A/N: Last chapter, Golzar, Gerhard and Bryn had received news of a fellow hero company allegedly raiding a nearby village. On the way to investigate, they came across travelling minstrels. In this chapter, they enter said village and talk to the inhabitants.
Gerhard didn’t know what the smaller things meant anymore, when they had been so bright and clear before. He was in a strange place, swimming between knowing and not knowing. Golzar’s back was becoming increasingly tense, as she rode in front of him. Whether it was out of rage, out of frustration, out of determination or out of fear, he couldn’t tell. His mind vacillated between the options like a tadpole through a pool.
It wasn’t that Gerhard wasn’t aware of the raids. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to put a stop to it. But these things were complicated. Heroes shouldn’t fight one another, he thought. They were on the same side, and there was no time in battle to –
No. No, because the war was over. He gritted his teeth. But even with the fighting done, and maybe even especially without the threat of death looming over their heads, in-fighting among them, among their – kind – meant trouble from the nobles.
If they didn’t stick together, they’d make easy prey for landowners who had the Queen’s ear, or for more senior chevaliers threatened by their presence. Gerhard and Golzar had been at the front of the line when they heard the minstrels coming. He’d caught the tail end of their lyrics, and he knew Golzar must’ve as well.
“Hey . . . “ Tanya started, riding up behind him. “Did I just hear them singing ‘tyrants of the south-east or something’?”
“No, you didn’t, now ride back to your position.”
“But Golzar said I was centre. This – is – centre.” Gerhard took in a deep breath hearing the grin in her voice.
Worry gnawed at his chest. He glanced back and forth between the road and at Golzar. The minstrels had sung:
“Lawless, gutless, crude the beast
Call them not heroes
These are tyrants of the southeast.”
When the two of them had caught up with one another, Gerhard turned to her, giving his solemnest look. “Golzar, this won’t be good.”
Her gaze fixed like an arrow to the front of her, she replied in an even tone. “I know.”
They arrived in the village in the afternoon. It was quiet. Like a flat stone near a river bank, yet to be turned over. Gerhard’s gaze swept over the parameter of fences, the squat rows of stone-and-wood houses that clustered together nearing the village square.
Something fell on the top of his head. Gerhard looked up to see rain falling, even from the still-light grey clouds.
As they rode on, the villagers began to appear. A small group of farmers donning wide-brimmed hats hurried from one end of the path to the other. Behind them, a donkey trotted, carrying packs. Someone shouted from behind one of the buildings, and the last of the first group split off, racing back towards the voice.
When he saw Golzar dismounting, Gerhard did as well. He untied his walking stick from the horse’s side. He walked as quickly as he dared to catch up to Golzar, who was already marching towards the group of farmers.
“Sir!” she caught the oldest-looking’s attention. “What happened?”
The man frowned under his long white beard, jaw clenching. “Someone broke into the storage houses and stole all our grain. But you should see to my brother, his lot got the worst of it. He’s the steward’s servant, I doubt you’ll miss him.”
Golzar thanked him and motioned for Gerhard to follow her. Yes. She must have read his mind. Better to handle the situation themselves than to let the whole company get involved in a conflict with the Lions. Behind him, the other Miscreants began to mutter amongst themselves.
On either side of the path, there were pieces of wood and rock strewn about. Someone’s fences had been knocked over, leaving their hut vulnerable to attack from wild animals at night.
Golzar spoke to him in quiet tones. “How bad do you reckon it is?”
“It’s nothing like the war times, sure, but you never know.” Gerhard shook his head. “Could be run-ins with the horses. You know how much Thornston loves his cavalry.”
“I don’t get it,” she said sharply. “How they can run around terrorising their own people like that.”
Her eyes looked molten as she seethed.
They were arriving at the village square. Most village squares, they were large undecorated spaces, with stretches of tightly-packed dirt and a bit of grass, and this one was no exception. The smell of the earth rose in the air as they crossed from the dustier, less used dirt paths to the more well-trodden areas.
Across the square, the village’s only inn sat like a squatting scarecrow, the wooden pillars that framed the door were crooked elbows pointing upwards into the grey air. A small stone stair led up to the door, and on it was an old man, sitting with his knees bent at sharp angles and his head buried in his hands.
“What . . . what do they expect me to do? We won’t be able to pay the taxes, or afford food or medicine, oh Goddess . . . “
A child beside him patted him on the back. It must have been his son. The boy perked up when he saw Golzar and Gerhard. He nudged the woman standing next to him. Gerhard watched silently as she looked Golzar up and down, and began to approach her.
The woman was a theatre worker, still in costume.
The rings on either of her ears swayed slightly as she walked. Golzar could hear the small wooden beads attached by string clatter against each other.
She grabbed Golzar by the arm. "You must come with us," she said.
The theatre worker and her small group of friends surrounded Golzar, cutting her off from Gerhard. Golzar looked back, straining her neck, only to see that Gerhard was shaking his head rapidly. He gestured, pointing, for her to get out of there.
"Please," the theatre worker said. "We need your help."
Golzar was torn for a moment. What could farmers and theatre workers do against her, when she still had her sword and her knife tied to her belt? Surely, they wouldn't dare to approach her unless they were in earnest, especially after what happened with the last set of heroes this village had encountered . . .
Golzar patted the woman on the wrist. "I'll go with you."
A smile crossed her features.
Golzar only managed to glimpse Gerhard turning back, returning to the rest of the Miscreants, as she was hurriedly ushered away.
The path they took her on was a steep uphill one. Short green grasses banked on either side. Above, the clouds moved across the sky with deceptive idleness.
She glanced between the other members of the group. A few of them wore loose tunics with ragged hems, the sweat caking their backs from hard labour in the fields. Those in the front were dressed more colourfully, especially the theatre woman who had spoken to her, whose linen dress was dyed yellow ochre.
“My name is Miriam,” she said. She had a powder-light complexion, and her eyes were like emeralds. Miriam brought Golzar to a small cluster of wagons, between which people hurried back and forth, sometimes criss-crossing each other, carrying baskets of cloth on their head, or herding young children in costume, or carrying heavy boards they must have used to repair the stage.
Once they were securely cordoned by the theatre’s folk, Miriam snapped her fingers, and the other theatre workers took their leave. Only a few farmers followed. She took Golzar by the wrist, leading her towards a seat in the audience.
“You seem very frustrated, Miriam.” Golzar said, tone low as they both sat down. Diplomatic, she had to be diplomatic. “I gather you’ve had incidents like this before.”
Miriam sat in silence for a moment. “We have. Many times.”
Golzar nodded, grimacing. She found her gaze averting, trying to get away from the intensity and accusation in Miriam’s words. The stage was shallow: just a spread of planks on an indent in the dirt. But it was a well-worn indent, as it was in every Woodlandian village where theatre companies travelled. One-by-one the characters began to appear. The woman playing the Masked Goddess stood alone in the centre of the stage, the metal on her mask glinting so no one could see her face.
“Dame Golzar – please – I know you could help us if – “one of the farmers started but the other one covered his mouth with a hand.
Miriam eyeballed the both of them. Some kind of signal, Golzar figured. Then she turned back to Golzar.
“When you’re inaugurated, we could help provide entertainment,” she said, her tone now equally low. “A ritual-of-protection play, a family play, a divine-right play . . . Even the bare essentials would make a good impression on the lords, the ladies, the clerics . . . and of course, her Grace . . . “
Golzar’s lip twitched at the thought of Queen Lucretia being impressed by a play. She could barely remember seeing their newly-crowned monarch smile.
As Miriam went on, Golzar got the sense she was building up to something.
“. . . consider putting in a word for us?”
Golzar smiled. “I don’t know about that, Miriam. I – “
“There’s nobody on our side there, you know? Everyone on our side, they’re in the Heroes Guild, like you.”
Golzar turned away again. If anything, she hoped it would hide her doubt, her hesitance, that grey flash of fear. Miriam was a serf. So long as you weren’t the owner of a business, ship or plot of land, that was what you were. Golzar briefly looked to where they had come from, imagining how the other Miscreants must have been waiting for her to come back, their tanned, hard-laboured faces bronze in the cold cloudy light.
“Please,” Miriam continued. She glanced to the side, suddenly demure. “There must be something you could do. Besides, I-I’m sure you understand the raids are detrimental to this kingdom and country.”
Before Golzar could reply, there was a commotion from behind them. She turned around, eyes scanning the periphery.
The walking stick tapped fast against the ground. “Walk more quickly, or you’ll be recognised—”
“How’s walking quickly going to make us less suspicious? I still think this is a bad idea.”
A tut of the tongue. “You weren’t doing anything!”
Bryn rolled their eyes, then cursed softly when they rolled them too far. “Was I supposed to?” They shut their eyes, trying to blink out the sting.
When Golzar wanted to do something, then she did it. That’s how it had always been, and no amount of Gerhard’s nagging or Gerhard’s cajoling or Gerhard’s honestly sound advice could change that.
“I just don’t understand why you’re avoiding her.” His voice softened, and grey eyes turned, fixing Bryn with this gentle, obnoxiously concerned look that made them want to reach out, grab and yank Gerhard’s cloak over his face and push him away. Without his armour, Gerhard didn’t know how to dress himself, and this white cloak made him look somewhere between an apparition and a person just getting out of bed. Gerhard continued. “You can’t keep doing that forever, you know?”
“’M not avoiding her,” Bryn ground out. They grit their teeth. It was getting chilly, and they’d only worn their tunic.
Then Gerhard was slipping the wooden pin out and unwinding his cloak, leaning over slightly to wrap it around Bryn’s shoulders.
When the two reached Golzar, she had already been watching their approach for a long time. Sharp, heron-like black orbs fixed on to them, like she wanted to cuff each of them over the head for interfering.
Bryn hardened their gaze. No more avoiding things. Onstage, there was a clap and a roar as the Mask-faced Goddess sent her two clay-born men out to battle with wooden swords.
“C’mon, Golz’. We hafta go.”
Gerhard sidled up on the other side of Golzar and the colourfully-dressed person she was with. He laid a hand on Golzar’s shoulder. Golzar turned and glared at him, the back of her head facing Bryn.
Gerhard’s voice came out steady. “Golzar, the men – I mean, the troops are expecting you.”
A breeze came and went. With her fingers, Golzar combed to one side the mess the wind had made of her bangs. It made her seem sterner as she stood up, leaving the other woman to stand chest-to-chest with Gerhard. She spoke in a harsh whisper.
“You know I can’t let this slide by.”
Gerhard grimaced. Golzar continued to lock eyes with him, feet rooted stubbornly to the ground. “Give us a few moments,” she commanded, and part of Bryn thought instantly – who was she to be giving orders?
But Gerhard nodded tersely, and Golzar soon returned to the theatre woman.
Right, Golzar and not Gerhard was their leader now. And Bryn had agreed to that -enthusiastically, even. They let out the breath they’d been holding.
They just couldn’t understand why she had to be so angry.