Chapter Two

As she walked up to the house, she could hear Strider speaking softly to the man on the bay gelding. He had not dismounted and was cradling his left arm. Strider helped him off the horse and she saw that he was nearly as tall as his friend. He also wore a leather cuirass and fastened his cloak with a sliver brooch in form of a rayed star. He lowered the injured Man to the ground and she saw that he had the shaft of an arrow with black fletching protruding from his left shoulder. Strider returned to the horse, removed the saddlebags and a short recurve bow and placed them on the wooden bench in front of the house.

He spent a minute undoing the straps in order to take off the saddle and the blanket beneath. He then took a rope from one of the saddlebags and hobbled the horse that was grazing on the sparse grass near the house. She watched nervously, hand on her bow, as Strider undid his belt that held a sheath from which she could see the hilt of a broadsword. He glanced at her and bowed his head slightly before placing the belt and sword against the wall of the house next to the door. He did the same with his friends' belt. Eyeing the long daggers on the men's belts, she had half a mind to tell them to sleep in the barn.

Strider seemed to sense her apprehension because he turned to her and asked "What is your name, Mistress?

"Molly. Molly Bramble."

"Well met, Molly," Strider gave an elegant bow that would not have looked out of place in the court of a king.

"I give you my word of honor that I will not harm you or your family."

Molly opened the door, pausing to watch Strider bend down to assist his companion, and went inside. Tom was sitting by the fire, throwing the leather ball to little Will, who failed to catch it. Lily, upon seeing two unfamiliar men enter the house after Molly, darted behind her mother's skirts.

"You can lay him down here," she gestured to the straw pallet on the floor against the eastern wall of the house where the children slept.

She wasn't about to let the wounded Man sleep on her and William's feather bed!

The Ranger lowered his friend onto the pallet and knelt on the floor beside him, speaking softly. It looked as if the injured man was going to reply when Will, having been stunned into silence by the arrival of the two strangers, started bawling. The two men looked at him and then at Molly who was still standing by the door, bow in hand, Lily peering out from behind her kirtle. Strider glanced at his companion before standing. He looked like he was going towards Will when Tom ran over to him, throwing his arms around his little brother, who stopped crying.

"Don't you touch him!" he yelled.

Strider paused, glancing towards Molly before raising both hands, palms outward in a placating manner.

"I mean your brother no harm, young master. Nor do I intend harm to you or any of your family. What is your name, young one?"

"Thomas," the boy's tone was still suspicious. "What's yours?"

"My name is Strider," he put his hand over his heart and gave the child a shallow but polite bow. "We are well met, Thomas.

"That isn't a proper name,"

"Thomas Bramble! Mind your manners!" Molly snapped. When had the boy gotten so rude?

But Strider had a smile on his face and his friend was laughing.

"It is what the People of the Breelands call me and it is good enough name as any, I suppose. This," he nodded towards the man on the pallet. "Is my cousin. His name is Hal."

Hal, who had been sniggering, stopped and squawked in protest but subsided at a glance from his cousin. Who were these Men? Two kinsmen who have been recently fighting who know what, and who felt the need to hide their true names? Before she could gather the courage to ask any more questions, Molly remembered the soup. She rushed over to the fireplace to see that, although it was boiling, the soup had not yet burnt. Molly took a long stick and removed the pot from its hook and placed the steaming soup on the hearthstones to cool, stirring all the while to prevent anything from sticking to the bottom.

"Tom, set the table for us, please."

Will, having been abandoned by his brother, came over raising his arms.

"Up," he demanded.

Sighing, she shifted the wooden spoon to her other hand so she could hold the boy against her shoulder with her right arm. Lily, always curious if not so bold as her older brother, had followed Molly to the hearth. She was staring at the strangers who were talking in low voices that were still clear enough to hear.

"Is your arm still tingling?" Strider asked. He was kneeling down beside Hal once more and unwrapping the strips of cloth that bound his arm to his chest.

"No, not anymore. It is the ankle that hurts." He emitted a small grunt of pain as Strider removed his boots to reveal his right ankle that was swollen near twice the size of his other leg.

"'Tis only a bad sprain, I believe. There might be a crack in the small bone. Mayhap I shall be able to feel it once the swelling goes down."

Strider began to search in of the two saddlebags that he had brought inside.

"If it goes down," Hal muttered.

Strider looked concerned and stopped what he was doing.

"Why do you say such a thing?"

"Ara—Strider, my arm's gone numb."

Strider dropped the small knife he had removed from the saddlebag and began gently palpating his friend's arm.

"I should have bound it better, if the sinew has been severed—"

"Isn't the sinew," the man's voice was grim with resignation.

"How do you know this?"

"Because I cannot feel my other arm either."

Strider's face blanched and he muttered something sharp in what must have been another language. He took two fingers and felt the Man's throat and then checked the pulse in both his wrists.

"Fool! Why did you not tell me earlier, I could have—"

"Stopped to attend me while we were being pursued by a horde of orcs? I'll not have your death on my conscience. Your life is more valuable than mine. Besides," the man's tone was lighter. "I told you, you ought to have cut the shaft off."

"Aye. And I told you, that the arrow is too close to the large artery in the arm and if I disturbed the shaft you might have bled to death. Or worse," Strider huffed, his own tone lightening. "You might have lost that arm."

The man on the pallet laughed. Strider grew serious once more.

"Your heart beat is slower than it should be but 'tis still strong."

"What's wrong with him?" Lily had gathered the courage to speak.

Strider's countenance was grim but his tone was gentle.

"The shaft of the arrow has been poisoned and so has my cousin."


Gelding (English): A gelding is a castrated horse. Castration allows a male horse to be calmer and better-behaved, making the animal quieter, gentler and more suitable as a working animal.

Hobble (English): a device that limits the movement an animal, by tethering its legs, most commonly used on horses.

Recurve bow (English): a bow with tips that curve away from the archer when the bow is strung. A recurve bow stores more energy and delivers it more efficiently than a straight-limbed bow. A recurve will permit a shorter bow than the simple straight limb bow and was preferred by archers in environments where long weapons would be cumbersome such as in forests or while on horseback.

"…the large artery in the arm": this is the brachial artery, the major blood vessel of the upper arm.