Chapter Three: A Small Act of Courage

"I would rather be a coward than brave because people hurt you when you are brave." --E. M. Forster

Gunthur let out a small sigh and stretched out on his cot. The bread had not been badly burned, and he had allowed Irudan to take what he did not eat with him when he left. Gunthur had locked the door behind the man and stumbled to his room, drowsiness hanging on him like a heavy cloak. This time, sleep awaited him eagerly, and Gunthur's dreams were filled with magic and sourleaf. A soft rapping on his door woke him early the following morning.

"Gunthur...Gunthur, lad, wake up."

Sitting up and grimaces as he discovered new bruises and stiff muscles, Gunthur opened the door to reveal Jeran on the other side. "What is it?" The man usually did not bother to wake him, as Gunthur was pretty good at getting up when he needed to be up.

Jeran looked very concerned. "Gunthur, did you hear anything strange last night?"

The boy frowned. "Not really. Why?"

"I think...I think that we have been robbed."

"Robbed?" Gunthur exclaimed. Then he remembered, and he could not hold back a little laugh. "Oh, no, we haven't been robbed. We had a customer last night."

"Last night? Why didn't you wake me?"

Gunthur shrank back at Jeran's sharp tone. "I'm sorry, I thought I could take care of it myself. I didn't want to disturb you."

Jeran crossed his arms over his chest and eyed him speculatively. "And did you?"

"Did I what?" Gunthur asked, bracing himself for a lecture.

"Did you tend to our guest?"

"Oh. Yes. I got him some food and cider and showed him out when he finished."

Jeran looked surprised for a moment, then he frowned in disapproval. "Did he pay you?"

Gunthur hesitated. He couldn't really remember. He shot a quick look at the table where he and Irudan had sat the night before. Something shiny glinted in the soft morning light streaming through the open windows along one wall of the common room. Suddenly, Gunthur grinned. "Yeah, he did!" He brushed past Jeran and bounded over to the table, retrieving the gold coin Irudan had left there.

Jeran took the coin and examined it closely, clearly impressed. "You must have served him very well to score one of these, Gunthur." He smiled abruptly. "Good job."

Gunthur felt his chest swell with pride. It was the first time Jeran had really ever said that to him. He had done something right, after all!

"Now, run down to the creek and draw some more water while I set the morning meal to cooking."

Gunthur tripped over two chairs on his way to the door, but he didn't mind his clumsiness. Jeran had complimented him! Gunthur returned in time to sweep the floor before Jeran took the first of the bread from the oven and told the boy to unlock the door. Then he retreated to the kitchen to help line up plates for the morning rush. Gunthur had just finished covering the counter in simple wooden plates when someone called for service from the common room. Jeran rushed out, and Gunthur caught a glimpse of graying hair and well-made clothing. It was Terand, the town administrator who always ate breakfast and lunch at the Stone Platter. Gunthur quickly loaded one of the plates with a bowl of the porridge Jeran had set to cook, a healthy slice of the tasty, chewy bread, a few pieces of the cheese he had given to Irudan, and an apple from the barrel Jeran opened just before he left. He set a spoon on the plate and filled a mug from the barrel of honeyale.

By the time Jeran entered the kitchen to fetch Terand's food, Gunthur was already heading out on his way to deliver it. The man graced the boy with a slightly strained smile as they passed.

A short while later, Gunthur raced from the tavern, pulling his light jacket on over his worn shirt as he went. It was a bit difficult to do one-handed, but he held his school books in the other hand. Gunthur sprinted down the street toward the school building, which also doubled as the town hall. And the local peace officer headquarters. And the hospital. And the meeting hall, too. And the chapel. And the guild headquarters. For both guilds in town. Gunthur flew past the buildings on either side of the street until he reached the open square, then raced around the small fountain in the center and dashed through the double doors just as the bell high up in the steeple rang for the start of the days' classes.

Master Davan lifted one brow from where he stood at the door to Gunthur's classroom. "You're late, Gunthur. As usual."

Gunthur ducked his head and hurried past.

"All right, children, to your seats now. Let us begin." Davan moved behind his desk at the front of the room and took up a bit of a charcoal stick. "If you would all please take out your homework, I would like to go over one of the more difficult problems as a class."

There was a loud shuffling of papers as the students obeyed. Gunthur knew Kory was glaring at him from his seat across the room. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as he focused on his work, determined not to return the look. Gunthur drew his paper from within his arithmetic book. He had locked himself in his room to finish it this morning, right after helping Jeran with the first, a typically largest, wave of morning diners, and the many scratch-outs and messy writing revealed his rush. But at least it was finished. Gunthur looked up to see which problem Davan had chosen to do.


It was the very problem Gunthur had asked Ceilia to help him with. Gunthur could not help tossing a quick, furtive glance at Kory, but the larger boy did not seem to recognize the problem. Why should he? He never knew which one I asked her about, did he? Gunthur swallowed and turned back to watch as Davan finished copying out the problem on the large oilcloth tacked to the wall behind his desk.

"All right. So, if our intrepid farmer here has eight sacks of seed and plants them all..." He drew out a diagram as he spoke. "He will grow sixteen sacks' worth of grain. The problem says that it will take six sacks to feed his family for the year, and that he wishes to save enough seed to plant enough to feed his family the following year. So, how many sacks could he afford to sell, considering these restrictions?"

The entire class stared blankly at him. Davan sighed. "Right. Well, let's try taking it a bit more slowly, shall we? Since the farmer produced sixteen sacks when he planted only eight, how many sacks will he have to plant to produce the necessary six to feed his family? Enric?"

The dark-haired boy Davan indicated replied confidently. "Three."

Davan nodded. "Right. He has sixteen sacks and requires six to feed his family for the current year. How many are left, once we subtract those? Aja?"

The pretty girl in the front row of desks looked up from something she had been writing and flushed a bit, obviously caught doing something she shouldn't have been. She ran her gaze over the board swiftly, since she hadn't been paying attention, but managed to come up with the correct answer from the information there. "Ten, Master."

"Good. Now, Kory, if we take the sacks remaining and subtract the number of sacks Enric said we should set aside, how many are left?"

Kory had been talking quietly with one of the boys near him. Gunthur risked a quick glance at him, but Kory was too busy glaring at the board to notice. Finally, he scoffed. "That's easy. My answer was eight."

Davan smiled wanly. "While I do admire your gall and bluffing abilities, Kory, I would perfer if you paid attention and gave a correct answer every once in a while. To be frank, I am quite tired of seeing you in my class over and over. Now, would anyone else like to hazard another guess?"

Kory snarled nastily at the teacher before raking his flaming gaze around the room, daring anyone to defy him. Gunthur ducked his head quickly. The sudden movement seemed to catch Davan's eye, and the man locked onto him.

"Gunthur. What answer did you get?"

Gunthur froze. He couldn't give the right answer, no way. Kory would absolutely kill him, even if he didn't know that this was the one Ceilia had helped him with...Gunthur tossed Ceilia a quick look. She sat three seats away and was watching him intently. She smiled a bit and made an encouraging gesture. She wanted him to give the answer. Gunthur swallowed hard and finally remembered to breathe. Ceilia's bright blue eyes clouded abruptly as she realized something was wrong, and her gaze flicked over to Kory. Gunthur cringed slightly.

"Gunthur," Davan urged, "what was your answer?"

Gunthur gulped several times, feeling very small and very trapped. Ceilia wanted him to give the right answer, and if he gave the wrong one, the other students would just laugh at him. The problem was so simple...but...Kory...

Then Gunthur's expression shifted from frightened and startled to very, very determined. Arlys hadn't hesitated, and he had been facing down a wizard! Gunthur straightened up in his seat and squared his shoulders. "It's seven, Master."

Davan's lips curled into a tiny hint of a smile. "Correct. Now..."

Shaking now, Gunthur relaxed back into his seat. Ceilia shot him a quick, dazzling grin. That hadn't been so hard. Gunthur sighed in relief.

And then something struck the top of his desk, and Gunthur traced its trajectory and met Kory's glare. The small boy swallowed as a violent tremor shudder through him. Oh, no...What have I done?

When the bell rang for the midday break, the class rose as one and began filing out the door. Gunthur remained frozen in his seat, glumly contemplating the hundreds of different way Kory might get back at him. He knew he would have to face it eventually, but the thought made his stomach roil unpleasantly, and he doubted he could keep any food down even if he did leave the safety of the classroom and Davan's presence to go home and get it. The middle-aged master glanced up from the papers he was grading.

"Gunthur? Aren't you going to go eat?"

Gunthur shook his head, rooted to his seat.

Davan lifted his brow, but did not comment.

Eventually, the other students returned in groups of two and three. Kory came in and glowered at Gunthur, who tried hard to sink into his seat. The rest of the lesson passed in a blur of fearful anticipation for Gunthur, and the final bell rang far too soon.

On the verge of panic, Gunthur rose from his seat with all the enthusiasm of a thousand year old man and began trudging toward the door. He was the last one out of the school house.

A bulky boy named Orin met Gunthur just outside the door. His lips curled back in a fearsome grin. Gunthur flinched visibly as he passed. Orin's heavy hand fell on Gunthur's scrawny shoulder.

"Hey, Gunthur. Want to play a game?"

Gunthur shrank back, but Orin held him tight. "Not particu--wah!" Orin hauled him around the corner of the building.

Shaking uncontrollably, Gunthur struggled to free himself, knowing the effort was wasted even before he began. He could try fighting back, but Gunthur knew that doing so would only infuriate Orin. He considered yelling for help (Davan was just inside, after all), but knew that discovery would only push Kory's lackeys to further heights of violence. So Gunthur concentrated on keeping his footing instead, reasoning that he needed not lose what little dignity he had by sprawling face-first in the dirt.

Unfortunately, Orin had other ideas. He tossed Gunthur down face-first in the dirt behind the school house. The smaller boy lost hold of the belt that held his books together.

And then a familiar figure loomed before Gunthur, blocking out the sun as it descended toward the horizon. "Gunthur, Gunthur, Gunthur...when will you learn?" Strong fingers twisted into Gunthur's hair, hauling him to his feet.


By the time Gunthur reached the Stone Platter, he knew for sure that he had at least one cracked rib. It had happened before, but only rarely, and the pain was sharp and constant. This one wasn't nearly as bad as the last, but he still grimaced a bit with every step.

Jeran met him at the door. "Gunthur! You're late!" He sounded almost frantic. "I'm expecting the first of the dinner rush in moments, Gunthur!"

"Right," Gunthur muttered. He brushed past the old man and dropped his books off in his room before crossing to the kitchen. Jeran had drawn more water while he was away, and Gunthur scooped a bowlful out of one of the buckets. He scrubbed the last of the dirt from his face, grateful that Jeran had not noticed it. Then he lifted one side of his shirt and felt around for the injured rib. It did not take long to find it. Gunthur sighed and let the loose garment fall back into place. It wasn't like he knew what to do with it, anyway. Gunthur emptied the bowl into the depression in the counter with a small hole at the bottom that dumped the water out into the drainage ditch behind the tavern, then turned and began ladeling the thick stew in the pot over the fire into the stacks of bowls Jeran had set out. Once he had a good number of them filled, he began setting squares of cloth into the stacks of woven wicker baskets set beside the stacks of bowls. He filled the baskets with slices of bread and pieces of fruit. The evening meal was always the busiest, so Jeran just set the baskets out on the tables so he wouldn't have to worry so much about keeping his customers with food to eat.

Just as Gunthur turned back to the basin with the drain in it to wash the last of the dishes from the midday meal, the kitchen door swung open and Jeran walked in, follow by Irudan.

Stunned, Gunthur stared at the tall, dark man. "What are you doing here?"

Irudan's mouth twisted into a wry smile. "Hello again to you, too. You do have a way with charming words, Gunthur."

Jeran scowled darkly. "This is Irduan, Gunthur. He's going to be working with us, so I wanted you to show him the ropes in here. If it's not too much trouble, that is." He sounded very irritable.

Gunthur ducked his head quickly. "Yes, of course, it's no trouble, not at all!"

Jeran shot the boy a stern glare before he turned and left to finish his work in the common room.

Irudan walked over and examined the food Gunthur had set out. "So, what are we to be doing?"

"Irudan, why are you here?" Gunthur demanded urgently. If Irudan was still here, that meant he didn't intend to leave. And if he did not intend to leave, there was a good chance Kory would find out what the man knew, and then...Gunthur shuddered at the thought. It certainly would not go well.

"I have nowhere else to be just now, and I am short on coin. I have made an arrangement with your employer. He will grant me room and board and one silver per week if I work for him."

One silver a week? It was a beggar's pay. Gunthur wondered if Irudan knew he was being so badly used. He failed to mention it, however, for fear that unvieling the scam would anger Jeran. Gunthur thought fast, trying to decide whether or not to voice his concerns about Kory and his gang.

Luckily, he did not have to make that decision. Irudan frowned suddenly as they stared at each other. "Gunthur. What has happened to you?"

"W-what do you mean?" Gunthur stammered, knowing full well what he meant.

Sure enough, Irudan reached out with unerring accuracy and tapped the boy's injured rib. Gunthur gasped at the shooting pain, but it receeded almost instantly. "It was that boy again, wasn't it? Kory?"

Gunthur felt blood rush to his face and became very interested in the floor beneath his worn shoes.

"Tell me about it," Kaden urged gently. Gunthur did not reply.

The door opened once more, and Jeran swept in and took up an armful of baskets. "We've got company, Gunthur. Look lively now."

Gunthur and Irudan quickly took up more baskets and followed him out. Within moments, a basket sat beside the small lamp on every table. Jeran remained in the common room to greet and serve their guests while Gunthur and Irudan retreated back into the kitchen. Gunthur quickly busied himself washing the dishes as Irudan began to fill mugs. After a moment, the tall man spoke.

"Gunthur, tell me what Kory did to you."

Gunthur shook his head, pursing his lips in a childish ploy to keep himself from speaking.

"Gunthur, listen. I know it hurts and that you are frightened, but talking about it will change nothing. It is safe, I swear."

It would be nice to just tell someone...but no. He couldn't. Kory would be furious if he found out. But why should he find out? Irudan seemed earnest enough... "If I tell you, you have to swear not to repeat it. Ever."

Irudan paused for a moment, then nodded once. "Done."

And so Gunthur told him, stopping only when Jeran ducked in to grab baskets or bowls or mugs.

Coming Soon: Chapter Four: A Rock and a Hard Place, in which Kaden and Arlys get themselves into some very tight spots.