“In time we saw that he was a predator; I thank the God that in the darkest days, he hunted for us.”
They should have seen it coming. Glenfeld was a bad idea. It was not that Duncan, Amber and Vaush traveled to seek out trouble, but the celestial Hazrad seemed to know their place from the beginning. The na-baron, Simon Locke had taken ill with the Highland fever and so it was the idea of the adults at Glenfeld for Amber, Vaush and Duncan to take to the road. They would see the town.
Fate is a vicious bitch and she saw the three travel to Glenfield on a bright morning. The sun rested in a sky that had been stroked with clouds. Thin and of little measure they raced on a wind that itched to break into summer’s song.
To Vaush’s mind the city spread beyond the measure and into a ramble of thatched roofs and broad ways. The buildings hunched around broad allies like solitary and ill mannered old men to afraid to wander alone in the highland maze of low hills, broad meadows and thick mires. The roads were of caked dust that stirred only at the wind’s passage. The market was wider still, encompassing a broader area than any in Hartwich, but still contained fewer men.
They rode through town, the castle stood hard by, sulking like a bird of prey among lesser neighbors. Its walls were not so high as Hartwich, but seemed older and thicker, like an aging knight, gone to fat; his girth encompassing his armor instead of being shielded by it. A single tall tower rose from girded walls of gray stone. The thick battlements etched by wind and to many seasons. It was old, dating from the middle of the Third Age and despite the bright nature of the pending festival, there were ghosts here; held in stone and dust.
None of this occurred to the three. Duncan, Amber and Vaush rode through town. Duncan and Amber talking the most. It was a conversation of small bickering. The kind that those familiar either through friendship or family can have without feeling the slice or snipe. There was no ill favor to it; however Vaush remained aloof; his small dun strode in quite passage as was his want. He waited and watched.
Men and woman carried about their business. Though still some weeks away the summer festival was on the breeze. It floated in half heard conversations and was carried in the step every man. Soon there would be games and ale. There would be laughing and mead and of course fighting. There had to be fighting; it was the Highland way. Nothing so measured the quality of a party than the number of brawls, fights and good natured bashings; then of course the sensible woman would brow beat their man while quietly being proud of each bruise, cut or swollen eye. After all it was the Glenfeld highlands.
Loggers from the south veld had arrived. They brought with them lumber that had been culled from the forest. Old wood that served as meter and profit to these hardened men. Vaush watched in sallow curiosity as they brooked the wood to be sold at market. The men laughed and joked while tending to the serious business. Among them was a man child; dark of skin, wearing a turban and a red sash. Superstition ran thick like curdled milk in these parts and it was a wonder that the boy had survived these men. With skin like Rook’s breast he must have seemed a demon’s seed, to be quenched and banished but alas here he was. He stood among the rough woodland men as one of them, but apart to.
There were those among them that meant him ill. Vaush could see the sidelong glances; a menusha of tells. Each one’s body betraying their intent. While there were those that would, if given their druthers squash this stranger as a demon seed without hesitation and firmly believed that this was the right thing to do, there were others that saw not a demon but a malformed boy with dark skin. These were the boy’s protectors. Though now for a time they were distracted with tales of the last venture into the forest. Mead or ale was passed among the men and as Vaush watched, Duncan became alarmed.
Duncan, who Vaush now believed his initial estimation of the boy being an ignorant sod was correct. He whimpered to Amber of the demon in a child’s form. Amber taking what Vaush thought to be the more rational route prodded her horse forward, returning the dark skinned child’s wave of greeting.
It was now treacherous ground these two tread. Somewhere between they met. Though Duncan thought this to be a poor idea he rode closer, though not so near as the ever adventurous Amber. Some simply see the world about them, however even at this age, Vaush observed. The men that had brought the dark skinned man child from the forest were unaware. They were oblivious that the boy have moved off, to great the pretty redhead with pale skin and bristling weapons. Duncan was fixated on the one that would later be known as Bran. He watched in near terror as Amber and Bran exchanged names; strangers courting, dancing about the awkwardness of a new acquaintance.
Four… no Five boys begin a belligerent march up the main row. They are full of their own mastery and have the bearing of those seeking the violence of highland children.
Vaush is the first to see them. They canter like dogs ready to piss in the grass. As they walk they posture and preen; showing they are unafraid. They point at Bran and cackle hiding fear with derision. Vaush has dismounted by now and pulls his dun to one side. He observes; quickly picking their leader from among the piss driven pack.
The path is set and it is only a matter of time. Amber and Bran remain unaware. The adults see nothing, still deep in their business. Duncan remains fixed on Bran. In mental pantomime, Vaush watches it unfold knowing the immediacy of violence. His blood quickens. He smells it; the sweat and fear. As objects, their collision is now inevitable; a foregone conclusion.
The first boy, the one Vaush has picked as the pack leader picks up a rock and throws it. Vaush watches the stone reach its apex and knows before its conclusion the target. Bran.
Blood. Bran’s head ticks to the side with the impact. Amber whirls, the highland temper blooming; a rose of temperamental color. The wolf pack is observed.
There is a beading of the brow; hair is pulled from the face and a tick at the corner of the mouth. Amber counts and is now ready to fight.
Duncan’s color drains as he realizes there is to be a fight. Vaush thinks, not a coward but rather a victim. He will always succumb to flight. If cornered he will bite and gnash; but for now his paralyzed by the idea of violence.
Bran sees the threat. There is hard training there, but a clumsy reaction. He sidesteps with a wide stance. Like Amber his has become ready for a brawl, but unlike Amber he sees the same potential for blood as Vaush. Unlike Vaush, for Bran it is a matter of proof; it is a fight to show manhood. For Vaush the fight is simply the road to an inevitable end.
Narrowing his stance he waits. Five to two… Vaush’s bet is on Amber and Bran. He is not so tall as Quail, but Bran has size and he is quick. Amber is all thorn and thistle; a brave fool takes this one alone.
But even such as these bow to the emotion of violence. It is not the strongest, it is not the fastest that prevails. The one that keeps their head… that remains calm.
The first reaches Amber and Bran at a run. A deft side step and a slap to the back. The boy goes down in a cloud of dust. Amber places a firm boot to his head and whispers the threat of worse to come.
Then the mistake… Amber draws her short sword to meet the rush. Escalation of arms. If one draws, they all must. Threat will match threat. Daggers and swords; the thorns of violence.
The rush becomes a charge. The intent of a brawl so quickly becomes the need for murder. To their mind they defend their comrade. This is a rescue of a fallen fool. To Amber it is Duncan and Bran that need the protection. Mutual self destruction.
Clans are an ill tempered lot, Robert had said. Still he waits. There is a cold moment for Amber as she sees Vaush’s inaction. The wolf back passes and still Vaush remains still. Is a fool, a coward or simply a bastard. Amber has but a moment to decide. Squaring her feet she awaits her stand against the charge.
Then there is movement; a wind born wasp. At the rear of the pack an ankle is slapped; feet tangle together and then a cloud of dust. It is a dance of sorts; one born of chaotic motion. There are no specific steps; only the necessary inevitability of the next. Each assault dictated by what came before. Two and then three fall in a confused head. None see the blond haired willow pass for the grit in their eyes.
Amber and Bran await; the final member of the pack. Large and strong, he is the leader and though he has murder in his eye, he possesses no knowledge of what has come before. The rankle and fugue of what has possessed his charge.
Chess and a dead run. No time for strategy; but rather tactics. Another kick at the ankle, though possible, the target is smaller. Vaush leapt into the air, extending his knee, arms spread for balance.
A impact to the boy’s back with a snap and a potential scream driven to ground. A throat full of dirt and grime, the boy is grounded into a skidding track of gasping hair, broken cartiledge and cracked bones. Deftly and seemingly without effort the thunderous dust rolls… shoulder takes the brunt, energy is redirected.
Vaush stands before Amber and Bran. Ignoring their reactions he strides away; eyes down cast careful to avoid eye contact. He is gone; leaving Amber, Bran and Duncan to explain the chaos that has been left behind.
There were questions. Those that could of the wolf pack fled the scene of their humiliation. Not even aware that they had been beaten down. The last to fall did not rise. Elders saw that teeth had been clipped from their sockets; ribs cracked or broken. The boy would need more serious attention.
Amber’s fierce glare put Duncan on notice. He would swear before the God’s own church that he saw nothing. Asked in passing Vaush denied seeing anything other then clumsy boys falling over themselves. Perhaps they were taken by Amber’s beauty and couldn’t help themselves. He did not know.
It was generally agreed it would be best if they returned. So they did… Vaush rode his dun in quiet regard.