Gathering Herbs

As the world came into a sharper focus, the taste of mud and grass was overwhelming. For a brief, panicky, moment Gareth thought he was back in the dungeon. No, that had tasted far worse and was a long time ago.  He almost spit the dirt out before realizing that would give him away. He calmed the panic in himself and switched to survival mode. What happened? How did he come to be tied?

He remembered Jerome’s teachings. “Assess your situation before you do anything. Don’t worry about what happened, plan what will happen. If you survive, then you can worry how you got there.” He could almost hear his instructor’s voice in his ear. “Don’t panic, use the time to your advantage.”

Easy for him to say. He did a mental review. He had a bad headache but no major pain clusters. His mind flashed to the pain relief herbs he kept sewn in his sleeve but those were for extreme pain and made it difficult to think straight.

Moving ever so slightly he was able to determine that he was sitting up but his arms and legs were tied. He still had feeling in them so he probably hadn’t been tied long. It wasn’t dark enough to be night so they might still be in his camp. Why was he still alive? If they were intent on robbing him they were already disappointed, he literally had nothing but the clothes on his back and his dagger.

Gathering_Fire

The old man had drawn a picture of an herb for Gareth, shown him a map where it could be found and then discarded both into the fire. “This is a test boy, gather all you can but take great care not to damage them.”

It just wasn’t fair. His first mission as a partner and he was having to gather herbs. He was still being treated as an apprentice. Worse, the old man had made him leave his dog because he might damage the herbs. What nonsense, the dog had better sense than to be chewing on grass.

A week of searching and Gareth had yet to find a single herb that looked close to the drawing. He was beginning to think it was a test of his gullibility.

Until now he had managed to avoid several groups of bandits. He was near a main road so the presence of bandits was not a surprise but the number of groups was a surprise. With so many roving bands of bandits, anybody traveling the road would be robbed several times before their journey’s end.

Very carefully and very slowly, Gareth opened his eyes just a crack. He needn’t have bothered, no one was watching. Still it didn’t hurt to be careful. Very slowly he looked around. He could count nine men. There were no women he could see. From their positions, he decided at least two of the men were on watch. There was very little loose talk and everyone seemed focused on a task. For all their lack of uniforms, this seemed like a camp of highly trained soldiers.

One man noticed that Gareth was awake and strode towards him. It was hard to tell but the man seemed to be dressed slightly better than the other men. His boot’s looked a little shinier, his clothing a little better fitting. The man carried himself with a sense of authority. Gareth couldn’t help but think of him as the leader.

The actions of the other men supported this theory. They took great care to acknowledge him and to get out of his way. It might have been Gareth’s imagination but it looked like one man had almost saluted. The “leader” squatted down in front of Gareth and said “I may owe you an apology but there’s already been one attempt on my life. I’d rather not repeat that experience.”

While Gareth was trying to sort out the meaning of that statement, he noticed the herb embroidered on the man’s jerkin. It matched the old man’s picture!

Gathering_Interrogation

Great, just great. Gareth reviewed the old man’s words in his mind, “Gather all you can but take great care not to harm them.” That could apply equally to humans and herbs. The dog…of course, there was no way his dog would be eating herbs but he would be attacking anyone that tried to harm Gareth. Now the plural made sense. That meant it wasn’t just the leader, Gareth was expected to “gather” the entire group, without harming them. The old man couldn’t just tell him directly?

Gareth feigned grogginess when the leader addressed him. He made his speech slow and slurred his words slightly. “Attempt on your life? I assure you the only life in danger from me was the hare I intended to have for dinner. I don’t suppose you’ve seen him?” he asked. The leader stared off in the distance, as if remembering something and said “A hare? No, I’ve not seen your hare but food could be your salvation.”

The leader must be related to the old man. Couldn’t anyone just say what they meant? They must have mistaken him for a local. It sounded liked they were being hunted. What were they doing in the woods? There was also a veiled warning that things could get much worse if he did not cooperate.

Gareth gave the leader a puzzled look like he did not quite understand. He was stalling for an idea, any idea. Nothing came to mind. One of the old man’s favorite sayings rang in his ear “When in doubt, misdirect.” He looked up and  to the left of the leader, let his eyes get very wide and said, “You can’t, they had no knowledge of the curse. It’s not right. You heard him, I’m not a captive.” He then snapped his head to the right as if he had been hit.

He didn’t need to pretend it hurt. Just moving his head brought tears to his eyes. Gareth groaned and fell to the side as far as the rope tying him would allow him. This turned out to be farther than expected because Gareth hit his head on the ground. The leader, fearing an attack, jumped back pulling his knife. This brought every man in the camp to attention. The leader motioned one of his men to straighten up Gareth. “What ails you boy? Try that again and a full banquet won’t save your life,” the leader growled.

Gareth, still having no idea where he was going with this, straightened up and said “Begging your pardon sir, but I’ve been cursed and the demon was asking if he could finally kill me and start in on your crew, now that your group has acquired the curse and all.”

Gathering_Start_Right_Close

It was obvious from the look in the leader’s face that he wasn’t buying any of this. He could kill Gareth now but if anything happened, his men might decide they were cursed and abandon him. He could release Gareth but then someone would know where he was camped, besides he really wanted something other than field rations.

This time Gareth looked up and to the right of the leader. After a moment, he nodded his head as if agreeing with his unseen demon. “I don’t know how long this curse has been around,” Gareth started. “I became cursed two long years ago. I should have suspected something when they announced the ransom before their son was kidnapped. I had no idea that curses like this existed.”

The leader looked confused. “Son, ransom, kidnapped? Are you so addled you can’t speak straight,” the leader said with exasperation.

“Somehow the son had acquired the curse many years ago. The cursed ones only hope is to be taken prisoner.” Gareth paused a moment while moving his head and eyes as if watching the demon inspect the camp. He continued, “Getting captured causes the curse to transfer to the captors.”

That got their attention. “When I heard about the size of the ransom, the fool was standing right beside me with no guards. I put my knife to his throat, told him he was my prisoner and I wanted my ransom.

“My captive broke out in a big smile. From the side someone rushed up, stuck a bag of money in my hand and the rushed out shouting something about freedom, curses and thanking me. I felt I had been duped. I was right.

“The demon can’t affect you right away. Something about attuning himself to you aura before he can actually affect you. He starts in your dreams.” That should give a few of them bad dreams tonight, Gareth thought. He still had no idea where he was going with this or how it might help. That bump on his head must have been worse than he thought because Gareth was finding it easier and easier to follow the big red imaginary demon as it examined the camp.

Gathering_Start_Right

“It started with small stuff,” Gareth continued, “bad dreams, vague uneasiness on waking, and queasiness after eating. As time passed, the demon become more and more real to me. Since he’s entered my life, everything I eat or drink tastes like shit to me. I rarely get more than three hours of sleep at night before he starts screaming in my ear. Forget games of chance, he plays with the cards and dice. I think I’m winning and all of a sudden I lose everything.”

Gareth started choking and spit out some of the grass and mud. Between coughs, Gareth said, “I don’t want to be a bother but could I have a drink?” The leader rolled his eyes but signaled for someone to give Gareth a drink.

Gareth took a sip as if dreading the taste. His eyes got big, a big smile broke out on his face as he exclaimed, “That tastes like water!” His smile got bigger and tears started streaming down his face as he took another sip. The curse must be broken. I haven’t tasted water since I was cursed. Oh, thank you, kind sir. Whatever you want, rabbit, deer, duck maybe. I know this area like the back of my hand.”

Gareth reflected a moment on Tobias’ wisdom. Had Gareth been found with a map or a drawing of the herb, he would probably be dead now. As it was, the leader thought he was native to this area. The week he had been here didn’t make him an expert, but remembering the areas marked on the map Tobias had shown was easy compared to some of the exercises the old man had put him through.

Brandt stared at the young man in front of him. This was supposed to be simple. He only needed to survive for ten days in the woods. Four days in the woods had convinced him that his excellent soldiers were not competent woodsmen. Even the local rabbits seemed to have caught onto this. They would run into the camp, freeze, wait until they were noticed and run out followed by half of his men salivating over thoughts of rabbit stew.

The solution had seemed easy enough, find a local living in the woods and coerce them to cooperate. It would have worked except the last man that found them had tried to kill Brandt. It was just like Lord Lyons to cheat on the terms of the bet. This young man might actually be a local or another of Lord Lyons’ men. If he was a local he had certainly picked the wrong place to camp.

If the man in front of him were a local, he could teach them enough to give the appearance of bandits living in the woods, which would confuse anyone else from Lord Lyons. The young man could also put a few of those rabbits into a stewpot.  At the moment, rabbit stew had more appeal than seeing Lord Lyons face when he won the bet. Brandt was tired of field rations, his men were tired of field rations. This young man, strange as he was, might be very useful.

Brandt knew this man was touched in the head. Demons, curses, none of it was real. Only fools believed in such things. He wasn’t worried about his men either. His men had been handpicked by him from the best soldiers in his father’s retinue. They were too smart for such superstition.

It the end, it was his stomach that made his decision. “I’ll send you out with two of my men, bring back a deer for tonight’s meal and we’ll discuss your employment.”

Gareth had no idea what he had fallen into. He had been taken captive but aside from gathering food for them he had no idea why. They were trying hard to pass themselves as bandits and failing miserably. They had tight discipline, almost no camp chatter and their gear was too new to belong to bandits. If anything, they were acting like soldiers on high alert in enemy territory.

If all they wanted was some fresh meat they would have been more likely to hire him. The leader had acted like that might be an option as long as Gareth was willing to stay with them. Taking him captive was a short term solution. What was going on?

They were in enemy territory for a short time, did not want to be discovered, and the old man wanted them taken captive but not hurt. Gareth had a lot of clues but so far none of them fit. If he wanted answers, he needed a deer. With the options considered, it was time to start hunting deer.

Shortly after they started, Gareth had two more clues. These men had no clue about finding game trails, suggesting the two men with him had been raised in the city. When they finally happened upon a deer, the solder got off two shots and missed widely with both. Apparently he had been taught how to use a bow but had never practiced.

Gareth suggested they let him shoot but wisely they did not trust Gareth with the bow. One man was always watching Gareth while the “archer” took a shot. After several misses, Gareth went over to a large tree, used a stick to put a big X on the tree and told him to hit the X. Five arrows later the “archer” finally hit the tree. His companion declined to try, saying the bow was beneath his station. For all their garb these men acted like some lord’s personal guard. It made him wonder just who was their leader.

Gathering_Arrow

Without a bow, a deer was out of the question. Gareth decided to go after some of the plentiful rabbits. His companions didn’t seem to feel threatened while Gareth threw rocks at the rabbits.

They came back to camp with three rabbits. Gareth had killed two of them with rocks and by some miracle their archer had gotten the third with an arrow. On the way back Gareth had gathered some herbs and a few wild vegetables for a nice stew. He had considered adding some mildly poisonous plants or even mushrooms but such things were tricky and he doubted he would be trusted with food preparation.

There was also the problem of availability. The most poisonous thing Gareth had seen was a vine. Contact with the vine would cause a rash that lasted for days and the more you scratched the more it spread. It had one more drawback though, it only affected some people, Gareth being one of them.

Gareth also considered the herbs he had in his sleeve pocket. They were very potent but he only had enough for two doses. If he divided it between the nine men, he would end up with nine slightly groggy men. They might not even notice.

It was obvious that the leader was disappointed but he was still grateful for fresh meat. Gareth had no idea what to expect when the leader called him over. He was beginning to regret claiming to be cursed but it was too late to change his story now.

The leader introduced himself as Brandt. “Gareth,” he said, “I want to apologize to you for the overzealousness of my companions. Several days ago we were attacked by someone that seemed to want me dead. When you were discovered setting camp so close to our own camp my men took matters into their own hands rather than consult me.”

“You see, we were at a gala a few weeks ago and I may have had too much to drink. I started bragging about my hunting skills and my cousin challenged me. I was to spend ten days in the woods. I could take any men I selected for protection but my cousin would verify they had no skills as woodsmen.”

“Four days into the bet, we’re out of food and I think we’ve been traveling in a circle. I’ve seen the same stream way too many times.”

Gareth reviewed everything he had seen. This was certainly possible. Nobles did stupid things for honor all the time. He thought about his instructions, “gather all you can but take great care not to harm them,” no help there. Did that mean a rescue or a capture?

Brandt continued, “Gareth, I need your help and your promise that afterwards you will keep silent about helping us. If you can teach us enough to get through the next five days and then guide us to the Northern outskirts of the city, I promise you great rewards. When we arrive at the city my men and I have to know enough to appear as if we survived on our own.”

Gareth really wanted to believe the earnest leader but he had already started his course. If he appeared sane now they would definitely question his background. Having made his decision, Gareth forced his eyes really wide. He then jumped up and shouted “The curse was broken! Why can I still see you?”

The moment Gareth shouted, four of the men had swords in their hands and two were already within killing range. Gareth wondered what he had walked into. These men were professionals and on high alert. Brandt made a slight almost imperceptible motion with his hand, the swords disappeared and the men went back to pretending to sleep.

Crisis averted, Gareth slumped down as if completely defeated and said “My lord, ridding me of this curse would be the greatest reward I could ask for. I thought I was rid of it but it seems the demon was only toying with me.”

Brandt stared at Gareth. This man was totally crazy, but he had provided rabbit stew. It might work in Brandt’s favor, as crazy as Gareth was, if he talked later, nobody would believe anything he said. It was about time fortune smiled on him. Finally Brandt said, “I need your oath, Gareth. Serve me faithfully for five days without question. Swear you will tell no one after and you will be handsomely rewarded. Fail and…”

This time Gareth did not see the slightest hand motion. He did feel the two swords, accompanied by two men that seemed to appear at his neck. These men were fast too. It would be a very bad idea to try to fight his way out of camp. Gareth looked to a position midway in the camp and groaned to an imaginary demon, “Why do you continue to torment me? Clearly they are taking me by force. You should be tormenting them now.”

“I need a decision,” Brandt said calmly. Having no choice, Gareth gave his word.

Gareth considered his options during the night. Until he knew more he had no choice but to cooperate. Brandt might be telling the truth. Either way, his mission involved Brandt, it was better to cooperate and stay in camp than to escape and have to watch the camp from a distance.

It was obvious these men knew next to nothing about woodcraft. Gareth started planning what he was going to teach them over the next five days.

Of course, giving his word did not make anyone trust him. He wasn’t allowed a weapon. He still had two men accompany him when he went hunting.

By morning Gareth had decided decide the best place to start was teaching them how to feed themselves. The majority of the men were cooperative but two of the men seemed determined to make Gareth fail. The guard from yesterday that had refused to use a bow, William, refused to take part in “menial duties best suited to a servant.” Brandt had to order him to cooperate and his idea of cooperation seemed to consist of not beheading Gareth.

The other man seemed eager to learn but spent most of his time telling Gareth that he had been taught a better way by his father or his uncle or the town drunk. The list was endless and the knowledge worthless.

It was while he was showing them how to set snares that one of the men asked “Why did your demon attempt to torment me last night?”

As Gareth attempted to recall the man’s name he said “What do you mean?”

“Your demon came to me in my dreams. I recognized him immediately. He told me he was going to take great pleasure in tormenting me.”

Gareth, finally remembering the man’s name, said “He’s not my demon, Paul. He became your problem when you took me captive. Apparently you’re more sensitive or you were the one who clubbed me from behind. It doesn’t matter, this entire squad is cursed. The demon will soon be tormenting all of you.”

Paul went several shades paler and said, “How can we get rid of the demon?”

Gareth still didn’t see how this could help him but he had already gone this far. He took a deep breath and then said, “The demon represents a curse. The curse changes victims when force is used to capture the current victim. I think my getting captured by a group is confusing the demon. It could also be that I agreed to work for your leader. I can still see him so the curse is not completely transferred.”

Gareth gave a little laugh and said “The only way I can see this working out is if I took all of you captive and that’s certainly not happening.”

The afternoon was spent practicing with the bows. With nine men pretending to be woodsmen, they only had two bows. Practice was painful to watch. Only two of the men actually knew how to use a bow and could hit a target. It turned out they were brothers. Gareth did not catch their name so mentally dubbed them Ugly and Uglier. William tried to refuse again but Brandt took him aside whispered a few words and when his turn to practice came, William picked up the bow. True, he held it like it was cursed but he did hit the target, twice.

Throughout the entire practice session Gareth worked hard to keep up the pretense that he could see the demon. Once he grabbed the bow and shot three arrows as if the demon were standing in front of the target taunting him.

Around dusk they checked the snares. It looked like rabbit stew again. At the last snare, Gareth saw that Paul had wandered into a thicket of the poison vines. Gareth started to warn him but stopped abruptly when an idea came to him. Maybe there was as a way to convince them all they were cursed.

With a deep sigh, knowing full well what was about to happen to him too, Gareth walked over to the vines and started stripping leaves into the game bag he was carrying.

Two days later there was another attack in the middle of the night. Then again, Gareth mused, most assassination attempts seem to happen at night. It was only one man. Somehow he had slipped past Ugly and Uglier and headed directly to Brandt’s lean-to. Later, both men swore that they had seen and heard nothing.

The attack had failed only because Brandt had not been sleeping as expected. Almost no one was getting a lot of sleep, they were too busy scratching rashes caused by the demon as he started manifesting to Gareth’s captors. Well, at least that was Gareth’s explanation for the rashes.

The attack had been a very short, ill-fated attempt. Gareth had missed the attack because he had also been trying not to scratch. By the time Gareth had gotten up and moved twenty steps, Brandt had disarmed the attacker and killed him with his own dagger.  It had been over so fast the man had died without drawing a second dagger he was carrying. This was noteworthy because the second dagger seemed to be all the man had on his person.

Gareth still had no clue who his captor was but he mentally revised his earlier opinions about Brandt’s ability to defend himself, this man had been well trained.

Assuming the man had cached his belongings and maybe a horse in the woods, Gareth suggested a search through the woods but no one wanted to move away from the protection of the campfire. They were irritable and tired from the constant itching. Despite the men having stripped demon bane leaves from every vine they could find, putting the leaves in their bedding was not sufficient to keep the demon at bay.

As light slowly came to the morning, the men on watch noticed a saddled horse tied not twenty-five yards from the camp. The horse was accompanied by a huge dog that seemed intent on guarding the horse. Hearing the commotion, Gareth rushed over only to stop short when he recognized the dog as his own that was supposed to be with Tobias. Either something was very wrong or Tobias was giving him help and did not want to be noticed.

Stunned by the turn of events and without thinking clearly, Gareth continued walking towards the dog. Gareth had acquired Jerome as a puppy and had named him after the arms instructor that had given the puppy to him. It was only as the dog came up snarling that Gareth realized just how fearsome Jerome had become.

At 140 pounds, Jerome was a big dog. Tobias did not seem to mind but insisted that Jerome be well trained. Since feeding a dog that large was a chore, Gareth spent a lot of time hunting with Jerome. Jerome was easily large enough to take down a deer but he started out body slamming the animal and trying to grab by the throat or leg. Tobias and Gareth had spent a lot of time teaching Jerome to kill efficiently. The training had paid off though, Gareth could point at a deer, do a slight twist of his wrist and Jerome was off in a flash. They had decided on a silent hand cue to not spook the game.

More snarls snapped Gareth out of his reverie. He had also spent a lot of time teaching Jerome to do this unless the right word was spoken. Tobias, always thinking of misdirection, wanted Jerome not to treat either of them as friends unless the word “crop” was spoken. He started to say the word when he realized this could be a big break for him. Gareth backed up, twisted his body to his left and started speaking.

“Demon, you have never done me a favor, nor would I trust a favor from one such as you. Yet I am loath to see such a fine animal destroyed. Certainly even archers as bad as these would sooner or later be able to hit the dog. You need these men to believe in you before you can do more than inflict these rashes on us. Show these men how easily you can tame this animal and they will have no choice but to believe in you. “

Gareth turned back to the dog and started walking forward like a doomed man. All the while he moved, the men around him could hear him pleading with the demon. He talked about his family, his farm, even his crops. With the mention of “crops” the dog rose and launched himself at Gareth. It took everyone a moment to realize that after knocking Gareth down, the dog was licking him in the face rather than ripping his throat out. From the looks on their faces, Gareth could tell the beds were going to be full of demon bane that night.

The saddle bags were empty except for one carefully folded note. Brandt looked at the note and passed it to William. William shook his head and passed it back. Brandt then read from the note. “You have weeds among your herbs, remove them before delivering your crop.” Brandt looked up and asked “Any idea what this might mean?” Silence.

Gareth thought he knew what it meant.  The wording of the note told him the note was from Tobias and meant for Gareth. “Weeds” was plural so there were at least two men. “Remove” meant that it was up to Gareth to ensure they did not make it to their final destination. “Crop” was used to authenticate the note. The note told him everything he had to know. Everything that is but who the weeds were. When Gareth caught up with Tobias he was going to give him a long talk about communication. Even a hint would have been appreciated.

Not much happened that day. The men ostensibly went out to check their snares but returned with little game and lots of demon-bane. Gareth was beginning to worry just how much exposure to the poison  vine the men could tolerate. He was also developing a definite hatred of William. William seemed to be one of the lucky people unaffected by the plant.

After the evening meal, with just a few words everyone gravitated to their bedding. As Gareth approached his bedding he saw that Jerome had already claimed what was left of the bed. Jerome had scattered all of the leaves, vines and much of the branches out of the bed. It didn’t hurt that all of the men in the camp saw this as a sign that the demon tamed dog couldn’t tolerate demon bane.

Jerome tried to lay his head on Gareth but kept poking Gareth with the spikes on his collar. Jerome seldom wore a collar and Gareth did not recognize this one. It made Jerome look more fearsome but was not made for a dog used to snuggling. When Gareth removed the collar he noticed that although the collar appeared new, it was missing four spikes. Radiating from the buckle there were nine spikes in each direction. On both sides, the same two adjacent spikes had been removed. The missing spikes represented a pair to be removed and Gareth knew of only one pair of men in the camp.

It was Paul that snapped. He had already been seeing the demon in his dreams before the rash started. Three days of sleep depredation and he was seeing the demon everywhere he looked. He started screaming at it to leave him alone.  He started begging Gareth to take the curse back so he could sleep. Gareth felt sorry for the man begging him for mercy. Paul was covered with sores and one eye was almost completely shut. Except for William, who seemed unaffected, everyone was beginning to take on the same air of desperation that Paul had.

Gareth repeated his earlier statement and said, “The only way this can happen is if I took all of you captive by force and I don’t have the strength or a weapon.” Paul pulled his sword and threw it to Gareth saying, “Pick it up, I’m surrendering to you.”

William frowned at this, pulled his own sword and warned Gareth to not to touch Paul’s sword, there was no way he allow this to happen. Not having a sword with him, one of the brothers used the piece of firewood he had in his hands and clubbed William from behind. In seconds, everyone but Brandt had turned on William. They were sore, tired, swollen and William was standing in the way of their release from the curse.

Brandt looked at what his men had become. They were covered with sores from the rash. Several of the men had features so swollen you could no longer recognize them. They were tired, they were angry and William was about to become a target of their anger. Left with no other way to save William, Brandt pulled his sword, threw it to the ground in front of Gareth and yelled, “stop, we all surrender.” There was no more fight in him. All the men started laying down their swords in front of Gareth.

Gareth stared at the pile of swords. This wasn’t the way he had expected it to happen but he had not expected it to work so well either. He picked up Brandt’s sword. Thinking back to his acting career, he thought, “the show must go on, give them a good one.” Gareth raised the sword and stopped abruptly.

“What do you mean you don’t accept it?” he exclaimed, “You heard them. They’ve surrendered to me.” A brief pause as if listening, then he walked over to Brandt and slapped him on the chest with his sword and said “You’re now my prisoners or I will execute your leader.” Turning to his left and almost in the same breath he said “Happy now?”

Another pause. “You have to be kidding, they’re not going to like this,” he said. Turning to ragged group of men in front of him he said, “The demon was greatly insulted by your use of demon bane, it offends his senses. His words not mine, I’m not sure he can be offended. Before he will agree to leave you alone, he wants every trace of demon bane out of the camp. If even one leaf remains he will assume you haven’t surrendered and will continue manifesting into your lives.”

Turning back to the demon he said, “Anything else?” Another pause. “He hates the demon bane so badly he wants it washed out of your bedding, your clothes and off your skin.”

“Look for bushes like that one,” he said pointing to a nearby plant with small pink flowers. “Crush the leaves until you have a lather and wash everything with it. If just one trace remains the demon will ignore what’s happened today.”

Turning back to the demon he said “Are we good now?” A pause and then he said, “What? Yeah that makes sense.” Turning back to the men he said, “One last demand, all the weapons in a pile, here, now. That includes your daggers.”

When the pile stopped growing, Gareth turned to Jerome and said, “Guard!” He wouldn’t have to worry about them.

The men spent the day cleaning the camp, Gareth included. Once every trace of the demon bane was gone, they started cleaning the clothing, bedding and themselves. The clothing had been made for outdoor work but they hadn’t been intended for ten days of constant wear and this type of cleaning. Almost none of the garments escaped with all seams intact. The men looked worse than most beggars.

With everyone tired from the day’s work, Gareth demanded that they have an early dinner. Out of habit, the men started drifting over to their beds once dinner was over. Gareth had already decided it was best to exhaust the men with manual labor. Exhausted men were far less likely to have problems sleeping because of the rash. Gareth called them back together. “We’re not done for this evening. The demon wants a monument built to him. Tonight we will be gathering rocks from the river to build the monument.”

As Gareth had planned, clean and exhausted from hauling rocks, the men had no trouble falling asleep that night.

Gareth came awake to the sound of conversation. “You watch him and make sure he doesn’t interfere. Careful not to kill him or the demon will come after us again. Too bad Tomas failed to kill the lord but I’ll go kill our young lordling myself.” Gareth opened his eyes to see Uglier with a cocked crossbow, pointed at him. The other brother was headed towards Gerard with an unfamiliar darkened sword. So much for the honor system, Gareth thought.

Seeing that Jerome was watching him, Gareth made the hunting sign for kill and took off running. It wasn’t the way he wanted to do this but a verbal command would have provided too much warning to Uglier. As the crossbow turned in his direction he heard a thud, a twang, a brief scream and then the sickening crack of a broken neck. One weed was gone.

Running at full speed Gareth grabbed Ugly. Well he would have, but the man had turned, stopped and ducked. Gareth, unable to stop, collided with the brother and went flying over his shoulder as the brother straightened.  Gareth landed on his back with his wind knocked out. Ugly continued approaching Brandt.

Brandt, having gotten his first full night sleep in three days was still asleep!

Gareth pulled his dagger and threw. It was a great throw. From a prone position, with an unfamiliar dagger, it would have been a miracle. Too bad this was not the day for that miracle. The knife went wide. The brother turned, smiled and raised his weapon for the killing stroke.

He paused in mid-stroke, looking at his chest. The arrow protruding from his chest was joined by another and Ugly collapsed. Gareth turned to see William with a bow, calmly returning a third arrow to a pouch. Almost absently, Gareth noticed that the pile of weapons still had two bows. Was he the only one that believed in the honor system?

Coming to his senses, he realized the second weed was dead and the camp was just waking up. It was time to go to town.

Gareth had Brandt riding the horse as they entered town. He had nothing to lose by being nice and he wanted as little attention as possible. the townspeople stared at the beggars parading through their town but made no attempt to stop them. As they approached the Northern edge of the town, Gareth could see a festival was taking place.

The guards at the entrance to the festival were not inclined to let the eight beggars in but Brandt said a few words to one guard. The guard went running and came back with an older man in rich velvets. The older man took one look at Brandt and started yelling for more guards.

In no time, Brandt and his men were surrounded by guards and servants. Apparently he really was noble. Seeing a familiar wagon near the edge of the festival Gareth decided it was a good time to disappear.

It was good to be back in the company of Tobias. Very little was said that day by either. Gareth wasn’t going to rush the debrief. He wanted some time to think it through and polish a few rough edges. For now it was good enough that Tobias had some salves capable of stopping the itching and reducing the swelling.

That evening Brandt walked into the camp, he looked very little like the man that had ridden in with Gareth. Tobias rose to his feet and said, “Gareth, it’s my pleasure to introduce you to Lord Brandt. His father is a very good patron of mine. Lord Brandt, I believe you already know my apprentice.”

Brandt immediately recognized Gareth but turning to Tobias said “I’ve been told you have salves that can sooth my affliction. I need enough for myself and six men.” Then turning to Gareth, he said, “When you first described your demon curse, I thought you were lying. Now that I see your master, I know your demon was but an understatement. I swore to help rid you of your demon but against one such as this,” he paused looking directly at Tobias and then finished, “I’m powerless.”

Brandt turned to leave with the bottles of salve Tobias had given him. “I won my bet and I’m still alive. When you have need, tell me and I will honor my debt.” He walked out.

The evening passed with friends of Tobias coming to spend time talking of old times at the fire. Gareth finally fell asleep with Jerome at his side.

It was early morning and he was returning from exercise with Jerome. He stopped when he heard the familiar voice. “It was as you suspected. Lord Lyons saw the bet as an opportunity to isolate young Brandt in the woods. By killing Brandt, he could blame the bandit gangs and say how slow the king had been in clearing out the gangs. The loss of his son might drove a wedge between Brandt’s father and the king.

“If Brandt actually succeeded, Lord Lyons would only lose a little coin that he could well afford. We were fortunate that he selected me for his party because I don’t think your new apprentice would have succeeded on his own. I wasn’t much older than him when you promoted me to a field agent. ”

Jerome, bored with just standing there, pushed Gareth off balance with his nose. This caused Gareth to miss the next few sentences. Then he heard, “I give you that he’s innovative but he’s rash and doesn’t think his plans through. If someone else had recognized his demon bane or was not susceptible to the rash, it would have been a very different story. When he charged Cedric without drawing his dagger, I figured him for dead. If I had not shot Cedric when I did…”

Gareth decided enough was enough and interrupted, “I thought you said a bow was beneath your station.” William did not even start. “Anything else Tobias? I’ll give you a formal report later this week but I don’t feel safe with this one running loose, certainly not yet.”

Turning to leave, William paused and then said, “Oh, add naive to the list. Tell us to turn in all our weapons and he doesn’t even check, incredible.” Gareth felt the tips of his ears turn red. Looking at Gareth, William gave his parting words, “A bow IS beneath my station. You chose to believe that meant I couldn’t use one.”

Gareth sighed, it was going to be an ugly debrief.

 

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