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The Ancient Bridge

The Ancient Bridge
by Michael Ray

In late spring, a visitor came to South Point and started asking questions about an old soldier from the war. He wore a black cloak over a mail shirt and a pair of crimson leggings. His horse’s tack was fine looking, particularly for him to be this far south. When he came into the tavern people seemed hesitant to say much of anything to him. I could see his eyes narrowing and his jaw muscle working as he began to grind his teeth at the cold shoulder he was getting.

My father pulled me into the kitchen. He looked more worried than usual and he whispered to me, “Owen, you slip off and get on down to Aemon’s as quick as you can. Tell him that an Old Crown Guard is in town. An Old Crown Guard! Tell Aemon that he’s asking about him. Tell him that he might want to slip off for a while himself. Hurry up now boy.”

“Yes sir.” My dad had given me plenty of errands to run and chores to do, but this time he seemed different. I went out the back way and hurried to the edge of the village. At the stables I borrowed a palfrey from Jonah and headed south.

One of the first things I remember is when Aemon came into our tavern and bought that land down on the bayou, south of town. He gave five iron-banded chests to the town and left them in the Council Hall. He built a forge and a house on a high spot down near the water and worked scrap metal from the ruins into tools, plows, and, when the right people asked, into swords. He said his name was Aemon. That’s what the locals had called him, “Aemon the Smith,” and they’d laugh.

Some of the most exciting days were when strangers would show up looking for Aemon. Most of these men wore exotic clothes, spoke in quiet voices, and had eyes like Aemon’s – sharp, watching everything at once, but very tired. My favorite visitor was a short, stout fellow with a forked beard and two big axes. He bought a keg for everybody at the tavern and taught the men new drinking songs from the far North.

Aemon rode into town that evening on his destrier and stopped outside the tavern door. He called out in a thunderous voice, “Is Erkin Ironheart in there?” The little man leapt to his feet, knocking over his table and sending tankards flying. Our new friend began to laugh and swear at the top of his lungs, and then he burst out of the door into the square. Aemon leaned low down out of his saddle and swung Erkin up onto the croup of the horse, very smoothly, as if they’d done it a million times. “Let’s get out to my place, before you start telling stories.”

The little man passed back through town a couple of days later. He bought another keg, made a generous donation to the town treasury, and then headed north towards the Ancient Bridge and the Tarstone Road that connected us to the rest of the world.

When I got to Aemon’s place it was well past midday. A thin stream of smoke trailed off from his house’s chimney, like that from a dying cook’s fire. His three horses stopped in the pasture and watched me approach. I called his name several times as I trotted up the lane to the house. There was no answer. I tied the palfrey to the porch rail and eased up to the door, which was barely open.

“Aemon?” I figured, hoped I guess, that he must be in the woods, or across the bayou gathering scrap metal. Anyway, I had to check inside. I pushed the door open. “Aemon?” The smell of pipeweed filled the air. The place was small for a farmhouse, but I guess it was fine for a man alone. The door swung into a dimly lit den. The walls were covered with strange and familiar weapons. On a low table were a foreign blue bottle and a lady’s golden necklace. On a bed beside the table was Aemon, dead to the world.

“Aemon, Aemon,” I said, and I shook his bare foot. He stirred slightly and tried to wave me away.

“Tell your master I’ll stay another day. I’ve got the coin,” he muttered and rolled over.

“Aemon, father says to tell you that an Old Crown Guard is here, asking about you.”

He rolled to his feet, kicking the table and tipping the blue bottle. He caught the bottle and looked around the room with a purpose. Seeing only me, he slumped down onto the edge of the bed. He set the bottle down, held his face with both hands and moaned quietly.

After a long moment I recovered from the shock of his sudden movement and unlikely collapse. I had seen many men in their cups and taking the pipe at my father’s tavern, but never Aemon. “My father says to tell you that there is an Old Crown Guard in the village.”

“A Redleg? Here?” Aemon squinted at me and thought for what seemed like too much time. “I’m in no shape. He’d have killed me,” Aemon said. “You’ve saved my life, Owen.” He tried to stand, but fell back on to the bed. “Did you ride here?”

“Yes sir, I did.”

“Go take the saddle off your horse & put him in the pasture. Throw the saddle out back.” He picked up the woman’s necklace, considered it, and tucked it into a belt pouch. “Hurry up now,” he whispered to stir me from staring at him. Then he smiled.

When I returned he was standing unsteadily, but was mostly dressed. He pointed to wineskins hanging from a pillar, “Get one of those, but not the wine for Robert’s sake. Get the water.” Then he pointed to the back wall, “Get us a small crossbow & quarrels.” He used the furniture to support himself and moved towards the front door. He grabbed an enormous sword from the wall there and looped the scabbard belt over his shoulder. I could see a knife on his belt and one in his boot. He probably had more. “Light a taper on the table and open the shutters.” He smiled again as I did these things.

“You’ve truly saved me Owen. Now, help an old man into the woods.” I walked beside him and gave him my shoulder as we circled behind the house and went down near the water’s edge. Huge cypress trees shaded us as we skirted the bayou for about a good hundred paces and then moved up onto dryer ground under the low eaves of a stand of twisted evergreens. He directed me to a berm that we could lie behind, but still be able to see the house. Aemon seemed plenty confident, and I took comfort in that, but he sure looked bad off.

“Owen, I’m gonna need to sleep a little. You don’t let me snore. If the fellow comes this way, give me a good shake and light out. Don’t get caught here with me.” With that he cocked the crossbow and then rolled over and dropped off to sleep.

Not everyone was always happy about Aemon being in our village. I once overheard my grandfather, who was in his cups, arguing with my father about Aemon. “He was a traitor. He should have been hanged with the others!”

“That was a long time ago. You know the treasure and trade he’s brought to South Point,” my father answered.

“I know it, but that stupid rebellion was almost the end of us all.”

“You know that nearly everyone here felt just like him and his men. These are Frontier people here. You know that. Let it go.” That was the end of it that night, but I’d heard similar talk since I was little.

In about an hour the Old Crown Guard rode into view and turned up Aemon’s lane. He dismounted and approached the house on foot. He circled it cautiously, listening and moving slowly. The gathering dusk may have covered our tracks, or maybe he decided not to follow a man into his own woods. Either way, the Guard didn’t look our way and entered Aemon’s house just as the sun sank behind the tall pines in the west. I laid there in the gathering dark for what seemed like forever, trying not to breathe too loudly.

About three hours after dark Aemon finally awakened. I realized this when he touched my shoulder and covered my mouth before I was aware he’d moved. “Circle around behind the pasture and head back to the village,” he whispered, “I’ll settle up on the palfrey later. If you don’t hear from me in a couple of days, send the Council Sheriff to check on me.”

I started to say something. I’m not even really sure what. He stopped me with a look, “Owen, you’ve saved me and I owe you. One day you’ll need my help. You’ll just send for me and I’ll come. Now you get out of here for Rob’s sake. And be quiet about it.” He smiled as I rose to leave.

I started to do what he said. I got into the woods behind the pasture and stopped in the deep shadow of a huge white oak that rose above the pines. I watched Aemon ease out of the depression and glide across the open field towards the house. He stopped once in a crouch and looked straight at the oak where I’d hidden, and then moved on. When he reached the house he eased around to the open front door and walked inside. I couldn’t hear anything over the chorus of cicadas and tree frogs. I argued with myself for a few seconds and then decided that I had to know. I sprinted across the middle distance. Then I did my best to cross the yard quietly and crouched beneath the open window of the cabin’s front room.

I heard the dry, irritated voice of the Old Crown Guard, “…that there are dozens of people in the capital who will gladly pay a handsome sum to see you swing at the end of an executioner’s rope.”

“They shouldn’t have sent a pillager and thug like you, Redleg, if they wanted me to come along peacefully. They will continue to be disappointed.”

“You are too old and slow to scare me or anyone else any more. You’re just an old Greenback traitor. You’ll pay me the ransom, or you’ll submit and come along, or I’ll just collect the reward for you body.”

“You have this one chance to walk out of here alive Redleg, and never come back across that Ancient Bridge again.”

The sounds of a table flipping over and a bottle shattering were followed by the unmistakable clash of steel. Without thinking I sprang up and stared across the windowsill. The man in black swung a short thick blade with his whole arm from the shoulder, like a butcher. Aemon kept blocking with his long blade above and across himself, holding the sword in both hands. Aemon circled away from the blows, but closer to the Guard, kicking furniture out of the way as he moved. With surprising ease Aemon moved his sword into his left hand alone, dropped to a knee, and blocked the Guard’s last arcing swing. Aemon drew the knife from his boot and raked it across the Redleg’s inner thigh, just below his chain shirt. Before the Guard realized what had happened, Aemon was on his feet and circling. When the Guard’s hands dropped toward the injury Aemon brought his sword down across the Guard’s blade hand and then punched and slashed the attacker behind his mailed ear with his knife hand. The man went down and so did I. I sprinted down Aemon’s lane and back north towards home.

I got back to the tavern awful late. I came in through the kitchen in the back, hoping to avoid my mother and avoid scolding or, even worse, questioning. She was in there, of course. “There you are boy. I saved you a supper.” She pulled a trencher from an oven, full of venison stew and topped with a chunk of black bread. “Your father said you were off on some errand. I told him that you were probably out after a girl, like Jonah’s daughter.” She pinched me and mothered her way out into the common room. Then my father stuck his head in the door, made worried eye contact and raised an eyebrow. I bobbed my head and raised both eyebrows, while working on a mouthful. He relaxed a little and said, “We’ll see then.” He gave me a quick smile and went back into the busy common room. It was all very strange, different from usual.

In the afternoon the next day I was putting fresh rushes in the few small rooms upstairs when father called me down. Aemon and he were seated by the massive hearth, where a fire smoldered, having a draught. The smell of rain came in through the always-open outer door. “There he is,” Aemon said and raised his mug. My father stood and actually motioned to me with his mug to come and sit down at their table. He put his hand on Aemon’s shoulder, whispered something in his ear, and then pretended there was something to do in the kitchen.

“Owen, I want to thank you again. It took a lot of heart to come down and roust me just ahead of that Redleg yesterday. You saved my life and I’ll do the same when you ask it of me.

“I thought I should tell you what that was all about,” he said and took a long pull from his draught. “You know that a few years ago, when you were little, there was a war between the King’s men and the people here on the Frontier.”

“Yes, sir. Grandfather calls it, That Stupid Rebellion.” Aemon laughed at that and took another swallow from his draught.

“Well, we used to call it The Councils’ Revolution, but things didn’t work out quite like the Frontier Councils had hoped, so your grandfather’s name for it is as good as any.

“The reason that man was here yesterday is because I was in that fight. My name then was Tobin Thalion.”

My head swam. I may have fainted. I hope not. Tobin Thalion was a legend, a myth even. He was a folk hero of the Frontier people and songs were sung about him, especially when a royal magistrate or tax collector found his way to South Point. He’d killed hundreds of crown troops with his greatsword and led the Councils’ Army to victories all along the frontier. Only treachery, and some say sorcery, let the royalists kill off most of the leaders of the rebellion and win the war.

“You still with me Owen?”

“Yes sir,” I said, and tried to gather myself and concentrate.

“Now most of that stuff you’ve heard is bull,” he smiled. “My men and I just did get away without being poisoned or ambushed at the Treaty Conference. We fought and rode together for a while longer and then traveled into the Borderlands. After a while we split up and I came here to the end of the earth to live out my days in peace.

“Erkin was and is my best friend, and he went back to live with his people in the far Northwest. But most of the people we loved died in that War.” His voice trailed and his hand brushed his belt pouch and I looked away.

“That man yesterday, he was one of those that just can’t let things go. I’m sorry that you got into it, but I sure am lucky you did.

“If you’d like, your father said that I could thank you by giving you some training. I can still wave a sword around a little. I could use the work myself. You’re a smart guy and I could use a little help around the forge now and again. Your father is likely to be elected Council Sheriff and he’ll need some help too. Now, I still owe you my life and I’ll repay that debt when the time comes, but in the meantime?”

That’s how I came to be Tobin Thalion’s student.

At first I traveled down to Tobin’s a couple of days a week. He taught me how to protect myself with my hands and feet. I began to spend more and more time working with him. I learned how to concentrate, to block out distractions, to prepare myself for tough situations. I learned how and when to fight and how to expect what the other man might do.

As the weeks and months passed I picked up a little more of Tobin Thalion’s story. He’d had a real hard life when he was a boy and he told me, “When a young man has no place to go, he either becomes a soldier or an outlaw. I became a soldier.” He smiled and added, “Later on they made me an outlaw.” We didn’t talk much about The Councils’ Revolution. We did talk about responsibility and the power of the Capital and about people’s rights. I mostly understood what he meant. Living on the far edge of the frontier, we almost never had any bother from the capital anyway.

I did enjoy learning what Tobin had gained from his different teachers. I learned the forms, he’d called them, with all kinds of weapons. We fought with sticks and knives and bows and swords. We swam in the swamp and rode his horses. I learned to work the scrap metal in the forge and even made my own sword. Sometimes I wasn’t so sure about all that work. I went home tired, sore, and bruised nearly every day. Sometimes I wouldn’t go and train for a while, and I’d think about never going back. But I knew I could learn more from him about how to protect my home and our folks than just about any place else in the world. After a few days, I’d go back to training.

I gave Tobin all I could when it came to fighting and as I got better I’d get to him now and again, but I think he was letting me. He drank and smoked less and less. He stopped wearing that belt pouch all the time. When he decided to, he fought like rushing water, like a flood you just couldn’t stop, and I just tried to get out of the way. Even a boy like me could see how he’d become what he had, in the times before.

At first I worried that my folks would need me at the tavern, but my father put my younger brothers to work and they took care of things. My father even said he was very proud of me. As Tobin said, father did become Council Sheriff. I helped him keep the peace, hunt coyotes, and talk to any strangers who came to trade. He even showed me the treasury, locked beneath the Council House, where the town’s gold was kept. “We’re saving up for the next Revolution,” my father would say and then smile and wink at me.

Of course my grandfather wasn’t too happy. Before he died, he told me, “Boy, I was never sure about you taking up with that old traitor. But you’ve grown up big and strong, and I thank him for that. Just you know that with that kind of life there comes a price. I hope you’ll be ready when the time comes.”

And then it happened. Early this morning, when the sky had just turned deep blue, I awoke to shouts from the common room. ”Owen! Owen! The Council Hall is on fire. Your father’s been hurt.” I leapt down the stairs in my nightshirt and raced out into dark. On the other side of the square the sky was blotted out by the bright orange glow of the Council Hall consumed in flames. People began to gather and stare in disbelief.

I whispered to myself, “Mind like a dagger, to the heart of the matter, answer the question,” and then I began to shout orders. “Jack, you and Simon gather pails and buckets.” I moved through the crowd, “William and John, meet them at the well and start filling the trough. Let’s wet down the other buildings and then let’s fight this fire.” This snapped people out of staring at the flames. Men and women began moving to put out the fire and prevent more damage.

I saw a group huddled over a man on the ground and by the pitiful way they looked at me I knew it was father. In the growing light I could see a dark pool beneath his head and a spreading stain across his belly. “Son, Redlegs, at least eight of them, with a wagon,” he said in a hoarse whisper. He grabbed my wrist as I knelt over him, “Owen, they’ve stolen the treasury. You must get it back.”

“Don’t worry about that now father.” I sent someone for the healer as my mind worked on a hundred things at once.

“I’ll be fine boy. Get it back.” He closed his eyes.

I grabbed a young boy, Jonah’s son, a good kid, and told him, “Get a horse. Ride to Tobin’s, I mean Aemon’s, on the bayou. Tell him that Owen needs him. Redlegs have stolen the treasury. Tell him, and hurry!” The boy stared at me goggle-eyed. “Now!” I shouted with as much authority as I could muster. He disappeared.

The sun breached the horizon and the fire began to die down. The buildings nearby were scorched some, but the water buckets kept things under control. I spoke to the healer. She said my father would be okay. I gave her a look, and then she said, “He might make it Owen. It’s bad, but it’s too soon to say.” I nodded and tried to put those thoughts away. I went back to the tavern. I gathered my sword and slipped on my mail shirt and a helm. At the stables I saddled the bay stallion, the one that we’d bought from a northern trader, and I rode out into the dawn.

I could see him approaching from the south. He rode his grey destrier and they moved as one. I could see the greatsword rising over his shoulder and the axe on his belt. The other weapons didn’t show. The armor was something I had not seen. It was a dark red armor that looked like scale, but moved with him like leather. It looked very nearly alive. I intended to ask him about it later. He and his horse wore the dark greens of the Frontier Guards.

“What’s the situation?” he asked when he’d joined me.

“Eight men or more. Just before dawn. Took the treasury in a wagon. They were Redlegs. Headed for the Ancient Bridge.”

“Who was hurt?”

“Father is in bad shape.”

He nodded and his face became even harder somehow. “With a wagonload of gold they can’t be moving too fast. We can catch them.”

“I wasn’t certain who else we’d ask to help.”

“I expect anyone else would just get themselves killed. We’ll have to be enough. Let’s move.”

We galloped north along the Bridge Road towards the Ancient Bridge, several leagues away. The bridge and its pilings were made of ancient shaped stone and the road over it was made from tarstone that had faded grey. It stood several paces above the slow moving Ten Saw River. The brown water sluiced through the delta around South Point, widened into the bayou and, farther south, emptied into the sea. I’d never actually seen the sea, but we all knew it was there.

Every few minutes we’d halt our gallop and listen for men moving ahead. The first few times we heard nothing. We passed through open fields and groves of pecan trees. The dew began to burn off the ground, the horses lathered, and I sweated beneath my mail. Finally, we heard the rumble of a wagon ahead. Tobin eased into a walk as we approached the Mill Junction, where the road split and a well-worn dirt trail led off to the mill and its run. The mill was built on the riverbank, where the water flowed a little faster over some exposed rocks, a few hundred paces southeast of the Ancient Bridge.

“Do you think they expected to be followed?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Will they want a running fight or a pitched battle?”

“They probably don’t want either if they expect a village full of angry farmers after them, or you.”

“So what’s the best way to break up the pursuit?”

I thought for a few moments. “An ambush to blunt the pursuit and then get away across the bridge?”

“That’s what I’m thinking too. There’s a dense stand of trees left standing about a hundred paces this side of the bridge.”

“The Forest Wall is what my father calls it.” I thought about the spreading stain across his shirt.

“I’d set an ambush for us there.”

“We could avoid that by taking the Mill Path and coming up along the river bank,” I suggested.

“That’s what I was thinking too.”

“Can we make it in time?”

“We’ll do what we can.”

Tobin turned onto the Mill Path and spurred the grey. We rode like madmen. We raced through the Forest Wall of evergreens and out into the mill clearing. Geese scattered and protested as we turned northwest and pushed even harder. In the late morning we saw the Ancient Bridge, stretching off towards the northern horizon. A wagon emerged from the Forest Wall and crossed our view towards the bridge, followed by a single rider.

When we reached the bridgehead they were well out onto the tarstone. The rider looked back, saw us, and halted. Turning, he raised a horn to his lips and blew two long, low blasts that rolled across the water and over us. He wheeled and continued on. I gave Tobin what must have been a worried look.

“They’ll be here soon enough,” he said and glanced south down the dusty Bridge Road. “I’ll stay here,” he decided and surveyed the spot where the ground rose to meet the bridge.

“There will be too many, at least a half dozen of them,” I tried to reason.

“Owen, you’ve been training to kill, but you know actually killing a man is completely different. When the time comes, do not hesitate.”

“I understand, I guess, but you can’t stay here alone.” I sounded like a boy, even to myself. Hoof beats and dust were rising in the south.

“Today, I repay my debt to you. Go on, now,” he smiled, “I’ll be fine.” With that he slid from his saddle, drew his great sword and began to chant softly to himself as he went through the forms.

I turned my horse and rode out onto the tarstone road. I could hear the rumble of the wagon and horseshoes striking the stone out ahead of me. I charged forward and began to cross the span over the brown, lazy water. Behind me I could hear the approach of the riders, shouts of disbelief, and curses. I was gaining on the wagon and rider. I think I heard Tobin shout his name. Then there was the clash of steel and the raging of the destrier. I heard cries of pain and the sounds of frightened horses and injured men. Tobin once told me that only in legends does one man fight several without getting hurt or killed. I sure hoped something approaching legendary was happening back there now.

Two mules drew the wagon. They were making good time, but they wouldn’t be able to outrun me to the far side. Once the rider had done the same sums, he turned about and waited for me. I glanced back at the bridgehead, half expecting to see Tobin coming towards me. No one was coming. A couple of horse shapes moved aimlessly along the bank.

When we’d started out it had seemed so very simple. We would catch the men and then return with the gold. The second step I hadn’t really thought through was waiting up ahead on the Ancient Bridge, sword in hand. As I advanced I tried to ‘move without thinking’, as I’d been taught, but in truth I had enough trouble simply remembering to breathe.

At about a hundred paces I slowed down and called out, trying to sound like a sheriff, “Leave the wagon and the treasury and you will not be hanged.”

“You’re brave, for a boy,” he answered. “Go home to your father. I’m sure he’ll need your help in the fields or some such.” The rider grinned and shifted in his saddle. His crimson leggings stood out against the dun stallion.

“My father is the sheriff. And he may be dead by now.”

The grin disappeared. He moved the horse sideways to his left and cantered towards me. I had spent enough time learning to fight on horseback to know that I had little chance against an Old Crown Guard in a fair fight. I drew my sword.

We began moving towards each other, heading for a pass with our right sword arms. The sound of the galloping horses drowned out the rest of the world. When we had closed to about 20 paces I stood in my stirrups and drifted to the right, until we were head on. Then I angled even harder right, coming close to the shaped stone sidewall. The Redleg tried to tack with me, but his galloping horse began to skid, just like mine, trying to avoid a collision. When we’d closed to just a couple of paces I dropped the reins and leapt from my saddle towards the Redleg. He was struggling with his reins and couldn’t get his blade across his body before we crashed together, chest to chest.

Of what I am certain is that I landed on top of the Redleg and recovered my senses barely a second before he did. He’d lost his sword, like me, so he grabbed my throat with both hands and tried to choke the life out of me. I didn’t hesitate and I only thought about how I’d killed this man later. I’d pulled a knife from my boot in that extra second, and raked it across his throat, while his hands were busy on mine. I rolled away and sucked in air. I tried to shake the swimming white dots from my eyes. “Fairies,” my mother called them.

A pool of crimson was forming under the Redleg and the awful drowning sound he was making faded. I realized that I was covered in that crimson too. “The wagon,” I said to the tall white clouds forming overhead as the heat of the day came on. I gathered my sword, calmed my horse, and started again. There was still no one coming from the south.

I could see the wagon in the distance. The heavily loaded cart was covered in canvas and riding low. The driver’s thin back was plain to see as he urged his team on. I gained on him as he neared the far side of the Ancient Bridge. I had crossed the bridge and explored the North Shore a hundred times, but I still didn’t look forward to chasing and fighting him on that far shore or in the woods. Besides, my ribcage hurt like mad.

The driver stopped near the end of the bridge, stood in his seat and looked back my way. I suspect the last thing he expected to see was a blood-spattered rider with no black cloak and no red leggings bearing down on him. He dropped from the wagon and walked back to face me. I looked for a weapon, but instead he showed me his hands. I approached close enough to make eye contact.

He was a boy, no older than me. “I’m just a muleskinner. I don’t want no fight,” he said.

“You look like the last of the thieves who robbed my town and attacked my father.”

“Mister, I was hired to drive this wagon and tend their horses. I didn’t know nothing about the stealing ‘til we got down here. They were soldiers. I figured there wouldn’t be any trouble. I’m so sorry. And I’m sure sorry about your pa & all. And I sure wish I was home right now. If all of them are killed I probably won’t make it home anyways. If you’re gonna kill me, just do it. If you’re gonna arrest me, I’ll come along, no fight.”

I held up my hand and he stopped talking. I reached into my saddlebag and pulled out a small coin purse of silver and coppers. I tossed the little leather bag at his feet. “You have this one chance to walk out of here alive, and never come back across this Ancient Bridge again.” By the time he passed into the woods I was having trouble seeing him, something was in my eyes.

I tied the bay to the wagon and began to move slowly back across. Nothing moved on south end of the Ancient Bridge.