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And now, the story…
“Listen,” I say, desperate to stop Pyotr, even for a moment. The big man’s scowl makes me think twice. His thick arm could cut my head off with one swing of his sword of war, while I would be lucky to part his heavy black eyebrows with my short steel. If I used both hands. If he does not like my plan… “Hear that roar? By the time we come around that next hill we’ll see the Mother’s Tears.”
Courtesy demands that I give him a moment to acknowledge this fact. A nod, a word, anything. Apparently courtesy does not require him to use it. I hate working with knights. Even when they are not wearing armor, they are loud when you need them to be quiet and still when you want them to make noise.
Although honestly, any knight who would be assigned to scout duty alongside “the likes of” me is not likely to say anything worth hearing.
When his silence grows tiresome, I continue, “We should see an unguarded stone bridge.” Finally a nod. I smile. “If I read the map right, that means there’s a town only an hour or so downriver.” Pyotr’s black eyes look at something behind me. His hand does not twitch toward his sword, so I continue, “We could get horses—”
“Sir Boris already—”
“If they catch us behind battle lines…” I let the words trail off as Pyotr turns his back and renews his march. I sigh and trot to catch up.
Almost ten years we have been at war with Volsapta. I have been a solider now longer than I ever was an avener, and because I lack noble birth our captain will not even give me horses to look after. Just mules like Pyotr, who would stride down the center of the road were I not here to keep him among the foliage. At least the grass is soft, and the bushes and small trees green. If I close my eyes and breathe deeply, the smell could almost make me think I am near the woods back home.
I catch up with Pyotr as we round the hill. Less than an arrow’s flight away we see the wide, deep Mother’s Tears, with its stone bridge broad enough for three to ride abreast. Standing in the middle of the bridge is a short, slender man. He looks no older than I am, but he leans on a quarterstaff. My instincts beg me to dive behind a rock before the guardian sees me, but Pyotr stands firm so I see no point in it.
A cold feeling settles in my guts. “The bridge is supposed to be unguarded. We should turn back.”
“A nothing peasant with a nothing stick.” Pyotr snorts. “It is unguarded.”
“And if that nothing is a wizard?”
“In just his breeches and tunic? Even the shoes look cheap.”
“Ho, the bridge!” yells Pryotr, using his cupped hands to amplify the sound.
“And now the unseen guards know we’re here,” I say, shaking my head.
“No hiding spot in two hundred paces of the bridge and its sides are high enough to impede aim.” Pyotr glares at me. “I know my business.” He turns back to the bridge. “Ho, the bridge!”
We wait, but it seems courtesy does not require the guardian to reply.
“Our orders are clear, sir knight.” The honorific sours on my tongue, but I spit it out. I resist the urge to ask how, if he knows his business so well, he came to be given the same lowly task as a “nothing” like me. I do not even ask how a “nothing” like me could pay more mind to the details of our assignment than a “great knight” like him. Instead, I settle for reminding him. “We are to cross the bridge if it is unguarded, otherwise we are to return and report.”
“I say a peasant with a twig does not constitute a guard.” This time his glare makes me flinch, as though his expression alone burns me. “And I tire of your questioning. Let me give you a little demonstration of the difference between us. Hold my sword and watch this.”
Pyotr removes his sword belt and shoves it into my hands. I am too shocked to do anything but take it. I only just told him that I want to flee, and he has such confidence in his skills that he hands me his weapon?
Perhaps this is a clever move on his part, because I do not run or attack. All I can do is follow, one pace behind like a squire, while Pyotr strides toward the bridge. I stop shy of the stonework, but Pyotr continues. The moment he sets foot on the bridge, the guardian says, “Hold. Give the password.”
“You bear no standard, no coat of arms,” says Pyotr as he approaches step by step. “You show no sign of authority that I must obey. Well, here is my authority.” He slaps the patch on his left shoulder, crossed halberds on a field of blue. He stops walking when he stands close enough to loom. “Move aside or I will kill you where you stand.”
The guardian says nothing. He does not even meet Pyotr’s eye. He simply lifts his quarterstaff into a ready guard position and says, “Withdraw.”
Pyotr grabs the staff with both hands and slams his forehead into the guardian’s nose. I flinch away, staring over the river to the south. An hour away lie horses, and freedom only a day’s ride further. Our forces are broken, no matter how the king denies it. Even Pyotr’s older brother Boris fled south three days ago. So why does this damned fool insist…
I look back at the damned fool and see him struggle, locked in close combat with the guardian. Both grip the staff and neither seems able to move it. Pyotr still has his forehead in the guardian’s face. Almost like he is stuck there…
I move a few steps to my right, still not willing to set foot on that bridge, and try to get a better look at the combatants. Pyotr’s head looks glued to the guardian’s nose, which maintains its original shape. Pyotr’s face contorts in battle fury. The guardian’s remains impassive, eyes staring into the distance.
“Pyotr?” I ask.
“Damned wizard’s trick!” He roars frustration that echoes around us. “Get up here, Filya.”
“So I can get trapped too?” I eye the river again, wishing I could swim. “I think I’m better off back here.”
“You—were—right.” He spits those words out through clenched teeth. I don’t see his jaw move until he continues, “The bridge is guarded. I should not have approached. Now…” He pauses for a deep breath. “Now please help me free myself.”
A concession? And a ‘please?’ Shock makes me drop the sword. I need a moment to find my voice before I can say, “What if I get trapped?”
“Then when they come for us we tell them the truth – I am a scout and you are a deserter.” Pyotr snorts, but I notice he has stopped struggling against the guardian. The two remain in place, locked together at their hands and heads. “Nothing held me until I engaged the guardian. Walking on the bridge will not hurt you.”
I pick up his sword, but cannot bring myself to step onto the stonework. “What do you want me to do?”
“The guardian is obviously some sort of continual spell. If I am right, there should be a seal or sigil carved somewhere on the bridge, binding the spell. I want you to take my sword – the pommel of my sword! – and deface the sigil.”
“If I were that wizard, I would have carved it somewhere you have to pass the guardian to reach.”
“So cross the bridge. The guardian here is not going anywhere.”
I stare at the gray and white stones of the bridge. I crane my neck, hoping to see some sign of this sigil or seal, but the stones all look alike to me, apart from minor variations in size and color.
“Help me free myself…” Pyotr’s voice grows tight. “And I will look the other way when you desert.”
I step onto the bridge before I realize I have done it. A second guardian steps out of the first one, identical except that this one is not bound to Pyotr. “Hold,” says the second guardian. “Give the password.”
“Password. Right.” I think about the passwords we use at our own sentry lines, but quickly realize I cannot guess. I try to retreat back off of the bridge, but my foot will not come free. I sigh and slump forward. “I just want to get away.”
“Noncombatant,” says the second guardian. “Drop your weapons and you may pass.”
I drop Pyotr’s sword of war and follow with my own sword belt as fast as I can undo the buckle. I raise my hands in surrender for good measure, take a deep breath, and walk forward. I hold my breath as I reach the middle of the bridge, tension aching my shoulders and grinding at my teeth, sweat matting my hair. I see Pyotr watching from the corner of his eye as the second guardian steps to the side, allowing me to pass. I force my feet to stay slow and steady until I reach the dirt once more. I collapse forward in relief.
“I just want to get away,” says Pyotr.
I roll onto my side to look back. The second guardian is gone, and Pyotr remains stuck to the first one by his hands and forehead.
“I just want to get away.” He struggles for a moment. “Why does it not release me?”
“Maybe you have to mean it.”
“Fine. Then let them come and kill me.”
I roll to my feet. I could reach that town by noon. By full dark I could be across the southern border and gone. A good avener can always find work…
I look back at Pyotr: stiff, sore no doubt, and waiting to die. I sigh. “Come with me.”
“My brother may be craven, but I am not.”
“It’s not craven to flee a mad king and certain death.”
“I swore an oath.”
“King Rodion broke faith first by continuing this war!” I try to force a reasonable tone back into my voice as I continue, “We’ve lost most of our men and two-thirds of our nobles. The dukes would displace the king, but there aren’t enough of them left. The war is over. All that remains is survival or suicide.”
“If you don’t like what Sir Boris did, confront him! But you have to survive to do it.”
Pyotr is quiet for so long I start to turn away. I’ve taken no more than three paces when he says, “There is honor in pursuing my brother.”
“More than there is in dying for a mad king.”
Pyotr straightens his back, forcing the guardian to stretch onto his toes. “I, Sir Pyotr of Three Cross, son of Sir Rasputin, son of Sir Ivan, son of Sir Alexei, do hereby withdraw from this conflict. This I swear by the blood of my fathers and the blood of those who will follow.”
“Pass, noncombatant,” says the guardian, releasing Pyotr. Pyotr rolls his neck and shoulders. The cracking is so loud I hear it over the roar of the river.
I try to think of something to say while I wait for Pyotr to catch up with me. When he does, he speaks first.
“Our swords are gone. I looked back as I left the bridge, but they have vanished.”
“We could not have gone back for them anyway.”
“You could have left me.” Pyotr pauses, and I realize he feels that courtesy requires him to give me time to respond. This is a first, and I want to reply, but I think of nothing to say, so he continues, “Why did you come back?”
“I’m not sure.” I have to think for another dozen paces before I say, “You were willing to let me desert, so I couldn’t desert you.”
“Honor. That I understand.” Pyotr’s turn to think for a dozen paces. “Will you come with me to find my brother?”
“I won’t be your squire.”
“Not my squire.” Pyotr turns to face me, holds out his empty sword hand. “My friend.”
We clasp hands.
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