Dokaius woke early in his bed in the Eras’ inn, so early that his benefactor Peter Mile hadn’t woken up yet. He considered waiting until Peter came to, but changed his mind when he thought of the large amount of beer the man calling himself Ludde had downed before going to bed the earlier night. Instead he wrote a short letter and left it on Peter’s backpack, inviting the vagabond to visit him at Dohr’s manor if he were ever close by, but explained that he probably wouldn’t be home for at least a month.
The hours he had spent with the jolly man had been a break from his worry about his siblings, but now it came back with even greater force. Dokaius still thought it was the right thing to do to continue towards Harir to find Junia, but he preferred not to look into the logic behind that reasoning.
He wondered how Antonius were doing. It couldn’t be easy to be responsible for thirteen committed by himself, especially considering how long it’d been now. In the beginning they probably had been fine being confined for longer periods each day without protesting, but sooner or later they would start to cause problems. Probably sooner.
And he had plenty to worry about for his own account as well. He had no food left and no money. Every hour he’d spend working or any eventual farmers that would offer him food for work would be one hour wasted when it came to getting closer to the palace.
He had also become concerned about how he would be received once he reached the capital. Sure, he was the descendant of Dohr of Dohr’s manor, who had been knighted by the king for his service to the country after organizing the care of the people afflicted by the sickness. The name Dohr still opened a lot of doors, he was sure of it.
But, what did he really know? A country side nobleman with no actual power, who had not been to any citys larger than Vent since he was a child and had never met any nobles that were not a relative. He looked down at his clothes. He had slept under the open sky for two weeks, and it would be at least one more before he reached. Would he even be let in?
Maybe his first goal should be Hag’s manor, situated just outside Harir, and talk to Tabite. He had never met her, but her mother and his father had been cousins. He was a couple of years older than her, and he knew that her parents had once visited Dohr’s manor. But it was a long time ago and he had no memory of it.
Anyway, he could count on her support, he was sure of it. One keeper always helped another.
Dokaius had walked for most of the day and become very hungry, when he finally saw a farm, situated a few hundred meters off the road. He did not hesitate long until he left the road and took the small path leading to it.
It was a small farm, not much more than a crofters cottage and a barn. A few hens were walking around in the yard, and a goat was grazing. The goat looked up as he entered the gate, but the hens did not react.
The farm was well taken care of, and the risk was that whoever it was that lived here wouldn’t need his help. He again thought about how unlike he must be the nobles that lived in the capital. A nobleman helping a farmer for food and lodging. If the court learned about this then he would definitely not be allowed to meet any high officials in Harir.
He laughed at the thought.
“Why are you standing here and laughing in my farm?”
Dokaius turned. A woman was leaning against the barn wall. She looked to be a few years older than he was. He didn’t read her question as hostile, and he thought he saw a smile on her lips. A kerchief was covering most of her hair and her face was far from clean.
“And now you’ve gotten an eyeful as well”, she said. “And still not introduced yourself or explained what you’re doing here.”
Dokaius smiled, but didn’t avert his eyes.
“My name is Dok…”, he started, but changed his mind. “Dok”, he continued.
“Just Dok. Dok Tall.”
“Well well”, the woman said. “And what is Dok Tall doing in my yard?”
“He’s looking for work”, said Dokaius.
“Well well”, said the woman again. “And what can you do then?”
“I can do most everything”, said Dokaius. “Clear weeds, help with the crops, chop wood, bring down trees.”
That’s another example, he thought to himself. The fact that he actually could do all those things. But had very little insight into heraldics or how do address royalty.
“You can, can you?” said the woman. “Then I’m sure we’ll be able to find some work for you. Do you want coin?”
“I want food”, said Dokaius. “For today and for a few days extra that I can bring with me. Maybe lodgings for the night.”
“That doesn’t sound unreasonable”, said the woman. “I’m Christine. Follow me.”
Dokaius assumed that he would have to work before getting something to eat, and asked what she wanted him to do. Christine surprised him by saying that could wait until after the food, since it was cooking right now. They entered the cottage. It had just two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom. On the iron stove a pot was standing. It turned out to contain mushroom stew, which Christine served with potatoes and bread.
Dokaius thought that this was the best meal he’d had in ages, even better than the inn in Eras, and he told her so.
“Don’t think you’ll get less work for flattering me”, was Christines reply.
Dokaius had expected Christines husband to join them, but no one came. Earlier than he liked the food was done, and they left for the yard again. It turned out that there were plenty of things to do, and Dokaius soon had his hands full. Christine left after making sure he got started, and he was alone with axe, saw and a big pile of logs that were supposed to be turned into firewood of a size that fit her stove.
Several hours later he looked up and saw that Christine was standing in the distance and looked at him. He had become sweaty from the hard work and the sun, so had removed his shirt. Now he suddenly felt embarrassed, but thought that he would feel even sillier putting it back on just because she was watching him.
The next time he looked up she was gone, and he didn’t think more of it.
“Tell me”, said Christine suddenly, and Dokaius jumped because he hadn’t even heard her come, “is this the first time you’re going this way?”
“Why do you want to know?” said Dokaius.
“Oh … no special reason”, said Christine. “You can stop now, if you want. The sun is about to set. I’ve prepared food for you for three days, and you can stay here for the night.”
Dokaius thought it over, and decided to stay. He was to tired to walk much anyway.
He told her he would stay, and went to put away axe and saw where she had shown him. He walked to the barn, but Christine called to him as he was opening the door.
“There is plenty of space in the house. Unless you really want to sleep amongst the animals.”
Dokaius blushed, and walked over to the house. She had already entered and were seated at the table.
“Also, I’ve made supper, så unless you lied earlier today about my cooking, you’d better sit down and eat”, she said and smiled.
Dokaius sat down opposite her. He noticed her looking at him as he was eating, and he felt awkward. It was silly really, he who was supposed to be the sophisticated one, knowing everything about etiquette, and he did in theory, was sitting there feeling like a lost peasant boy. While Christine, who lived on what she grew, by herself in a crofters cottage off the high way, was the picture of calm and collected.
At the same time, it wasn’t strange at all. He couldn’t even recall ever being alone at the table with a beautiful woman his own age before.
“When does your husband come home?” he asked, knowing instantly it was the wrong thing to say.
But Christine took it in stride.
“I don’t have a husband”, she said. “This is my farm, just as I said. It’s just me and the hens and the goat and the pigs.”
“Oh”, said Dokaius.
Christine kept watching him. Dokaius kept trying to ignore it, but he felt his ears getting hot.
Christine had removed her kerchief when they came into the house, and washed her face. Her hair was dark red and she had freckles. Dokaius still thought she was a little older than him, but he wasn’t as sure anymore.
He looked up from the food and their eyes locked. This time he had decided not to look down. He was Dokaius of Dohr’s manor, and he was not going to be frightened by a pretty face.
She didn’t look away either.
The table they were sitting at were not large, and they were both leaning forward, so their face was close together.
Dokaius put the spoon down on his plate.
Christine scratched her cheek.
Dokaius felt the blush bloom across his face, but refused to look down. His ears were burning now, but he kept meeting here gaze.
Christine licked her lips.
Then she suddenly stood up.
“You can clear the table and do the dishes”, she said. “Knock when you’re ready and we’ll find a spot for you to sleep.”
She turned and walked into the bedroom. The door was closed behind her. Dokaius remained seated, with the feeling in his chest that something big had almost happened. Finally he pulled himself together and stood up. Carefully, since he was feeling a bit shaky, he cleared the table and took the dishes outside. It took him longer than he thought possible to manage to clean the two plates and the pot, but when he was done his head also felt cleared, and he went back into the house.
Christine still had her door closed, so he knocked.
“Enter”, he heard her say.
He opened the door.
And the calm he thought he had found was gone.
An oil lamp was standing on a small table next to the bed, that was wide enough to easily fit two people. The lamp gave of a warm, shifting shine. A small window let in the last remaining shred of light from the sun that had set an hour ago.
The room was a lot smaller than the kitchen. There was only one furniture beside the bed and the side table – a beautifully carved chest of drawers. On the floor, made of shaved wood, was a carpet. The opposite wall was decorated with a painting in a simple frame, showing a rising sun and a wood-grouse in one corner. Other than that the walls were empty.
Dokaius drew in a deep breath. Let it out slowly. Breathed in. And out.
“You’ll pass out if you don’t start breathing properly soon.”
Christine was next to the bed, in front of him. She was wearing a wide sleeping gown in a thin, shiny material. Dokaius first thought was that it was silk, but then realized that she would never afford something so costly.
Then Christine unbuttoned the gown and let it fall, and what fabric it was made of became a moot point.
“You’re name is not really Dok Tall, is it?” said Christine as they were lying next to each other in bed afterwards.
“What do you mean?” said Dokaius.
“It’s not really a common name, is it?” said Christine.
“My name is not Dok Tall”, he said.
“That’s what I guessed”, said Christine.
She caressed his cheek. They were still naked, and Dokaius could smell the fragrance of her hair. She moved closer to him and put her head on his arm.
“I’ve been married”, she said. “My husband fell badly and died before we got even one year together. His father owned this land, before. But he had so much that he let me keep it. Even after.”
“So I’m no virgin, if you you thought so.”
“I didn’t think so”, he replied. “But I am. Or was, at any case.”
“I almost guessed that as well.”
Dokaius was excited. It had been both so much more and so much less than he had imagine. He kissed Christines forehead.
“What now?” he said.
“Have you recovered already?” said Christine with a teasing smile.
Dokaius bit his lower lip.
“That’s not what I meant”, he said. “I mean what happens after. Tomorrow.”
“We have breakfast. You get your payment. You move on.”
Dokaius turned quiet.
“It was nice”, said Christine. “And I don’t regret anything. But we both knew it was nothing more or less than one night.”
Dokaius looked at her. Somewhere inside he knew she was right, that this had just been one more way of not having to worry for Junia and Antonius for a while.
“But the night is not over yet”, he said after a while.
Christine giggled, rolled over and straddled him.
“No”, she said. “Far from it.”
Dokaius didn’t feel as tired as he thought he would, when he left Christines cottage early the following morning. The rooster had woken them at dawn, and he had helped her with the morning chores before they had breakfast and said goodbye.
Before he left she pulled him close and gave him a long kiss. He was still unsure about what to do with his tongue, but she didn’t seem to mind, and she laughed as she let him go.
“Goodbye, Dok Tall”, she said. “No we’ll never see each other again.”
A couple of uneventful days followed. Dokaius ate the food he had been given by Christine and thought of the time they had had together. After dinner the third day he went down to a small lake he’d found and took a bath, still with Christine on his mind.
After drying in the sun on the beach for a while he want back to the spot where he had made a fire and left his pack. When he got closer he heard someone rushing away. He ran the last few meters. The camp was upside down. Someone had tore through his backpack and kicked over the fire.
With a sigh he looked through his bag. Apparently he’d returned just in time, because nothing was missing. He rebuilt the fire and managed to get it going again without too much problems. He settled down and tried to fall asleep, but it didn’t go very well. He had too many things on his mind.
“Is he sleeping?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
The two boys sneaked closer.
“Are you sure?”
“No, I’m not. If just think so, then of course I’m not sure. Bonehead!”
Oliver stopped and listened. He didn’t hear anything.
“It was nothing”, said Jev.
“No, exactly. Don’t people usually make noice when they sleep?”
“No, that’s just you. You should hear yourself.”
“Can you stop going on about that. I know that I snore. That’s not what I meant. Can’t we just go home now?”
“No, we have to succed. We’ve failed for three days straight, mostly because of you being chicken.”
“What! It wasn’t my fault that …”
“Quiet, I said.”
The boys hunkered down and waited. Jev strained his hearing, but the sound he had heard did not come back. He stood up.
“What did you hear?” said Oliver.
“But, what was it?”
“Nothing, I said nothing.”
“No, for real. You did hear something.”
“Can you start walking or not?”
The two boys moved quietly and stealthily through the tricky terrain, closing in on the man’s camp. When they had almost reached it they stopped, hidden behind some bushes.
“Are you totally sure about this?” the younger brother whispered. He didn’t get a reply. Still, Jev should have heard him. “Are you …” he repeated, a bit louder.
Jev waved at him with annoyance, showing that he had heard, just chosen not to reply. Oliver sat down. How he hated this.
The bushes creaked. Someone was coming! It was too late to run. What should he do?
“It has been a long day, and I’m quite sure I can’t take much more.”
It was the man whose camp they had searched before. The man they had stalked for almost four days.
“Why did you destroy my camp?” he said. “Why did you come back?”
Oliver was not going to answer. He knew that Jev was the better talker, which wasn’t surprising since he was three years older than him. But Jev closed his mouth tight.
“Do I look like someone with anything worth stealing? By golly, I had to work for food just a few days ago, and it’s almost out again.”
The man grew quiet and looked down. Then he raised his eyes an looked at the two brothers.
Jev stood up, hesitantly. His brother followed suit.
“What’s your names?”
None of them spoke.
“Can you even use your tongues? Or are you too stupid to understand what I’m saying?”
“I’m not stupid”, said Oliver.
Jev gave him an angry glance.
“Good …” said the man. “I hope that is true for your big brother as well.”
“How did you know that …” Oliver started, but shut up as Jev elbowed him in the side.
The man grabbed Jev’s wrist with surprising speed.
“Cut that out”, he said, and twisted Jev’s arm around so that Jev had to follow with his torso. Then he let go.
Oliver could see that one of Jev’s outbursts were not far off.
“So. Two young thieves looking for something valuable”, said the man. “You’ve followed me a couple of days, right? I’ve though that I’ve heard and seen things that didn’t quite make sense, but I attributed it to my own mood. So much have happened in the last few days that I’ve not had time to digest.”
“Do you think we care about your mood, asswipe?” said Jev.
The man again moved quicker than expected. Oliver couldn’t quite see what happened, but suddenly Jev was lifted of the ground by the tall man, who was controlling the situation with ease through the kicks and punches Jev tried to land.
“Firstly, I don’t like being called asswipe”, said the man. “Especially by a pack of thieves that are trying to steal from me. Secondly, it’s been a long week and my patience is mostly spent. So try being on your best behaviour. For your own sake, if nothing else. But I guess it was interesting that you have full control of your tongue as well, if not your other bodily functions.”
Jev realized there was no use in resisting, and stopped kicking. Oliver still didn’t know what to do.
He was afraid.
“What in the world should I do with the two of you?” the man said.
“Let us go”, Oliver said quietly.
“What? Oh, I must confess that was just a rhetorical question.
Oliver didn’t say any more. He didn’t know what a rectorical question was, but he understood that the man would not let them go just because he wanted him to.
“It would be interesting to know where you’re coming from, but considering how talkative you’ve been so far, I’m assuming it’s no use asking”, said the man.
“Let me go, and I’ll tell you”, said Jev
“Wow, something other than insults from mister big brother”, said the man. “But I don’t think so. It’s more likely that you’ll try to clock me. Or run away. Both things would fail, but anyway.”
“I promise”, said Jev.
“The promise of a thief”, said the man.
Jev stopped talking. Oliver looked at his brother. He wasn’t defeated yet.
Oliver tried to figure out something to do, but it had always been Jev that figured things out. He mostly just went along. And if he ever came with a suggestion his bigger brother usually just laughed at him anyway.
He felt a tear run down his cheek.
The man seemed to have noticed, and for a moment Oliver thought he saw compassion in his face.
“This is silly”, said the man. “I need sleep. Why do I have to stand here and … gaaah!”
With sudden ferocity he threw Jev away. Jev landed and rolled to not hurt himself. He was quickly back on his feet.
“I don’t have the energy for this”, said the man. “I need to sleep. Get away from here. If I see you again then I will not let mercy stay my hand.”
Oliver hesitated, but Jev was apparently not going to stick around to see if the man changed his mind. He grabbed his younger brother and rushed away.
“Meishur-damned asshole!” he screamed as he ran. “Meshur-damned, dirty, disgusting asshole!”
Dokaius heard the older of the boys curse him, and sighed. He should have handled the two young thieves in a better way. But he was to tired, had too much on his mind. He’d just snapped, and felt like it was better to let them go before he lost control of the situation.
He didn’t think they would return. And even if they did he had nothing to steal. And if they went after him then he was sure he could get the upper hand, even if they got him while he was down.
In a profession where anyone at any time could turn violent, it was of course necessary to be able to deal with this violence. Dokaius was strong, but mor importantly he knew where to hit and push to case pain without casing harm, when how to hold and throw to bring out of balance or keep on the ground. He had hardly tired by holding the older boy in the air.
Dokaius sighed. It would probably be a while until he fell asleep. He had, as he had said, much to think about. Ludde with his potions. Christine with her smile hand her warm hands. Whatever was waiting for him in Harir.
Much had happened since Junia disappeared.
Dokaius realized that he was no longer worried. He didn’t know if it it was good or bad, if it should make him happy or upset. It felt very strange. He was still fully committed to find his sister and make sure that the manor got it’s money while he was at it. But for some reason it didn’t feel like an almost impossible task anymore. He suddenly felt sure that things would work out, in the right time. That Junia was alive now, and was going to stay alive.
He didn’t know why. But he had simply stopped worrying.
(Photo: Christopher Burns/Unsplash)