Flynn wended his way along the muddy path from the farrier’s shop to the stable. The wind gusted, carrying a late winter chill and a few snowflakes. Flynn braced himself momentarily against the wind, then continued forward, trying to keep as much as possible out of the deep mud in the center of the path. The edges of the path were slippery with half-melted snow, causing him to stagger into the mud more often than he liked.
Flynn cursed his awkward gait. The other boys would have not problem sticking to the edge of the path. The lameness of his right leg caused him to lose his balance on even the most stable of slopes. At least no one was around to mock him today. The grey skies and chill wind had driven many people back indoors, after having enjoyed a brief hint of spring, replete with sun and singing birds, earlier in the day. Now all way back to gray, brown, and cold.
Today was going to be a good day. He held in his hand a simple bridle that he hoped to put on Elechai this afternoon. The horse was coming along nicely, far better than Master Toddar had thought. Flynn was glad that he could prove Toddar wrong.
“The horse is ruined,” Toddar had said. “There’s no hope. No man can ride him.”
But with careful patience, Flynn had won over the trust of the horse. The previous week, Elechai had let Flynn sit astride him bareback for a few moments. Then something snapped in the horse’s mind and Elechai threw Flynn hard to the ground, only to apologetically come back and nose the youth who lay sprawled in the snow. Things seemed fine, now. Elechai still welcomed Flynn’s touch and would accept a blanket thrown over his whithers. Flynn was convinced that he would be riding the horse everywhere come spring.
Flynn stumbled again, nearly dropping the bridle into a puddle. He stopped to regroup and to look around. A woman was walking nearby, following a different path that went between the inn and the privy. Flynn recognized her.
“Ho!” he shouted. “Lady!”
The woman paused. She smiled broadly at him. “Hello,” she replied.
Flynn had met her, perhaps a week earlier, when she stopped briefly during some trip she was taking. She paid Toddar to board the horse while she rested for the night. Flynn was so taken with her, that he took it upon himself to give the woman’s horse, an old mare named Stewball, a thorough rubdown. The woman was delighted, and Flynn could do thing but blush. He knew she was easily old enough to be his mother, but something about her drew him in. This boy of 14 years had a crush.
“You return from your trip, Lady?” said Flynn, walking across the snow toward her, trying to mask the weakness in his leg and his limp. “You look well.”
The woman frowned for an instant, then brightened. “Aye. I am well. I’m heading home now. How are you?”
“I am well, Lady.”
She looked different to Flynn somehow, though he was certain this was the same woman. She seemed taller, and younger. Flynn suddenly noticed the insignia on the cloak she wore. The Mark of Herongarde was emblazoned there. The bright blue and green of the herald stood in brilliant contrast to the dismal countryside.
Flynn stopped when he finally made it to the path where she stood waiting. Words escaped him. He blushed.
“What do you have there?” asked the woman.
Flynn held up the bridle. “It is for my horse, Elechai.”
“I have saved many months to buy it. I hope Elechai will take it.”
“I’m sure he will.”
Flynn stood uncomfortably for a moment, not knowing what to say. His eyes fell again on the Herongarde herald on her cape. The farrier had said something about Mark-Bearers being in the village.
“Lady! I have heard that the King’s elite are here! Perhaps you should not wear that so boldly!”
“What, this?” The woman shook her cloak. “I’m not worried.”
“I’ve hear these men are of ill temper. Murderers, they are. That’s what Master Toddar tells me.”
“Murderers, huh? I don’t think so.”
“They could hurt you Lady.”
“Nah. I should introduce you.”
“What?” said Flynn, stunned.
The wind came up again and the woman shuddered. “Oh dear,” she said. “Best get inside, aye?”
Just then a shout came from the sables. “Boy! Flynn! Harass not that woman!” Master Toddar marched furiously out of the stables, dust rising off his dirty clothes as he strode forth. He was frightfully thin, with his hair and beard standing out from his head, like some sort of lion’s mane, though matted and dirty. His clothes seemed as old and as ragged as he was. There were patches on patches, and everything was seemed coordinated to match the colors of this winter day. “Flynn! Get you to your work.”
“Oh no,” whispered Flynn. He cringed at the thought of a whipping from Toddar.
“You must not bother our Lord’s guests!” screeched Toddar.
“I’m sorry Master,” muttered Flynn.
“Lady, I am so terribly sorry that this boy has troubled you. I will see to it that he his properly punished.” Toddar cuffed Flynn. The boy stumbled. The woman grabbed him, to prevent his fall.
“Oh it’s fine,” replied the woman. “He has done no harm.”
“He is lazy and difficult,” growled Toddar.
“What happens here?” a deep voice growled from the inn.
Flynn gaped as a man, dressed in all the brilliance of a true swordsman of Herongarde, stepped into the dismal light. He was an older man, perhaps as old as Toddar, but fit and tall. His gray hair was pulled back, exposing his face, deeply gouged by the lines of age and of battle. The man wore a cloak of similar cut as the one the woman wore. Beneath the cloak, Flynn could just see the glint of metal, the hilt of the massive sword of a Mark-bearer. Flynn cowered back.
“Is there trouble here, Hanna?” the man said.
“No, Kevin. No trouble. Just re-connecting with a friend. This young man took excellent care of Stewball when last I passed through here,” said the woman, patting Flynn on the shoulder.
Flynn flinched, gaping wide-eyed at Lord Kevin. He wondered if this was the Lord Kevin that he had heard of.
“You work in the stable then, boy?” said Kevin as he approached.
Flynn nodded weakly. Toddar snorted. “Hardly works at all. He’s lazy.”
Kevin eyed the man. “I didn’t ask you.” He returned his attention to Flynn. He stooped down to look the boy in the eye. “Have you ever hefted a sword?”
Flynn opened his mouth to speak. Toddar interjected. “He’s a cripple. The sword is not for him.”
Kevin straightened and scowled at Toddar. “Again, I did not ask you. Have you some deficiency?”
“My Lord, I—.”
“You will know when I want to hear from you,” growled Kevin. He turned to Hanna and his expression lightened. “A friend, you say?”
Hanna shrugged. “He was kind to me. He was just telling me how dangerous these men of the Mark are.”
Kevin grinned. “Dangerous, aye? Monsters we are.” He bent to speak to Flynn again. “We are not so dangerous. You have nothing to fear,” he said with a smile. He turned his eyes toward Toddar and the smile vanished. “There are few who need fear us. And some who should.” He straightened. “We of the Mark are not fond of those who would label others.” He patted Flynn on the shoulder, the smile returning to his face. “You are a friend of Lady Hanna, then are a friend of us. You should join us for a drink.”
The boy gasped.
“What?” grumbled Toddar. “This woman calls him friend and you invite this boy to drinks? What manner of ridiculous notion—.” His words trailed off. Hanna was looking at him, her right hand rubbing her lips in contemplation. Her sleeve slid down her arm, exposing the tattooed Mark upon her own forearm. Toddar gaped.
“Are you done now?” muttered Hanna.
From where he stood, he could only see part of the tattoo on Hanna’s arm, but what he saw was enough. She was a Mark-bearer as well. The one he’d heard about. The only Lady Bearer. Yet she had seemed so demure and feminine before. How was this possible?
“What is your name, boy?” said Kevin.
“I am Flynn, my Lord.”
“Well, Flynn. Please join us, aye? Just a single drink, then we must move on,” said Kevin. He eyed Hanna.
“Yeah, a drink sounds wonderful,” said Hanna. “Let’s go inside Flynn.”
“Yes. I would like that. Thank you,” said Flynn absently. He couldn’t fathom what was happening to him. Hanna put her hands on his shoulders and guided him toward the door to the Inn. Kevin remained behind for a moment, to have a private word with Master Toddar, no doubt. Flynn forced himself to breathe. What next would this day bring?