The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 95)

Arnoll lay on a low bier amidst the herbs and flowers of the hospital’s courtyard garden. The spiky purple blooms of thistle nodded on their long stems beside the smith’s left cheek, while the yellow petals of buttercups tapped the toes of his boots. The drone of contented bees murmured in the sunlit space, and the green scent of crushed sage threaded the warm air. The physicians had tidied him, but Gael had insisted he retain his smith’s garb. Arnoll’s rank of opteon entitled him to ornate robes, such as those the castellanum wore, or even a warrior’s equipage.

Gael had declined such flourishes for his friend. A smith’s calling bore more honor by far than the legionaries who killed on the field of battle, the officers who commanded them, or the elite who ruled them.

Gael stood alone by the bier under the noontide sun, grateful for the moment of solitude.

He’d seen all tidy in the smithy, stationed the guard Uwen beside the still-cooling gong, and followed the hospital scullions carrying Arnoll on their litter.

Looking down at his friend—clothed in fresh tunic, trews, and apron; gray hair combed and rebraided; features composed—Gael perceived the same dignity and nobility of character he’d noted in the smithy. There was no better troll in all Belzetarn. No, in all the north. No, Gael would venture farther even than that. There was no better man.

I should be lying there,” Gael muttered. He’d not believed Nathiar’s assessment in the smithy, but he believed it now. If he’d beaten Arnoll to the strike that defanged the gong’s curse, it would have been him lying on this bier in the hospital herb garden. It should have been. Arnoll had preserved Gael’s life upon Gael’s entrance into Belzetarn. Now he’d done so again. Gael wished it were the other way round—that he’d saved Arnoll. Arnoll was the better of them.

But Arnoll was dead.

And Gael was alive.

He hated that. And hated almost as much that Arnoll’s legacy would be utterly forgotten. If only he could be buried with all honor in the crypts of Hadorgol, the story of the unswerving protection he granted to those he perceived as vulnerable engraved on a tablet beside the niche where his sarcophagus lay. But it was neither possible nor the way of trolls. Arnoll would receive a funeral pyre, honor enough in Belzetarn. Gael lay the bouquet of white roses the physicians had allowed him to pluck from their gardens on Arnoll’s breast.

Unlike Gael, Arnoll had found a way to an unbroken loyalty, perhaps because he assumed the mantle of protector, but accepted that some would lie outside his ability to protect. Arnoll had committed fully to the well-being of his immediate neighbors—the scullions and decanens under him in his smithy, his fellow opteons at the other forges and their underlings, then spiraling outward to include the denizens of Belzetarn and all the trolls under Carbraes—but no further.

Gael doubted he could ever achieve the integrity of his friend, but surely he could spend the rest of his life trying to. It remained the only real way—beyond funerary rites and empty ritual—to honor Arnoll, the only true way to continue his legacy.

“Whenever I must choose between the lesser of two evils, I will think of you, and seek a third way,” he vowed.

He bent to kiss Arnoll’s brow, and turned away.

Passing through the hospital, he thanked Medicus Piar for the opportunity to make his farewell to Arnoll in private.

Traversing the artisans’ yard, on his way to the bailey gatehouse and the brig—to Keir—he was snagged by one of the regenen’s many messenger boys.

“My lord Secretarius,” panted the boy. “The lord Regenen requires you to attend upon him instantly!”

*     *     *

Next scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 96)

Previous scene:
The Tally Master, Chapter 20 (scene 94)

Need the beginning?
The Tally Master, Chapter 1 (scene 1)