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…PROLOGUE 1…

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					                                              …PROLOGUE 1…

     Marcus, or Mark as anyone who knew him called him, was chopping wood. It was a task he hated. It‟s
an activity prone to handing out blisters, and blisters were something Mark really loathed. Loathed might not
even be the best way to put it; something about the fluid under the skin made his stomach turn. Yet in
morbid fascination, he couldn‟t help but play with the blisters. Today was not an exception. He was working
on his third blister - two had already popped. His father had always said it was because he held the ax
handle wrong, and had he held it right, he‟d not get blisters.
     Mark wiped his hands on his breeches. Grime, dust, and sweat had a funny way of accumulating in the
creases of his hands. It was another thing he hated. Wiping his brow on his sleeve, a habit that had already
soaked his sleeves through today, he looked at the pile of wood he‟d cut, and frowned. Quietly he appraised
the pile, thinking the whole time he hadn‟t cut enough. With a resigned sigh he picked up the ax, and set
another piece of wood on the stump he‟d been chopping on. He grunted as the ax came down, sending the
halves a few feet to other side of him. Time went by fast. The pile grew, and Mark daydreamed while
swinging the ax.
     He paused to look around, disliking the cheerfulness of the birds he could hear. As he set the next piece
of wood on the stump, he heard gravel crunch a few paces behind him.
     “It‟s about damn time,” he said before splitting his next victim.
     “Yeah, yeah, shut your yap. You always did whine too much.”
     Mark turned after placing the next piece for splitting. “So I‟ve heard.”
     Mark‟s friend Garret leaned lazily against a fir tree, examining the little drips of pitch that had half dried
on the grayish bark. With mock interest, he poked at one with his finger. Mark frowned again, and kicked a
few stones Garret‟s way.
     Garret‟s green eyes flashed annoyance, and he sighed dramatically before speaking. “Just because
you‟re moody doesn‟t mean you need to take it out on the world.”
     Mark split the log he‟d set up, and then tossed aside the ax.
     “I know,” he paused long enough to grin, “but you‟re a born victim.”
     Garret smirked, and brought his hands to his heart. “Tis my lot in life…to take the brunt of moody
people‟s moods. It was in the stars.”
     Mark stooped over, and started stacking the chopped wood across his lap. “You know you‟re not the
least bit funny, right?”
     Garret lowered his head; dark strands of hair falling to half cover his eyes. “Kicking a man while he‟s
down, eh?”
     “You‟re a man now?” Mark stood, shaking his head at Garret‟s dramatics. “But really, who wasn‟t
receptive to your charms this time?”
     Garret produced a small flask from somewhere on his person, and took a long pull off it. “All of them I
think. They must have all gotten together and told all their secrets about me, but even then it seems like
they‟d be after me even more, being the lover I am.”
     “Garret, do you ever listen to what you say?” Mark stood now, bearing an armload of wood.
     Garret smiled. “Are you commenting on the fine timbre of my voice?”
     “No.”
     Garret slipped the flask back into a hidden pouch before stepping over, and picking up a modest load of
wood himself. He followed Mark down the hill. The path wasn‟t particularly steep, although in the winter it
wasn‟t very fun to walk. He hummed to himself, trying to get the gravel underfoot to crunch in rhythm with
his tune.
     “Mark?”
     Mark was piling his load of wood up against the South wall of the house. He didn‟t look behind him to
answer. “Yeah?”
     “I was wondering…” Garret dropped his stack of wood on top of Marks‟ stack. It all clattered down in
disarray.
     Mark groaned audibly, and restacked it all. He straightened up, rubbing his back. “Well?”
     Garret took another pull from the flask, which he‟d taken out of that hidden pocket again. “Hold on, this
is a three-swig idea.” He quickly took another two swigs before handing off the nearly empty flask to Mark.
Mark sipped it slowly.
     “Have you ever thought about selling this place?” Garret watched Mark‟s face for reactions.
     Mark scowled. “Is this another of your schemes?”
    Garret “Ahhh, Marcus, you know me too well.”
    Mark swatted him, “easy on the Marcus, you‟re not my damned mother.”
    Garret rubbed the spot where he‟d been slapped. “Ease off. Damn. It‟s just a question.”
    “And NO is just an answer.”
    With that, Mark headed up the hill again. Garret hurried after him. He slipped halfway up the slope,
grabbing onto a tree for balance. He frowned, thinking he needed to append his notes. He quickly pulled out
his prized possession, a beautiful leather-bound book, with bone-white paper. Garret plopped down, and
produced a charcoal writing stick from yet another hidden pocket on his person. He scribbled the words
„don‟t drink to a three-swig idea before running up a hill.‟ After he scribbled the note to himself down, he
packed everything away, and stood. Mark had gone back down the hill while he was writing. Garret ran
down after him, stones giving him more than a little trouble.
    Mark stacked this load of wood on top of the growing stack. He eyed it, thinking it‟d be good for another
two weeks. The noise of someone tumbling, and a yelp brought him out of his reflection. He looked over in
time to see Garret pick himself off the ground. He had sprawled out next to a shrub. Mark laughed to
himself, stopping when he saw the hurt look in Garret‟s face. Obviously his pride was hurt more than his
body.
    “Damn that hurt.” Garret tested his limbs. “Darn near wrapped myself around a tree on the way down
though.”
    Mark couldn‟t help but laughing again. “So what‟s this idea?”
    Garret brushed a twig from his hair. “Let me start by saying we‟ve always been like brothers.”
    “Is this about that crazy scheme you get every year when the women don‟t want to pay attention to
you?”
    Garret looked indignantly at Mark. “No, and the women NEVER ignore me. They just grow wise to my
romantic ploys.”
    Mark made a show of inspecting his blisters.
    “This is a new idea. I swear.” He continued, but then paused and patted at himself. “Where‟s my flask?”
    “What do you need it for? You‟re already falling down hills.”
    Mark pulled it from his pocket, and tossed it to Garret. Garret emptied it immediately, and then sat down
on an old bench that had been rotting out here for years. Garret took a deep breath.
    “Do you remember five nights ago? When you got really drunk, and slept with the Miller‟s daughter, and
then stumbled over to my parent‟s house?”
    Mark grimaced; He‟d been abnormally depressed that day. He‟d been cleaning out the house, and had
seen a few too many things that reminded him of his family.
    “Yeah, I remember. What are you getting at? The miller doesn‟t know does he?”
    Garret grinned, showing off his perfect teeth. “Naw. He doesn‟t know, but I was thinking about what you
said to me that night.”
    Mark sat on the stack of wood, trying to remember what idiotic thing he‟d probably said in a moment of
drunken confession. Garret just kept grinning like an idiot, watching him. Then it came to him.
    “NO. You didn‟t.”
    “Yes, I did. Thank you much.” Garret laughed loudly.
    Mark ran his hand through his short hair, and then rested his face in his hands.
    “No…you wouldn‟t. You‟re too attached to sitting around your parent‟s home. You‟re always saying
you‟ll never do anything with your life.”
    Garret stood, and put his hands on his hips, and a foot up on the bench. “Marcus, there comes a time in
every man‟s life, when he must move on, and not live tied to his mother‟s apron strings anymore.”
    “Your father finally threw you out didn‟t he?”
    Garret turned, and nodded.
    “It‟s about time. You‟re almost twenty.”
    Garret threw his arms up in exasperation. “So? You‟re almost twenty-two.”
    “And I‟ve been living on my own for six years now.”
    “It‟s not my fault my parents aren‟t dead. Believe me, I‟ve been about as bad of a son as I could be, and
they‟re still walking this plane of existence.”
    Mark shook his head. He was pretty used to his friend‟s callousness after nineteen years of knowing
him. Knowing he‟d hear it anyway, he decided it was best to get it over with.
    “So what‟s your plan?” Mark asked.
    Garret nodded. “About time you got down to business. Wait here.”
    He walked around the side of the house, and began dragging a large bag around to the back. Garret
regarded it curiously, hearing the metal clanking inside the bag. Garret unknotted the drawstring around the
heavy canvas sack, and thrust his hands inside. He produced a leather jerkin, and a dull blade.
    With a smile, Garret said, “Marcus my boy, we‟re going to war.”
    With that single statement, a sinking feeling began to set in on Mark‟s stomach.

                                              …PROLOGUE 2…

     Megan sat in front of the mirror in her room of her family‟s estate home. She frowned at her hair,
brushing it with the silver-handled brush her father gave her last week. Sighing, she sat aside her brush on
the table built around the mirror. She opened a carved box, and produced a blue ribbon for her hair. As she
pulled back a portion of her hair to tie the ribbon around, there was a knock at the door.
     “Enter.” Her voice betrayed her annoyance at being interrupted during her morning routine.
     The heavy oak door creaked as it opened. Slippered feet padded across the exquisite rug.
     “Mistress?”
     Megan turned her icy stare on the servant girl. Narissa, this one was named, if her memory served her.
Plain, with features of unrefined proportions, she was obviously of lesser breeding than herself. Father had
no real eye for servants. He didn‟t seem to realize that one judges you by the comeliness of your help.
Finally, the desired result occurred – the girl squirmed uncomfortably, lip quivering.
     “Yes?” She asked.
     The servant took a breath, and summoned some confidence. “Your father wishes to see you in his work
room.”
     “In his work room?”
     Megan repeated the words, mostly to herself. In the last year she‟d only been invited into her father‟s
private offices once. The room was where his most confidential papers were kept under lock and key. Her
father was an overly cautious man, and wouldn‟t even allow her to be in there while he was working. She
supposed it was necessary; after all, her father was an important man. She pursed her lips, still half-thinking
to herself.
     “How soon am I supposed to meet daddy?”
     “He requested your presence before the turn of the hour, mistress.”
     The servant was well spoken for her age, Megan thought to herself. She couldn‟t be more than twelve
summers and yet she must have had some schooling. Standing slowly and brushing the wrinkles from her
satin slip, she waved the girl over to her.
     “Help me dress, please.” She said as she moved over to her wardrobe.
     “As you wish, mistress.”
     With Narissa‟s help, she donned a green dress, modestly cut, and with few frills. Megan hated frills. She
had decided three years ago that they were for little girls, and not young ladies. She was after all, a beautiful
young woman, and needed to show it off. For her father though, such tactics weren‟t required to help her get
what she wanted. No, she had other tactics to use on him. She smiled to herself, envisioning the show she‟d
put on for him to get what she wanted. All she need do is pout her lip a bit, and look contrite enough. Or, if
that were to fail, she‟d set her lip to a slight quivering, and sniffle a bit. Being an only child gave her further
leverage yet, since her half-brother was in actuality illegitimate, and could not be counted as family in her
mind.
     She had Narissa draw the strings to her corset even tighter before she put on a little makeup. A slight
touch of rouge here and there. Not too much she reminded herself. She was only seeing her father, and was
not prone to applying as much makeup as a trollop, or cheap whore.
     “How do I look?” She asked her servant, while she admired her curves in the mirror.
     “Splendid, Mistress. The true beauty of the Avertny family is obvious in you.”
     “I knew it. I am breathtaking to behold.” Megan smiled to herself.
     “Absolutely, Mistress.”
     “Enough, you sound like a parrot. Please leave me now.”
     Megan accompanied this curt send-off with another of her almost famous venomous looks. Narissa
curtsied, turned on a heel, and exited quietly. She didn‟t like the servant, she thought to herself. Something
about her words, they were too formulated. Megan was certain that she would say whatever you asked of
her. It was something she‟d test further at a later date. Distantly, she could hear the bell being rung in the
dining room. Every hour, on the hour, as measured by the hourglass, a servant would ring a bell a certain
number of times to indicate to those in the house what time it was.
      Opening the door after taking one last look at herself, she exited her rooms, and briskly walked down
the hallway. She paused to smell the fresh flowers in a small alcove at a branching in the halls. When the
flowers disinterested her, she began to hum to herself. Forgetting her status for a moment, Megan skipped
along a line in the pattern on the rug, which ran a good length of this branch of the hallways. Another
servant girl passed her by, keeping her eyes on the floor as she walked. She was also plain-faced, and with
horses‟ teeth Megan thought. Perhaps it was her father‟s wife that picked these ugly servants. They
certainly weren‟t anything he‟d want to dally with.
      A tall man exited a room from three doors up on the left. It was her father‟s office he came from. He
jumbled a pile of papers in his hands, dropping one of them. So tall he was…inches taller than her father.
She caught a look at his face, and admired his sculpted good looks. Fanning her face with her hand for a
quick moment, she swooped down, and grabbed the paper he‟d drooped. She put on her best smile, and
handed it back to him.
      The man startled at her abrupt appearance in front of him, and nearly dropped the rest of the stack of
papers. Megan heard a slight giggle, and covered her mouth. She didn‟t want to appear a mindless,
simpering idiot. Sufficiently recovered now, the man adjusted his grip on the papers.
      “Thank you…”
      “Megan.” She filled in for him. “You just talked to my father.”
      Recognition flashed in his hazel eyes. “Ahh. I see. So you‟re the famous daughter of Marshal Avertny.”
      She curtsied quickly, cursing Narissa wordlessly for not having her pick out a lower cut dress. When she
came back up from her curtsy, she brushed back a loose strand of her golden hair. The soft light of the
hallway was flattering upon her skin she thought to herself. She radiated.
      “And who might you be? I‟ve not seen you here before.” She looked deep into his eyes, trying to lock
gazes so that he might not leave.
      He looked away before replaying, “I‟m just a clerk, Madame.” He managed to stammer out.
      She allowed herself a larger smile. This was going well. He was of lesser importance than she‟d hoped,
but one must sometimes overlook things for good looks. She lightly touched his hand, laughing slightly.
      “You needn‟t be frightened of me. But,” she paused. “You never answered my question.”
      The man, for being what she guessed was a few years older than her, looked frightened. She thought it
silly, and always did when she played this sort of game.
      “Oh…Yes. Conrad Werlin is my name. Forgive me if I do not bow or anything of that sort, but I‟d rather
not drop my papers.”
      “That would be most unfortunate.” She replied sweetly.
      “Yes, it would.” A voice from behind Conrad stated.
      Her father stepped out from the room. He frowned.
      “Conrad, you‟ve business to do, correct?”
      Conrad swallowed, and nodded. “Aye sir. I‟ll be about it now.” He turned back to Megan. “A pleasure
miss, and thank you for helping me pick up the papers.”
      She gave him a small wave and another winning smile.
      “He seems nice enough, father.” She whispered to her father as she embraced him.
      Her voice was just loud enough, that it would probably be heard by Conrad as he retreated down the
hallway. Her father glanced down at Conrad‟s back as it grew smaller with distance. He grunted.
      “You‟re late.”
      “Daddy, you know how it is…a girl has to get all dressed up for her father. She can‟t look all unkempt
and such.” Megan ended with a pleading pout of forgiveness.
      Richard Avertny‟s resolve to be stern with his daughter faded, as it always did. He knew she played
these games with him, but couldn‟t‟ find the disciplinarian side of himself long enough to straighten her out.
Her mother had been willful and manipulative as well. The fact that his daughter was the same caused
mixed feeling for him. Her mother had been in the ground for ten years now, and she still rarely left his
thoughts. He returned to the present, and ushered his daughter into his office, and into a plush chair. He
took his seat on the corner of his cherry-wood desk. It was an expensive present from his Uncle many years
earlier. Every other day he had one of the housekeepers polish it.
      Megan sank into the velvety chair, rubbing the arms of the chair for the sheer feel of it‟s softness. She
glanced around the room at the many shelves of books. There were maps, and charts, and other scrolls
piled neatly on the desk and shelves as well. All the furniture was done in expensive woods, and polished
regularly. To Megan, the smell of wood polish, and books always smelled „important.‟ She wasn‟t sure how
to explain it, but somewhere along the line she‟d associated the small with authority, and power. It was a
heady mixture of scents. She was brought out of her reflection by the sound of a throat clearing.
     “Yes, Daddy?” She blinked twice, looking up at her father‟s intense eyes.
     “Megan. This is heard for me. I‟ve never denied you anything.”
     He looked at his hands, gathering his words. How old he‟d become, she thought. Fine lines were visible
at the corners of his mouth and eyes. His temples now sported a bit of grey hair, as did his well-trimmed
mustache.
     “Denying me? What is this about?”
     A slight worry crept into her mind. His eyes met hers, and she knew what this was about.
     “NO…no…no” Her voice grew small.
     Richard Avertny took a breath. His heart ached, but he knew he must do this. His second wife, Alessia
had convinced him of it weeks before. He eased off the desk, knelt, and took Megan‟s small hands in his
own, larger hands.
     “Megan, you know I must. I cannot turn my position over to a daughter.” He frowned.
     She sniffled, and he produced a fine handkerchief for her.
     “Perhaps had you been older, and had you bared a son… Elim is a fine choice for Marshall. He‟ll be
instructed and taught to replace me.”
     Tears began to flow from her eyes. She‟d always known this day would come. She‟d tried to convince
herself otherwise, that her father could convince the consuls otherwise.
     “Elim is the son of a whore! Alessia is spewing poison about me again, and you know it.”
     Richard‟s jaw tightened. His second wife had never gotten along well with Megan, and Megan always
resented her half-brother. Elim had been born two years after Megan, and was the result of a night of
promiscuity with a servant girl. He‟d foolishly turned to Alessia during a tough point in his marriage, but Elim
was still his son.
     “That doesn‟t change the fact that he is my son, and he is of age to be prepped for taking over my
position.” His voice was strong, and direct.
     “Daddy…no…” Megan sobbed, chest heaving.
     “You know it must be so.”
     Megan shook her head, mouthing the word no, and thrust herself up from the chair.
     “You always wanted to disown me!”
     Richard shook his head, and grabbed for her, hoping to pull her close and whisper reassurances. She
would have none of it. She pulled away as if burnt, and slapped at his hands, and ran from the room. She
needed to be alone, to think. Richard stepped into the hallway, heart wrenching. He knew he did what must
be done. Let her reason it out. She was not being disowned. He stepped back into his office, and opened
the other door that adjoined his office to that of his chief aid.
     Jons looked up. He nodded when he saw his employer‟s face. He got up from his desk, grabbed a bottle
and two glasses from a cabinet, and followed Richard into the other room. This is going to be one of those
days, Jons thought to himself. He poured the two glasses full of the rum, and handed one to Richard. The
bottle was mostly gone before they stopped.

                                             …PROLOGUE 3…

      Devon turned to his sister, grinning as she struggled to keep up with his pace. She flashed him a look of
disapproval in return, but doggedly followed. At a widening in the path, Devon stopped to lean against a
tree. When Sarah caught up, her face was flushed, and small beads of sweat were forming on her brow.
She took her place at the tree next to him, sinking down to the ground while leaning against it. Devon
reached over, and plucked a leaf from his sister‟s auburn hair. She peered up at him, blue eyes blinking.
      “Leaf.” He waggled the leaf he‟d procured from her hair.
      She raised an eyebrow at the leaf, and then opened her mouth, still breathing loudly. “How much further
is it?”
      Devon shrugged as a reply, and handed her a skin of ale. She drank sloppily, wiping up any spillage
with her sleeve. She handed the skin back.
      “I‟m going to sleep good tonight. All this damnable exercise.” She rubbed her calves as she spoke.
      Devon nodded. “Aye, a night in an in would suit me as well.”
      Sarah smirked. “We‟re in agreement then. No more bugs and cold hard ground for me, at least not
tonight anyway.”
     Devon motioned Sarah silent, slipping his short bow off his back, and knocking an arrow. Likewise,
Sarah drew a long knife. For a long moment, there was only silence. Ears and eyes searched the
underbrush. Devon‟s eyes darted to where he heard twigs snapping; the bow was drawn in an instant,
arrow ready to find its target. Abruptly, a dog burst from the bushes. Devon let out a muted sigh before
putting away the bow and unspent arrow. Sarah frowned.
     “I cannot wait for this to be over. I‟m tired of running.”
     Devon‟s gaze fell, his dark eyes were shadowed, and he appeared deep in thought. Sarah watched him
for a moment, admiring how strong he was at times like these. All too often she felt her nerves fraying, yet
Devon was solid and dependable as ever. She stabbed at one of the roots of the tree she was sitting
against. When she looked up from the blade a moment later, Devon was scanning the sky through an
opening in the tree canopy. She tried to follow his gaze, but couldn‟t tell what he looked at. Instead, she
watched the almost hypnotic sway of the mesh of branches overhead. The winds were picking up. She said
a quiet prayer of thanks for the cool winds, which dried the sweat from her brow.
     “You want to keep moving?” She asked.
     Devon took a moment to reply, eyes not leaving the skies. “I think that would be best. We should reach
Jerins in a couple hours.”
     Sarah got up, and brushed the dirt from her hands, and backside. Devon stooped long enough to
tighten the laces on his boots, and then looked her in the eyes. Sarah didn‟t like the look on his face. He was
thinking about something.
     “You ready?” He queried.
     “As ready as a tired girl looking at a couple more hours of walking can get.” She finished with a sigh.
     Devon laughed quietly. This simple act reassured her, and she took a little piece of mind that whatever
had bothered him for a moment must have passed. Often in the last few days he seemed to lose himself in
daydreams though; she wondered what it meant. He‟d never been one to be lost in though. At least not
before all the trouble started.
     “You going to stand there all day?” Devon called back to her.
     Sarah did a double take, shaking her head. Here she was, worrying about him being too lost in thought,
and she was being left behind. She trudged forward, keeping her eyes square in the middle of Devon‟s
broad shoulders. Another daydream stole her away as the trees went by. It was going to be a long walk.


                                              …CHAPTER 1…

     “Absolutely not!” Mark yelled across the room.
     Garret threw up his arms, and flopped back into a chair. They‟d been going back and forth about
Garret‟s idea for five hours now. The sky had grown dark, and Mark was setting himself to the task of
starting a fire. Garret just sat quietly in the chair, sipping from his recently refilled flask. He gave Mark
another cross look as the fire finally started giving off a good deal of light.
     “I don‟t see what your problem is. It‟s not like you have any ties here. Excuse my bluntness, but your
family has been dead for years, and your neighbors work your fields and leave you with enough to get by
on. I‟m sure they‟ll do fine without you.”
     Mark glared back at his friend. “Don‟t you see? That‟s not the point. The whole idea is just ludicrous.
You can move in here if you need a place to stay; there‟s enough food for both of us.”
     Garret stood. “I don‟t take charity, thank you much.”
     Mark laughed. “Yes you do… what about that time last week when you pretended you were a down on
your luck artist who needed funding just so you could milk a few coins off that merchant?”
     Garret shrugged. “I am an artist. I convince people to do things for me.”
     “You mean you‟re a cheat.”
     “You defame me so. I‟m wounded to the quick, truly.” Garret held a hand over his heart mockingly.
     Mark scowled. “You‟re really not funny at all, you know?”
     “Mark, Mark, Mark. When will you learn? Life is out there, waiting for us to grab it and take what we
would from it. Unfortunately, you‟re content to sit in an empty house waiting for your senility to set in
someday.”
     Mark sighed in defeat. In his heart, he knew he should do something with himself. He knew his parents
would be disappointed that he was doing nothing with his life. But over the last few years, he‟d grown
complacent, and had become used to staying here. The house was like a set of armor, or a security blanket
to him.
     “What exactly is your plan then?” Mark asked.
     A smile wide enough to split his face set in on Garret. He‟d won. All he needed to do now was finish it.
     “Well, I plan on heading to Jerins. The local regional militia recruits and trains there. I figure we‟ll at the
least pick up some training there. If we like it there, we‟ll stick it out. Otherwise, we can head off on our own
then.”
     Mark clicked his tongue, thinking. In theory, the idea seemed sound to him. Real life he‟d found, seldom
worked as good as that though. His family was proof enough of that. His resistance was fading though.
     “How soon would you be wanting to leave, supposing we did go?”
     Garret shrugged. “There are a few preparations, but not much to do really. We could leave by tomorrow
evening or even the morning after, but I prefer to travel in the cool of the early night, and have a little
distance behind us before we stop for the first night.”
     Mark finally caved in. He‟d do it, even if he thought the whole idea was a bit silly. Combing his hand
through his hair, he frowned. There was a fair amount to do around here. He had to let his neighbors know
not to leave food at his door, or animals would get into it. It always took him a long time when he stopped by
for even the smallest thing. Like second and third mothers, his neighbor‟s wives fussed over him. At times it
was thoroughly embarrassing; they prodded and pinched him to make sure he was eating enough, and
other similar intrusions. He pulled on his heavy coat, and made for the door, hoping no one‟s daughter was
pushed at him during his visits.
     Garret looked over, eyes half-swimming from the liquor he‟d consumed. “Where ya goin‟ soldier?” He
smirked.
     Mark shrugged. “Out and about I guess. I need to explain to my neighbors that I‟m going to be gone for
awhile.”
     Garret‟s brow furrowed momentarily, only to relax when he took another long pull off his trusty flask.
Marcus grinned back, and wandered outside. He could see his breath as he walked down the path to his
neighbors‟ houses. Idly, he wondered how he‟d been so easily convinced to do this.

     Mark sat up and rubbed his eyes. His back hurt. Looking around, he noticed he‟d fallen asleep in the
chair again. Garret had done likewise; his head lolled to one side, and a small puddle of spittle was
collecting on the floor. Mark laughed to himself until memories of his upcoming trip surfaced through the
haze of his hangover.
     A breath caught in Garret‟s throat, and he woke with a start. A few blinks later, he eyed Marcus
suspiciously. He piled out of the chair onto the floor. Spotting his flask, his fingers scrambled over and
grabbed at it. For Garret, morning truly came only after a nice nip of the good stuff. He sprawled out, waiting
for his body to catch up to his brain.
     Mark stood, and made his way over to the fireplace. With the poker he stirred the ashes, and placed a
few smaller logs on the few coals he managed to gather. By the time the fire was going decently again, and
he had some stew one of the neighbors pushed on him during his lengthy visit last night, Garret had begun
to move.
     “What smells so good?” Garret crawled over to the fire.
     “Mrs. Perkins gave me some of her famous stew.” Mark commented as he stirred the pot.
     Garret got up and peeked at the food. “Looks good. My mom can‟t cook worth a damn, you know.”
     Mark nodded quietly, and tried not to remember the few times he‟d eaten there. Garret was droning on
about the poor condition of his stomach and bowels after years of meals at his mother‟s table. Mark handed
a hearty bowlful over to Garret to occupy him for a few minutes.
     “I swear…sometimes you go on about your health and the state of things like an old man would. It‟s
really sad.” Mark said, shaking his head.
     Garret shrugged, too engrossed in eating to care about insults at the moment. Mark began the
rewarding process of shoveling food into his mouth. Garret had been doing likewise; a dribble of grease ran
down his chin. They each had a second bowl. Garret then took some bread and was beginning to wipe up
the remaining stew from the sides of the pot with it.
     Mark set about cleaning up the dishes. He wanted everything to be nice and clean for when he came
back. No one liked to come home to a mess, especially after what he was about to go off and do. His
thoughts wandered while he had his hand in the hot, soapy water; they drifted back to last night. Not only
had his neighbors pushed food, and clothes for his journey at him, but they‟d also asked that he change his
mind, and stay. Oh, he hadn‟t told them the real reason he was going. He smiled to himself at the reactions
he imagined for them.
     At least they‟d not pushed their daughter at him this time. That tended to be embarrassing. A frown
settled back into his face, the lines were already forming from such constant usage of the facial expression.
They‟d changed their tactics he‟d decided. No more did they openly push Caitlyn on him – now they were
subtle. She‟d coyly flirt with him, and ask about him „being lonely in that big house by himself.‟ His frown
deepened. His head had been so heavy with drink that he‟d not even realized what she was saying last
night.
     He set aside some now clean dishes. Garret wandered in with the empty pot and a grin on his face. The
clatter of it being set down on the wooden counter brought Marcus to the present. Marcus looked over at his
friend.
     “Damn good food.”
     Mark poked at Garret‟s stomach, which was straining at the boundaries set up by his clothes now.
Garret swatted the offending hand aside.
     “Ease off, woman. I won‟t get to eat this well in the army.” Garret sighed.
     “True enough. Want to reconsider?”
     Garret looked thoughtful, evidencing how important his stomach was to him, but he shook his head.
Mark lifted an eyebrow as he finished cleaning the heavy cast iron pot.
     “Naw, let‟s do it.”
     Mark nodded, expecting as much. He left the kitchen after draining the dishwater. He proceeded to his
room, where he‟d packed his bag last night, not that he remembered doing it very well. He dug through the
bag to make sure he‟d packed everything he‟d needed. He grinned to himself. Apparently even when drunk,
he could pack for a long journey, and if that wasn‟t a marriageable skill what was?
     Garret peeked his head in at the sound of light laughter. “You okay?”
     Mark nodded in reply. “I think so.”
     Garret had a bag slung over his shoulder as well. It clanked suspiciously like there were at least a few
bottles in it. Mark shouldered his own pack, and gave the room a „once-over.‟ He left the room, and went
over to the fireplace, where he spread out the ashes. Garret proved useful for once, and brought a bit of
water over to help put the coals out sooner. By the time they‟d finished all that had needed to be done
around the house, midday had come and gone.
     Garret tromped out onto the front porch. Mark strained his ears for a minute. Garret was talking to
someone. Mark frowned yet again. He brushed aside the curtain, and looked out. He cringed. All three sets
of neighbors were there. Hadn‟t he said goodbye last night?
     Swallowing, he made his way out, and feigned surprise at their being here. Deep down he guessed he‟d
expected such a turn of events. He let his frown slip, and put on a warm smile.
     “Hello…” He looked from face to face.
     Mrs. Herzen practically attacked him with a hug. Tears ran down her face. Garret grinned.
     “I‟ll be back you know?”
     She nodded. “It‟s just that you‟re like a favorite son to us all, and now you‟re leaving us helpless ladies
to fend for ourselves.”
     Garret shook his head. “Mrs. Herzen, you always have Lorim.” Her husband was a bear of a man. She
had nothing to worry about with him around.
     She nodded, and released him. Lorim reached out and clapped him on the shoulder. He laughed loudly.
     “Good luck, Marcus. Your father would have been proud I think, even if he wouldn‟t have showed it. You
know how he was.”
     Mark nodded. Lorim‟s thick arms enfolded him in a fatherly hug, and he released him. Lorim gathered
up his wife and ushered her back toward home.
     Next came the Paragluin‟s. They were a quiet, old family from somewhere to the west if Mark
remembered correctly. They had no children of their own, but unlike his other neighbor‟s they‟d seen him
more as a godson or something of the sort. They had for him only silent approval, and support when asked
for.
     They both hugged him lightly, and nodded. Theren, the husband, waggled his bushy gray eyebrows, a
talent which had always made Mark laugh. Gilly, fumbled with her hands, and produced a small pouch for
him
     “Open in tonight, before you sleep.” Theren offered.
     Gilly nodded. Garret looked over boredly. Theren shot him a look, and the elderly couple made their
way off. Mark looked over at the last set of neighbors. This set would take the longest to say goodbye to: the
Rafains. Mrs. Rafain had lost her husband to an illness four years ago. So, Mark had always stepped up to
do what he could to fill in now and then. Just a month ago he‟d patched their roof up.
     With Mrs. Rafain were here two children, Caitlyn and Benjamin. Benjamin was a freckled boy nearing
his seventh birthday. He always made faces at Garret and himself, to get them to laugh. Then there was
Caitlyn, whom he‟d played with when she was little. Caitlyn was seven years younger than he, but she was
cute, and then some. Her green eyes twinkled, and her smile was infectious. Her nose was slightly upturned
at the end, and her ears were always mostly hidden by thick brown hair. She was almost like a little sister to
him, which made Mrs. Rafain want him to wed her even more. Try as he might, he couldn‟t push that idea
from her head.
     Mrs. Rafain launched into a tirade, warning him of the dangers of large cities, and how people there
didn‟t act the same. He needed to watch out for women of loose morals too, with Caitlyn waiting here at
home for him. Mark found it hard to pay attention. Ben was making a series of pained looks that were just
strange.
     When he started laughing, Mrs. Rafain looked at Benjamin.
     “Ben! I‟ve told you not to do that. You know your face will stick like that, and you‟ll have to marry a
toad-woman.”
     Garret chuckled “Toad women?”
     Mark shrugged. Caitlyn took the opportunity to push by her family, and slip her arms around him. Mark
smiled down at her; she only came up to his chin.
     “How long will you be gone?” She looked concerned.
     Marl shook his head. “I cannot say. I hope not too long. One never knows though. This is Garret‟s big
plan, so we‟ll just have to see.”
     Hearing that it was Garret‟s plan earned his friend a venomous look from Caitlyn‟s mother. Caitlyn
sighed and nuzzled against his chest. Mark disengaged himself from her carefully, and patted her head, like
he‟d done since they were both children.
     Garret produced his small flask, and was drinking from it. Ben wandered over to him.
     “What‟s in that metal bottle?” Ben asked.
     “The good stuff, son. Want some?”
     “Garret!”
     “Guess not Ben. Talk to your mom about it.”
     Caitlyn leaned in close to Mark, whispering in his ear “I‟ll wait for you…”
     Mark raised an eyebrow, not knowing how to respond. Caitlyn smiled brightly to reassure him.
     “We‟d better let them get on their way now…” Mrs. Rafain said, breaking the awkward silence.
     Caitlyn stepped back, and stood with her mother and brother. Garret nodded civilly to the family as he
started down the path. Mark fell in beside him; he looked back from the first bend in the road. Ben waved
spastically. Caitlyn was crying on her mother‟s shoulder.
     “Strange people you associate with.” Garret said.
     “Aye, but they mean well.”
     “Guess that‟s all that counts then, eh?”
     Mark nodded, and turned his thoughts to the road ahead of them. Garret scuffed his feet in the dust, and
entertained a few daydreams.

                                                     ………

     Megan dried her eyes with a portion of the wrinkled bedspread she was sprawled upon. Her mind
drifted back to the facts at hand – her inheritance was gone now.
                                               GLOSSARY

PEOPLE
   Avertny, Megan : Willful daughter of Richard Avertny. Half-sister to Elim.
   Avertny, Richard : Marshall of Gilmsley, father of Elim and Megan, husband to Alessia.
   Brimley, Marcus : Only survivor of the Brimley family.
   Dullehaven, Narissa : Maidservant to Megan Avertny.
   Herzen, Gilly : Marcus‟ neighbor, wife of Lorim.
   Herzen, Lorim : Marcus‟ neighbor, husband of Gilly.
   Jons, Kevin : Assistant for Marshall Richard Avertny.
   Muirthem, Devon : A fugitive, also brother to Sarah.
   Muirthem, Sarah : Also a fugitive, as well as sister to Devon.
   Paragluin, Arluina : Marcus‟ neighbor, wife of Sedmon.
   Paragluin, Sedmon : Marcus‟ neighbor, husband of Arluina.
   Perkins, Garret : Best friend of Marcus Brimley.
   Rafain, Benjamin : Energetic son of Irene Rafain, Marcus‟ neighbor.
   Rafain, Caitlyn : Daughter of Irene Rafain, Marcus‟ neighbor. Sweet on Marcus.
   Rafain, Irene : Mother of Benjamin and Caitlyn, also Marcus‟ neighbor.
                                              nd
   Trelen-Avertny, Alessia : Manipulative 2 wife of Richard Avertny.
   Trelen-Avertny, Elim : Son of Alessia and Richard Avertny. Half-brother of Megan.
   Werlin, Conrad : Clerk for the city of Gilmsley.

PLACES
   Eastbrook : A small agrarian town; the hometown of Garret and Marcus.
   Gilmsley : An economic center.; the hometown of the Avertny family.
   Jerins : Location of the local militia training facilities.

THINGS

				
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