbling at their nails displaying the demeanor of unsure children.

"You have any trouble with outlaws out this way?"  The younger trooper tried to ask the question with little or no emotion in his voice, however there was an edge to it that Rune could not miss.  

They were frightened!  It hit him like a thunderbolt.  These two buffoons were deep inside enemy territory and they were frightened.  One plus one equals two - meaning that there must therefore be something to bring on that fear.  Maybe there were more of the Brotherhood like Captain Vanquestor's band still at large in the forests and mountains of Khanlar than the Declaration or these men's presence, would have poor country folk believe.  For some reason he just knew that those who ruled the land would be quite willing for the occasional pair of troopers to be lost, provided their journeys convinced large numbers of the population that the Church had no fears.

"Why are you still soldiers if the War is over?"  He heard the words dribble from his lips, congratulating himself at the deception of stupidity he had already built around himself.  

It was like a door opening, letting the noise of a busy yard into a silent room.  The shock on their faces was a joy to behold and obviously they soon forgot that it was a half-wit who had asked the question and launched them into giving him more information than he had gathered in all his years on Havor's Holding.

"Without us soldiers out there looking after the likes of you boy, you would be scrounging around in the forest eating mice and beetles for your dinner."  The elder of the two troopers turned and snapped the words at him.  

"You living way off the beaten track likes you all do here makes you a lot safer than most folks Lady. . ."  He then addressed himself to Mother,  "Gods know how many outlaws there are running around these days, an' it's not just the outlaws left over from the Brotherhood either; in the cities and towns these days a man'll kill you for a loaf of bread if he thinks he'll get away with it."  

"We heard from the trader last time he was here that people are starving in the cities and the plague is moving across the land."  Mother kept busy by the hearth as she talked,  "I thought he was just playing city gentleman and trying to frighten us poor country folk, you mean it's all true what he said then?  We knew so little about the war, living all the way out here in the backwoods an' all."

"Aye Ma'am, more than just true, it's a bad time in Khanlar these days for just about everyone, an' if it weren't for the Army it'd be a lot worse I reckon, don't you Maylar."  The young trooper said, leaving the older one to take up the tale of woe he had begun.

Rune tried to record in his memory everything they said after that, storing this precious information  they passed out like a squirrel gathers up nuts in the autumn.  He learned that there were still bands of outlaws, ex-soldiers of the Brotherhood, all these years after the war had officially ended, who had refused to give up and die and were causing the Church a lot of trouble all over the place.  They were attacking isolated garrisons, way-laying unsuspecting troopers and even Priests and they were even able to recruit others into an underground effort to resist the Church's new policies of retribution.  They freed slaves and prison camp inmates alike whenever the chance arose.  He also heard how these same outlaws attacked and then melted back into hiding in the very towns and villages that the Church controlled, or they disappeared into the forests, hills and swamplands to attack the next time many miles away.  He heard how these leftovers of the Brotherhood poisoned the wells of foreign merchants and adventurers who were moving into what had been the home Nations of the Brotherhood and how they ran off livestock and burnt down barns in Nations where the Church had it's strongest support.  In fact the way their guests told it, it would appear that the Church had more trouble with these malcontents who could attack and then run and hide, than they had had with the Brotherhood Legions they had so outnumbered in open battle during the War.

With carefully disguised questioning, and maintaining his pose as an idiot, Rune was also able to learn that along with the Nations of Asiga, Natan, Sedanna and Zoria, the Nations of Zikon, Dang, Jontal, Mozag, Mang and Dala had raised Legions to join the Brotherhood's Cause.  Yet the greatest joy their visitors words brought was the fact that the Church itself did not believe that all the Princes of Royal Blood were dead.  

"I know they tell everyone that they aren't none of the Brotherhood Royal Families left alive an' that they killed every last one of 'em, but I know's different.  You get to hear a lot of the things they don't tell the people when you ride courier duty like me an' Maragor 'ere do every day."  The older trooper, having established his credentials as it were by that statement, lit his pipe now and began regaling them all with his own importance, as the carrier of secret messages across the length and breadth of the country.

"Prince  Zorigan of Asiga, him who founded the whole Asigan Alliance and led the Brotherhood Army during the War, Prince Natarian of Jontal what led their fleet and the young Prince Jarin of Natan who commanded their men in the last battle at Mang, which ain't far from 'ere you know, well they never in fact 'ave been identified beyond any doubt amongst the dead or the captured you know.  In fact I heard some officers, including a General, talking and heard them say that they truly believed that those three are behind all the trouble the Church is now experiencing."

After they had voiced their fears however, the troopers fortified themselves again with tales of the War itself, crediting themselves with great acts of heroism and leadership,  which Rune for one truly doubted them capable of by any stretch of the imagination.  Yet some of the stories they told had that terrible ring of truth to them, convincing him that they had indeed happened in one form or another. 

Helped no doubt by the beakers of wine Mother had given to each of the troopers, they vied with each other to educate these ignorant peasants living in the back of beyond, the full account of the greatest war in Khanlar's history.  They told stories about whole towns of starving people put to fire and the sword when they surrendered out of desperation; they boasted of massacres of women and children under the excuse that they had practiced witchcraft and heresy;  they recounted tales of men marched in chains without food or rest until they died trying to keep up with their guard's horses; of friends, comrades in arms and kinfolk forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of drunken Church troopers and their priestly leaders.

Somehow Rune managed to keep his anger contained behind the face of the idiot they thought him to be, for by holding that deception he gained facts and information which might one day be useful to him.  At last the oldest of the men suddenly realized just how long they had tarried with the Havor's and with some worried contemplation of the fast approaching night, the soldiers bid the family a hasty farewell and were gone in a matter of minutes.

After that meeting with the Church Troopers, whose reasons for passing through their clearing on that cold winter's day the Havors had not been enlightened about, their lives returned to the slow routine of a charcoal burner's family, but the new hope the troopers tales had given to Rune was the richest prize he had ever won.


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Chapter Five

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