Blood in the Water

Chapter One


The Road from Losand to Carluse Town,

Autumn Equinox Festival, First Day, Morning

When Captain-General Evord ordered the army to march at first light, he meant just that. The long column had been walking for nearly two leagues and the sun still hadn’t cleared the tops of the oak trees.

Tathrin stifled a yawn. At least dawn wasn’t so brutally early now the Equinox was upon them. Though that was a double-edged blessing. While the oak trees’ leaves were still green, the hedges were showing seasonal gold.

He’d have been up this early at home. On the first day of the Autumn Festival, excitement would have roused him before the sounds of his mother and sisters down in the kitchen. They’d be preparing mutton, fat from the summer’s grass, geese plump from gleaning in the wheat fields, succulent mushrooms and puddings sweet with plums and pippins, quinces and pears. His father and brothers by marriage would ensure ale flowed all day, a stronger brew than usual until the five days of festival were done and the year turned to Aft-Autumn.

They’d be joined by aunts and uncles and cousins and any guests still enjoying the hospitality of the Ring of Birches inn—those few who’d suffered some unexpected delay on their journey home. They would all give thanks to Drianon for the bounty of fruit and grain. The motherly goddess’s statue was placed by the hearth and every meal concluded with grateful libations.

After sunset, Tathrin’s father would set out wine and white brandy, gifts from the merchants who traded along the Great West Road cutting across this country of Lescar. Their mules and wagons carried luxuries and necessities to the wealthy Tormalin Empire in the east and brought different dainties back to the prosperous realm of Caladhria. Some even travelled further westwards to the fiefdoms and city-states that made up the land of Ensaimin. Such men valued clean beds, good food and secure stables and storage lofts. They soon learned that Jerich Sayron hired honest men, found them sound horses and changed their coin without cheating them.

Tathrin’s feet mindlessly followed the tramp of the ranks ahead. Banners hung limp from poles slanted over standard-bearers’ shoulders, their bright colours muted. Thankfully the dew kept down the dust. It would be a different story by noon, with the recent lack of rain.

Not that they wanted rain. He’d seen a youthful mercenary wishing for a shower harshly rebuked for tempting Dastennin, god of storms. All the experienced swordsmen knew that waging war so late in the year meant the weather could be a foe to equal any enemy.

Tathrin shivered, and not just from the lingering chill after the cloudless night. This was about as far as he could get from a carefree festival. Then again, how often had his family enjoyed a festival of peace and plenty? Only a handful of times that he could recall.

All too often his father had been forced to sell whatever precious liquors he’d garnered to raise the coin for Duke Garnot’s quarterly levy. The duke’s men would seize livestock and stores from anyone who couldn’t pay what the reeve decreed. Tathrin’s mother would offer what festival charity she could to those who’d been left destitute. Quarterstaffs and fowling bows to hand, his father and brothers by marriage would keep a nightly watch by the light of the capricious twin moons. Men bereft of home and hope all too often turned to banditry.

Sometimes a dispossessed man or a friendless widow would hammer on the gates of their local lord or lady’s manor. They would demand justice, a tenant’s rights from this noble who was in turn the sworn vassal of their duke. It never did any good, not that Tathrin heard. A good day saw such appeals fobbed off with insincere sympathy. On a bad day, the suppliant was lucky to escape with a horsewhipping instead of a noose.

And that was in a good year. If Duke Garnot was waging war against one of his neighbours, then his own forces and those of the retaliating duke could lay the country waste between them. Tathrin’s mother comforted those mourning brothers, sons or husbands forcibly enrolled in Duke Garnot’s militia, already fearing they were as good as dead. His father would retreat to the cellars with the other local guildsmen, grim-faced.

Not that Carluse suffered worse than any other of Lescar’s six dukedoms, Tathrin reminded himself.

“Long lad!”

Only two people called him that. Sorgrad and Gren. Sorgrad was away and wouldn’t return for a few days. Gren was