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Angharad escaped her ecstatic mother, who was now in full planning mode for her daughter’s wedding. She made her way to the library. Eridan was waiting for her. “Your mother is very enthusiastic,” he said. He was staring out the window and didn’t turn around.
“Both my mother and father were worried about the Right of Inheritance. Without a husband, I can’t inherit,” Angharad. “And you’ve met my brother. He would be the one who took my place.”
“I can see why they wanted me to win,” Eridan said. He turned and settled into a chair, his face in shadow. “Angharad, what I’m going to tell you is not a pretty tale. There is a reason my servants and I left our former liege lord’s lands, and it isn’t entirely because we wished to be free of the memories.”
Angharad settled into the chair beside his. “Tell me,” she said softly.
“I am the Red Bull’s youngest son, but not by his lady wife,” Eridan said, his voice barely above a whisper. “My mother was one of the many maids in the keep. I don’t know how many bastards my father sired, but I was the only one who showed my true parentage. The Red Bull decided that if I was going to appear as his son, he was going to train me to be one.”
“I take it that didn’t go well?” Angharad asked.
Eridan shook his head. “My half brothers despised me. My stepmother had my mother murdered, and then tried to kill me on more than one occasion.” He lifted his shirt and gestured to a thin scar across his right rib cage. “This is one of the few scars I have that didn’t come from battle. It was an assassin’s knife that gave me this. When I killed him, my father decided it would be better for me to join the army. So that is where I was sent.”
“How brutal,” Angharad said.
Eridan nodded. “You must understand, Angharad. I was nearly as tall as I am now at the age of twelve. I was also as thin as a post. I had no strength to speak of. I was uncoordinated, couldn’t even lift a proper sword, and when I tried to draw back a bowstring I might get it back an inch or two and then I’d lose hold of it.”
“That is the truth for any beginner,” Angharad said. “Do you think I could shoot as well as I do now when I first started?”
“I was a lord’s son – bastard or not – and there was an expectation of a level of skill I didn’t have,” Eridan said. “I was beaten regularly, forced to work harder than anyone else, and given very little while others were rewarded with things such as finer food, extra blankets, and more comforts. I grew to hate my father, for it was on his orders that this was happening to me.”
He was shaking. Angharad hesitantly slipped her hand on top of his. He grabbed hold and squeezed it, looking at her with gratitude as she drew him back out of his memory. “You said you were an officer when you first came here,” she said.
“I was, though the Red Bull would have forbidden it if he’d been aware of it,” Eridan said. “He was never very good with my name and when I was out of his sight for a while he soon lost interest in me. When that happened, the harsh treatment lessened and I was rewarded as liberally as the others. In spite of everything, I was still a highly educated young man and I could do things most of the others couldn’t, such as read and write. I picked up on strategy, reading maps, and reckoning distances and time by the location of the stars and the position of the sun and moon.”
“Those are all very useful,” Angharad said.
Eridan nodded. “As I continued to excel, my physical strength increased almost as fast as my mental acuity. I was sixteen when I was placed in control of a small group of scouts who were primarily archers. We were the advance party. We had to see who was in front of us. We did our job well only lost two out of twenty in the two years I served as their commander. At eighteen I was given command of a group of cavalry and led them into so many battles I can no longer recall how many.”
“The Mad King lives up to his name,” Angharad said.
Eridan said. “The Red Bull never disbanded his army. He never let us go home. Even when the Mad King didn’t need him, my father used us to expand his borders. We must have seized the lands of seventeen minor lords from the time I took control of the cavalry to the time my father fell at the hands of the Mad King’s executioner.”
“I thought the Red Bull died in battle,” Angharad said.
“That’s the story my stepmother and half brothers spread as fast as they could, to preserve my father’s honor,” Eridan said. “Instead of having him known as a traitor to the kingdom. But when my father died, I took the opportunity to leave. No lord was confirmed in his place, and all soldiers enslaved by my father were freed. I considered myself as a slave to him so I took one of the Writs of Freedom and left.”
“Who are the men who travel with you?” Angharad said.
“The last two members of my original scouting squad,” Eridan said. “Poor judgment and even poorer tactics wiped out the rest of them. When they saw me seize the chance, they grabbed theirs and followed me out. It took them a bit to find me, but they caught me just as I was about to fall on my sword.”
“Why would you do that?” Angharad asked.
“Look at me, Angharad. You find no disgust with my scars, but you are a rare person in this,” Eridan said. “Others aren’t so enlightened. I was driven from every town and village, usually at the point of a weapon, after being there only for a few hours. I was a monster in their eyes. I was unable to buy food, medicine for the wounds that were festering, or fodder for my horse. We were both starving and dying. I was done. I let my horse rest in a field full of tall grass and went a short distance away. Driscoll and Comgan came up at just the right time.”
“How did they stop you?” Angharad said.
“Comgan grabbed me and Driscoll took my sword from me,” Eridan said. “We’ve stayed together since.” He paused. “Angharad, I am not going to be an easy man to live with. I think I love you, though I’ve not had much of that in my life so I don’t know that I’d recognize the feeling. I’ll do my best, but I can’t guarantee I’ll always be kind to you.”
“My grandfather, who fought just as you have, didn’t always treat my grandmother and my father well,” Angharad said. “He didn’t always treat me with kindness either, and I was a small child. But he loved all of us and did all he could to make up for those days when his memories clouded his mind.”
Eridan lifted the hand he held to his lips, leaning forward. “You are an amazing woman, Angharad. Nothing like any I have ever met.”
“Here, I was encouraged to be different, and I thrived,” Angharad said.