Read an Excerpt
By R. A. Salvatore
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2010 R. A. Salvatore
All rights reserved.
Every now and then he glanced at the rising sun just to ensure he was going north, though most of the time he would discover that he was not. He meandered aimlessly, not sure of where he was or who he was or, worst of all, why he was.
Bransen still wore his black silk pants, but he had taken off the distinctive shirt, replacing it with a simple shift he had found in an abandoned house. Gone, too, was his mask, the signature of the Highwayman. Soon after being chased out of Ethelbert dos Entel without his prized sword and gemstone brooch, Bransen had pulled the mask from his head and thrown it to the ground, thinking to be done with it, to be done with that persona forever. Almost immediately he angrily retrieved it. Fashioned from the one sleeve he had torn from the black silk shirt, that headband, like the rest of the outfit, had been the uniform of his Jhesta Tu mother, though he wasn't exactly certain of what that might mean anymore, given the beating Affwin Wi and Merwal Yahna had inflicted upon him.
However deep Bransen's despair, however lost he might be, he would not dishonor the memory of his mother.
He wandered throughout that first day after fleeing, finding water at a small stream. By late afternoon his stomach began to growl. He'd need a way to hunt, and so he started out, halfheartedly, to find implements — a stick he might fashion into a spear, perhaps. He got distracted rather quickly, though, as the smell of stew cooking wafted past on the breeze.
Bransen had no interest in meeting anyone, but his stomach wouldn't let him ignore the aroma that led him to lie on a knoll outside a small cluster of houses. In the center of the village burned a roaring cook fire with a large cauldron set atop it tended by a pair of old women. Bransen noted well the many inhabitants of the town milling about. Most were very old or very young; the only people near his age were women, many pregnant, probably from when the press-gangs came hunting. Like so many villages of Honce, this one radiated the unbearable pain of the protracted war.
The ridiculous, horrid reality of a world gone insane stung the young man anew, but it was, after all, just another in a long string of profound disappointments. He surveyed the area, looking for a way to sneak in, preferring to remain unseen and unnoticed. He glanced to the western sky, estimating another hour of daylight. The villagers were gathering to enjoy their meal. More and more would likely come out of those small cabins, and Bransen wondered how much of the meal would be left for him to pilfer.
He sighed and mocked his foolishness with a derisive snort, stood up, brushed himself off, and walked down into the village. Bransen was met by many curious stares. More than one person yelped in surprise more than one mother pulled her children aside. Bransen understood their fear; he and Jameston had come upon several towns that had been ravaged by rogue bands of soldiers. He held his open hands before him unthreateningly.
"Far enough!" one old man said to him, brandishing a pitchfork Bransen's way. "Ye got no business here, so turn yerself about and be gone!"
"I am hungry and tired," Bransen replied. "I hoped that I might share some of your food."
"So ye think we've enough to be handing out?" the old man asked.
"I will work for it," Bransen promised. "Repair a roof, repair a wall, or gather wood. Whatever you need, but I could surely use a meal, friend."
"Which army are ye running from?" asked an old woman whose long nose hooked so profoundly that it nearly touched her chin, which hooked upward from her lack of teeth. She looked him over. "Yer voice sounds like Yeslnik, but yer clothes're more akin to Ethelbert. So which?"
"I found these clothes, as my own were too worn," Bransen explained, not wanting his distinctive pants to link him with Affwin Wi and her murderous band. Such a misconception might prove valuable to him in these parts, but still, the thought of anyone confusing him as a member of that Hou-lei troupe disgusted Bransen.
"Yeslnik, then," pronounced the old man. His snarl and the way he then gripped the pitchfork made Bransen know that he didn't think it a good thing.
"I serve no army."
"But ye did!" said the woman.
Bransen shook his head. "No. Not Yeslnik or Laird Ethelbert. I have come from distant Vanguard."
"Never heard of it," said the old man.
"Far to the north across the Gulf of Corona where Dame Gwydre rules with great compassion and love."
"Never heard of it," the old man said again. Those around him nodded their agreement.
It occurred to Bransen then just how parochial this and most communities of Honce truly were and how worldly he had become in so short a time. He thought back to his humble beginnings in Pryd Town, in the days when he could barely stumble the distance across Chapel Pryd's muddy courtyard. Never could he have imagined the road he had journeyed! The enormity of his travels only then began to become clear to him.
"I am no part of this awful war," he said.
The old woman's eyes narrowed. "I'm not for believing ye."
"And how'd ye get that tear on yer head, then?" asked the old man.
Bransen lifted his hand to touch the wound in the middle of his forehead where Affwin Wi had ripped the magical brooch from his flesh. "I ... I ran into a low branch," he said.
"I'm still not for believing ye!" the old woman said with a hiss. "Now, ye turn about and be gone from here, or me old fellow here'll stick ye hard with four points o' pain."
"Aye," the old man said, prodding the pitchfork toward Bransen.
Bransen didn't flinch.
"Go on!" the old man insisted, thrusting the fork closer.
Unconsciously, the Highwayman reacted. As the pitchfork stabbed in, Bransen went forward and only slightly to the side, just enough so that the old man couldn't shift the weapon's angle to catch up to him. Once past the dangerous end of the pitchfork, the Highwayman moved with brutal efficiency, grabbing the shaft just below its head with his right hand, then knifing down his left hand with a swift and powerful chop. The handle shattered beneath that blow, leaving the old man with a short staff and Bransen holding the tined end of the pitchfork.
Bransen stepped back out of reach before those around him had even registered the move.
With a yelp of surprise, the old man took the stump of the staff and lifted it above his head like a club, stumble rushing at Bransen with something between terror and outrage.
Bransen dropped the broken end of the pitchfork and brought his arms up above his head in a diagonal cross just as the old man chopped down at his head. The Highwayman caught the club easily in the crook of his blocking arms and, with a sudden uncrossing, tugged the piece of wood from the old man's grasp. Bransen caught it immediately and sent it into a furious spin, twirling it in one hand, working it expertly behind his back and out the other side as he handed it off to his other hand. The old man fell back, throwing his arms up before his face and whining pitifully. No one else made a sound, transfixed by the dazzling maneuvers of this stranger.
Up over his head went the broken handle, spinning furiously. The Highwayman brought it down before him and around his right hip, then back out from behind his left hip. Bransen fell into the rhythm of his display; he used the moment of physical concentration to temporarily block out the darkness that filled his mind. Around and around went the staff, then Bransen planted one end solidly on the ground before him. One hand went atop that planted staff. The Highwayman leaped into the air, inverting into a handstand that brought his kicking feet up level with the eyes of any would-be opponents. He landed gracefully in a spin and used that to launch the staff once more into a whirlwind all about him.
Bransen's eyes weren't even open any longer, as he fell deeper into the trance of physical perfection, deeper into the martial teaching he had devoured in the Book of Jhest his father had penned. What started as a show for the villagers — a clear warning that Bransen hoped would prevent any rash actions leading to injury — had become something more profound and important to the troubled young man, a method of blocking out the ugly world.
Bransen's display went on for many heartbeats, spinning staff, leaping and twisting warrior, swift shifts and breaks in the momentum where Bransen transferred all of his energy into a sudden and brutal stab or swing.
When it finally played out, Bransen came up straight, took a deep breath, and opened his eyes — to stare into two-score incredulous faces.
"By the gods," one woman mouthed.
"Power," a young boy whispered, only because he could find no louder voice than that.
"Who are ye?" the old woman with the hooked nose asked after catching her breath.
"No one who matters, and no one who cares," Bransen answered, throwing the staff to the ground. "A hungry man begging food and willing to work for it. Nothing more."
"Begging?" a younger woman asked skeptically. She clutched a toddler tight in her arms. "Or threatening to take it if it's not given?"
Bransen looked at her closely, reading the anger on her dirty face. She might have been a pretty girl, once, an attractive young woman with blue eyes and wheat-colored hair. Perhaps once soft and inviting like a place to hide from the world, her hair now lay matted and scraggly, unkempt and uncut. The war had played hard on her; the only sparkle in her eyes was one of hatred, reflected in bloodshot lines and weary bags. There remained no soft lines there, just a sharp and hardened person who had seen and borne too much and eaten too little.
Bransen had no answers for her. He gave a helpless little shrug. With a slight bow he turned and started away.
"Now where are ye going?" the old man asked behind him.
"As far as I need to pass beyond this war."
"But ye ain't going away hungry!" the old woman declared. Bransen stopped and turned to face her. "No one's to say that we folk o' Hooplin Downs let a stranger walk away hungry! Get back here and eat yer stew, and we'll find some work for ye to pay for it."
"Might start by cutting me a new handle for me fork," the old man said, and several of the others laughed at that.
Not the young woman with the toddler, though. Obviously displeased by the turn of events, she held her young child close and glared at Bransen. He looked back at her curiously, trying to convey a sense of calm, but the glower did not relent.
Repairing the pitchfork proved no difficult task, for there were other implements about whose handles had long outlived their specialized heads. With that chore completed quickly, Bransen moved to help where he could, determined to pay back the folk equitably and more for their generosity in these dire times.
In truth, it wasn't much of a stew they shared that night, just a few rotten fish in a cauldron of water with a paltry mix of root vegetables. But to Bransen it tasted like hope itself, a quiet little reminder that many people — perhaps most — were possessed of a kind and generous nature, the one flickering candle in a dark, dark world. Reflecting on that point of light, Bransen silently chastised himself for his gloom and despair. For a moment, just a brief moment, he thought his decision to return to his wife and run away with her incredibly selfish and even petulant.
The people of Hooplin Downs didn't talk while they ate. They all sat solemnly, most staring into the distance as if seeing another, better time. Like so many in Honce, they seemed to be a haunted bunch. Their silence bespoke of great loss and sacrifice, and the manner in which each of them tried to savor every pitiful bite revealed a level of destitution that only reinforced to Bransen how generous they had been in allowing him to share their pittance.
Darkness fell and supper ended. The villagers worked together to clean up the common area about the large cook fire. As the meager and downtrodden folk of Hooplin Downs moved about the sputtering flames, Bransen felt he was witnessing the walk of the dead, shambling out of the graveyards and the battlefields toward an uncertain eternity. His heart ached as he considered the condition of the land and the folk, of the misery two selfish lairds had willingly inflicted upon so many undeserving victims. His heart ached the most when he considered how futile his flickering optimism had been. Two men could destroy the world, it seemed, much more easily than an army of well-meaning folk could save or repair it.
Bransen sat before the fire for a long while, long past when the others had wandered back to their cabins, staring into the flames as they consumed the twigs and logs. He envisioned the smoke streaming from the logs as the escape of life itself, the inexorable journey toward the realm of death. He took the dark image one step further, seeing the flame as his own hopes and dreams, diminishing to glowing embers and fading fast into the dark reality of a smoky-black night.
"I don't think I have ever seen a man sit so still and quiet for so long," said a woman, interrupting his communion with the dancing flickers. The edge in that voice, not complimentary, drew him out of his introspection even more than the words themselves. He looked up to see the young mother who had questioned him sharply when he had first entered Hooplin Downs. The toddler stood now in the shadows behind her, which seemed to relieve some of her vulnerability, as was evident in her aggressive stance.
"All the work is done," he answered.
"And so is the meal you begged, uh, worked for," she added, her words dripping in sarcasm.
His eyes narrowed. "I did what I could."
The woman snorted. "A young man, very strong and quick, who can fight well ... and here you sit, staring into the fire."
That description of his fighting ability tipped her hand.
"Your husband is off fighting in the war," Bransen said softly.
She snorted again, helplessly, angrily, pitifully, and looked to the side. "My husband got stuck to the ground by a Palmaristown spear," she said, chewing every word with outrage. "He'd likely be there still if the animals hadn't dragged him away to fill their bellies. Too many to bury, you know."
"And here you sit, because your work is done," she retorted. "Here you sit, all whole and breathing and eating the food of folk who don't have enough to give, while men and women fall to the spear and the sword and the axe."
Bransen stared at her hard. She shifted and put her hands on her hips, returning his look without blinking. He wanted to tell her about Ancient Badden, how he had fought a more just war in the northland of Vanguard, how he and Jameston had saved a village from marauding rogue soldiers. He wanted to blurt it all out, to stand and stomp his feet, to scream about the futility of it all. But he couldn't.
Her posture, her expression, the power forged by pain in her voice, denied him his indignation, even mocked his self-pity. He had his life and his wife, after all.
"What side are you on, stranger?"
"Doesn't matter." Bransen dared to stand up straight before her. "Both sides are wrong."
He saw it coming but didn't try to stop it. She slapped him across the face.
"My husband's dead," she said. "Dead! The man I love is gone."
Bransen didn't say that he was sorry, but his expression surely conveyed that sentiment. Not that it mattered.
"They are both wrong?" The woman gave a little helpless laugh. "You're saying there's no reason we eat mud and go to cold beds? That's your answer? That's the answer of the brave warrior who can dodge a pitchfork and snap its head from its handle with ease?"
Bransen softened. "Do you wish that I had fought and saved your husband?" He was trying to send a note of appeasement and understanding, but the question sounded ridiculous even to his own ears. His face stung when she slapped him again.
"I wish you had got stuck to the ground and not him!" She spun away from him, and only then did Bransen realize all the village folk had gathered again to hear the exchange. They looked on with horror, a few with embarrassment, perhaps, but Bransen noted that many heads were nodding in agreement with the woman.
"It's all a matter of chance!" The woman stomped back and forth before the onlookers. "That's what it is, yes? A hundred men go out, and twenty die! A thousand men go out, and more die." She turned on him sharply. "But the more that go, the more that come home, don't they? A thousand targets to spread the bite of Yeslnik's spears mean that each has more of a chance to miss that bite. So why weren't you there?" She launched herself at him. "Why are you here instead of showing yourself as a target to the archers and the spearmen?"
This time Bransen didn't let her strike him because he knew the situation could escalate quickly and dangerously for everyone. He caught her wrists, left and right as she punched, pinning them back to her sides. She began to wail openly, keening against the injustice of it all. He instinctively tried to pull her closer to comfort her, but she tore away, spinning about so forcefully and quickly that she lost her balance and tumbled to the dirt, where she half sat, half lay on one elbow, her other forearm slapped across her eyes.
Excerpted from The Bear by R. A. Salvatore. Copyright © 2010 R. A. Salvatore. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.