by Robert E. Vardeman
Rorr exploded through the wall of flames and stumbled past, finding relative cool beyond. The fire arrow had not yet spread its fury deeper into the granary, but he knew that the building and its grain stores were already far past saving.
"Pa! Over here!"
Rorr followed the faint sound, again grimly satisfied that his stepson once more called him father. That was an obstacle he had long sought to overcome. His brother's son was not his own. How could he be both uncle and father to the boy? Yet he wanted to. It had proven difficult for all of them—Beeah especially, since she had to see her children's father reflected in him. Rorr knew he was a pale reflection of Ulane, but the resemblance was still there.
"This way! I can't get the door open!"
Rorr coughed as he skirted the bin of grain. Torvan had the central bin filled and had left a path around it, possibly to afford easier access to the oldest grain first. He passed more than one portal that might open to pour out a steady flow of the harvest wheat.
Gasping for breath, he ran into Fren before he saw him. The smoke had become too thick, and his eyes watered.
"It's a door to the outside, but I can't open it. I tried to go back, but the flames—!"
Rorr threw back the latch, but the door refused to open. He hunkered down, then blasted out, shoulder smashing through the wood. For a moment he thought he would be held captive in the center of the door. Then the hinges broke and he tumbled outside. Smoke billowed out.
"Are you all right?" Fren laughed without humor. "The door swung inward, not out. We were—"
Rorr extracted himself from the wood, splinters poking from his body like porcupine quills. He scooped up his stepson and ran, ignoring the boy's frantic attempts to break from his grasp. Gasping from exhaustion, he finally dropped Fren and pointed.
"Horse. Get on. "
"I'm not a child! You—"
Rorr once more engulfed his stepson in a powerful hug and clumsily mounted. Even before he had his seat, his heels raked at the horse's flanks, getting it moving. The horse had barely gone fifty yards when the granary exploded like the very sun. Burning grain cascaded down in fiery flutters around them. Rorr kept the horse trotting along at its top speed. Only when the roar diminished did he slow and turn to look back.
"What happened?" Fren coughed and wiped soot from his face. "The grain?"
"The dust catches fire easily. Trapped inside the granary, it exploded."
"You knew that would happen?"
"I've seen such things before." Rorr said. In truth, he had loosed such a ferocious storm on others before, for the same reason as the brigands.
"What are we going to do?"
Rorr let his stepson find a less awkward seat on the horse. He took a deep breath to clear his lungs, then said, "We search for the Torvans, but I don't think we will find them."
"Do you think they got away before the soldiers came?"
Rorr said nothing.
∗ ∗ ∗
"There was nothing you could do to save the grain?"
Rorr smiled a little at his wife's question. Always the practical one, Beeah. He shook his head.
"Since you found no trace of them, I can only assume they simply left."
"Ma, it wasn't like that. There were these soldiers, and Pa stood up to them." Fren looked at Rorr with a glimmer of respect. "He saved me when the granary caught fire."
Rorr hadn't bothered relating the details. Letting Beeah know only what was necessary seemed most prudent. Worry over brigands and the like served no purpose, now that the attackers lay dead.
"We need to finish plowing," he said. "As much fun as speculating about Thom Torvan and his family might be, it does nothing to prepare us for the winter."
"He's right," Beeah said, lips drawn into a disapproving line. "No time to waste now. We can sit around the fire this winter and spin wild tales of how Thom and Ganley are off somewhere with that brood of theirs, enjoying the fine weather on a southern beach."
"But Ma, those men were killers. They—"
"Work, young man. Now. You too, Rayallan. You weren't finished sorting through the onions."
"Aw, Ma, there aren't any rotten ones."
"Then start with the potatoes. Small ones in one pile, larger ones in another."
The two boys went off, but Beeah reached out and stopped her husband. He winced, just a little, as her fingers gripped his forearm.
"What really happened there?" She peeled back his bloody sleeve to reveal the wound he had field-bandaged before returning. "Are the Torvans dead?"
"Didn't find bodies. They might be dead." He forced a smile. "Or they might be relaxing on that southern beach, waiting for winter to freeze our bones so they'll have a laugh on us."
Beeah started to say something, hesitated, then muttered, "You're just like Ulane."
"We are—were—brothers," he said, unsure of what else to say.
"The plague did so much damage. I thought we were safe. The Torvans, not a one of them caught it. No one else this side of Pitax caught it."
"Except Ulane." Rorr hugged her, then pushed back as he became self-conscious about such a display of affection. He realized he was trying to convince himself that the past meant nothing, and that the future didn't hold a fate like the Torvans'. "There're fields to be plowed, and I don't trust Fren to cut a straight row."
"With that worthless horse, how could he? It wanders from side to side like a drunken gnome. Get on, now." Making her words light did nothing to brighten the darkness in Beeah's eyes. Rorr quickly left.
He could deal with a balky plow horse, or the annoying worms that gnawed at the roots of his crop. Even the brigands who had plundered the Torvan farm.
That last worried at him as he walked slowly to the field. Brigands would have stolen, not destroyed. Selling such bounty in Port Ice would have brought enough wealth to keep them in whores and ale for the entire winter. Something about the destruction wasn't right.
"All hitched and ready to plow," Fren called, seeing him approach.
"Why didn't you begin? There're miles of rows to be plowed." He bent, caught up a thick, dry clod and tossed it playfully at his stepson. Fren dodged it easily.
"The horse wants you and nobody else."
"That's an inventive excuse. Get to moving the rocks at the far side of the field into a stack so I can keep a straight row."
Rorr slid the reins over his shoulder, took the plow handles, and called to the horse to begin pulling. As terrible a riding horse as this one was, it had strength and surefootedness in the field, and more often than not it dropped a load to help with fertilizing. The first two long rows went well, with the brittle husks cut and turned under the soil to rot and give sustenance to new crops in the spring. On the third, Rorr stopped and stared.
His eyesight was keen, and the approaching riders became visible minutes before his son saw them. Then even the boy could not miss the riders.
"Who are they, Pa?"
"Don't say a word when they get here. No matter what I say, you obey instantly. Understood?"
"Understand?" The edge in his voice made the boy recoil, then nod slowly.
Rorr stepped away from the plow, wiped sweat from his forehead, then faced the four riders. All wore tabards with the same coat of arms he had seen on the brigand's shield. He started to order Fren to the house, but the lead rider motioned and another rode to a position where such retreat would be cut off.
"Stay close," Rorr said in a low voice. Louder, "Who might you be?"
"Soldiers of Lord Suvarian, peasant. Show respect for vassals of your lord."
"There's no lord to rule over this land. This stretch of the River Kingdoms hasn't had royalty to govern it since the last border war."
"That has changed. Suvarian claims this land all the way to Brevoy."
"The farm is mine. By edict of Duke Gessmen."
"Who is dead in a border skirmish. How is it you claim ownership through a duke long deceased, yet deny Lord Suvarian's rule?" The soldier rode closer. Soot lay heavy on his tabard, disguising much of the gerfalcon rampant coat of arms. The man wore leather armor beneath and carried his sword in a scabbard slung from his saddle and under his left leg. The scar on his face, his lean body and quick, nervous movements, told of a soldier anticipating battle.
"I want only to farm my land in peace."
"Peace," the rider said, sneering. "There can be none as long as you befoul Lord Suvarian's land."
"This is my land," Rorr said stubbornly.
"Quiet," Rorr snapped. He saw the outrider's amused expression, but the soldier watched like the bird sigil on his chest. It would take but an instant to draw his sword and swoop down should Fren bolt for the house.
"My lord—your lord—claims all this land for grazing. He has a vast herd and supplies the war effort along the Sellen."
"Then grain would be in demand. I can sell—"
"Milord doesn't want your filthy grain. It's not even fit for his cattle. If you leave this land now, it will return to grass by the summer and provide proper fodder."
"Where would you have us go?" Fren pushed past Rorr and stared at the soldier, too young and foolish to understand fear.
"What does it matter? Leave. Your neighbors have departed."
"The Torvans? Where are they?" Rorr saw the smirk and how the warrior unconsciously touched the soot on his armor.
"It doesn't matter. Perhaps they have gone to the Boneyard. If you want to avoid meeting them in Pharasma's sweet embrace, leave."
"No!" Fren jerked free of his stepfather and moved forward, fists small and bony.
"One of them has sand in the gizzard," another soldier said, amused.
"Give him a sword, Darrotte," ordered the leader. "I would see if their skill matches their fine words."
The warrior reached behind his saddle and whipped out a short sword. He held it high to catch the sun, flashed it in Rorr's direction, then sent it wheeling through the air. It landed point down in the plowed ground at Rorr's feet.
Rorr held Fren back to keep him from seizing it. "We're farmers," he said. "What chance would we have against four warriors?"
"The best in Lord Suvarian's army," bragged the leader.
"It would be doubly foolish for a farmer to fight you, then."
"They would drive us from our land!" Fren showed his outrage, but Rorr tightened his grip to hold the boy back.
"Keep the sword. You might need it—as you leave Lord Suvarian's pastureland!" The leader laughed, pulled hard on his horse's reins and motioned for his men to follow. They galloped away.
Only when they were out of sight did Rorr release his stepson.
"You can't let them chase us away. This was my father's land! My real father!" Fren's eyes welled with unshed tears of rage.
"This is what I think of their weapons." Rorr yanked the sword from the dirt, placed the point at an angle against the ground, and stomped down hard. The blade broke raggedly a few inches above the hilt. Rorr flung the piece in his hand as far away from him as he could.
"Coward," Fren grated. He ran for the house.
Rorr let the boy go. It would do no good to explain that these four meant nothing. They were messengers only.
But messengers could be dangerous. Rorr heaved a deep sigh, then returned to his plowing. The cold wind blowing from the north chilled him more than ever.
∗ ∗ ∗
Rorr poked at the food on his plate. Both Fren and Rayallan had chosen not to sit at the table with him. He understood but did not approve. He looked up at Beeah and said, "This is our land."
"It's Ulane's," she said, not meeting his gaze. "There's no reason for you to fight for it."
"It's our land," he said harshly. "Ulane is dead. Would you have me die at the end of a sword wielded by those brigands?"
"Fren said they were a lord's officers. Knights."
"You would have me fight them? Or give in to them? Make up your mind."
"Do as you see fit. You always do." Beeah threw down her spoon and left Rorr alone at the table. He dropped his own spoon and went outside into the cold night air. The stars burned brightly above, and he made out the patterns he had used for so long to navigate. The pointers showing the route northward beckoned.
"This is my farm," he said as he looked over darkened fields. It mattered little to him whether the thief called himself a lord or a brigand. Theft was theft, and he would not be chased away.
He went to the barn, saw a shovel Fren had left out, and picked it up. The night's dew would cause the tool to rust, but he didn't put it away inside the barn. Instead he walked, slowly at first and then with longer strides, to the small hill a hundred yards behind the house. At the summit he looked down at the grave.
He had buried his brother here. Then he had married his brother's wife. Rorr had not intended that, but he had come to love Beeah. He was less sure of her affection for him. A widow with two young children faced a difficult life.
The past year had been good. Crops, improvement on barn and house, long days and enjoyable nights—he thought enjoyable for them both, though he could never tell.
This was his land. His family's.
Voices carried up from downslope. Swords glinting in the starlight, two men made their way toward his barn. Their words drifted up to him.
"...burn him out."
"We should kill them all, as we did the others. Suvarian would approve."
"You're a bloodthirsty one, Darrotte."
Rorr heard admiration, not denunciation, in that simple statement. He gripped his shovel with both hands and hurried down the hill toward the barn.
The two soldiers heard his approach and greeted him with leveled swords.
"The farmer must be sleepwalking," Darrotte said. "Why else would he confront two of Lord Suvarian's warriors?"
His companion chuckled. "We dare not tell the lord of this one's death. He would accuse us of drowning kittens."
"You have one chance only," Rorr said, squaring off and lifting the shovel. "Leave and I won't kill you."
"Ho! A threat! He won't hurt us!"
"I said I won't kill you," Rorr clarified.
Darrotte smiled. "No, plowboy. You won't."
The soldier with Darrotte rushed forward, sword lifted for the kill. Rorr saw flashes of light and shadow, but the path of the sword was obvious. He swung the shovel, deflecting the sword off its blade with a long blue spark. The impact staggered the soldier, letting Rorr sidestep, then thrust out his foot.
The soldier crashed to the ground and the cutting edge of the shovel descended, chopping into the back of his exposed neck. The slight resistance of the yielding spine signaled another death at Rorr's hand.
The farmer ducked, avoided Darrotte's savage circular slash, then drove forward, arms circling the warrior's waist. With a grunt, Rorr stood and squeezed. Hard. The sudden constriction caused Darrotte to drop his sword.
Rorr tightened his hold around the small of the man's back even more. Work-hardened muscles driven by fury powered his grip. The sound of thunder drowned out the man's cries. Rorr felt something give. He relaxed, dropped the still living man to the ground.
"My back. You broke it." Darrotte's voice was tight with pain and fear, but strangely calm. "You will die, farmer. My lord will kill you slowly."
"No," Rorr said, picking up the shovel. "He won't."
The edge of the blade rose and fell.
Rorr stepped back and looked at the two dead men. They should be buried, but to what purpose? Not to hide their deaths, certainly. Lord Suvarian had sent them on a mission. When they didn't return, others would be dispatched.
With these deaths, Rorr realized, the fight was not over. It had just begun.
Coming Next Week: Screams in the night in Chapter Three of Robert E. Vardeman's "Plow and Sword."
Robert E. Vardeman is the author of more than fifty science fiction and fantasy novels, including both original series such as Cenotaph Road, War of Powers, and Swords of Raemllyn, as well as tie-in novels for such notable properties as Tom Swift, God of War, Battletech, Star Trek, and Magic: The Gathering. He has been nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, and is one of the founders of the New Mexico science fiction convention Bubonicon. For more information, visit his website.
Art by Carlos Villa.