Now that they were in agreement over the leadership of their two companies, discussions could continue. Brann proposed Tarn as his second-in-command, and Tamorine introduced as hers the man who had stood up for her so fiercely, Gamlin by name. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a rather plain but somehow engaging face, and Brann liked him for his support of his leader. Brann asked “If we cannot bring horses up here, will you be able to provide us mounts, Lord Tamor? There will be many of us in the end, I think.” Tamor replied, “We have some horses to spare, but not enough for an army. Yet I am not sure that it is wise to go mounted to such a battle. Less likelihood of being seen if you march rather than ride.” Baran agreed with him. “You may reach your goal more slowly, but it is easier to hide men than horses, if need be. And no need to be searching for grazing or fodder.” “There is wisdom in that”, Brann accepted.
It was obvious that there was more to be decided than could be dealt with in an evening, and that the men of the Forest would need to stay here for a day or two, but they had expected that. They could sleep in one of the wooden buildings, and would be snug enough with a fire and their cloaks wrapped round them. Baran, however, was invited to share Tamor’s quarters, out of respect to his Lordship. Brann wondered, idly, whether Tamorine had her own quarters, or would share another sleeping hut with her warriors. She would surely be safe among them, honouring her as they did. He wondered, too, if the supplies of the Mountain folk would stand up to the extra burden of their guests, and wished they had thought to at least bring bread with them, if nothing else. It would shame the men of the Mountain if they could not feed their guests well enough. However, next morning they were served an adequate, if not varied, meal, and one of the Lord of the Mountains’ outlying guards came in with news that could greatly ease the burden of supplying them all. “There are food-beasts on the Mountain!” he told Tamor. This was unexpected, as it was not the season, with the possibility of hill-cats with cubs to feed, that the food-beasts would usually venture on to the Mountain. Harith, one of Brann’s huntsmen, laughed, and said, “So – it seems the gods of the hunt favour our gathering!” “More likely”, Tarn muttered to Brann, “the beasts have been disturbed from their usual place by the Dark Lord’s mercenaries!”‘
It seemed that the food-beasts were scattered about the Mountainside, so they split into two hunting parties, arranging to rendezvous later at a hunting shelter midway up the Mountain. Harith and Harin went with one party of Forest and Mountain men to the lower slopes, being more used to tracking in thicker forest. Brann and Tarn accompanied a mix of their own and Tamorine’s men to the higher places, as much to see the lie of the land as for the hunt, for they would need to pass this way when they set out to battle. Tamorine, however, when Brann asked which group she would accompany, said, flatly and without explanation, “I do not hunt.” ‘So’, he said silently to himself,’ you will not kill an animal, yet are happy to do battle with men.’ But then, he thought, no animal had done her harm, while the Dark Lord’s men had killed her father, uncle, and brother. The Lord of the Mountain and Baran, Brann’s father, came out to wish them good hunting. “Take only what the herd can spare, and never the females with young” Tamor added, speaking the old hunting rule. They rode up the mountainside, Brann and his men on horses borrowed from Tamor, while some of the Swordsmen and hunters ran ahead to flush out the food-beasts. The Mountain men had shown some amusement at Tarn’s short bow and its stubby arrows, designed for use among the Forest thickets, compared to their longer, slimmer weapons. But when the food-beasts came bounding in terror from their hiding places in the forested part of the Mountain, it was his arrow that brought one down, and won their grudging admiration. One of their Swordsmen-hunters knelt and dispatched the beast, then, hunting knife in hand, prepared to disembowel their kill. Brann heard Tarn give a sudden exclamation, and saw his friend, in one quick, fluid movement, notch another arrow to his bowstring, draw and fire. For a moment it seemed he was aiming at the kneeling hunter, but then they all saw what Tarn had seen. A great brindled hill-cat, drawn by the smell of blood, was leaping from hiding at the man who knelt there. His head went up in sudden startled awareness of his peril, but even as it leapt, the beast died, as Tarn’s arrow took it in the heart. The dead beast landed heavily on the Mountain man, knocking him sprawling, and his comrades ran to help him. Brann looked at Tarn. “Your eyes were always quick! I did not see the beast.” Tarn grinned. “Perhaps they will think better of my “child’s bow” now!”
The hunter had been helped to his feet, winded but unharmed, and now he came across and stood at Tarn’s mount’s head, laying one hand on the bridle. The man’s garments were stained with blood, the food-beast’s and the hill-cat’s, but none of his own. The horse fidgeted at the blood-smell, and Tarn calmed him, and looked down at the hunter, who was staring up at him. The man was young and dark and wiry with wide grey eyes that now, looking into the face of his rescuer, held a strange resentment. Was his pride hurt? Brann wondered. The man spoke. “I owe you my life.” Tarn, embarrassed, smiled at him and said, “You owe your life to – whatever gods there be.” Tarn was inclined to take gods lightly, but would not trample on others’ beliefs. The man said again. “You saved my life. Now it is yours”, and, seeing that Tarn did not understand, explained. “You are not of the Mountains, not my Sword-Brother. You owed me no loyalty, yet you gave me my life. With us it is that if an outsider should save one of us, then that man’s life is his, to do with as he shall choose.” Now Brann understood the resentment in the man’s eyes. He waited, saying nothing, wondering what Tarn would do. His friend had his own, instinctive wisdom, and Brann trusted it. Tarn said, “You need not have told me that. I would not have known, and you could have gone your way.” “But not with honour”, the other answered. “And you are an honourable man”, Tarn said, looking into the huntsman’s face. “What is your name, friend?” “Kerrin.” “Then, Kerrin of the Mountains, since your life is mine, and I have no use for slaves, my choice is that I give it back to you. Live a free man, with honour. Only do what good you may, to yourself and to others. And”, Tarn added, with a friendly laughter in his face that broke the tension between them and made Kerrin smile back at him, “You shall swear Sword-Brotherhood with me – if you are willing – so that should I have the misfortune” – he grinned again – “once more to save your life, I shall not have to be setting you free of your obligations again.”
Brann grinned too. Another man might have welcomed the chance to make some kind of slave of Kerrin, or sought to impose some other burden on him. Tarn had given him back himself and an offer – not a demand – of friendship. The two would be bound by that more firmly than by any forced loyalty. Kerrin said, “The men of the Forest, too, know the meaning of honour. I shall be glad to swear Sword-Brotherhood with you. But I do not know my brother’s name.” “I am Tarn”, he said, dismounting. He drew his long sword, and he and Kerrin stood and swore Sword-Brotherhood on its hilt, in the midst of a circle of smiling, approving faces, Forest men and Mountain men alike. When they had sworn, Tarn reached for Kerrin’s hand, but the other man said, “This is the handclasp of our Sword-Brethren”, and took him hand to forearm, as if he tested Tarn’s grip. Tarn copied him. Kerrin explained, “In past times, it was to show that the hand was empty of weapons, when Swordsmen met, that each could be trusted. Now it has become the Swordsmen’s handclasp.” “A good tradition” Brann commented.
Their kill had been dealt with and slung over the back of one of the horses. The hill-cat they left lying, assured by the Mountain men that the carcass would soon be cleared by scavenging animals, birds, even other hill-cats. “A dam with cubs to feed is not such a particular feeder.” Kerrin said. They made their way back down to the hunting shelter to wait for the rest of the hunting party, which soon returned with its own kill. One of the Mountain men said, “A good hunting! Now we shall have fresh meat, and enough over to dry and carry with us when we set out to battle.”
The setting out to battle was the focus of discussions once more when the hunting parties had returned to the Fortress and the Lords of Mountain and Forest, with Brann and Tarn and Tamorine and Gamlin, had settled again at the long table to discuss tactics. The question of how many more than their two core groups to take was difficult. “We cannot leave our peoples defenceless.” Baran said. “There must be enough fighting men left behind to guard them.” “Enough must go to make a decent fighting force, but you are right, Baran”, Tamor commented, “we cannot leave Forest or Mountain undefended.” Brann said, “I am thinking we cannot take too large a force. Enough to fight, yes, but the more we take, the more likely we are to be seen and attacked before we reach our target. ” Tamorine agreed with him. “Not a man of ours – or yours – but would be willing to give their lives to defeat the Dark Lord and end his rule, but no sense in losing lives needlessly.” “Besides the need to provision a large force,” Gamlin added, practically. “It is not so far to the Dark City, but we cannot forage on the way.” Tarn considered this, then said, “If we took a force of fifty from each people? One hundred in all? That is a fair number, and I do not think there will be so many defenders at the Dark City. The Dark Lord’s mercenaries are all out about Li’is, harrying and robbing. I believe he is relying on fear and his reputation, and will keep a bodyguard with him, yes, but not a large one, never expecting us to strike at his heartland.”
The others thought about his suggestion, and Tamor said, “That is a large enough force, if it can penetrate the Dark City. And leaves enough behind to defend us if…” he broke off, then, not wanting to mention the possibility of failure, and turned what he had been going to say into “… if his mercenaries should come against us.” But all of them knew what he had really meant. Tamorine said, defiantly, “Better to make the attempt to free ourselves, and die trying, than to live as the Dark Lord’s slaves!” “We will need to call in some of our outliers”, Brann said, knowing that the Mountain folk, like those of the Forest, would not be concentrated all in one place, but in various camps or hiding places, so that the whole of each people could not be attacked at once. Tamor considered. “You and the heart of your force are here now.” he said. “And we can support you for a while. No point in your all going back, and we can continue to make plans.” Baran replied, “There is sense in that. If I return, and Varil with me, he can select the rest of the fighting men, since he has trained them, and knows their strengths and weaknesses. They can bring supplies with them, when they come, to help replenish your stores, and provide for the expedition.” Tamor nodded, and said, “Marvis can go with you, to guide you there and back. Since you return on foot, he can bring you by more hidden ways unsuitable for horses.” “And he is known to our people, they will trust him”, Brann added.
“We will need to cross the Great Moor, once we leave the Mountains”, said Tamorine, returning to the matter in hand, “and that is open land. Yes, it will be as well if we are on foot. Horses would be seen from a distance, and could not be easily concealed. Our cloaks will disguise us well enough against the terrain, at a distance. You have those?” she asked Brann, and he, knowing she meant the cloaks meant both for protection and camouflage, answered, “We do.” She nodded. “Good”. Gamlin said, “It might be as well if we go not as one army, but divided into groups, with gaps between. That way, if either the van or the rear should be attacked, others will be free to come to their aid.” “Maybe”, Tarn commented, “but a smaller group might be more at risk. If we take that course, I would rather we split in two.” “Then half of each force together” , Tamorine said decisively. “We shall not divide into Forest and Mountain again. Our men must learn to live and work and fight together.” Brann agreed, approving her sensible approach, though not in words, lest she should think he patronised her. He wanted her to be sure that he accepted her, now, as his fellow commander of their forces. “There is forest, though not large, on the approach to the Dark City.” Tamorine went on. “The men who lived there before the Dark Lord took it left the forest, for wood as needed, and some shelter from the winds of the Eastern Mountains. That will give us some cover.” She paused, and Brann said “It would be as well to get those at risk into shelter. If we succeed, and any of the Dark Lord’s mercenaries are left loose and masterless, they will be out for what they can get. The hill above the Harbour has caves where we could shelter the old, sick, women and children. Though the Dark Lord’s men hold the Harbour, they do not venture much into the Forest.” “And those at risk here can be brought safe into this Fortress” Gamlin said. “With guards on both places from those we leave behind.”
A smell of roasting meat was wafting through the Fortress Cave, telling them that the evening meal was under way and the day’s kill being prepared. Tamorine stood, and said, “We will continue our discussions when we know who we take, and what is their skill, whether with sword or bow. Do you mean to take your Healer, Brann? It would be as well to have a Healer with us, if any should be wounded.” “I do”, Brann said. “Though he is a Healer, Forin can protect himself if need be, and he knows how to go as quietly as a hunter”. For he remembered Tarn’s appraisal of the young Healer.
“Good” was all she said. But after she had dismissed Tarn and Gamlin, she said, “Come with me, Brann of the Forest. I have a thing to show you.” Wondering what it might be, he followed her, expecting to be taken to some part of the Fortress Cave which he had not yet seen. But she led him outside, away from the protecting stockade, across the Fortress Level, to a place where a great stone slab lay across the green turf. It was bare of names or titles, with only a family insignia carved on it, but Brann guessed what it was before she spoke. “There lie my father and uncle. They died together in battle and are buried together, brothers and Sword-Brethren.” Her voice had been quiet, but now it rose fiercely. “And I will be avenged for them, and for Tamran.” She bowed her head for a moment then, the fierceness gone as soon as it had come, as if she petitioned whatever gods were worshipped here. Brann respected her silence, but when she raised her head again he asked, “Is it certain that Tamran is dead also?” She looked at him strangely, and asked, “How can anything be certain, until it is proved? I do not know if he is dead or alive, until I see him living, or bring his bones home to lie here with them.” She indicated the grave, then went on, “But it is years since he left, on a hunting trail of his own for the Dark Lord’s men, for he had vengeance to take too. And no word for good or ill since. Surely if he lived he would have got some message back, somehow.”
Brann regarded her solemnly, then said slowly, “I have neither brother nor sister, but if I had, I would hope they would be as loyal as you.” She looked back at him, and asked, “Your mother bore no more children?” For she knew as well as he what perils there could be for young children in these times. He shook his head. “She is dead these ten years, of the Swamp Fever. And my father never could love again.” “Oh, I am sorry!” she said, impulsively sympathetic. “My own mother and my aunt are in hiding, for protection”, she added. “And your mother does not mind that you are the Heir, and a Swordsman?” “No”, she said briefly, then, as if to change the subject somewhat, “You have no close kin, then?” “I do”, he replied. “My cousins are with me here, though their father stays to keep the camp, my mother’s brother. And you?” “None that close. My aunt has no children. Only distant kin now, such as Marvis.” She looked him full in the face, her hazel-green eyes unblinking, and said, “My grandfather and I are all that are left of our family. Do you see now why I must fight for us?” “I see clearly”, he answered. “And since we are to be comrades in this battle, I would ask if you will swear Sword-Brotherhood with me.” He thought that for a moment she looked surprised, but pleasantly. Then she smiled at him, and said, “I will, gladly.” Since it was at Brann’s request, they made the vow on the hilt of his sword, and when she extended a hand to him afterwards, he took it in the Swordsmen’s handclasp that Kerrin had shown Tarn. She asked “You use the handclasp in the Forest, too?” “No”, he replied, “We learned it today. Did you not hear what happened on the hunt?” “I heard nothing of the hunt, save that it was successful”, she answered, “I have been in conference with my grandfather and Gamlin.” So he told her of Kerrin, and the hill-cat, and Tarn’s rescue of the hunter, and what happened after. Tamorine smiled, and said, “That was nobly done of Tarn, and Kerrin will be a true Sword-Brother to him. It is good, Brann, that there begin to be Sword-Brotherhoods among us, ours not least.”
It was turning to dusk now, and they began to walk back to the Fortress Cave. As they went she questioned him further. “Tarn is your Sword-Brother also?” “Sword-Brother and bond-brother, since I have no other”, Brann answered promptly. “As near to me in age as makes no difference, and we have been friends almost since birth, since his mother and mine were friends also. And when my mother died, his mother had care of me for much of the time, since my father had still to deal with the matters of his Lordship of the Forest, and Tarn and I grew up together.” “He is an only child, like you?” she asked. “No, he has a sister, a few years younger than us. Poor Marita, she was always at our heels and we tormented her sadly. She always swore she would be a Swordsman too. But she found another craft. We thought she might turn Healer, like her cousin Marama, but she has clever hands and a skill with leathercraft, and apprenticed herself to the man who makes our bridles and gear. She is content there, and now she is betrothed to his nephew.” Tamorine might, he thought, have been merely making conversation, but he felt that her interest was genuine, and she was set on finding out more about her new allies. He questioned in his turn, “And Gamlin? He is another of your distant kin?” “No”, she replied, “but like a brother to me. He was Tamran’s Sword-Brother and close friend – like you and Tarn, I imagine, though he and Tamran met first at the Sword-Training. When Tamran left us…” she sounded sad for a moment, then went on ” he charged Gamlin to have an eye to me in his place, and be a brother to me till he returned.”
A brother? Brann wondered. Or something more? But no, he had seen no sign of anything between those two beyond respect and comradeship, no tenderness. She was Gamlin’s commander and he her devoted lieutenant, that was all. They had come to the stockade now and passed without challenge, recognised by the guards, and into the Hall of the Fortress Cave. Here Tamorine turned and smiled at him. “Time to refresh ourselves, before the evening meal”, she said. “I will see you at meat – Sword-Brother.” She did not wait for a reply but turned and walked away with a light step towards the further end of the Hall.’ And a different meal it will be’ Brann thought to himself, ‘from yesterday’. For already the slight hostility roused by the Forest men’s wonder at Tamorine’s Heirship had disappeared with their – and his – acceptance of her. Somehow the sword bout he had fought with her had been taken by the Mountain men as he had meant it, as his understanding of her as a worthy ally. ‘We begin to understand each other’, he thought again, ‘and we face a common enemy. Yes, I think it will be well.’ For one fleeting moment he felt a pang of doubt, wondering if all this was folly, but remembered Tamorine’s defiant assertion that it was better to die trying to free themselves of the Dark Lord’s reign than to live as his slaves. And that was what all Li’is would become, surely, if they did not make the attempt, at least. Though the Dark Lord was well established, still there were many pockets of resistance, and if once they could take the Dark City and its Lord, the people of Li’is would rise up and rid themselves of his mercenaries and his bondage.