THE SHADES BETWEEN SCUM AND GOOD MEN
As a new morning dawned, the convoy went over the Jeggare and crossed to a region that was as unwelcoming as it was scenic. One could already see the Mindspins extend across the horizon to the east, the jagged mountains and the powder of eversnow covering the highest peaks. With each mile, green gave in to brown and grey and the land turned rockier. It was as if a deity had broken chunks of different size off the mountainsides and hurled them around in the plains like a bored child.
A single road, much traveled, went east, angling around larger rocks and going straight when it could. The Utti caravan, axles squealing, hooves kicking up dirt, stayed on it dutifully.
With the road being more hazardous, a pair from the caravan guard had ridden in advance to scout the way. Belon had donned his full plate again and was riding at point with the lead carriage as he had the day before. This time, his broody twin had decided to join him. He didn’t chat, and Belon could see him scan the surroundings tirelessly, his face as stony and expressionless as the death’s head mask he wore to battle.
“It’s not tha bandits ya should be worried ‘bout”, explained the leader of the guard with her lazy-sounding accent that stretched the vowels. She was a tall and lean Varisian mercenary called Dangoyle. The other guards called her Whisky to her face, both for the amount of her favourite alcohol she could consume before passing out and for her habit of getting into drunken fights.
“They’re not that many in tha mountains. It’s tha monstas’ ya shoulda consida. Dire-fuckin-bears. Huge rocs. Mean-as-shit ogres. Trolls that don’t fuckin’ die unless ya rip their head off.”
Little Mico wasn’t there to hear Whisky’s foul-mouthed rant, as Pavo himself had taken the driver’s bench with his older son. Marco seemed unfazed and uninterested – he probably had heard the same stories and “wisdoms” a dozen times before.
Belon had asked Dangoyle about the previous trips. Apparently the caravan had not encountered serious trouble earlier. They had had to fend off a half-hearted ambush by a tribe of feral orcs once, and had ran into a pack of mountain goats herded patiently by a grey render, a massive ten feet tall bipedal beast with two beady yellow eyes, massive claws and sharp rows of four-inch long teeth. They had stopped and let the pack move along peacefully, and the predator had not attacked. One of the guards who had been at point during the confrontation, Belon couldn’t remember the name, had shat his trousers brown according to the hazel-haired guard leader.
“And tha weatha. Damn it can get shitty up there fast, ya hear me?”
“Come on now Miss Dangoyle, it is not that bad”, Pavo shouted from the lead carriage.
Belon gazed at the mountains and couldn’t discern anything he should’ve been concerned about. “The skies are clear up there.”
Dangoyle gave a shrug. “For now.”
The rocky plains cut a valley two miles wide between the nearest main bodies of the mountain range and whoever who had built the road had wisely utilized it. In calm, almost pleasant weather they went on for a good fifteen miles before stopping for a break and a bite to eat.
“Now begins the harder part”, Pavo said to the half-elf with the gilded plate under his breath as they sat on a group of rocks, eating soup. They were about to start uphill. The hike up began with a gentle slope, but already at a distance Belon could see the road becoming steeper and narrower as it wormed up like a massive snake resting against a rugged mountainside.
“We leave civilization behind for a few days”, the caravan owner added after swallowing a spoonful. He didn’t look nervous, rather behaved very business-like.
Cael had his hood pulled back and stroked his bare stubbled head, fingers looking for oily hair that wasn’t there anymore. “I came alone over the mountains last year, from the opposite direction. It was.. quite a trip.”
“A lot can change in a year, Cael”, Pavo was quick to say. “Miss Dangoyle just exaggerates to justify her and her colleagues’ fat gold purses I pay them. The route is rough and the mountains are vast, hiding all kinds of beasts, but soldiers of Fort Thorn patrol the Bloodsworn Vale Road regularly, and do their best to keep it safe.”
Random claps of two sticks of wood hitting together made Belon raise his eyes. Near the lead carriage, Pavo’s sons were play-fighting, dueling with two training short swords. Their technique was weak – non-existent was the word Belon chose – but what they lacked in skill they replaced with vigor and quickness.
Cael shot a glance to where Belon was watching and snorted before resuming eating. “What is so funny”, Pavo asked, without any sign of being offended. He didn’t know what Cael had snorted about.
“Your sons”, Cael began, “your first-born especially, shouldn’t hold a weapon if he can’t use it.” This is my moody brother being tactful, Belon shook his head as he opened his mouth to speak.
“It’s just two boys playing”, he interjected. Their host turned towards the clapping. It was only then he realized Pavo did not carry any weapons, none at all.
“You are right”, the caravan owner to Belon’s amazement finally admitted to Cael. There was regret and worry on his face as he watched his sons duel. “They are not fighters like you. They were not raised to be one, rather, I’ve always wanted them to follow a path of peace and sensibility. But the world is truly a dangerous place. War and aggression beckons young men and women like them from every direction. It calls for them.. and takes them without permission.”
Pavo was speaking from his own experience, it dawned to Belon. The topic hit too close to home.
“Everyone should be ready to defend themselves”, Cael stated like it was an absolute truth. “There are dangers everywhere.”
“Of course”, Pavo grunted, “but we are not all bold warriors like you, some people need others for their defence. And there is nothing wrong with it. As long as those doing the protection are not scum.”
Cael chuckled a mirthless laugh. “When it comes to violence, the difference between scum and those deserving your trust is hazy at best.”
Pavo just summoned his merchant’s smile, like an actor taking on role. But there was a hint of sharpness in his tone and the way he looked at Cael. “Don’t take me for a blue-eyed idealist, Master Greymarsh. I’ve seen all the shades between scum and good men, and I’ve learned to tell who is who.”
To that, the scar-faced half-elf said nothing. If he had, Belon thought, Pavo might’ve shared his view of where between scum and good men his brother stood.
Belon glanced over to the wagons where the travelers ate and loitered. Magister Galicus was leaning on one of the wagons, scribbling something into a notebook, and happened to raise his head to see Belon watching. He waved a greeting to which the warrior replied. Nearby, a woman clad in a simple light-blue dress with her two children, a girl, maybe seven, and boy, maybe five, were playing tag, enjoying the break from being confined to the enclosed carriage. Belon couldn’t remember their names, but knew they were bound for Skelt. Going home after a visit to Korvosa, he recalled from a previous conversation with Pavo. Their mood was up, and Belon had to smile as the children circled their laughing mother, screaming and shouting in glee.
A dwarven man, young by the standards of his kin was kicking around pebbles and stones and kept fingering his thick, bright orange beard. It was obvious he was anxious about something. He had his eyes down to the ground, and his mouth worked, but even Belon’s sharp hearing couldn’t discern what he was talking to himself about. Maybe he was a bit mad, or he rehearsed a speech? A proposal to a loved one? An apology to a parent? An idea for a business venture? Ergon Bronzeforge, the name surfaced. What are you up to, Ergon?
There was also the elderly couple, sharing the carriage with Galicus. Belon had exchanged a quick word with them earlier. Peeter and Moya Humbling were moving from Korvosa to Canorate, to live with their son, Zander. They were walking around, talking, holding their hands together like they had just met. Belon remembered them telling excitedly about their trip like it was a new, grand chapter in their life. He hoped, when he got to be as old as them, he’d retain a spark of that youthful exuberance they still had in abundance. He hoped someone would put a spark of that exuberance into his brother’s soul, too.
But someone had. A smile crept to his lips. The free-spirited noble girl Aurora. If Belon wanted to temper his brother’s ire, and bring peace for his haunted soul, he would need Aurora’s help. He needed someone to bring light to his shadows, and based on all his brother had told of her, and the way he had told him about her, she was perfect for the task.
He just hoped her feelings for his brother were there still, unchanged, and she hadn’t been promised to someone else. Belon really didn’t want to help his brother steal the young lady, even if she came willingly.
But first things first, Belon mused, I need to talk him into going to see her when we get to Dunbreck.
“Tell me the story of the evil wizard who gave you that suit of armour”, Mico pleaded Belon as the trek had continued and they were ascending the mountainside. The way had gotten steep, and both Belon and Cael had chosen to walk their horses. The caravan owner’s youngest son had wanted to ride at the driver’s bench, but his father hadn’t allowed him. Belon, however, had offered Mico the chance to ride his horse. He was so scrawny that the stallion barely noticed him.
“That’s a long story”, the silver-haired warrior said. Behind him, Cael coughed. His brother probably wouldn’t have shared the story with the boy, but Belon wasn’t his brother. He had made a promise to the curious boy.
“Please”, the boy asked, his blue eyes big and pleading as he looked down from the saddle.
“Very well.” Belon cleared his throat and considered where to start.
“Eight years ago, we lost each other, me and my brother. We were separated by a string of events that’s worthy of a story of its own. We are orphans, you see, and and we’ve always counted on each other’s help.”
“I can’t count on Marco’s help in anything”, little Mico muttered.
“We searched for each other, from many nations and different cities. Sometimes we were close to each other and we didn’t even realize it, sometimes we were hundreds of miles apart. This continued for years. I traveled from Molthune to Nirmathi, to war-torn lands of Lastwall, to the orc-infested Holds of Belkzen and finally to the wilderness of Varisia. My brother went all the way around Lake Encarthan, visiting every nation and all the major cities.”
Mico listened closely, his mouth open in admiration. “You’ve seen the entire world!”
Belon chuckled. “No, that’s just a few nations. But finally, Cael too made it to Varisia, making a long detour in Nirmathi”, and when he said that, he glanced at his brother and smirked, resisting a wink. Cael looked like he had swallowed something awful.
“I had been in Varisia almost two years already at that point. I had spent a long winter with group of rangers that fought giants and ogres in Central Varisia and protected local communities from their raids. After that, I had travelled to Riddleport.”
“I’ve heard of Riddleport! It’s a nasty place, full of pirates and criminals, Dad says.”
“Your Dad’s right. It’s a dangerous city, very different to Korvosa. There I got into trouble.” Belon stopped for some added tension. Mico couldn’t help himself.
“What kind of trouble?”
“I was enchanted by an ancient greatsword of greed. It had been the evil wizard’s blade once upon a time. I lost my mind when I picked it up to examine it.”
“Yes, I’m afraid I did. My will was subdued by the sword, and it forced me to slay many innocents and walk all the way to the highest peaks of Kodar mountains in northern Varisia. It took me to the evil wizard, and after his minions had enchanted me with new magic, he made me his unwilling champion and protector.”
“What kind of magic did they do?”
Belon began to remove his gauntlet. “They made me stronger and faster, and a bit smarter too. They gave me this suit of armor, and many other rare, magical items to use. And they turned my skin golden to make me more resistant to harm.”
“No way! I don’t believe it!”
The warrior got his gauntlet off and showed the boy his hand. It shone beautifully in the clear daylight.
“Dad! Marco! Master Greymarsh has golden skin!” Mico exclaimed in wonder and his father and older brother leaned out to see.
“Magnificent”, Pavo whispered while Marco said nothing. Belon heard Cael groan in exaggerated frustration.
“Can I touch it?” Mico asked and Belon reached up towards the boy. The little man gently poked Belon’s palm.
“It’s tough, but warm like normal skin”, the boy thought aloud. “But what happened then?”
“As the evil wizard’s minions prepared him for his return from another dimension where he had gone into hiding during Earthfall, I watched and made sure his keep at the top of the highest peak of the mountain range was secure.”
“You didn’t try to escape?”
“I couldn’t. The sword controlled my mind and will utterly. I couldn’t think one thought of my own, or move a finger without the sword telling me.”
“So where was your brother?”
“He was already in Varisia, looking for me. But he had found new friends along the way, and as a group, they were solving the mystery of the wizard’s return. You see, the wizard’s minions were already working for their master, preparing the way for him. Cael and his companions had gotten involved in the schemes, and did everything they could to stop them. After thwarting one scheme after another, they got closer to the wizard and his keep. And step by step, my brother got closer to me.”
“Finally, the group arrived at the foot of the highest mountain. Using powerful magics they had acquired along the way, they flew up to the peak, passing through strong defences, and entered the keep.”
“And you fought them, because you had to protect the keep.”
“Yes, I did. With a force of forty feet tall giants-”
“Forty feet! That’s higher than the walls of Korvosa!”
“Yes, they were that big. And very scary, they had red eyes and their coal-black skin was covered with burning runic tattoos, and they carried longswords the size of trees. I.. or the sword commanded them into battle against Cael and his companions.”
“But your brother and his friends won, right?”
“Yes, they won. And I was almost killed. But Cael and his good friend, a cleric of Iomedae called Harsk, broke the sword’s spell and returned me to my normal self.”
“You must’ve been happy to see your brother again.”
Belon glanced at his brother again. This time, he stared back. The stare was serious and steady, like a needle trying to pin something in place. Belon turned back to the boy.
“It surely was. We’d been apart for almost eight years.”
Mico’s face was serious. “Marco was ill once, really sick and feverish, for two weeks. He just slept and acted weird when he was awake. He didn’t know where he was, and who he was with, he just laid in bed and shook and muttered nonsense. Dad had to cancel a caravan trip, ‘cause he wanted to stay with Marco. When he got better, I was so happy to hold his hand and talk to him again.”
“You appreciate things when they are taken away from you”, Belon nodded. Mico nodded too, as sagely as a little man could.
“After I had been healed, we magically teleported back to the mountain and attacked the evil wizard and his giant and demon minions. There was even a dragon, a blue adult, one that spat lightning instead of fire or breaths of ice. Cael killed it with just two arrows.”
“Aha, now you’re just trying to fool me..”
“I did. They were very potent, enchanted arrows”, Cael joined the story from the back. His eyes were on the horizon, remembering the battle.
“No way..” Mico whispered.
Belon went on. “The battle was fought in another dimension, outside of this world, where the wizard was still trapped. Everywhere was molten, bubbling lava, and even walking was dangerous, let alone fighting. It was a furious battle, and we all fought bravely. But in the end it was Cael who brought down the evil wizard. That’s how we saved Varisia.”
Little Mico turned in the saddle all the way back and looked open-mouthed at Cael.
“A most magnificent story, Belon! I knew you were good men and special, both of you”, Pavo clapped once from the lead carriage’s bench. Even Marco by his side appeared taken aback.
“So you’re.. heroes?” Mico managed, concluding a trail of thought he had started the day before.
Belon snorted and shook his head. “We’re just two brothers who stood with several other strong souls and did what had to be done.”
Somehow the boy’s unspoken but painfully obvious admiration told he didn’t fully agree with the warrior.