by Robert E. Vardeman
"We should leave," Beeah said, tears in her eyes. "If what you say is true, we can't fight Lord Suvarian."
"Who is he?" piped up young Rayallan. The boy looked around curiously. Rorr caught his breath looking into the boy's face. He saw Ulane there, never quite sure what was going on but interested all the same. And usually wrong when he decided.
"He thinks he's got the right to take our property," Fren said.
Rorr wasn't sure about his older stepson. Some of Beeah shone through, but none of her fearfulness. And Fren lacked the wide-eyed wonder Rayallan showed. He wished the boy were older. He could use a strong arm protecting his back.
"He is a petty lord, like—" He bit off the rest. There was no point describing Suvarian in terms they wouldn't understand. "I've seen men like him. Thievery is always their first move."
"He's got a lot of armed men," Rayallan said. "Fren said there were half-orcs. I've never seen one." The longing in the boy's voice also reminded Rorr of his brother. Never quite brave enough to explore his world, but always certain something lay just beyond the horizon. Ulane had died unfulfilled in so many ways.
But he'd had a loving wife and two fine sons. Rorr let out breath he hadn't realized he held.
"If we run, we will have nothing. The harvest will be lost. The house and everything in it will be destroyed."
"We can take some things..." Beeah looked around in despair.
"The Torvans probably thought the same. If they got away, it was with little more than what they wore."
"That was a lot of grain that burned," Fren said. A wild light came to his eyes. "You should have seen it blow up. It was like—"
"Like what will happen to our grain, to our house and barn unless we fortify," Rorr said. At some point listening to his sons and watching his wife agonize over losing hard-won furniture and keepsakes, he had decided. They would fight.
"Board the windows. Rayallan, you're good with a hammer. See to using that pile of cut planks out back."
"I'm good with a hammer? You mean it? Yes!" He rushed off, excited at being praised—and needed. Rorr hoped that the boy would live to brag about it.
"What can we do?" Beeah asked. Fren scowled at his mother as she wrapped her arms around him in a fiercely protective hug. "Fren and I can help."
"They use fire arrows. Water will keep anything surrounding the arrow from burning, but the arrow itself cannot be extinguished."
"Tongs," Fren said suddenly. "Fire tongs. And heavy gloves. I can pluck the arrows out that way!"
Rorr nodded. It wasn't likely to work the way his son thought, but it might save some damage.
"What are you going to do?" Beeah wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold. She shook. Rorr moved to comfort her, then realized there was no time. He heard the pounding of hooves in the distance.
He swung about and went to the oak where the hole among its roots still beckoned. Dropping to his knees, he pulled the final oilcloth-wrapped package from the ground. He stripped away the thick cloth and gripped the sword within. It felt familiar in his hand, bringing with it memories of other times. He settled the buckler on his left arm, adjusted his greaves, then went out to face the riders before they had a chance to set fire to his house.
A quick glance over his shoulder showed his younger son hammering furiously to fasten the wood over the windows. Rayallan paid attention to nothing but his work. Every blow of his hammer drove a nail in. Some took two strikes, but Rorr approved. Through the open door he saw his wife and other son moving furniture so the doorway could be blocked in a few seconds.
He had no more time to consider how the defense went. A dozen riders approached, slowing and finally coming to a halt.
"You're still here," the lead rider called. He urged his horse forward a few yards, cutting the distance between them in half. He wore light plate armor emblazoned with the sigil the others had worn. An articulated glove on his right hand curved around the saddle horn. His ungloved left hand dangled free at his side but was only inches away from a large shield, also decorated with the gerfalcon rampant.
"It's my land." Rorr held his sword at his side and partially behind him to hide it from the man.
"I'm Lord Suvarian."
Rorr knew the lord expected a reply. He remained silent.
Suvarian bristled and drew his sword, brandishing it over his head.
"You defy me, man of dirt. You are a farmer. I am lord of all these lands! Go to your knee! Show me respect."
"You're a cattle herder who takes on airs," Rorr shot back. "Are you truly royalty? Or are you some squire's bastard son out to make a name for himself?"
Suvarian roared and galloped forward, sword slashing. Rorr stepped to the left side of the lord's horse, forcing the man to awkwardly reach across his body in a futile attempt to land a blow. Before he could gauge the proper distance, he was past Rorr and fighting to wheel his horse about.
Rorr looked at the other soldiers. They wore heavier armor than the men he had killed. None carried a bow and arrow. That brought a slow smile to his lips. He might have destroyed all their bowstrings, or perhaps these were Suvarian's personal guard and fancied themselves swordsmen. They sat awkwardly on their horses and seemed uneasy with their weapons.
"These are back-stabbers, not fighters," Rorr said. He pointedly turned his back on the dozen soldiers and faced Suvarian. "Take them and go. I have work to do."
Rorr widened his stance as Suvarian prepared for another attack.
"I have wasted enough time. Leave or die!"
"How many of your men have I killed already? I lost count. A battle scribe will be needed for the tally if you refuse to leave now."
"You? You, a farmer?" Suvarian barked the words, but a hint of uncertainty came and he looked over at his guardsmen. He boasted for them—and to bolster his own courage. The failed first attack had obviously unsettled him. "Give this whelp a sword. I would fight him."
"After I kill you," Rorr asked, "your men will depart?"
Suvarian laughed. It carried a hint of madness in it.
"You cannot slay an armored knight. I am lord of these lands and a master swordsman!"
A rider came up with a sheathed sword. He threw it to the ground beside Rorr.
"Then your death will be mourned near and far." Rorr kicked the sword aside without looking at it. "I prefer to use my own."
He lifted the sword from where he had held it at his side. Sunlight glinted off the intricate hilt, the fine etching on the blade, the wicked, slightly curved tip and the edge so sharp that it cut through the air without even the softest whisper.
The soldier who had dropped the sheathed sword moved away a few yards. He called to the others, "He has an Aldori dueling sword!"
This caused momentary furor among the men.
"Where did you find the sword, farmer?" Suvarian called. "You can hurt yourself with such fine steel."
"I never so much as nicked myself through three border wars." Rorr lifted the sword to display the intricately decorated boss at the end of the hilt.
"A swordlord's seal. Where did you steal that, plowboy?" Suvarian sounded less sure of himself.
"It has been my soul and companion for four years."
The lord's face drained of blood. "You are a thief and a liar!"
"I challenge you, Suvarian. Fight or leave my land now!"
The soldiers murmured when their lord did not instantly move to slay the impudent peasant.
"You," Lord Suvarian called to them. "Yorrial, Juston, Jerra—kill him! Fight him!"
"I challenged you, Suvarian."
"All of you, attack! Kill him!" Suvarian tried to force his horse to back away, but the animal balked.
His warriors milled about until one finally let out a battle cry and galloped forward. Rorr looked from Suvarian to the attacking soldier. He took a quick double step to the side, ducked, threw up his buckler to deflect the slash, and straightened his bowed legs. His sword tip found the spot at the vulnerable bottom of the rider's armor. Rorr felt first resistance, then none, then resistance again as the blade drove through internal organs. As the rider toppled, Rorr yanked back his blade. He held it high, letting the dead soldier's blood run down the small channels on the Aldori sword so the others could see.
A second warrior started an attack, then veered away.
Rorr turned his back on the tiny knot of fighters and faced Suvarian. The man fought to control his horse. Rorr walked forward, tongue clacking at a pace and frequency to unsettle the horse further. It had worked before during many battles where he had faced impossible odds. It worked again.
The horse reared and tossed Suvarian to the ground. The lord landed hard on his back and struggled to sit up. His armor wasn't full plate, but the pretender found it too heavy to move.
Rorr stopped a pace away, eyeing the fallen lord. Suvarian screeched like an owl as Rorr slashed. The shriek turned to a blubbering sob as Suvarian realized the cuts had done nothing but sever the leather straps holding his armor.
"Stand and fight," Rorr said coldly. "If you don't, I'll kill you like a rabid dog."
Suvarian rolled from side to side, then shucked off the armor like a snake molting its skin. He struggled to hands and knees, then forced himself to stand. He clutched his sword in a clumsy double-handed grip.
"I'll cut out your eyes and feed them to crows," Suvarian said in a shaky voice.
Rorr tapped his cheek with the boss at the end of his hilt in silent prayer to Gorum. Then he flashed the sword in a mocking salute.
Suvarian attacked. His assault was primitive, and Rorr hoped that his own untrained sons would have done better, had he handed them a sword.
A quick flurry of parries and a simple thrust sent Suvarian staggering away, a long cut across his torso.
"Kill him, you cowards! Do as I order!" Suvarian gripped his weapon fearfully, more like an ax than a sword. His eyes widened in fear as Rorr slashed the air. The lord switched from threatening to cajoling. "A thousand acres of pastureland to whoever kills him. Two thousand!"
Rorr heard nothing behind him to hint that any of Suvarian's soldiers found the offer intriguing enough to die for. He stamped his foot and sent Suvarian scuttling away.
"You don't deserve to die by my sword—not this sword, with so proud a history." Rorr thrust the blade into the ground so hard it quivered for several seconds. He saw calculation come to Suvarian's eyes. The lord's courage returned as Rorr advanced, weaponless.
"You are a fool, farmer." Suvarian screamed and charged.
Rorr watched, gauged where the pretender's foot would be planted, then swept up his shovel where it had been thrust into the ground at the middle of a plowed row. He swung the tool with his right hand as he parried Suvarian's thrust off the buckler. The tiny shield whined with the impact—and Suvarian fell facedown, tripped up by the shovel's shaft.
The man tried to rise, but Rorr's patience was at an end. He gripped the shovel handle with both hands and swung, batting the sword away. A foot in the middle of Suvarian's back forced him flat again and pinned him there.
A quick look up told Rorr what he needed. None of Suvarian's brigands made a move to aid their lord.
"You should not prey on those unable to fight back," Rorr said.
"I'll see you executed!"
"No, you won't." The shovel rose and fell. Suvarian's head rolled away and stared off down a plowed row, as if making a final examination before approving the straight furrow and deep, even cut.
Rorr left the shovel buried in the ground, walked deliberately back to where his sword thrust up. He withdrew it from the dirt, prepared for a fight against the remaining soldiers.
Only dust met his eyes. When the cloud settled, his view was unobstructed all the way to the trees at the far side of his land, save by the occasional bush or sapling. Those would be removed as autumn plowing went on.
He turned and saw Beeah and his two children. Fren and Rayallan stared openmouthed at Suvarian's body. His wife's eyes never left him.
"I'll tend to this," he said. "Go back to the house. You did a good job of fastening the planks over the windows, Rayallan. Now get your brother to help you remove them."
"There's no more?" Fren sounded disappointed.
"Go," Rorr said, but there was no crack of command in his voice. He was no longer a commander of men. A father directing his sons was more appropriate now.
"Aw, Pa," protested Fren. Then he punched his brother in the shoulder and challenged him to race back to the house. Only when they were halfway back did Beeah step up.
"I don't understand," she said. "How—?" She looked at Suvarian, then jerked away from the gory sight.
"No one threatens my family or my land."
Fear widened her eyes—fear of her husband.
"We have work to do."
She opened her mouth to speak, then clamped it shut once more as she shook her head.
"I'll plow. When the boys are done with the house, send them back. There will be work for them in the fields."
"He was a lord," she said, her voice cracked with emotion. "He will have an heir."
"He was nothing but a brigand."
"Someone else will come. If not his heir, then another in his company. What will we do then?"
Rorr looked at his wife and held up the shovel. She recoiled. He drove the blade into the ground, then heaved the dirt high into the air. Wind caught the soil and scattered it. Beeah backed off, then almost ran to the farmhouse.
Rorr took a deep breath, threw the shovel aside, and went to harness the plow horse. It took close to a half-hour to return to the field with the horse dutifully pulling the plow. Rorr spit on his hands and bent forward to guide the plow. There was real work to be done.
He didn't even look up when the cougar howled in the distance.
Coming Next Week: A sneak peek at Dave Gross's latest Pathfinder Tales novel, Master of Devils.
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.