A New Life
Freden Baysmuth glowered at Casey but the young giant was not intimidated. Having just stared death in the face and won the wounds to prove it, an angry father was nothing by comparison. Bram didn’t look up from his tending to the ugly hole where the arrow had been ripped from Casey’s chest. Perhaps he was just intent on doing a proper job of it, but Casey suspected his elder brother was avoiding looking at Freden.
Though whiskey stung the torn flesh, he did little more than grunt. The taste of victory was still strong on his tongue and pain could do little to dampen it. Every time Bram put the bottle back down, Casey plucked it up and had a swig, staring defiantly back at his father.
Birds, outside the rough wooden walls of their house, trilled late into the evening as though railing against the setting sun, pleading for a few more hours of light. Like Casey, the distant fire-crown was set on its course and would move on its own time.
Staruff sat at the table across from the wounded giant with hands wrapped around a mug of mead. The blond man was only about chest height on any of them and the vessel looked more like a soup pot in his grasp. He made no complaint. In fact, he set it down with a hollow clunk and let go a belch. It wasn’t particularly loud but Casey counted out a full twelve seconds before the mercenary was quiet again.
Munder began laughing first. “Shitfuck boy, you got room for more now?”
“Fill it up,” he said, handing over the mug. “I’ve two empty legs and a half empty head. It’s not over ‘til I slosh when shaken.”
Bram shook his head and trimmed the gut string he was stitching his brother’s shoulder with. “Well, I can see why you like him.” He straightened up and cracked his back, dribbling more whiskey on his hands before wiping them clean.
“Naw,” Casey said. “I like ‘im cuz he saved my goddamn life.”
“I owe yeh fairly fer that,” Freden said finally, giving Staruff a grudging nod. “Yeh pulled a son ‘o mine from death’s mouth and I thank yeh, butcha ain’t takin’ ‘im with yeh.”
“Right,” Staruff said, accepting the filled mug with a smile. He took a long pull of it and sighed with a pleasure that bordered on lewd.
Casey frowned and took his leg down off the bench. He propped his elbows on the scarred surface of the table and squinted at the mercenary through the soft lantern light. Had he misunderstood Staruff’s offer earlier?
The madman pinned Freden with his pale eyes, blue as a snow-wolf’s and just as untamed.
“I am not taking him anywhere. I’ve finished my business up north and when I’ve rested properly, I’ll be on my way again to find a marshal worthy of my services.” The wolf stare shifted to Casey. “Whether or not he comes with me is his prerogative. A man is responsible for himself and his life. That’s what makes him a man and not a child. He chooses to go or to stay. You never really take him anywhere, unless there are chains involved and I don’t know him well enough for that yet.”
Freden’s sons burst into laughter and Selyard had to set down his mead to keep from choking it out his nose. Their father went red in the face and looked away.
Casey had herded for long enough to know when a bull’s eyes were cast down and the fight conceded. Freden had that look now albeit half hidden under black bushy brows.
“What’s wrong with this life boy?” he rumbled. He gestured at the one small window looking out on the corral. “It’s good work. Decent.”
“An’ mindless enough t’ bore yer cock off,” Casey asserted before he could say any more. He took a pull of mead. It was one of his father’s twelve-year batches. One of the smoky-flavoured ones that gave the honey a lick of old oak despite being stored in glass bottles. “It is good work. I won’t tell yeh it ain’t, but it’s not all I wanna do with my life. Ye’ll be fine here. My bruthers’ ‘re all bull-strong an’ ain’t one of ‘em lazy.”
“‘Cept, Munder,” Bram put in with a grin.
“Shut yer cunt-sucker,” Munder grumbled.
“An’ what if they decide there’s somethin’ more they wanna do too?” Freden snapped, quieting them.
“Tough shit. I spoke first,” Casey said looking around the table for opposition. He got nothing but shrugs. “Could just as easy been Bram or Selyard but it weren’t.”
“Could just as easily been a corpse too,” Staruff said and Freden’s eyes tightened at the corners. “I don’t go around saving wayward herdsmen for fun. I’d not have risked my life if I didn’t think he could hold his own and I wouldn’t offer to vouch for him with a marshal if I wasn’t impressed with his skill. Your son is a fighter, herdsman. As surely as he breathes.”
“Don’t tell me what my son is an’ ain’t, boy,” he bit back bitterly.
“You call me boy again and I’m going to whip it out and smack you with it. I’ve lain more bodies than you’ve ever met in your life, old man.” Staruff’s smile was still on his face but his eyes had narrowed, daring him.
For a moment, Casey thought his father might lurch out of his seat but the old herder just leaned forward, chin on his hand. His hide breeches remained firmly planted on the wood.
“Bein’ as I only ever lain one woman, that ain’t hard to beat.”
“There’s your problem.” Staruff pointed at him.
“Bein’ faithful?” Freden spat, his voice raising again.
“No. I’m pretty sure I didn’t specify ‘women’.”
“Fer fuckssake!” Freden thumped the table with his palm, but he was finally smiling. Staruff snickered. He pointed at the mercenary and then at Casey whose cheeks were now red enough to hide his freckles. “No. Don’tcha think about it, bo-”
Staruf stood and dutifully pulled on the cord of his breeches.
“Staruff,” Freden corrected himself before it was too late. “I want lotsa grand children so ‘less yer hidin’ a twat down there somewheres, keep yer hands offa my lad.”
“Oh don’t worry about that,” Staruff said, resuming his seat. “I’ll make sure he’s terribly unfaithful.”
Freden just groaned and massaged his temples. “More mead here Munder, a’fore I catch this bastard’s crazy.”
It took a couple of days for Casey to recover enough to ride. They weren’t a quiet couple of days either. The house was a single-room affair and with nowhere to go to avoid his father. The old man left him alone when he slept, respecting a man’s need to rest and recuperate, but Casey wasn’t about to lie around. The last thing he needed was Freden to convince himself that his son was invalid and forbid leaving with Staruff entirely.
He worried that the mercenary would get bored and change his mind but Staruff amused himself well enough. Minutes after his father left the house to work in the morning, Casey was bored out of his mind and torn between staying inside and going out. If he went outdoors, there was the prospect of yet another argument with Freden. Staruff helped fill time with chatter and plotting out of their journey.
Staruff studied a map that Selyard had brought him which detailed most of Farrowman, the area between the Great Wall Mountains and the Barrier Desert. It didn’t quite reach as far as the ocean but that was fine as they were heading east anyway.
“Hm.” He tapped the butt of his quill against the soft leather of the map. Casey stood behind him peering over his shoulder, only to be swatted away. “Out of the light, giant,” he said. “Can’t see through you.”
Casey shrugged and crossed to look over his right shoulder.
“There’s a valley here. That would have saved me days of travel coming up from Howweld. Fucking foothills killed my horse but I didn’t have a good enough map so I had to hug the mountains or get lost.”
“Where’s Howweld?” Casey asked, squinting at the faded lines of ink.
“Not on this map.”
Staruff took a sheaf of fine paper out of a brass tube on his belt and unrolled it on the table. Casey was struck by the delicate way in which the man handled the map. After seeing the carnage he was capable of, he’d never thought to see gentleness of any kind in those hands.
“This is Howweld.” Staruff pointed out a long stretch of land that ran along the border of the Desert.
“Issat where yer from?”
Staruff nodded. “Eastern Howweld.”
“Huh. I thought folks from thereabouts were darker.” The giant furrowed his brow. “I guess there’s all kinds there.”
“No. There’s just one kind,” the mercenary laughed. “The kind who can fight.”
Casey snorted. “I’ll fit right in then.”
“You would, yes,” his new friend agreed. “We won’t be going to my home, though. We’re going to Rell, cutting through Shirbrook or the Silver Ring, depending on which duke is being more of a cunt by the time we get there. Ideally, I’d like to cross at the spike and hire a boat up the west side of the Ring. Depends on how bad the fighting is.”
Staruff lifted a pale brow at him. “You really don’t know how to read maps do you?”
“I don’t know how t’ read shit,” Casey shrugged. “The fuck I need readin’ for? A yak don’t care if ye c’n read ‘r not.”
“A good book can fill a boring day.”
“C’n fill a stove on a cold day too.”
Staruff laughed and waved his hand as if to dismiss the thought.
“Who taught yeh t’ read anyway?” Casey asked. He couldn’t imagine Staruff apprenticing under a scribe or priest. In fact, the very thought of him in a temple made the giant snort.
“My father.” Staruff picked up the half-empty mug of mead beside him and sipped. He made a note on a scrap of parchment, sketching one of the mountain formations on the map before him and carefully drawing in the roads he was considering. Casey wondered why he didn’t just draw on the map itself and then supposed that if everyone who handled it did that, the leather would be covered in scribbles.
“Is yer pa as big a bastard as mine?”
“Far worse.” Staruff smiled, scratching something alongside one of the roads.
“Issat why we’re not goin’ t’ yer house then?”
“You’re too smart for your own good.” Staruff rolled his eyes and packed away both maps.
“So what’s in Rell?” The giant sat down beside him on the bench.
“War.” The way the mercenary grinned prickled the hairs on his neck.
“The fuck you wanna go there then?”
Staruff smacked his shoulder, being too short to catch him in the head.
“That’s where a sellsword’s money is.”
Casey rubbed his shoulder as though it might soothe his stung pride. He ought to have known that. Staruff handed him his cup of mead.
“Clearly you’re not sauced enough to think properly.”
Casey shrugged and took a swig.
“Amoya’s tit-hairs!” Bram bellowed from the door, making him jump in surprise. “Two days and already he’s givin’ yeh the cup. Ya need us t’ fix yeh up a bridal tent Casey?”
The younger giant blinked in confusion for a moment, then realized how much it looked like the wifely wedding custom. He thumped the mug back down on the table and glowered at his brother. Staruff looked ever so slightly abashed and Casey felt vindicated.
“Ah shaddup, Bram. If ye piss off our guest too much, he’ll make a red puddle o’ you.”
Bram sobered at the reminder of the slaughter on the high pasture and showed his palms in a placating gesture.
“I wont’ spill your blood,” Staruff scoffed. “That would be rude to my host. But if you tie our hands together, I’ll tie off your bollocks with the same cord and we can have a view of your glorious ass in the marriage bed.”
Casey coughed into his mead. “It ain’t glorious,” he managed to choke out.
“You have awful taste,” Staruff contended.
“Maybe, but my ass definitely does. So stay off it yeah?” Bram crossed his arms and gave the mercenary a meaningful glare.
Staruff laughed and thumped the table. Casey had to admit that the madman’s crass sense of humour made him fit in well among the giants. When the laughter died down, Staruff spoke in a lower tone.
“We leave tomorrow.”
Casey leaned back, surprised at the sudden declaration. He hadn’t expected to depart so soon.
“Pa won’t like it,” Bram said, pushing a hand through dark matted hair.
“That is why we will leave while he’s out,” Staruff explained. “Do you think you could help distract him?”
After a moment of thought, Bram nodded. “Yeah. ‘S long as Casey’s up fer it.”
Casey nodded slowly, brows drawing together. “Yeh dun mind?”
Bram shook his head. “Nah. I dun wanna go killin’ folks with yeh so I won’t get sore ‘bout it. I’ll miss yeh but we’ll be fine. Yeh gotta promise t’ come back though, n’ tell us whatcha been up to.”
“I will.” Casey held out his hand and clasped Bram’s arm. “Thanks bruther.”
The elder giant just nodded and fixed Staruff with a serious look.
“An’ yeh see that he comes back, y’hear me? Else ye’ll have the Baysmuths after yeh.”
The mercenary returned his gaze. “If he meets his immortality on the field of battle and I do not fall with him, I shall return in his stead. If you wish my life in his place, you may fight me for it.” The way he spoke the words was like a contract. Crisp and final.
Bram hesitated, then offered him his arm. “Fair enough.”
Casey looked between them, marvelling at the depth of faith Staruff had in him. He promised himself then and there that he would live up to the sellsword’s hopes. He would never disappoint this man.