He was curious to know why Renfry wanted out of Corstarorden. Was he running from someone? Wanted for a crime? The man seemed desperate to leave.
Topher knew that unless Renfry was willing to speak on the subject, asking him for answers was a futile endeavor, so he did not pursue the subject. Until they arrived at Middleborough, just a day from the Storden border, and an equal distance east to the ocean and west to the FreeLands.
So nice to sleep beneath a roof again and eat warm food. Just a tiny town, with a small, three-room inn, The Mid-Point Inn. They nearly had to sleep in the stable until the proprietor threw a man out for his rowdy behavior, bags and all.
“You two,” and the irate innkeeper pointed at Topher and Renfry leaning against the stable wall, “a room just opened up. You want it, you got it.” And Topher and Renfry brushed themselves free of hay and scrambled up the stairs for the tiny room.
After a three-day trek from Roarden North, the thin, greasy broth, mainly devoid of vegetables, was welcome, and they said little to each other while they slurped it down. Topher watched Renfry study the innkeeper and the other customers, but none of them raised an alert, so Renfry relaxed – minutely. The innkeeper was largely disinterested in his clientele – as long as everyone paid and behaved in an orderly fashion, Topher decided the balding, aproned man was lost in his own thoughts as he kept to his tasks.
The next morning, as Renfry and Topher stood outside of Middleborough’s town limits, Renfry confronted Topher. “I’ve gotten you most of the way to the Corstarorden border. Have you an idea which direction you’re headed?”
Topher hoisted his rucksack over his shoulder. “Anywhere but Storden. East, to the FreeLands, then perhaps….”
Renfry studied him.
“The FreeLands. Whatever for? Did you not say not four days ago that you were trying to stay away from “mercs” like myself? The FreeLands are full of mercs.”
“Aye, but they’re all headed west,” Topher returned. Every whispered conversation he’d heard as he’d served ale was the same – mercenaries in Roarden North.
Renfry looked actually concerned for him. “Why, then head north. Storden is neutral again, it’s got a new king –”
Topher blanched. “Ren, where have you been for the last three months? Storden may have a new king, but its last crown prince still wants that throne, I guarantee you that. And he’ll still want to make war. That Varley, he’s still got that Army ready at his command, new king or no. I would rather shave my head than go north to Storden.” And Topher gave Renfry a meaningful look, for his traveling companion knew what dire consequences shaving his head would bring about. If Topher was going to be executed, he’d rather be executed by a member of the Silent Order than soldiers who might torture him. And everything he had heard in The Red Fox from those mercenaries looking for hire told him over twenty thousand soldiers sat in Storden awaiting Prince Varley’s command.
Renfry stared at him. “The FreeLands are not safe.”
“Far safer than Corstarorden or Storden. And just where are you headed?” returned Topher, a bit incensed.
Renfry’s brown eyes narrowed. “North.”
“North,” repeated Topher. “That’s so specific.”
Renfry rolled his eyes and turned forward on the road, shaking his head at the sarcasm in Topher’s voice.
“Actually, I am headed toward the Eastern border, by 4 Kings’ Fortress, and then North, so you can continue with me, if you choose, to the Free Lands. I will be heading North from there.”
Amazed at this scrap of news that Renfry had shared, Topher hastened after him. “North from 4 Kings Fortress? That brings you into Clemongard. And you warn me of safety. Whatever would convince you to walk blindly into the one country that’s being attacked by what is probably not one but two, and possibly even three other countries? You’ve clearly lost your bloody mind, mate.”
Renfry threw a glare at him. “Did all of you talk this much or is it just you? The whole Silent thing, just a ruse, yeah?”
Topher, now angry, for that was an enormous secret, glanced about. Seeing no one on the road anywhere, he retorted, “We communicated other ways, by signing the old, unspoken language, and by writing. Thus the callouses.” Topher held up the two first fingers of his right hand, which were roughened from six years of constant writing in order to communicate.
Renfry stopped suddenly and grabbed Topher’s fingers, inspecting the callouses. Then he looked up at Topher with a pensive expression. “What subjects did they train you in?”
Taken aback, Topher blinked and tried to recall all the way back to his first year with the Silent Order. Renfry began walking again, that same pensive expression on his face.
Topher listed on his fingers, “… calligraphy, scribery, animal husbandry, agriculture, law and legal studies, health and anatomy, basic medicinal studies, history of each country in the Land, heraldry, political studies, art and literature, language, accounting, upper arithmetic, basic architecture…. And, of course, continuing studies of the One God,” he added.
“And no study of weaponry? No… archery? Pole axe, perhaps?” asked Renfry ahead of Topher.
“It’s a peaceful, religious order. Why would they teach acolytes to maim and kill?” asked Topher.
“Oh, I don’t know. In case their members fear for their lives, perhaps,” replied Renfry dryly.
“Then they offer their souls to the One God freely,” answered Topher.
“And you? Do you offer your soul to the One God freely, should it become imperiled?”
“Imperiled? I made my peace with the One God before I left. I told Him that I believed in him and his teachings, but that I was not willing to offer myself to a life of silence. He, in return, was silent. I thought that was a sign as loud as any other, so, I decided to keep my tongue. Should my life be in danger, I’ll fight for it. Will I fall to the ground in prayer to the One God? No.”
Up ahead, Renfry nodded a little.
“Just why are you asking?”
“I’ll be turning north to deliver an extremely – important – message to someone in Clemongard. You’re welcome to join me, though it will be dangerous, very.”
Topher rose an eyebrow at this sudden revelation of Renfry’s, and his offer. But the man was – crazed. “Clemongard. A message. Renfry, you have lost your brains, man. Can you not send a pigeon?”
He watched Renfry give a firm shake of the head. “This must be delivered in person. As soon as possible. It is of dire importance that I get this message delivered.”
Topher was impressed at Renfry’s conviction but thought him crazy nevertheless. “Did you not hear me when I said that Clemongard was being attacked by two, if not possibly three countries?”
Renfry said nothing.
Topher jogged up until he was even with Renfry. “Just why is this so important? Who is this going to?”
Renfry sized him up for a moment and then replied, “I have a message for the Queen.”
Topher stared. Perhaps Renfry was kidding. He was waiting for Renfry’s face to break into a sarcastic grin. But it did not, and his pace continued.
“The Queen. Of Clemongard. Queen Selby.” Topher was disbelieving. This man walking next to him wanted an audience with the actual Queen of Clemongard.
“You’re mad.” Topher shook his head. “Mad.”
Renfry stopped in the dirt road, a small puff of dust arising around his boots. Topher stopped and stared at him.
“Let me put it to you like this. I have to deliver this message. It’s my duty, Topher.”
He stared at Topher a few seconds longer, then drew the crisscrossed swords from behind his back out. Topher stared at them, glinting in the sun. Then Renfry whirled each sword around and caught them by the hilt, once, twice, three times.
Topher tried not to look impressed.
“Let’s just say you’re not the only one who’s a member of an order, mate.”
And Renfry stashed his two swords into their scabbards on his back, staring at him the entire time.
An order? What? There were no other orders, no orders with swords like that. And Topher would know.
Renfry had started down the road again, at a brisk pace this time.
“Wait! You’re a member of an order? A real order? Or just a –” Topher thought it best to stop talking before he got himself into trouble.
“Yes, a real Order,” replied Renfry tiredly.
“Well, I’ve never read of any Orders like – like that.”
“That’s because we keep it private. The Silent Order is not a private Order. Ours is and has been around for centuries.” And Renfry stopped in the road. “We are the Brotherhood of the Two Blades. We serve with partners and we travel the Land. And we serve a number of important purposes, including protecting the Royals as necessary. Right now, I have a message I must get to Queen Selby. In fact, I will need a horse soon, so if you choose to come with me, you will be riding, not walking. If you choose not to accompany me north to Clemongard, then you keep your mouth shut about me, and I shall keep my mouth shut about you.”
Topher nodded slowly. If either of them exposed the other, then they had simply to turn the other in. Topher would never do such a thing, but it was a safety clause. And as learned as he was, he had never heard of the Brotherhood of the Two Blades….
“What is this message you bear?” he asked quietly, respectful of this mission that Renfry was on.
“I overheard a plot by a group of Stordish soldiers to see that she was murdered, leaving the entire country without a ruler. She is the last of her family. If she is on the battlefield, it will be easy for her to be killed – a stray arrow, for example….” Renfry sighed. He looked at Topher. “You have no weaponry experience save what little I taught you myself. Where I go, to Clemongard, there will be war on all sides. I suggest you stay your course – stay to the FreeLands. You lived off the land easily enough before. Stay out of the way of soldiers and you should be fine.”
“The Coastals will be called in once the Eastern Alliance starts fighting. The whole of this Land will be at war. Where will be a safe place to hide? A rabbit’s den? I can help you, you know. I know all the heraldry banners, geography, who you’re like to meet on the battlefield. Take me with you.” Topher suddenly could not believe what he heard himself saying.
“Did you not hear me say it was dangerous? You know nothing of weaponry. As you yourself said, twice, Clemongard is besieged by as many as three countries.”
“Yes, and all three countries the wrong side. That Queen needs all the assistance she can get. She lost her whole family in less than a year. They’re trying to kill her, you say. That is plain bloody wrong. Teach me how to use those swords on the way there. I learn fast. I’d not have it said that I turned away when I could have helped a Queen who needed assistance when three countries were attacking her and a plot to murder her was afoot.
“Consider it a matter of honor,” Topher finished.
Renfry nodded slowly, considering. “Very well, then.”
Topher’s mind was spinning. They had come across more traffic than he’d thought possible on the road West. Renfry hadn’t been kidding when he’d said the way would be dangerous. Two small bands of mercenaries who, once they took Renfry’s measure, decided to leave them alone. Topher knew it. The two sword hilts poking over Renfry’s cloak and the quality of his ringmail shirt told common mercs that he was not a man to be trifled with. They each acknowledged Renfry with a short nod as they passed, like dogs in the yard. Topher they didn’t even notice. Renfry said he would train him a bit each night.
A family headed for ArkenHeights nodded pleasantly enough, though they seemed apprehensive. They asked if any trouble in ArkenHeights had been heard of, but Topher and Renfry had no news for them.
And near the end of the day, a five-man group of Stordish soldiers nearly overtook them on the road.
Topher fully believed they only wanted a bit of sport. But, unlike the last time, Renfry gave neither Topher nor the soldiers any notice. He beheaded all five of them within less than two minutes.
“Field’s over there if you plan to retch,” Renfry had shot Topher a meaningful look.
Topher had taken in a deep breath and nudged the heads aside while he bent to rag-pick. Much of the coin he had now came from the two men Renfry had killed on the road to Roarden North all those months ago, so who was Topher to judge how bounty was delivered?
After a moment, Renfry had bent to do the same. Both of them now had ten more silver pieces and over thirty or more coppers. But the most distasteful part followed, for Renfry insisted Topher wear one of the men’s ringmail shirt. As it had a splash a blood upon it, he had swallowed down his disgust and pulled the ringmail over his head.
It was impossibly heavy and smelled foul, for undoubtedly, the group had been traveling for some time together. Who knew the last time the man had bathed? The next opportunity to bathe presented itself, Topher would be first in line, for he could not abide uncleanliness. Renfry scoffed at him and threw a belt at him to cinch the shirt around the waist, for the ringmail shirt hung on him loosely.
And lastly, Renfry handed him a sword and dagger, with the oddest expression upon his face.
After they had lumped the bodies off to the side of the road – and the heads – the two of them had continued. Topher could not believe he was wearing armor, even ill-fitting as it was, much less a sword belt and sword.
Suddenly, out of curiosity he asked, “Did you not say that those in the Brotherhood traveled with partners?”
He saw Renfry grimace. “Aye.”
“Then, where is yours?”
Renfry did not break his stride, but he looked up at the sky. “I left him in Tortoreen. Six feet in the ground.”
Topher’s eyes bulged at that. After a few minutes, he said, “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. He died a grand death. We were ambushed at the last moment but we still completed our mission.”
Topher took this in. He recalled what Renfry had told him at The Red Fox in Roarden North. “…I am no merc. I am looking for someone of my status, however, which I was doing before I even ran across you.”
“Who have you been looking for all this time? In the bars and pubs, that is?” asked Topher. He wondered if Renfry was looking for the man who had killed his partner.
Renfry said nothing at first. Then he shook his head. “I must be mad.” He turned toward Topher. “I’ve been looking for another partner. Interested?”