02 Gray the Bard
Cornor was a small village within the Southport territory, known for their pubs. Barkeeps set up business there to avoid the Casselberry tariffs and scrutiny. The walk to Cornor didn’t take Josah long, as the burg was two kilometers away from the pier.
As he reached Cornor Square, Josah paused. Not much had changed over the years, except for the cobblestone road. Merchants often left their wagons in the square when they stopped to dine and share stories at the pubs. Late arrivals stay long enough for their evening meal before continuing to Casselberry.
Josah noticed the water troughs in front of Pubs Row already had horses tied to posts and rails. There were pubs on either side of King’s Road, beyond the square where the road narrowed. Each wood and daub constructed pub hung signs to display their names. Some painted drawings on walls or doors for those who couldn’t read.
Cornor Square conjured bad memories for Josah. So he closed his eyes for a second, then quickened his steps to the Pouring Rain Pub. Trying to outrun his memories, Josah shivered as he reached his destination. The evening’s cool breeze may have contributed to his discomfort.
Servers from each pub lit lanterns hung by their doors, inviting patrons to come in and stay. A cloud raining into a stein painted on the door confirmed Josah arrived at the Pouring Rain Pub. He could hear the muffled sounds made by the people inside.
Josah turned an iron latch, pushed the weathered door open, and then stepped inside. The room was spacious, with tables and chairs placed at various intervals. Candles and lanterns were lit, casting a warm and welcoming glow. People gathered around tables, talking, laughing, shouting. A minstrel played his fiddle to no one in particular.
Already late in the day, Josah wasn’t expecting to get a full meal. He walked to the far side of the room where the Barkeep sat behind a long counter. Patrons stood at the other end, drinking ale, telling tales, laughing.
Behind the Barkeep were two doors servers went through to retrieve food and drinks. As fast as one server came out with meals, another returned to the kitchen. They returned with empty food boards and drinking vessels.
An older man with thinning hair, the Barkeep wore a clean tunic with a badge of the Pouring Rain Pub sewn on his left side. Busy counting coins, he didn’t look up when Josah stood in front of him.
“Sir, I am making my way to Bon Abbi and may have to delay my return.”
A few seconds of silence made the Barkeep look at Josah. “Yes, my lad. And how can I help you?”
“I may need to leave a message for some friends. Could I leave it with you?”
‘That depends, my boy.” The Barkeep inspected Josah’s face. “Do I know you?”
Josah shook his head. “We had no previous encounters.”
He brought his right finger to the side of his nose, trying to place Josah. “You have family in Bon Abbi, do you?”
“I never said,” replied Josah.
“Well,” the Barkeep tapped the side of his nose, “You remind me of Lord Rondo Mayweather, bless his soul. He ruled over Bon Abbi. He passed away before planting season. Are you part of his clan, are you?”
“N-no, I-I’m not,” stammered Josah.
The Barkeep looked beyond Josah and then back to him. “You noticed my tunic, did you now? I am free, don’t wear a family crest, nobody to rule over me. Lord Rando had one of his people make this badge. Said I should be proud to be free. Bless his soul, he passed away before planting season.”
“Can I leave a message with you if I must?” asked Josah again.
“You won’t need to, lad. Don’t look now, but behind you is the Commander of the Casselberry soldiers. His people come into every pub and persuade young men like you to join them. And they aren’t too gentle. This is a rare occasion to see the Commander out and about.”
He looked back at his coins. “I am doing this as a favor to Lord Mayweather, bless his soul. You need to go through the kitchen behind me and out through the far door. Hide in the shadows until the third bell rings. That’s when it’s safe to come out because the soldiers must return to Casselberry before that last chime.”
But before Josah could ask questions, he heard his name called behind him. He swung around and saw the Evermore brothers. “What are you doing here?”
Josah looked at the far corner where a stout man, with red hair and beard, stood up for a moment before sitting back down. The Commander did his best to stay hidden in the shadows.
Turning back to the Barkeep, Josah asked, “This Commander. Is he wearing chainmail and a breastplate, sitting in the corner?”
“That would be him. You need to leave now before more soldiers arrive.” The Barkeep stood up and waved his hand, motioning the soldier to come. “Go. Go now!” he snorted through the side of his mouth.
“Come with me!” shouted Josah. He went around the Barkeep, through the doors, and into the kitchen. Some people were cleaning, while a few were preparing meals of brown bread, cheese, and ale.
Josah, spotting the second door leading outside, sprinted towards it. He pulled the door open and ran out, with Caleb and Conall close behind. “Wait,” Josah whispered, stopping while lifting his left hand, clenched in a fist.
He saw a small group of soldiers dressed in partial armor, running to the front entrance of the pub. Josah expected the Commander to come charging behind them any moment.
Dropping his left hand, Josah instructed the brothers. “Walk as if you belong here. Follow me.”
Conall followed Josah as he moved onto the cobblestone road. The younger Evermore, impetuous by nature, hid behind the bushes around the corner of the pub. In moments, he saw the red-haired soldier run past him and shouting, “Oy!”
Josah ignored the call and kept walking. “Don’t stop. Keep walking.”
“Oy. Stop,” demanded the soldier.
It didn’t take long for Josah to notice the unexpected silence that followed. He spun around and saw Conall behind him but not Caleb. The Commander walked towards the boys with his head hung down low. He was taller and broader than what Josah thought.
Caleb peered around the soldier. “It seems we have a prisoner.”
Josah saw the soldier’s face flinch as he continued walking forward. His hair was long and red, with his beard braided and threaded through a ring at the bottom.
“I’ve got my knife between his shoulders. His chainmail only covers the front,” said Caleb with a grin.
“We can’t take him with us!” Josah insisted. He remembered how it felt to travel to a place he didn’t want to go.
Conall drew his knife from the sheath and grabbed the soldier’s left arm. “We don’t have a choice! Let’s get off the road.”
Looking around, Josah saw some people standing outside the pubs talking. But there were no signs of soldiers anywhere. Reluctant to take a prisoner, he nodded in agreement. “Follow me.”
He led them down King’s Road, past the last pub on his left, then into the open fields. Josah continued to the tree line, confident the darkness would hide them from the road. He turned around, facing Conall and Caleb, each holding on to the soldier’s arms.
Releasing the arms, the two brothers gasped for air, while keeping their hands on his back. The soldier doubled over, with his hands on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Josah looked at him and thought it odd that he didn’t attempt to escape.
“We can’t stay here,” said Josah. “He’s the Commander for the Casselberry army. They’ll come looking for him.”
“Look, let me go my way, and you go yours. I won’t come after you,” said the soldier, standing upright again.
Conall noticed that the man kept trying to get a better look at who was behind him. But Caleb stayed out of view, making sure their prisoner felt his knife every few minutes. “Josah, what do we do?” asked Conall.
“We have no choice. We now have a prisoner,” decided Josah. “Conall, help Caleb secure the Commander. We must go through Filgore Valley.”
“Filgore? I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” pleaded the soldier. “There are stories of animals in that valley that could eat you before you’d die.”
The soldier took a deep breath, about to shout when Conall raised his knife to his neck. “Don’t do it. Let’s go!”
The moon, not full, lent enough light to make the journey easier. Josah kept listening for any sounds of someone coming up behind them. But no one was following. What he heard was two bells ringing in the distance.
Listening to the boys’ conversation, the Commander knew their names. “Josah, Conall,” the soldier gasped. “Do you hear those bells ringing? I must make it to the city gates before the third bell rings. I am less than a meter away and can make it before the city gates close.”
When they ignored him, the prisoner shouted, “You need to let me go!”
“Keep walking,” said Caleb as they continued towards the Valley. The Commander kept mumbling, “No, no, no. I have to get back to Casselberry.”
Josah stopped, trying to discern the landscape in the dark. It proved to be difficult as the shadows hid the slope leading to the valley. “No sudden movements,” warned Conall as he stepped away from their prisoner.
He spoke with Josah, trying to decide what they should do. The Commander listened carefully but couldn’t make out the words. With a sudden whirl, the soldier caught Caleb off-guard and pushed him down.
He started to sprint back towards the city when they all heard a faint third bell. To their surprise, the Commander dropped to his knees and fell forward on his hands. He stayed motionless for a few minutes, without saying a word.
After a few minutes on the ground, the soldier resigned to his fate. He got up, walked towards Caleb, saying, “You’re only a boy.” Conall was quick to step between them with his knife still in his hand. “My name is Gray, the Bard. You can call me Graybard.”
The boys looked at each other, not sure what was happening. “I can’t return to Casselberry. Any soldier who doesn’t make it back to the city before the gates close has abandoned their post. No excuses, no clemency.”
“Aren’t you like the captain?” asked Caleb.
“I am, or was, the Commander of the Casselberry soldiers. I convinced the ruling family to impose a death penalty on all soldiers who desert their post. I’m afraid death waits for me in the morning.”
He looked at the boys with a critical eye. “I haven’t seen you before. You must be visitors. The ship that brought you to Rylie Glen, when is it coming back? When are you leaving? Can I join you?”
“It’s not coming back for a fortnight,” Josah told Graybard. He then glared at Caleb and Conall. “You were to go with the ship. Why did you come after me?”
Conall told Josah how they started to return to the longboat. That’s when they overheard a conversation about Casselberry forcing young men to be soldiers. “We told the crew to leave us, and we ran after you.”
“Well,” said Graybard, “We are now traveling companions, like it or not.”
“You’re taking this rather well,” observed Conall. “Losing your post, a death sentence, and now traveling with us.”
“I made my peace when I was on the ground, boy!” shouted Graybard. He dropped his shoulders, and with a quiet voice, he said, “I needed to leave anyway. It might as well be tonight.”
Caleb slipped the knife back into its sheath, as did Conall. This simple act was enough to convince Graybard he was in good company. He stretched backward, looking up into the sky as if a heavy burden had dropped from his shoulders.
Looking at the Commander, Josah considered their options. He asked the brothers what they should do, but neither responded. “Casselberry will look for Graybard by morning, so we can’t travel down King’s Road.”
He turned and peered into the darkness that was Filgore Valley. This was their only choice. “There are many animals in the valley,” said Josah, “But none so fierce as the Dragoons. They are large wild cats that hunt in packs and run fast.”
Pausing for a moment, Josah thought it best to describe a Dragoon. As a boy, he faced a group of them and survived. “Dragoons rarely travel alone. They travel in groups dominated by the female in their species.”
“How would you know these things?” asked Graybard in a mocking tone.
Josah responded, “Because I’ve seen them myself. The stronger protect their young and old. And, we’ll never see them in the dark. Mature Dragoons have gray and black fur, while the young come in shades of brown.”
“Should we wait for the morning?” asked Conall.
“They are as dangerous in the light, guarding their territory,” Josah pointed out.
“So, what should we do?” asked Caleb, walking towards Josah.
Before he could respond, Graybard grunted in disgust. “I’m dead already,” he told the boys, then started walking into the darkness that was Filgore Valley.
“Wait. Please, Graybard,” said Josah. He felt somewhat responsible for the Commander’s dilemma. “Look, we’re here now because you went after us. This is your fault as much as ours.”
Josah pointed to the shadows beyond the sloping foothills. He said to Graybard, who faced the Valley, “I know how to survive in there. I’ve already done so once before.”
The Commander stopped. “So, you now care about me, do you?” he barked. “If you had let me go when I asked, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Well, we can’t undo what’s done. We can only try to make it right. Stay with us, and I’ll see you leave with us in a fortnight,” promised Josah.
“Our Father owns a ship that frequents Southport,” informed Caleb.
Graybard never intended to walk into Filgore Valley. All he wanted to do was to learn something about the boys. They were decisive and compassionate. He turned around and walked back out of the shadows.
After a deep cleansing breath, Graybard took his breastplate and chain maille off. Dropping them to the ground, he said, “Help me get some dry branches so we can start a fire.”
“We can’t start a fire,” Conall pointed out. “Someone will see the light from the flames.”
With a hardy laugh, Graybard said, “Every soldier is inside the city walls and won’t come out ’til sunrise. Those living outside the gates don’t care.”
His reasoning made sense to Josah. “Caleb, help Graybard collect branches, would you?” He then motioned Conall. “What do you think? Can we trust him?”
Conall shrugged his shoulders. “I will sleep light tonight. We’ll know by morning.”
It didn’t take long before Graybard and Caleb came back with dry branches and twigs. “Does anyone have flint to start the fire?” asked the Commander. He scrunched his face, hoping to hear the right answer.
Caleb and Conall looked at each other and shook their heads. Neither of them expected they would need supplies. So, Josah let his leather pouch and mandolin sack slide off his shoulders. Untying the leather strips, he spread the opening to the pouch. Pushing things around with his hand, he felt the cold stone and grabbed it.
Josah tossed the stone to Conall, while Graybard and Caleb stacked the branches. Conall piled dry pines needles and leaves with twigs under the large branches. Unsheathing his knife, he knelt and took hold of the stone.
Striking down on the flint in quick succession, small bits of the steel fell into the tinder pile. When a red ember appeared, Conall blew on the spark, making it glow until it started to smoke. With care, the smoldering ember grew to a flame.
“I take it you’ve done this before?” asked Graybard. “I could have made you great soldiers.” He shook his head and sat on the ground, next to the fire.
“You wouldn’t have something to eat in your pouch?” asked Caleb as hunger made his stomach growl.
Josah laughed. “Someone put some dry meat strips wrapped in a cloth. It’s not a lot, but I’ll share what I have.”
“That would have been Mother,” grinned Conall.
He reached into his pouch and produced the wrapped meat. Josah walked around and gave everyone two strips. “Do you have any ale in that pouch of yours?” chuckled Graybard. His laugh got stronger and louder, making the boys snicker.
The meat strips were dry but enough to push the hunger pangs aside. There was something about a warm fire that drew people together. Flames dancing, casting their light around the makeshift camp, made it mesmerizing.
The boys had spent many evenings in the past, sitting down in silence, staring at flames and sky. But it seemed too quiet for Graybard. “Tell me, lads,” he started, “what brought you to Rylie Glen?”
They looked at each other before Conall replied. “There was a man in Bon Abbi that passed away before the planting season. We’re going there to pay our respects.”
Graybard nodded his head, acknowledging this was a good thing to do. Josah relaxed when Caleb filled the night with stories of sailing on the Molly Red. The combination of the flames, evening shadows, and laughter made the stories exciting.
Caleb then asked Graybard to share something about himself. He started with a humble, “Well, there’s not much to tell. I came to Rylie Glen ’bout three years ago. Before that, I lived in Buberra. Have you ever been there?”
Neither of the boys ever sailed past Liez, where the Evermores lived. Buberra, part of the East Mainland, was further east of their home. Graybard spoke with fondness of his city and people. “We don’t have ruling families there, no ruling families.”
“Buberrans are an industrious lot,” he chuckled. “We’re always working on something. My father was a blacksmith. He ran the Artisan Village, where we made many gadgets and weapons. Over time, I learned how to handle every weapon we made.”
Graybard picked up a stone and tossed it into the fire. “I come from a large family with seven sisters. I’m the youngest and the only son.” He told the boys that his mother named every girl after a color, like Amber, Crimson, and Violet. “They ran out of colors by the time I was born. That’s why they named me ‘Gray.'”
Graybard couldn’t contain his laughter. He coughed a few times before he gained control. “Father was a huge man, arms made of oak. His name was ‘Nador.’ They called him ‘Nador the Anvil.’ Nobody ever challenged him, including me.”
He became quiet for a moment and said, “He passed away before I came to Rylie Glen. My mother passed away long before then. I bare her ring on my beard.”
Caleb stared at Graybard’s braided beard. Rather long, it narrowed to a point and then threaded through a small delicate ring with blue stones. The braided knot at the bottom held the ring in place. “Why didn’t you stay?” he asked.
“What for?” Graybard huffed. “My oldest sister learned the trade. My father loved to call her, ‘Lady.’ To this day, they call her ‘Lady Amber’ or ‘Lady Smith.’ Some people think she is a Noble!”
That made Graybard chuckle. “Lady is strong as a bull and a gifted blacksmith. There have been many nights where I clasped hands with her across the table. I tried to force her hand down to the table but couldn’t do it.”
“You couldn’t beat a girl?” grinned Conall.
Graybard looked at Conall before responding. “You see these two rings in my ear? You must earn them with feats of strength and courage before you can wear the rings. Lady wears the third ring for commitment for taking my father’s place.”
Lowering his voice, Graybard said, “Master Conall, I said I couldn’t do it. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t win.”
This time, there was a welcoming silence. Josah got up and said he would gather more branches for the fire. “Get comfortable if you can as morning is almost here.”
After throwing more branches into the fire, Josah sat down and leaned against a tree. To his surprise, the crackling fire was enough to help him settled down and rest his mind. His last thoughts were of Filgore Valley before he drifted to sleep.
It wasn’t long after when Josah felt someone kicking his boots. He drew his knife from the sheath tied around his chest, only to see Conall standing over him. “Graybard is not here. He’s gone!”
“What?” Josah stood up and surveyed their surroundings. The morning sun, already bright, revealed they were far in the woods. He listened but only heard the sounds of birds chirping, flittering through the trees.
“Hurry,” Josah shouted. “We have to get out of here before Graybard brings soldiers with him.”
But before he could say anything else, Josah heard someone singing in the distance. It was Graybard. He adjusted his sheath and slid the knife back into place.
The boys gazed at Graybard wearing his breastplate, carrying swords, and a large sack. “Morning lads. How well did you sleep?”
He dropped two short swords with double wrapping belts onto the ground. “There’s a sword for each of you. Not the best, but they have some weight, and the edges are sharp. I also have a short bow and arrows if you have a notion.”
Then he lowered the sack and pulled out bladders. “There are two bladders for each of us. One contains water and the other wine,” Graybard grinned. “And in case you’re wondering, I have several loaves of brown bread with bricks of Brie and Cheddar cheese. It’s in the sack.”
Caleb jumped to the sack and pulled out the loaves and cheese. “Where did you get all this?” asked Josah.
Graybard smiled, waving his hand over his find. “Let’s say that a few families in Cornor made contributions to our wellbeing.”
Caleb tore a hunk of bread, tossing some to Josah and Caleb. The crust was hard, but the inside was soft and fresh. Josah could taste the barley. It was hard to question Graybard’s choice to steal when they were in need.
“Thank you, Graybard, “Josah said with a mouth full of bread. “We may not remember who we have to pay back, so let’s make sure we help someone else when we can.”
Graybard sliced the cheese with a knife and popped it into his mouth. “This may be our last meal, so we better enjoy it.”
Josah turned and looked at the slope leading to Filgore Valley. The entrance appeared as a hole into the otherwise dense woods. Trees along the edges formed a canopy, accentuating the opening. It was if the Valley invited them to enter.
They were near the passage Josah used eight years old. He may have survived the Valley back when he was young, yet it didn’t mean he could do it again. And this time, he wasn’t alone.
“Eat up,” shouted Graybard. “No need to worry about Dragoons until we must. The guards have opened the city gates, soldiers are out, but no one is looking our way.”
Josah nodded his head as he ate. The food will allow them to walk a day’s journey to Bon Abbi. That’s if they can survive Filgore Valley. He walked over to the swords, tied the doubled wrapping belt around his waist, and slid the sword into place.
“Gather everything, and let’s get ready to go,” he instructed the Evermore brothers. “Graybard, I know you’re used to giving orders, but you must follow my directions. We only have one chance to do this right.”
Josah took the Mandolin out of the sack, tied a cord to it, and slipped the Mandolin around his neck. He tossed the bag towards Graybard. “Put the rest of the food in this smaller sack. Hide the larger one in the bushes. Caleb, help me spread out the ashes so no one can tell anyone was here.”
With everything done as he commanded, Josah inspected the area once more. There were no traces of their presence left behind. He watched as everyone secured their swords, while Caleb slipped on the quiver and the short bow. It was time to go into Filgore Valley.
“We should walk in one line,” said Graybard. “We’ll make less noise walking through the woods.”
“All right, but draw no weapons. That’s what makes the Dragoons attack.” Josah took a deep breath. “Let’s discover our fate.”
The group walked down the slope and into the dense woods. Josah led them carefully between trees, around twigs, and leaves. The more they walked, the darker it became as the cover of leaves filtered the sunlight.
They could hear in the distance the Wood Jabbers drilling trees in their quest to find bugs. Jays and Redbirds navigated between limbs, chirping their songs. Then Josah listened to a series of snapping twigs and a familiar sound. He lifted his left hand in a fist.
Graybard, who was behind Josah, continued walking until he ran into Josah. “Graybard,” whispered Josah, “This means stop!”
They listened in silence. Even the birds froze in place in anticipation. Snap. Snap. The group turned their heads toward the sound of more snapping twigs. “We have at least one Dragoon behind us, about ten meters away,” whispered Josah.
Before Josah could do anything, Graybard drew his sword and yelled, “Run!”