"Of a truth, little bird, you cook over a rough fire better than my mother in a castle kitchen with a dozen servants to help," Juram gushed after they had finished their meal. "You are a wondrous gift as a traveling companion. Your family is blessed to have you."
Orien tried to speak, but could only squeak and hide his face in Tarel's shoulder as he blushed. "You must learn to accept the honor that is due you, my hummingbird," Tarel whispered with a smile. "Juram spoke nothing but the truth, so far as I can tell. Mind you; I have never tasted his mother's cooking so, I cannot judge that."
"Lady Juriel is the head of the kitchens in my family's keep," Carzier informed them. "She is like a second mother to Ker and me. She is the greatest cook I've ever known, but today I think I may have met her equal. My thanks, little master of the fires, for a most bountiful feast."
"Thank yourself and Tarel, it was the two of you who brought back the game for me to cook," Orien finally spoke.
"No, it is no thanks to me," Carzier admitted. "I only stood there gawking as your great lion took down the two boars. I would have run from their fight for dominance; Tarel charged into it and slew them both. All you have to thank me for is helping to load the carcasses onto his back so that he could bring them back to you."
"You didn't say you had fought them both at the same time," Orien suddenly glared at Tarel. "Up you get, I must be sure you have not been injured."
"I am fine, hummingbird," the teen tried to protest.
"Who is the healer our mother trained?" Orien continued glaring.
"Father," Tarel called out for back up.
"My son, the most important lesson a warrior can learn is that there are two fights you will never win, no matter how strong and mighty you may be," Chrijo answered. "The first is a disagreement with the one you love, which, while you may eventually be proven right, you will still never win. The second, in which you will never, ever be proven right, is an argument with a healer."
"What was that first again, my dear warrior?" Friezen questioned icily.
"You see what I mean, my son?" Chrijo pointed out. "Those who love us most dearly have only our best interests at heart, and we are best served heeding their every word, and providing their every whim to the best of our abilities to our dying breath. They are worthy of our greatest effort and we should endeavor to show them thus with our every breath of life."
"I… Oh, you silver-tongued…." Friezen gasped and stammered, and then finally gave up and cuddled into Chrijo's side, resting his head on the warrior's shoulder. "I love you, too, my mighty god of war."
"The great and powerful Friezen loves a man?" Boren questioned. "Do my eyes and ears not see a false vision? This is no dream?"
"If 'tis a dream, may I never awake," Friezen told him seriously. "Why do you think I have never scolded the two of you for your overly close friendship as some others have?" he asked as he looked pointedly at Juram and Boren, who were sitting rather near to each other. "And yes, I know that many in the staff around the castle jeer at you for your closeness. It is why I do not discourage these foolish jaunts of my nephew more adamantly. Trust that when you are in this company," he said as he waved a hand indicating the group gathered around the campfire, "When you are with your true family, you are free to honor your hearts' desires."
"I support you and your love," Chrijo told the blushing teens. "I only ask that you perhaps bear in mind the innocence of some of our little family and not act on your desires too openly."
"Does that mean they can't kiss each other?" Ker piped up. Boren and Juram blushed even more as Carzier snickered into his hand.
"No, Father speaks of the other things lovers do," Orien told him. "Shall we little ones go to bed now, Father, so that you and Papa can find another stream to play in?" Four teens laughed then as the adults were the ones blushing.
"Orien, where… when… how did…" Chrijo sputtered.
"One does not study healing arts in a small village without learning of the ways of life," Orien said with a shrug. "Come on, Ker. You and I will sleep in the wagon tonight. Do you know the spell your uncle does to keep sounds away from one's bed? It looks as if we may need it."
"I believe that may be the signal for me to start guard duty," Tarel laughed as his father and papa blushed and squirmed just as the other couple at the fire did. "Carz, will you stand guard, or will you stay and sleep?"
"As if sleep will come when those two go at it," the older teen sneered and waved dismissively at Boren and Juram.
"Father and Papa are no better, I assure you," Tarel swore. "At least your noisemakers aren't your parents."
"I should die a thousand times over if I heard my parents at such a time," Carzier groaned and shuddered at the thought. "I've no wish to see or hear my favorite uncle in his throes, either. I had thought that after such a long life, such pleasures would fade. It seems all other enjoyable pursuits are forsaken with adulthood."
"Have a care with your words. Your favorite uncle can hear them, you know," Friezen pouted. "And mind you show some respect for this long life, young oaf."
"Let us start our rounds, my friend," Tarel suggested. "My Father must now kiss Papa's feelings better, and neither of us wants to be here for that, I assure you."
"I will remember this rough treatment, you ragamuffins," Friezen vowed. "Someday, your hearts will sing at the sight of another, and then will I have my vengeance."
"Carz," Boren called out. "Do you have issue with the love I feel for Juram?"
"I tease because I love you both as brothers," the older teen told him. "I have known since before the two of you that you would never chase the skirts of the maidens around the castle. I am happy for you, truly I am. Of a truth, I might be a bit jealous that you have found each other while I am still alone and I, your elder, by almost two full summers. Worry not, my brother in all but blood. I wish you both every happiness and joy. I just wish not to see or hear all those joys."
Once they were some distance from the campfire of their family, Carz and Tarel spoke quietly as they patrolled. "I must admit that I am a bit jealous of you, Carzier," Tarel said as his feline blessed eyes scanned the darkness around them. "It sounds as if you have seen much more of the world in your years than I in mine. I left my small village for the first time the day my brother and I killed the murdering brigands that slaughtered my mother."
"Little Orien has killed something other than game? I can scarce believe it," Carz mused. "He is such a tender and caring lad."
"That he is, but my mother also raised and trained him from his hatching," Tarel shrugged. "She was the only mother he ever knew. To see her beheaded right before his eyes… well, it is a pain that I most wish I could have spared him. Of a truth, though, had he not been there, those cutthroats would have eventually overpowered me. They very nearly did anyway, but Orien transformed for his first time, and his talons ripped the face from one of the men who had me dead in the sights of his bow as I took the life of your kinsman. I turned and gutted the loathsome excuse for a man, but of a truth, I believe he had died from the wounds Orien gave him before I did. I warn you truly, never anger him. Had I not been fighting with him, I would have been terrified by what he did that day."
"I have seen what you have done with the wild boars today," Carz said with a shudder. "If you can do that, but quake at his vengeance, I pray I never see it. I think perhaps you and I do differ in just one way, however. I have not found that soul which makes my heart sing and my face glow."
"Am I that easily read?" Tarel grumped and sat roughly onto a fallen log.
"I only could see it so well because I have watched Boren and Juram learn their own hearts," Carz assured him.
"I am no despoiler of children. I have never once touched Orien in any way not brotherly," Tarel said quickly.
"If you had, my uncle would have seen it and ended you before I ever met you," Carz answered back just as rapidly. "Let me put your mind at ease this much, my friend, my cousin. Should anything ever happen to me, I pray that you will take Ker as your brother. Be the older brother to him that I cannot if it comes to that."
"I am truly honored," Tarel whispered in awe. "Not only by your request, but also by your acknowledgement of a family bond that you need not claim."
"My Uncle claims the bond, that is enough for me," Carz dismissed with a wave. "Shall we continue our patrol, cousin?"
"We should, cousin," Tarel agreed with a smile.
Several hours later, Chrijo whistled his signal for Carz and Tarel to come back to the campfire. "I shall take my turn at watch now, lads," he told them. "Tend the fire that it does not go out, and then rest yourselves."
"Sir, I beg leave to ask that which vexes me," Carz spoke up.
"Speak on," Chrijo told him. "Make haste that there not be too great a gap in the patrol, though."
"Did you really have no idea that you are hailed and worshiped as a god of war?"
"I knew nothing of it, nephew," the man confirmed. "I lost more than can be spoken of that day, not the least of which was my senses. I left that battlefield with no thought or care for anything or anyone, not even my own self. It was some time before I found a gifted lady healer with a tiny scrap of a son. I was given a new purpose in life protecting them, and teaching him. Later, a second little one came to roost with the little family, and I taught him a bit, but his calling was more to the arts which only she who was a mother to him could teach, rather than an old man who knew nothing but weapons and fighting. My life from before that battle was, as those whom I loved and saw die that day, lost to me forever."
"So if not for my vile kinsman, you would all still be home in your village?" Carz more stated than asked as he looked down at the ground sadly. "My family can never restore what it took from you, but I pledge my sword and my life to your service in honor of the debt," he vowed firmly.
"Do you vow to the War God of Jolyne, or to a man whom you feel a debt?" Chrijo asked him directly.
"To both, and to the mate of my favored uncle as well, that perchance the three in one might take pity on me and teach me as he does his son," the teen answered with a hopeful smile.
"If I taught the dunderheads of that ill-begotten village of the cursed, I can teach you as well, and no doubt be far prouder of the result," Chrijo agreed as he took Carzier's hand in his own. "We have a pact, nephew. Now, do as I say and bank the fire and then get some sleep."
"Yes, sir," Carz grinned. "Come cousin; there is firewood to fetch."
"You're happy and full of vigor now," Tarel warned. "You have not had Father run you ragged in the training arena until your bones can no longer bear you up. Let us see your happy vigor then, cousin."
The following afternoon, the group of travelers was stopped on the road by a militia patrol. "Hold! What business brings you to the village of Forest Glen?" the leader called out. He wore expensive armor and clothes, none of which fit him well. He looked more comical than grand. His troops were rather poorly equipped and showed no love for their commander when he turned his back.
"We are simply passing through, good sir," Chrijo answered. "We hope to make a few more miles before we rest for the night, so if you would let us by…."
"I said hold, fool," the man growled.
"Mind your words, peasant," Friezen scolded. "You do not know the one you address so poorly."
"I need not know him to tell him and you to shut your mouths and dismount that wagon," the man barked. "I will have it searched. Anything of use I will claim as tax for traveling my road."
"Did you build the road?" Chrijo returned. "Do you own the road? When last I traveled this way, this road and all the land around it belonged to King Worek of Atterof, and maintained in his stead by a good and true friend, the Duke Tyrighan of Didryph."
"Treason, you speak," the guardsman yelled. "On the morrow, it will be 16 summers since the Duke's son did murder the king. Worek's son, Galen, slaughtered both Tyrighan and his son for their treachery and took his father's throne. If you are a friend of Tyrighan, you are an enemy of the king."
"Galen, you say?" Chrijo spat on the ground beside the wagon. "If Galen is king, then you speak truth; I am no friend of that backstabbing villain. I owe much pain and misery to that treacherous dog for those that died at Jolyne. Beyond that, I knew both of Tyrighan's sons as well and have my doubts that either of them would have the makings of an assassin."
"Galen was not at Jolyne," the overdressed arrogant man sneered.
"Yes, and I well know why," Chrijo snarled. "He sold out our camp to the enemy and fled like a coward, leaving us to fight for our lives in the dead of night."
"My comrade speaks truth," Friezen said as he stood from his seat on the wagon. The air around him crackled and sizzled like fat in a hot pan. "I, too, was at Jolyne."
"There were but two survivors of the battle of Jolyne, Chrijo the War God, and the mighty wizard Friezen," one of the guardsmen whispered as he paled.
"And this puffed up dandy just insulted them both," Tarel spoke up. "Now who is the fool?"
"Puffed up dandy? Fool? No boy will call me fool, no matter who he travels with," the man demanded. "I will see your backside flayed with the whip for that insult. You say I do not know to whom I speak, neither do you. I am the current Duke of Didryph, and you will all show me the honor I deserve."
"Honor must be earned, sir, not demanded," Carzier snapped! "Master of War," he addressed Chrijo, bowing lowly and reverently. "I beg leave to join your paladin Tarel in vanquishing this upstart in your name." A nod from Friezen sealed the pact. "To arms, for the honor of Chrijo, War God of Jolyne, Patron of the outnumbered, Benefactor of the clan of Ensbor."
"Remind me to choose a less cumbersome title next time," Chrijo whispered to Friezen, who snorted a quiet laugh as Tarel leapt out of the wagon and drew his sword.
"Didryph, choose you which of us will show you humility," Tarel said coldly.
"A whelp or a mere boy," the man scoffed. "The difficulty is in knowing which is which." He slid from his horse, attempting to make a grand flourish and failing miserably. "I shall take you both on, one after the other, but I start with the small one to teach you manners."
"Then I must owe a debt to my kinsman, Carzier, for the fight he will not get to have," Tarel snorted. "My apologies, cousin."
"I look to the show with zest, cousin," Carz laughed. "After seeing you down two wild boar last evening with no man-made weapons at your service, I am eager to see what wonders you perform with a sword."
"Two boar unarmed?" the guardsman who had spoken before gasped.
"He toyed with them as a cat would a mouse," Carz told the nervous guardsman.
"He seeks to unnerve you, man," the Duke barked. "Stand and fight him in my name, or I shall run you through myself, the king and your wife notwithstanding. You are the captain of my guard, and I order you to defend me."
"Yes, milord," the young man spoke as he dismounted his own nag of a horse. "Understand, young paladin, that my duty and vow constrain me to the Duke. If it is of my choosing, I shall not strike to kill."
"Then let our sparring show my Master that his servant is not without skill, despite my uncle's words," Carzier told the man with a small bow of respect.
"You make a pact with the enemy before my very eyes," the Duke snarled. He lunged at the guardsman to run him through, but Tarel was far quicker and blocked the blow easily. "I shall deal with you after I have taught this fatherless son of a whore his final lesson in how to greet his betters."
"You should have left my mother out of this," Tarel stated with a voice that was more feral growl of his animal nature than human speech.
"Your honor, and that of your saintly mother demand you finish him, Tarel," Chrijo said icily. "I would only advise that you keep your wit and emotions within reason. Use your sword only, so that he dies by the method he has chosen."
"Aye, Father," the feline teen agreed. He leapt at the Duke, and their fight was on.
Chrijo turned his attention to Carzier and the guardsman, studying both closely. "Excellent form, Carzier. You do your family proud, lad." He walked around them as they showed their best, if not their most lethal. "There is still work to do, but you are by no means the dunderhead Friezen would have me believe."
"See there, Uncle?" the lad called out proudly.
"Mind on your sword, not your pride, Carzier," the wizard scolded.
"You, sir, don't ignore his other hand so," Chrijo warned. "If this were a true fight, he could be hiding a second weapon."
"Master Chrijo, you are meant to teach me, not my opponent," Carzier pouted.
"Oh, so I am," Chrijo chuckled. "So sorry, lad. Steady on with it then."
"You are truly the man named Chrijo?" the guardsman questioned as he suddenly stood still. "Chrijo of Jolyne?"
"I was called thus in my youth," Chrijo confirmed.
The man immediately dropped to his knees, offering up his sword to Chrijo. "My vow to my father bears stronger hold on my soul than the one to that miserable wretch. I am Dansius. Do you remember me, great sir?"
"No, it cannot be," Chrijo gasped. "Dansius was but a tiny child. Why you should be no older than… than young Ker, there."
"It has been sixteen summers, sir," Dansius smiled.
Before they could speak further, they heard the upstart Duke cry out. "Mercy, I beg of you, child!"
"You beg for mercy and cast further insult in the same breath?" Tarel sneered. "This is for my honor," he snapped, and his blade sheared the fine garments from the man's upper body, slicing into the flesh beneath as it revealed the same. "This for the honor of my father, the War God, Chrijo of Jolyne." Another flash of the sword and the man's fancy pantaloons were at the ground in rags as well. "And this is for my mother, you foul-mouthed swine." The only sound heard was the thud of the man's head hitting the ground a moment before his body joined it.
"Well done, my son," Chrijo called out. "Your mother is no doubt as proud of you for your gallantry in her name as I am your defense of my honor."
"Great sirs, were your words truth of Galen?" Dansius asked. "Was he a traitor at Jolyne?"
"He was, indeed, Dancer," Chrijo confirmed.
"Master Chrijo, no one has called me thus in many summers," the young man blushed.
"Dancer?" Orien piped up from the wagon now that the fighting was over. "Why would you have been called dancer?"
"Well, when I was quite young, younger even than your wee sleeping companion," Dansius commented as he pointed at Ker, who had indeed miraculously, or at least magically, slept through the entire confrontation. "I was quite reluctant to train to the chamber pot, and would dance about trying to ignore my own body's urgings that I might continue in my sport and games."
"It takes a true man to admit such before strangers," Carz said with a smile and bow of respect. "You are also an admirable swordsman."
"As are you, good paladin, though I see we both pale against the skills of your young kinsman," Dansius said with a smile as he bowed to both Carzier and Tarel. "Thanks to you, friend, I may now approach Galen and demand my rightful place as Duke of Didryph, as my father would have wanted. I was spared his and my brother's fate by my own tender age at the time, but more so because I was then pledged to be, and am now married to the youngest sister of Galen, and she threw a most dreadful tantrum at her brother's court to save me."
"Would not Mione be a bit old for you?" Chrijo asked.
"Aye, Mione would be," Dansius agreed with a laugh. "So it is just as well that my wife is her still younger sister, Grilda."
"Worken, you old dog, you," Chrijo laughed. "But what of Evest, the oldest son? Why was he not made king on Worken's death?"
"Evest was slain by an unknown assassin while hunting with Galen and that one," Dansius told them as he kicked dirt at the dead body of the pompous windbag. "Mione had been married off to a prince in Traigish, leaving Grilda alone to stand against her brother Galen. With naught to support her, she agreed not to contest his accession, provided he spare me the fate of my brother and father."
"On that, I will not believe that Nerand would murder the king when he and your father were best of friends," Chrijo announced.
"Sadly, it is true," Dansius admitted. "Not by his own choosing, though. Nerand went riding through the glades of the Pecod swamp, hunting game with five men. Only he returned alive, and was never the same again. By day, he would defend Galen's every thought, word, and deed, yet at night, I could hear him cry out in his sleep. They were screams for a witch, begging her for mercy for him and his men. When we questioned him in the light of day, he remembered no such person, and claimed that his men were alive and had gone to their homes the last he saw them."
"A witch, in the Pecod swamps, you say?" Friezen mused. "There can be no other. Yvaige, the hag, was last seen near there. My sister drove her out of our family lands after she killed the father of Carzier and Ker."
"There is a crone in the castle, never far from Galen's side," Dansius informed them all. "She answers to Yvaige whenever one dares to speak to her at all."
"Our old enemies unite and return to haunt us," Chrijo groaned. "This same Yvaige vowed revenge on me for spurning her advances just before the battle of Jolyne. I told her my heart belonged to another, and she swore I would live to regret my choice. As if love lets us mere mortals choose to whom we must give our hearts."
"Do you regret your love?" Friezen asked Chrijo pointedly.
"Never for even the blink of an eye," Chrijo assured him with a smile. "My heart and the rest of me have been doubly blessed in that after losing my first love, I have fallen for the only one I would have chosen if I could."
"In payment for the insults you have all born this day, I insist that you tarry in Forest Glen and allow Grilda and me to repay you for returning my father's duchy to me. Galen overtaxes the village, but such as we have will be gladly shared with my father's friend, the God of War, and his champion and mine as well, Tarel the Magnificent."
"Magnificent?" Tarel squeaked and blushed. "It took no magnificence to stand against such a tyrannous, pompous, insulting windbag."
"Take my word for it, my son, it is not the honored who choose their titles, but those that honor them," Chrijo told him with a laugh. "I am certainly no god, and I desire peace, not war. Still, it would seem I am stuck with the fame and glory for a battle that destroyed me as utterly as I am supposed to have destroyed the enemy."
"No supposing for it," Friezen pointed out. "You did single-handedly defeat Reusel of Rohson and his army. Rohson is no more, and it is you we have to thank for that. Good King Worek had no greater warrior in his service."
"Yes, and had I stayed, Worek and the Didryph family might still live," Chrijo said sadly.
"Have a care what you wish for," Friezen told him quickly. "Had you stayed, you would not now have two fine sons to care for you and defend your honor."
"Aye, that is true, and all the friends in the world are not equal to their worth," Chrijo said as he smiled proudly at Tarel and Orien. "No offense intended, Dancer."
"If offense is not intended, then pray do not call me by that name in the presence of my wife, who does not know of it or, its reason," Dansius begged. "As for the worth of a son, I hope to know it myself before the next moon span."
"Congratulations, Dansius," Chrijo exclaimed and clapped the young man on the back proudly. "Oh, but it does age one to hear that the babe in arms I once knew is soon to have his own child."
"Time marches on, and so should we, great sir," Dansius smiled. "Grilda will be vexed if we are late to supper."
"Never anger the mother with child," Carzier cautioned. "It is a lesson I learned quite well when my mother bore Ker." The teen shivered at the memories, and the men and boys around him chuckled at the sight.
"Come then, we must share the tale of this day with my wife that it eases her burdens," Dansius said as he mounted the horse that the former Duke had ridden. "Tarel, Carzier, would one of you care to ride Weston?"
"I fear my healer brother will have me in the wagon with him to assure himself of my good health," Tarel answered rather quickly. "Thank you for the offer."
"I shall be glad to have the honor of returning your noble steed to your home, my lord Duke," Carzier said with a gracious bow. "The saddle can be no worse on my rear than sitting on an anvil with my uncle's driving."
"Impudent, cheeky, young sod," Friezen scolded, but he smiled as he did so. "I am an excellent driver of wagons."
"Yes, Uncle, you are most talented. I have never ridden with anyone so gifted at finding every rock and hole in the road," Carz teased as he made his way to the offered horse. He yelped and jumped as a single bolt of lightning hit his rear as he went to mount the saddle. "My humblest apologies, great and mighty wizard and dearest brother of my mother, most favored uncle."
"I am your only uncle, you spoiled child," Friezen grumped.
"And thus my most favored by far," Carz announced as he bowed deeply with a flourish.
"Oh, be silent and ride the horse," Friezen ordered dismissively. He chuckled and shook his head affectionately at the youth, who grinned as they followed Dansius to the village.