The language of Fher’den was complex sounding. It was more musical at times than logical.
The scholar Hurtongo had been asked to teach the four girls Fher’denish, and other basic skills of the country, giving them separate, individual instruction.He was an elderly man, too bony and hawk like.His pure white hair was just past shoulder length and pulled back into a frizzy tail, revealing the deep-set, glaring eyes under the spiked brows.The wisdom and good nature hidden behind the sharp features made their time together pleasant.
Jo began to look forward to spending her mid-mornings in the various studies and libraries, with her new companion hunched over a giant volume across from her.
Sometime after they had been working together, Hurtongo left Jo bent over a copy page, while he fetched more paper. Stalker came bursting in not five minutes after the elder man had left.
She jumped and bumped the ink bottle. “Yes Sir!”
“Come with me. Watch Eye sent a message to you.I can’t guess how he came to this side, but he did, and if he were here, I’d tear him to shreds.”
Jo mopped up the spilled ink, her mind flashing back to a conversation she’d had with Watch Eye.
“When you go, I go.”
“He must have somehow found a way to go through the door with me,” she reasoned. “Not the door…some other entry.”
Stalker drug her to a small room the older students used for evening study, and everyone else used throughout the day. He snatched a paper off the table and shoved it into her hands.“Here, read this.”
Her heart sank. It was in Fher’denish.“Read it, okay…um…‘Jo, do not, something, it won’t be, ah, won’t be…um…’”
“Long!” Stalker snapped.
“Oh, right, ‘won’t be long, um, until….something.’ Oh, here it says, ‘go north, of um…ah…’”
Stalker looked at her piercingly. “You haven’t learned to read much Fher’denish, have you?”
“No, I haven’t.” Jo admitted.
“Good, because I don’t wish you to read this.” He took the paper and it slid through her fingers as he pulled it away.Refolding it with a slow rage, the swordsman dropped it on the small fire.Jo slowly folded her hands as she watched it burn. To cross Stalker was the first and last thing she wanted to do at that moment.
She had no love of Watch Eye, and she was sure he had none for her. If he had taken the trouble to send her a message, it must be for an important reason.She wished she could have read it.“Did you read it, Stalker?” Her eyes rose to his face.It was not comforting to look at.
“No, and I have no desire to do so. The less we all have to do with him, the better off we are.”
“How did he get it here?”
“I don’t know! How could I know, or care to know, of what his twisted mind can do?”
Jo did no more studies that day.
When Hurtongo heard of the message, he felt Stalker had been rash in burning it, but said nothing about it. Instead, he helped Jo even more with her reading and writing.Many times, it was only his willpower that got his English speaking pupil in and out of the mazes presented by his language.
Johanna found it mentally exhausting, and realized how merciful and patient Hurtongo was. He insisted she learn both the old and modern forms of it, for fluency’s sake, which tried her horribly, but forced her to learn quickly.
After she had mastered the basics, the old teacher had her copy the script on her sword, scabbard, and belt. Then, she was instructed to read it aloud; which she did slowly and with heavily accented pronunciation.
“Go I with thee, Warrior strong.
Hold ye tight to me, for I am thy tool.
Hold tight to thy teaching.
In battle wield me well.
If used ill, I am thy foe.
If used well, thy friend I am.
I strike at thy bidding.
Guide me as your fortunes.
Go onward ever, to the light you seek.
Those who carry evil’s name, I will kill.
Thy training, my power.
Do good to those who need it.
The old and young, be a defender to.
Remember your vows.
Hold fast to me and my stone will light the darkness you will surely face.”
Jo rubbed her eyes. “Whoever had the sword first, must have been a fighter. Seems like a private message.Pretty though. ”
Hurtongo raised his shaggy head from the book he’d been writing in. “The King Borton of Clare made that sword for his son.Borton loved ceremony, and wove a great deal into that inscription.Sadly, the boy was killed in the Great Siege of the Wolf.The King died some time later, and never said a word about it again.If his son knew the exact meaning, he likely would have told no one but his own sons.They were probably words of guidance to the prince.”
Jo sighed. It would help when she was fluent in Fher’denish, but it was irritating meantime to not understand. Hurtongo eyed her thoughtfully.“If you really what to know more about the sword, talk to Thordvall, the huntsman.He knows quite a bit of history, and tells it well.”
“Thordvall? I thought he lived in Dord’Dal.”
“He lives here during the winter…or whenever he feels like it. An odd personage, but quite a dear man.He’s here for a while now.Go meet him, and give a full report of what you learned when you come for a lesson tomorrow.”
“Okay.” Jo folded her papers up neatly.“I can do that.”
Hurtongo’s eyes twinkled like glitter. “I want the report in Fher’denish.”
Jo darted across the courtyard in the rain, and sucked in a chest full of damp air. The oak door of the gatehouse loomed unreal in the mist.She raised a fist, and banged firmly.
“It’s not locked any more, come in!” A huge, deep voice rumbled.
She pushed open the door, and let it slam behind her, as she dripped on the rug. Kansas never had rains like these.Jo was starting to like them.
A tall, very muscular man was sitting at a table, making a belt. He was covered in a thick, fur like growth, heavily layered on his shoulders and neck; a white stripe ran down his throat.His head and neck resembled a horse’s; with the lower jaw jutting outward; two long fangs curved upward over the large nostrils.Three horns emerged from the unusual head, two going back down his neck like a shield, the smaller middle one pointing forward. The eyes were twisted and mismatched; holes instead of ears.
The head swung around, the eyes blazing over Jo. “I thought you were someone else.Can I help you?”The ringing voice had an undertone of gravel to it.
“I’m looking for Thordvall?”
“That’s what they call me, generally. What do they call you?”
“Well, ‘Just Jo,’ can I be of service? My keen mind tells me you didn’t make the mad dash out here in the rain for my company alone.Find a seat and get by the fire so you can dry off.”
Jo found a stool made of hedge and cherry. “No I didn’t, though that would be good enough reason.”She sat down and put her sword on the table.“Hurtongo said I should come and ask you about this weapon.For my Fher’denish lessons,” She added ruefully.
He brushed off his sleeveless leather tunic and picked up the sword in a gigantic hand. “I heard you new ones had come through.You sew leather?”
“Some, not enough to call it real work though.”
“Here, finish this while I tell you. I’m using a whipstitch; there’re five layers; don’t let them slide.”He set the sword in the center of the table and picked up his own work again.
“The king Borton of Clare had a son name Cragon. Cragon had an unusual build, almost like yours from what I’ve heard, though taller and more strength.Borton had a sword made specifically for his son, with an eye inlaid into the hilt, and etched words on the blade; the same words sewn into the belt and scabbard.It was a gift to mark Cragon’s twenty-second birthday. The prince had become a true warrior, kind, strong, wise and a fierce fighter.Borton had spared nothing to train him.
“Cragon’s mother had died when he was three days old, so he and his father were all in all to each other.
“At that time, a warlord from the mountains of Gal Gor, called Ortoron, decided he would finally take this castle. He already held the Castle of the North West, and the surrounding lands, some of which don’t exist anymore.
“Ortoron decided that a siege would work on Mordgorden. He set his plans in motion and stormed the surrounding lands.Cragon gathered up his men and went to meet him before he could get past the meadows.In the battle Ortoron was killed, and his men fled as soon as they realized it.The price for this was disastrous. Three hundred men killed, and five hundred wounded altogether.
“Cragon was found among the dying. As he passed from this life, he gave his sword to a close friend called Seagoth of Turnwall, and begged him to return it to Borton. The prince said, “I die content, give my love to Father, and pray for my people.”
“The king and prince were the last of the line of Clare, so before his death, Borton crowned Seagoth. He chose wisely; Seagoth was a good ruler.
“This sword was put on display for a time. It was after the disappearance of King Mordgorden that it was placed in the armory to be used one day.”
Jo gazed at the fire, the finished leather work sitting beside her elbow on the table. “You’ve been telling stories for a long time, haven’t you?”
The broad shoulders shook with laughter. “Longer than you’ve been alive; much longer.”
“I wasn’t born that long ago.”
“True. I’ve been at it for, oh, maybe a hundred years.It’s only a hobby.Hurtongo has been at it seriously since he turned fifty.Let me see, that would be…roughly three hundred years.”
Jo’s head snapped around. “Three hundred? Are you kidding me?”
“You look shocked,” Thordvall said, highly amused. “And no, I’m not joking.You’ve heard it said before, but on this side of that little door, we live a long time compared to your people.”
Jo turned back to the fire. Her Fher’denish had been taxed to its limit.Hurtongo would be pleased with her information, but she was sure he would be unable to read the report.Jo rose.
“Thank you for your time; I enjoy history.”
“Come see me anytime; I enjoy telling history. The rain gives me nothing better to do anyhow.”With this blunt and almost ungracious remark, he slammed a wooden hammer onto a tool handle to drive it through a pile of leather.“A sword is a sword, and the only thing that makes it good or evil is the man using it.Don’t forget yours.”
“Oh, thanks. Later, Thordvall.”
“Good day, Just Jo.”
Stalker allowed no goofing off of any sort, and Jo became more and more aware of the fact as her lesson wore on. He drove and criticized until her skill was up to his standard.
“Keep your arm in on that swing! You will fall over in a real fight.Keep the right leg out farther!Don’t throw your head back; the enemy will swing at your neck.JO!!Stop grinning and get more power behind that thrust!”
Jo tried and tried, but she had never been the most physical person in the world, and this was getting harder and harder to keep up. She liked strict teachers; however, the long exertion wore her resilience down.Stalker finally threw up his hands and growled.“Enough.Time to rest.”
They sat down in the shade of the castle walls. Jo moved her sword experimentally.“Stalker, how do they choose a sword for you?”
“Balance, skill level; it varies. Why?”
“I was just wondering.”
He glanced her over. “It matches your balance and height.It is strong so you cannot break it.”
Jo sat for a while thinking. She opened her mouth, and shut it again.
“Was I ever married.” Stalker said.Jo glanced at him in shock.He gave a grim smile.“You were wondering if I had ever married.”
“Well, yes, but…” She was almost sorry she had thought of it at random. It really was none of her business.
He kept his gaze on the sky. “I was.I had a wife and three sons.One boy is dead, and buried behind Mordgorden.One disappeared, and one was taken by a man named Dirkorin.This same Dirkorin killed my wife.Does that answer your question?”
No wonder he appeared so sullen and angry. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to,”
“You did not ask; I gave you my story of my own free will. You were not rude.”He faced her abruptly.“This castle is under a curse.You have seen what it does to the outward part of us; soon you will find it goes deeper.Lives bend and break.Come, let’s finish.”
Between what Thordvall and Stalker had told her, it left her in deep thought for the rest of the day.
Jo held council with Mae that night. The younger girl shook her head.“I like it here, but I miss home, Jo.”
“It’s all the wondering that drives me batty. Wondering what they are doing at home, wondering why we’re here, wondering what tomorrow will be like.”
Mae sighed. “Did you see the dress Anne made?She has an order for several more.”
“No, I haven’t, I’m supposed to go up there tomorrow and see it. Do you know what Beth did this morning? She threatened Motag.”
Mae burst into peals of laughter. “He’s five times her size!”
“It was over washing something. We didn’t name her “The Little Mom’ for nothing.”How was your day?”
Mae shrugged and gave her wide, happy smile. “Bearploltan had me in the sick bay. He says I’m going to be a good physician, but I can’t tell yet.”
“Don’t start in again on the “someone-else-is-better” line. You and your sisters are some of the most beautiful, talented, kind, caring…” Mae opened her mouth to protest and Jo raised a hand. “This time, I won’t let you say otherwise.”
A knock sounded on the door, and Anne and Beth came in, wanting to know what had happened to Jo and Mae throughout the day. They had begun spending the evenings together in preparation for the next lessons. All four were studying Fher’denish together, when clapping and shouting brought them out to the corridor.
The hall was filled with guards, archers, foot men, and civilians running and shouting. Motag, Apolingo and Thordvall were rushing towards them.Thordvall grabbed two girls in each hand, and swung them into stride.Motag had darted into Jo’s room and grabbed their weapons, handing them out as they ran.
Jo caught Mae gawking at Thordvall as she belted on her sword. “Guys, this is Thordvall, a friend.What’s going on?”
Thordvall made a ghastly face. “Attackers are trying to get in the southeast side. They’re trying to chip away the marble wall in preparation for a battering ram. Eighteen dead already.”His twisted eyes landed on the youngest sister.“Beth, would you go help down in the kitchens?They’re always shorthanded.”
She ran off, through the people and down the stairs. The huntsman sighed.“She’s better off away from all that’s going on.Here, around this corner.”
They came out on the wall top. Jo could feel the wind gain in force as they left the doorway.Although the Kansas girls were used to wind, they had trouble standing up against it.The group followed Thordvall over to where Stalker crouched.The swordsman was furious.Jo staggered as he faced them.She had never seen such a look of hate and rage.
“Motag, open the side door and let me out! I’ll show them what attack means!”
Thordvall gripped the smaller man’s arm tightly. “Stalker!I know you’re angry for this, and for Dirkorin’s taking your son, but use some sense!”
Jo peeked over the wall with new respect for the attackers. This must be part of Dirkorin’s army.
Stalker set his jaw. “I do not care!Right now, I could kill them all!”
“It hardly matters whether you could or not.” Thordvall observed dryly. “We need you alive right now, not dead.Stalker, think!We cannot afford any men killed, not the eighteen dead, and not you.”
Stalker leaned over the wall next to Jo and glared. If he could have controlled the group below, none would have lived.
Mae tugged Jo’s sleeve. She turned in time hear a clank and see what looked like two poles appear over the top of the wall. The two Netherland sisters were already below it, listening to the activity below.Jo caught the word ‘climb’ as she scuttled over. “They’re trying to scale, any ideas?”
The man in the lead was sure this would be easy. They had caught the castle napping; the army would be in shambles about now. As he reached the top, a head popped over the wall.
“Nice night for a climb.” Jo said tensely.The men of Dirkorin were too shocked to answer. She stumbled on, buying Anne and Mae time.“You look like you might need help.Do you need help?This ladder looks like it’s rotting; you ought to have it fixed.I would see to it if I were you.”
“Well you’re not me!” The man snapped.
Mae shot up. “No one here wants to be you.” She shoved the ladder over.It made a graceful arch and landed in the trees on the edge of the forest.“That does look like fun.”
Jo nodded whole heartedly. “To bad it’s so dangerous.”
The soldiers were scrambling around cursing the girls as they rushed away.
For the rest of the night, they pushed ladders and scaling equipment off the wall. Stalker would suddenly appear from time to time, and see to it that his ladders were full of men, and never had a tree to stop them.Dirkorin’s men kept at it, until there were too many to hold off.The invasion began getting earnest.Hand to hand fights became heavier and more vicious.
Jo was acting on instinct alone; vaguely aware of what was going on around her. Anne, Mae and Bodangalas had formed a team.She glimpsed them while trying to get to Stalker’s side.
Slowly, the army of Dirkorin began to panic. The dawn was coming, and the castle dwellers were not giving up.They had gone most of the night without rest, but never stopped.Fearing Stalker’s rage, Thordvall’s size, and the bravery of the others, they fled.Some pitched over the wall; others slid down on the ropes, or were driven through the gates.
They headed off swiftly towards the North West.
Jo leaned over curiously and inspected the damage to the wall. Motag sighed and sat back.“Well Thordvall, what do you think?”
The big man leaned over Jo. “Best patch it up.Find a way to brace it; they may try the same thing in the same place.”
Stalker groaned and heaved himself off the ground. “It is over twenty eight dead, and may soon be more.We have had problems in the past before because of sloppy habits. We need to revise the guard and set regular patrols.”
Jo guessed that if they were planning heavy guard, Dirkorin’s army would come back.
Thordvall frowned at Stalker’s arms. “You should use leather guards if are going to use your arms as shields.Better have someone down in the infirmary patch them up; they’re starting to fester.”
“Anne and Mae are there, they need not see something this bad, friend.”
Jo raised her head. “They were in the fight last night, Stalker.”
“Vouch for them all you want; they are still young women.” He stood up and walked off muttering.Jo sighed.“Why does he have to be so…tough about this?”
Thordvall rubbed his head and neck. “He’s been like that since his wife Naomi died.He loved her very much, like his own body.On top of that, he lost all his children.”
Jo remembered Stalker telling her. She looked back at the wall.
All his children…
No matter how well the wall was patched, there would be a crack. No matter how long Stalker healed from the loss of his family, he would never be the same.
Then there were the people who had lost loved ones in the clash the night before; what would their reaction be?
“Nothing would seem quite the same; more will get hurt, and more will die,” Jo thought bitterly as she stared at the broken marble.
Slowly, she turned and made her way back to the towering carved gates of Mordgorden.