Very, very carefully, very, very quietly, Edrun leaned across to fill his mug in the brook. Beside him Jina stirred slightly in her sleep. Instantly he froze, trying not to disturb her. As he stretched out his left hand to dip the mug in the water, his right hand, the one supporting all his weight, slipped on the damp grass. With a gasp he checked himself just as he was about to fall face first into the water. Again Jina stirred at the sudden movement, sighed and rolled over. Edrun remained perfectly still.
His right hand supporting his weight, his left hand stretched out to fill the mug, he was suspended no more than a couple of hands' breadth above the clear waters of the little brook. He stared down onto the mirror-like surface. A face stared back at him, clean-shaven, the angular features dominated by deep-set, intense black eyes, topped by short cropped black hair. The seven interwoven tendrils of the tattoo on the left jaw line spoke of one who had led men into victory in a major battle. The little stag's head tattooed between his eyes told all who saw it that here was one who revered above all the Divine Shegadin, Bowman of the Heavens, Master of the Wild Wood, Lord of the Hunt.
Edrunaraugiscal Jaranacad Sulandax, that is who I am, he mused. The Abundant Rain of Spring, Son of Jaran, the Beloved of the River Goddess. My name is my story, my story is my name. And what a story I am become! Look at me now! How in all the world did this happen to me?
All I ever wanted was a quiet life!
Carefully, carefully, he dipped the wooden mug into the brook to drink deeply of the cool, delicious water. Raising the mug in a toast, he silently praised the Lady Thambai, the Guardian of the Sacred Pool, Protectress of the Kalalutorm, She who kept the sweet life-giving waters rising up from the unfathomable depths of the Womb of the World where the waters of creation were eternally refreshed, She who had defended the Rock of Amron down through the ages.
Carefully, carefully, Edrun raised himself to a sitting position the better to look down on Jina, stretched out on the lush grass, her upper body shaded by the overhanging foliage, her lower body, with the barely perceptible bump on the abdomen, warmed by the afternoon sun. Edrun shook his head in wonderment, looking up from Jina to the little brook, and beyond to the River Kaen into which it flowed only twenty paces distant.
Was it really only two years since that fateful day when Jina had been swept into the raging Nogoldhere River, a river very much like the one in front of him, dragged to her death in the lairs of the River Demons--or so everyone had thought?
Their quiet, ordered lives had ended in that moment. The hands of the Gods had torn them from their cosy home in sleepy little Chernugo, hurling them half way across the great island of Kalion, to the Cities of Threeriversmeet, Keninulu, Hazek and Sulahan, across the bleak Ryna Hills and over the snow-clad Agonalukin Mountains, onto the Great Western Plains, then up the broad Vale of DrummGrissa. Instead of quietly mending harness and repairing wagons in his Father's workshop, as he had always intended that his days should be spent, he had ended up fighting in pitched battles and in individual duels to the death. He had been pursued across the high moors, hunted by savage men and even more savage dogs. He had been incarcerated in dungeons, swept down a storm drain, and the invisible hand of Detanié alone had saved him from being tossed over a cliff face in an avalanche.
And he continually found himself in the middle of some river fighting for his life!
Never in his wildest imaginings would he have dreamed that his life would become so chaotic. Yet it had become so. Never in his most fantastical of daydreams would he have conceived of his elevation into the Gathering, the hereditary nobility of the People of the Sea. Yet here he was, publicly hailed as Edrun, Lord Sulandax, and accepted as an equal by the Lords of DrummGrissa, welcomed into their halls, offered the hero's portion at feasts! His own personal banner, now acknowledged by and recorded in the archives of the Keeper of the King's Arms in Kalion Ulu, fluttered proudly beside those of the Kalalutorm, the Kalarndu, the Mailaranarad, the Jemegaidi, and the other clans of the DrummGrissa.
Slowly he stood, looking out across the River Kaen to the broad fields of the fief of the Kalalutorm, then downstream towards the docks and the vast Rock of Amron upon which sat the town of Amronulu, home of the Kalalutorm Clan.
Where would it all end? he wondered. Where to from here? Will we ever find peace, or are we to spend all of our lives running, fighting, chasing, being chased. Will we ever be able to build a home, settle down, raise our children and worship the Gods without the threat of danger hanging over their heads all the time?
He looked down at Jina, sleeping peacefully in the warm afternoon sun. She slept a lot these days. Drugged almost into a state of mindlessness by the flesh-merchant Halgar Rassvorea, she had slowly, with good medical attention and the constant care and love of friends, drawn back from the abyss. She was alert and cheerful, loving life and all that was in it. But she was not the same.
Firajinaudun Kadicath Vaso Sulandax, ca'oula ca'Okilafirdais. She who is like the dancing of flowers in the wind, daughter of Kadi, beloved Lady Wife of Edrun, most treasured Windflower. Her name is her story also, but her story has changed. And will it ever return to its former path?
Once so full of energy and enthusiasm, she no longer had the stamina of old. She tired quickly, needing frequent rests. Never since early childhood had she slept during the day, but nowadays she needed a good long nap in the afternoons. She laughed and was cheerful, but the mischievous sense of humour that so set her apart from others had quietly vanished into nothingness. Once upon a time, when they had walked together, she would often run ahead for a few paces, skipping and dancing. Now she walked sedately at all times, frequently taking Edrun's arm to steady herself. Her eyes shone with happiness when she looked at him, and especially when they talked about the baby that was slowly growing within her, but they no longer sparkled.
Edrun slowly sank down by her side, watching the slow rising and falling of her breasts, smiling in his turn at the little half-smile on her sleeping lips. He straightened up her jacket where it had become rucked up behind her, admiring its quality as he did so. It had been a gift from the Lady Meraima, their hostess and the mother of his good friend Adaraic Kalalutorm. It was obviously expensive, being made of one of the finest woollen fabrics that Edrun had ever seen, soft and smooth. Jina loved it, particularly the embroidered flowers across the front panels, and the little wooden toggles that closed it. There were eight of them, exquisitely carved from some hard wood, into whimsical little figures of animals; a rooster waving a beer mug, a hen wearing an apron and mixing something in a bowl, a rabbit armed with a bow and arrow.
He chuckled as he looked closely at them, admiring the handiwork of a master carver, tickled by the humour of the little faces. By all the Gods, anything that set him to laughing these days had to be worth pure gold! Never one given to displays of emotion, Edrun was painfully aware that since he had rescued Jina from her ordeal at the hands of Halgar Rassvorea and his cohorts he had become even more withdrawn, almost grim. His friends tried hard to jolly him out of his moods, and frequently they succeeded. There had been some great times over the last few days, pleasant days riding across the Kalalutorm estates, wonderful evenings before the roaring fires, with song and dance, good food and lively conversation.
But always the merriment faded at last into sombre silence. More and more he found himself lost in thought, content to sit by Jina's side as she slept, thinking, thinking. Asking questions of himself, questions to which he could find no answers. Looking back over time, thinking of faces that had come and gone again, it seemed that everything that he had learned since childhood, everything that he had taken for granted, had come apart. The faces kept confusing everything in his mind, mixing everything up until he barely knew who he was, let alone who anyone else might be.
Arandis, the Priestess of the Fire Goddess who seemed to know more about him than he did himself. Arandis, so beautiful that she did not so much attract him as intimidate him. Lanis, gentle, docile Lanis, who had cared for him when he had thought Jina was lost forever, who had meekly stepped back when Jina, beyond all hope, was returned to him and had served both faithfully. Lanis, who had stabbed another woman to death because she thought that the woman was about to come between Edrun and Jina.
Mardo of the nimble fingers, Mardo who could barely speak, Mardo who would not have harmed a mouse, yet had died in a ditch, transfixed by a javelin. Numa the slippery, sleazy hired informer who had become a model servant, Zan the young man who had an uncanny ability to find his way anywhere and who had, in large part, replaced Mardo. Kelto, a swaggering, drunken lout who nevertheless was one of the few whom Edrun would trust to protect his back when battle loomed.
Ordron Mailaranarad, haughty, disdainful, brutal, yet a man of stern resolve and high courage when the need arose. Adeta with the haunting laugh and the courage of a warrior who had flashed across his life like a shooting star, coming out of nowhere and vanishing back into the night from which she came before he had even realised what she meant to him. And others, so many others.
Amongst them the face of a woman called--what had been her name? Tala! Yes, that was it. Tala. Baltalauith, The Wings of Summer. That had been her name. He had met her briefly in the City of Sulahan, for no more than a couple of hands of the sun. He had not even seen her in daylight, only by the muted glow of a candle or a cheap lamp, yet her face had stayed in his mind. Buried under layers of cares and immediate anxieties, nevertheless her image had begun to emerge at times during the quiet of the night, or in the reveries of long afternoons. Who was she? What was she doing in his head? Why her and not the dozens, hundreds of other women with whom he had had a fleeting acquaintanceship over the years? They had swum into his ken and out of it again, never more to be seen much less to trouble him. Why her?
Who are all these ghosts?
And then there was all that nonsense about him being some sort of special person with some special fate, or without any fate at all except that which he made for himself. The Priestess called Carhinalié had called him the Free One, whatever that really meant, as she lay mortally wounded in the Stone Ring of Rabti. What was that all about any way? Had that been a genuinely divine revelation, a message from the Gods themselves, or the final ravings of a dying woman? So much had been happening at the time, so much had happened immediately afterwards, that it had gone completely out of his head. Later, back at Amronulu with time to think, his mind had been so full of Jina and of their child as yet unborn that he had quite forgotten about it.
What was that all about? What did she mean? Where was he going? Where were they going? And who are all these people?
"What people?" murmured Jina, her eyes still closed. "I thought that we were alone." And Edrun realised that he had spoken these last words aloud.
"Jina, I am so sorry," he whispered, immediately contrite. "I did not mean to wake you." She smiled lazily. Drawing his face down to hers, she kissed him lightly.
"I have slept long enough, I think. Who were you talking to?" Sitting up, she looked about them but, seeing no-one else, looked back quizzically at Edrun.
"Myself," laughed Edrun. "I was talking to myself. I must be getting old. My Great Uncle Kemmel used to talk to himself a lot. He said it was easier to do that than to have to explain everything to people who were too young to understand any way." She laughed with him at the memory of the feisty old man, settling back into Edrun's arms. Her smile faded as she reached up to stroke his face.
"You laughed," she said softly. "I like it when you laugh. And you laugh so seldom these days, Edrun." He sighed, burying his nose in her hair, inhaling the delicious scent of her.
"I know, my dearest. I know only too well, and I try to be cheerful. But it is not always very easy. There are too many questions in our life, and too few answers. I keep searching for them. The answers, that is. But all too often they escape me. For some reason the complicated questions seem easy to answer. It is the simple ones that prove most difficult."
"Like what, for example?"
"Like where are we going?"
"We do not have to go anywhere at the moment," smiled Jina, leaning back luxuriously into the cool, moist grass. "And there is no hurry to do anything."
Edrun took her hand, stroking it. "But we have to go somewhere eventually," he said, kissing her fingertips one after the other. "We cannot stay in Amronulu forever, nice as that might be. We have to find somewhere of our own."
"We could go back to Chernugo," said Jina hopefully. "I would love to see Mother and Dad again, and to tell them all about everything. And they would be overjoyed to meet a new grandson. Or granddaughter."
Edrun shook his head. "My dear, we have been over this before. There is no going back. You know that."
Jina did not reply as Edrun pulled her upright. On her feet again, she brushed herself down then walked over to the bank of the River Kaen, where she stood amongst the reeds, looking out over the water. Silently, Edrun followed her. He bent down, selected a stone from the many at his feet and, taking careful aim at a branch floating in the middle of the river, threw it. He missed, but Jina clutched his arm, real terror in her eyes.
"Edrun! You should not do that! You will waken the River Demons!"
He drew her into his arms, kissing her lips, her cheeks, her forehead. "My dearest one," he whispered, "the River Demons cannot reach you, nor will they ever again. I am Sulandax, remember that. You, we are Sulandax. We are the Beloved of the River Goddess. She will protect us. I have made sacrifice and poured libations to Habeia, the Lady of the River Kaen, and I have prayed at her shrine most days that we have been here, while you slept. She will not allow the Demons to harm us."
"They had me once before, and they could take me once again."
He could feel her slim form shiver in his arms. "But Iana, the lady of the Nogoldhere, saved you then, Jina. She did not allow the Demons to keep you, as they keep so many."
"Every time I come near a river now I feel their presence." Her voice was almost inaudible, buried in his shoulder. "I know that even now, should I fall into the water I would become paralysed, unable to swim or even move, and they would have me once more."
"I am here, Jina," said Edrun soothingly. "While I am with you, not even the Demons of Zandar with their fiery breath, their wings of bronze and their talons of obsidian could come near you."
Jina straightened up, looking out over the river. They stood silently for a long time. At last she sighed. "You are right, of course, my only beloved," she said softly. "I could only wish that you were wrong, but you are not. There is no going back. Ever since I fell into the waters of the Nogoldhere I have felt that we have lost all control over our fate. I feel that the Gods have been tossing us back and forth, here and there, like children playing with a ball, throwing us around at random. We are in a whirlpool, being swept around and around, and we are helpless in its grip, doomed to swirl around forever. We seem to get caught up in webs of intrigue and violence that are not of our making and certainly none of our business, and we cannot extricate ourselves from their toils. And I cannot see any way out."
"Where, then, are we going?" Edrun asked.
"Unless you have any better ideas," said a voice behind them, "I would suggest the Poor Man's Bench."