(Author's Thanks: Edana, Final Rose, LYK, Lady Netiri, Rose Shard, Leil Silver, Koyangi, Green Forest, and Pepper123 for reviewing.
Author's Dedication: To Lady Netiri… She IS the actual 200th reviewer, even if FP tricked me. hangs head Sorry, Lady Netiri. You may smack me whenever you wish. Thanks, Rose Shard, for clearing that up.
Author's Notes: Sorry folks, with graduation coming up, my dad neglecting the 10 Commandments and screwing with all our lives, and basic frantic college contemplations, I didn't have much time for TMB. I promise I will wrap it up, and that its sequel will be up the very day that this one ends. Thanks again for remaining so dedicated to reading this. I hope you enjoy the latest edition of TMB.
The Minstrel Boy
By Cinaed, Born of Fire
So Long as Man Remains Free
Yardan could taste the fury on his lips. It was sharp and metallic, and exactly like blood. In all actuality, it was blood—the soldier had bitten through his lower lip in his anguish. The world around him had faded and then refocused, the only persons existing in the world being himself and this murderer called Gadro.
He was vaguely aware that there was another world that had once unfurled before his eyes, one that had consisted of more souls than two, with foreign names like Nen and Faris and Zamiral…. But that world was gone now, replaced by this one that wanted only vengeance.
Yardan lunged at the man, his sword humming a song of vengeance as it sliced through air—
—But not flesh as Gadro dodged the thrust. A look of annoyed disgust had darkened his features as he drew his own blade. "Such lofty words from a commoner. Put away your sword, and I may let you live."
Slowly, the world expanded the slightest bit to include Gadro's companion, who was silent, his face blank. He was part of the impartial background, a human-looking pillar.
Yardan tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. Wisps of images of the town's children flashed in front of his eyes, and with a bellow like a bear who has lost her cubs to cruel nature bursting from his lips he charged Gadro again.
Again, Gadro dodged, and this time he laughed at the other man's efforts. It was a low, cruel sound that made Yardan's blood curdle and his breath catch in his throat. "Foolish bastard. Should I kill him slowly, Farlane?"
"You can try," said the grizzled man in a mild tone just as Yardan lunged again and put all of his strength behind the blow.
This time Gadro actually raised his sword, and the two blades crashed against each other. The resounding clangs bought many people out of their rooms to stare and become part of Yardan's slowly expanding world. They quickly melded into the background, their only partiality the movements of their gazes.
Yardan ignored them all, and shifted his grip on the hilt once more. His palms were beginning to sweat, and the blade was getting hard to hold, slippery in his grasp.
"Take a step back and wipe your palms. Otherwise you'll lose." The calm voice came from Gadro's companion, who offered his advice in a matter-of-fact way.
"Shut up, Farlane!"
Staring in surprise at the man called Farlane, the Sladisian commoner nevertheless obeyed. As he dried off his hands, some of his blinding rage cooled and left him instead with cold determination. He'd killed men during war – men he'd had nothing against save that they were Reban – he could easily kill this callous murderer who'd destroyed his hometown.
He'd just finished wiping his hands on his tunic when Gadro lunged. Yardan leaped to the side, raising his sword and peering at his foe in the hope of spotting an opening. He saw none, and resisted the urge to growl with frustration. "You murdered children," he said, each word sharp and cold enough to be a deadly icicle. "Innocent children who'd never known anything but this damn war. Do you think anyone will glorify you in the years to come?" He thrust; Gadro parried.
"As long as the king approves, who cares if I'm hated?" Gadro snarled. Suddenly his features twisted into something that was beyond disgust—it was loathing, pure loathing. "I should have been the guard captain! Me, not that fool Remn!"
It was as though he'd forgotten that he in the middle of a duel with Yardan—Gadro turned an accusing gaze upon Farlane, who still looked impassive. "You…you ruined me! Alyx told me! His Majesty was going to make me the guard captain, and you told him not to!"
Farlane shrugged. "Remn was the better choice."
With a roar of fury, the man threw himself at Yardan. It was obvious, though, that in Gadro's mind the commoner wore Farlane's face. If Gadro couldn't kill Farlane for his insults for whatever reason, he would try to slake his blood-thirst by gutting Yardan.
Now Yardan had the advantage—Gadro was blinded by anger. He sidestepped the reckless lunge, saw an opening. It was so very easy, almost too easy. With a flick of his wrist he stabbed the man through and reveled in the sound of mental plunging through flesh.
Gadro's sword fell with a loud clatter upon stone, and he turned a little to stare at the blade that had entered under his right arm and now came out his left side. There was an expression of disbelief on the man's face. "I…" His body swayed and threatened to pull Yardan down to the floor if he didn't pull his blade from the dying man.
Yardan wrenched the blade out, and came close to shuddering as a half-choked wail escaped Gadro's lips. He stared down at the dying man even as blood trickled from the corner of Gadro's mouth. He should feel victorious, pleased that he'd avenged his slaughtered town….
So why were tears springing to his eyes?
"You always were reckless, Gadro. That's why you never got any rank as long as I had the king's ear." Even as Gadro sank to his knees, Farlane knelt beside him. His gruff voice was soft, almost gently chiding, as though Gadro was a child.
"Go to…hell," Gadro choked out, and felt blood coat his words. Even as his thoughts dimmed, he could still feel the rage at Farlane's betrayal and grief at his own pointless death. He'd wanted to be famous, to be toasted at a king's banquet. That was all gone now. All he had to his name was death, and everyone could claim that, even commoners. "You…."
Farlane said nothing, but those gray eyes pierced him through. There was no pity in those eyes, just scorn. Had they always hated each other? At one point, Gadro had tricked himself into believing Farlane was his hero. That had been a fleeting fancy—he should have known at first glance that this man would be his downfall. Farlane had been his rival all along, not Remn. "Enjoy eternity, Gadro."
The pain was increasing, overwhelming his senses. Somehow he fought past the pain when he saw his right-hand man come running down the hallway. Alyx…Alyx who had joined the palace guards three years after Gadro and had worshipped him from their first meeting. "Alyx…avenge…" Gadro was so tired, suddenly. Everything made him feel so weary. Perhaps if he just closed his eyes to sleep, the pain would fade. Content that at least Alyx would miss him, that at least Alyx had cared, Gadro's eyes slowly shut.
No one paid attention to Gadro's final breath. The one called Alyx was too busy trying to follow his teacher's final order and avenge the fallen guard. The blonde threw himself at Yardan, broadsword singing. The commoner parried, but the impact left his fingers numb. Shit…there was a look of cool determination on this Alyx's face. There would be no reckless swings from him.
Yardan gritted his teeth and acted as though his fingers weren't still numb, grateful that at least the odd tears had vanished from his eyes. "You're going to avenge that bastard?"
"That bastard was my mentor," was Alyx's icy response. "He will be avenged."
"Avenged like I avenged my town? You must've been there when he torched Tarrytown…. How can you avenge a bastard who'd murder children?"
Some of Alyx's icy mask slipped, replaced by indignation. "He didn't kill any of the children! He killed the town leaders and torched their homes, but didn't slay any of the children! Gadro wasn't a monster!"
Confused, Yardan glanced over at the man called Farlane. The grizzled warrior wore a rueful expression as he continued to kneel beside Gadro's corpse, as though he pitied the younger man and his naiveté. "Alyx wasn't there when we burned the town. Gadro didn't want him to see."
"Gadro wouldn't kill children," Alyx repeated with quiet ferocity. "He wouldn't!" But there was something desperate in his denial now, a hint of panic that came from suddenly suspecting that one's enemy was telling the truth. "Gadro was a good man!"
"He was a murderer of children and women," Yardan said, and this time was prepared for the lunge as Alyx threw himself at the other man. Again, it was too easy. This time, however, he didn't aim to kill. He slashed at the man's hand, and was rewarded by a sharp, pained inhale and the sound of another clattering blade. Yardan pressed his bloodied sword against the smooth paleness of the other man's neck.
The words slipped from Yardan's mouth, coming from deep within him. The tone was soft, sorrowful. "You don't have to avenge him, Alyx. You can't. It's all so very pointless, don't you see. No one really is avenged in this war. The senseless deaths just keep going, and will until everyone's dead and there's no one left to wield a weapon and cry 'Vengeance.'" He paused, and added quietly, his tone almost surprised, "It's all so very pointless, isn't it?"
Was that the truth? The words tasted sincere on his lips, and they had the ring of truth that came with epiphanies. He couldn't help but marvel at the philosophical words that had tripped off his tongue so easily. Yardan wished Osama had been there to hear him—
"Yardan!" The warning ripped itself from his throat, but even as he shouted it, Zamiral knew he was too late and that the cry had just been a waste of breath.
The one called Alyx took advantage of his fellow Sladisian's musings to duck away from Yardan's blade, unsheathe the knife he kept at his side, and stab wildly at the other man. Zamiral leaped from where he'd stood in the doorway to grab for Alyx's arm, but the knife was already scarlet with Yardan's blood by the time his fingers clenched the man's flesh.
Yardan blinked, and looked down, his expression of surprise never wavering. "Oh." He half-laughed as he reached down to touch his belly, as though to reaffirm that he'd been stabbed. "That…hurt." The sword fell from his hand as he slumped against the wall and began to slide to the floor.
Zamiral's hand grasped Alyx's arm and yanked—hard. The blade flew from the Sladisian's hand and struck the ground just beside Gadro's corpse. "You…you…. Yardan disarmed you! He could've gutted you and didn't and this—this is how you repay him?"
Alyx turned to stare at him, and his expression was blank. "I do what Gadro tells me. He said avenge him, and I did," he said with an odd detachment to his words. Suddenly he blinked, and confusion darkened his eyes and made him seem more alive than the mere puppet he'd been earlier.
"Do I…know you?"
May Gadro be damned, may Alyx be double damned, and may all these fools be thrice damned! Farlane resisted the urge to swear aloud and stormed over to Alyx. Grabbing a fistful of blond curls, he twisted the man's neck painfully and forced him to look away from Duke Zeidel's son. "He ain't nobody, Alyx. Just a traveling companion o' the man you just stabbed."
Alyx blinked and looked bewildered. "But…." He winced as Farlane tugged sharply on his mane. "Understood, sir." Even with his mentor dead, the blonde was good at following orders from anyone with a semblance of authority. At least now Farlane wouldn't have to kill him.
"Take Gadro's body t' the other man and explain what happened. Tell 'em I'll be handling this." He glanced at Yardan, who was sitting there still cradling his stomach like a pregnant woman in labor. "I'll be explaining things to the innkeeper so never you mind that either. Just go. Oh, and make sure that knife don't rust from the blood. It's good quality."
Farlane didn't look up as Alyx dragged off Gadro's corpse. Instead, he moved to kneel beside the injured man. "You, Yardan—let me see if Alyx killed you." When the man didn't immediately respond, the former guard captain snorted and slapped Yardan's hands away from his belly and pulled up the man's shirt. "The wounds don't look deep—" Farlane reached out to touch around the wounds, and frowned when Yardan hissed in pain. "Beggin' your pardon, lad."
"You! You're—you're that guard…." Duke Zeidel's son sounded a little panic-stricken, and Farlane resisted the urge to smirk. By all the gods, the duke was probably rolling in his grave at the boy's stupidity. At least Zadekiel had seemed smarter when he'd met him.
The grizzled man looked up and glared at the onlookers. "Get lost!" The snarl was enough to send the busybodies away, and it was only then that he responded to the Reban youth. "Be quiet, Your Grace. Your avenging friend here will live if we can get some medicine for those wounds. Alyx didn't put enough force into the stabs to hit anything vital."
"But…." Farlane didn't have to glance up to know that the boy's face was a mask of confusion. "You're the guard."
"I was the guard captain up 'til I let you walk through the gates, Your Grace. Now, do you have any medicine, herbs, bandages?" Farlane watched more blood well up from the stab wounds and then noticed that Yardan's face had taken on an ashen pallor. Fucking wonderful, the poor fool was going into shock. "I need to know now!"
Someone knelt beside him and offered him a makeshift box of medicine. "This is all we have. There are herbs to fight infection and one that I am fairly certain stops bleeding." The precise words came from the dark-skinned youth that Farlane had scarcely paid attention to when he and Duke Zeidel's son had ridden up to the gates like fools. He now eyed the boy with new interest. At least this one kept a calm head.
"That'll do, lad. My thanks," Farlane said gruffly, and began to sort through the herbs. First he found the one to stop the bleeding. He frowned even as he began to crush the herb into powder. "I'll also be needing some water and something to wipe away the blood, beggin' your pardon."
"Did you hear me being philosophical, Koichi?" The slurred question came from Yardan, and he managed a lopsided grin towards the dark boy, his face still gray and his eyes slightly unfocused. "Tell 'em to Sir Philosophical, please…."
"You can tell him later," Koichi said in a quiet voice and smiled back before he rose, apparently to fetch some water. "Just relax while this man here tends to your wounds."
"Okay," said Yardan agreeably, and he half-closed his eyes. He was quiet as Farlane took care of him, the middle-aged man using his military experience to the treat the non-fatal but painful wounds. The only sign that Yardan wasn't dreaming was the muscle that strained in his cheek every time that the ex-guard captain touched him.
Farlane could feel Duke Zeidel's son staring at him—it was as though the lad's vision was burning through the back of his head. He ignored the uncomfortable sensation. He'd explain things to the boy later. Now he had to make sure Gadro's slayer didn't die from blood-loss or infection. He wanted to congratulate the man for that wonderful deed.
At last, he leaned back, tugging the man's shirt back over the bandages. "Good show, lad. A weaker man would've screamed when I used those herbs."
Yardan finally opened his eyes and managed a sickly smile. Some of the color slowly began to return to his face. "Thank you, sir." His cerulean gaze flickered towards Koichi. "I had one of them…epiphanies. Did you hear?"
"It was very philosophical." Koichi smiled. "Very depressing, but very philosophical. You will have to tell everyone all about it."
He turned a little towards Farlane, the smile lingering on his lips. "Now…Guard Farlane…." Yardan's sword was suddenly in the dark boy's hand, its blade pressed against Farlane's belly. "I have to ask you to explain why you keep calling my companion His Grace." The small grin on his face didn't reach his eyes, which burned with menace.
Farlane couldn't help but chuckle aloud. "I wish you were a soldier, lad. You'd have made a fine member of the king's guard. And I call him His Grace because I know who he is." He turned his head a little towards Duke Zeidel's son, and spoke to him directly. "I met Duke Zeidel and his wife, and you're the spitting image of the duchess, Your Grace. Beggin' your pardon, but you have her eyes." Yes, the same frightened but proud eyes even as they stared disaster and despair in the face.
The youth swallowed, and then scowled. "Landis' guard captain has no right to say the name of my father," he snapped. "And if you knew who I was, why did you let me leave the palace?"
"I'd…made a promise to two people that I respected greatly, and that promise was to protect Duke Zeidel's sons at any cost." Farlane snorted. "Even if that meant protecting a fool like you, apparently. Couldn't even wear a proper disguise. No, you had to rush out into the world with your flaming mane and your dark-skinned friend here—" The sword at his belly pressed in a little, and Farlane stopped his tirade on a bitter laugh.
"That's enough." Koichi's tone was mild. "If you have sworn to protect Zamiral, then can I be safe in assuming that you will let us go on our way without any interference?"
"Course, but how'd you end up still here rather than halfway to Reban by now?"
"We're going back to the palace," Zamiral said simply.
For a moment, Farlane simply stared. Then he erupted. "Beggin' your pardon, but are you both mad? Look, lads, you may be wanting to save that Reban spy and the servant who're going to be on trial tomorrow, but you can't! Just write them off as dead and run for Reban! I don't care if they probably helped you to escape—you can't rescue 'em!"
"Reban…spy?" Koichi's voice was puzzled, and Farlane began to suspect he'd jumped to conclusions and ruined any hope of keeping the fools safe.
"The Reban spy who got caught a few couple o' days ago…. He was pretendin' to be some lord….name of Lyris, I think." Farlane watched Zamiral and Koichi's faces drain of color. "I'll be assuming you know him?"
Zamiral swallowed. "That spy is the crown prince of Reban."
The former guard captain stared, and then cleared his throat. "Ah. Your cousin then. That makes a bit o' difference…." Damn, now the lad was going to go tearing off to the palace without a plan at all….
"Who was the other one who was arrested?" Koichi's voice was sharpened by surprise and concern, and his grip had tightened on the sword, enough to make Farlane want to suck in his gut to avoid getting pricked by accident.
"I don't know…some servant. No one cares about a bloody servant."
Zamiral bit down on his lower lip. "We have to get back, tomorrow!"
"You won't make it, especially not with one of your traveling companions injured." Farlane nodded towards Yardan, who had opened his eyes again and was watching the whole scene worriedly.
"You can leave me behind, Zamiral. I don't have a bounty on my head to worry about—just leave me some coins and I can stay here until your return. The others will ride with you." The injured man smiled weakly. "Just remember to leave some pain-killing herbs for me."
Koichi took the sword away from Farlane's stomach. "We shall leave you some money, Yardan, and see if the others can ride with us. They may opt to stay behind with you." He nodded towards Zamiral, and Farlane was amused enough to note that they seemed to treat each other as equals. "Come on, milord. We must hurry."
"And hope Polestar and Cogent can run as fast as the wind," Zamiral murmured.
"Chestnut and Specter."
A slight smile wavered on the noble's lips at that, as though it was an old joke, and then he turned towards Farlane. Graveness now turned his face to stone, and at last he had a hint of his father in his face. "You have my thanks, Farlane. I don't know who asked you to protect me, but I thank them and you for your courage. If we ever meet again, I will repay my debt."
And then he and Koichi lifted Yardan to his feet and were gone, hurrying down the hall and calling out several names in loud, compelling voices. Names like Faris, Osama, and Nen.
Farlane watched them scurry off, pressing a hand to his stomach where the ghostly metal bite of Koichi's sword still lingered and half-laughing again. Perhaps, with that cold-eyed commoner who used such precise language at his side, Zamiral would rescue the Reban prince and survive the venture. Perhaps.
(To be continued….
Author's Notes: To reiterate, this chapter is dedicated to the 200th reviewer, Lady Netiri. Yours, Cinaed)