The tale begins on the 20th of Glant of the year 1990 of the Verentian Calendar. It was a typically hot summer in the barony of Riudsech, on the edge of the Duchy of Brissenmor. Here in Sioncarwood, the forest was pleasantly cool.
Tamhan's older brother Samhar had taken him and his cousins deeper into the forest to engage in a game of hide and seek. As usual, the game started with the younger children doing the hiding and Samhar doing the seeking. Again as usual, Samhar had no trouble finding Tam's cousins. But this time Tamhan had found a good hiding place. It was a little farther out than usual, up in a big arach. The tree's branches started pretty high up and it was a trick to climb, but once he was up he found that there was plenty of foliage to provide cover. It seemed like hours waiting for the sounds of his relatives to fade away. Several tree animals occupied Tam's attention and helped pass away the time.
Tamhan's reverie was broken by noises in the distance. It was not long before he realized what it was: a hunting party from the castle. Caution told him to stay in the tree. The last thing he would want is to attract the attention of their gardells. Those riding animals were light enough to navigate through the trees, and were meat-eating predators. Nobles had to be pretty brave to ride such creatures, but he would be safe in his hiding place. Hopefully Samhar ran his cousins to safety. Something else: it was getting around the time Tam should be leaving for town, to carry another load of charcoal to sell to the blacksmith. Brannath, the apprentice, would be coming out to meet him half way. He would get worried if Tam didn't show up.
Tam stayed where he was for the time being — Brannath could wait, it wouldn't hurt him. Tam kept as still and quiet as possible and watched to see what happened. He would try to see anyone's face, so that he could spot any family resemblance.
After maybe a half hour, there was no sign of the riders. Tam considered getting down from the tree at last, but suddenly a lone rider came into sight. His gardell was sniffing the air. Tam held still, but then realized the creature was attracted to something else. Looking around, the young charcoalburner spotted a figure in a red cloak. The rider had spotted it too, and charged toward it.
From his vantage point, Tam could easily see that the figure was man-shaped, but that the rider seemed intent on the hunt. Just as the gardell was about to leap, the ground shifted strangely beneath it. The gardell fell flat on its chest and the rider tumbled over its neck. The red figure then tossed a hooked net around the gardell's neck and tied his end of the net around a tree trunk. As the gardell fought to chew through the net, the robed figure ran up and lept on its back. He then freed the gardell from the net, gathered the net up, and rode off.
The knight remained still and lay face down over an arach root.
Tamhan climbed down from the tree and went to check the knight. A few paces from the fallen figure he stopped. Someone else had emerged from the woods and stood opposite him from across the body of the knight.
He was only a little older, and stood a little above average height. Although his hair was dusty blond, his thick eyebrows were much paler, almost white, and joined above his sharp nose. His eyes were as grey as rain. He sported a carefully trimmed van Dyke beard; his short, wiry hair was kept back from his forehead. Tam had seen him before, but never actually met him. His name was Rueren. Brannath found Rueren's sister rather attractive, and Rueren used to chase both of them away when he was younger. In fact, the place where Tam and Brannath usually met was by a tree in front of Rueren's home.
Tam bent down to check the knight. “Are you alright, Sir?” Tam said, trying to shake him awake.
“Rueren, give me a hand, this man is hurt.”
Rueren paused a moment, as if he was thinking something, then approached and knelt beside the knight.
Tam checked on the knight, then realized his medical skills were sadly lacking. Rueren seemed to have a better idea of what to do, so Tam just sat back and watched. He privately wondered what Rueren was doing out here.
“Have you seen Brannath?”
Ignoring the question, Rueren said, “Do you know what just happened?”
Tam looked in the direction that the red-cloaked man had rode off, then turned back to Rueren.
“He was ambushed. Some fellow stole his Gardell.” He paused as he pondered something. “Doesn't seem like bandits though — there was only one of him, he was too well dressed. And he could handle a gardell. Never mind, lets get this knight to somewhere safe. I heard others — have you seen anyone?”
“No,” Rueren said. “As you say, we'll move this man.”
As he replied, Tam gathered up a bunch of arach branches and began building a makeshift litter. In the meantime Rueren had removed the knight's helm and loosened his coif.
“He doesn't seem in terribly bad shape,” he said. “Breathing easily, no bleeding.”
They finished the litter rather quickly. Tam detected the sound of movement through the brush in the distance, along with the rattling sound of mail.
“Time to go,” Rueren said. He grabbed the knight under the arms and lift him onto the litter. “Hear that?”
“They're probably out looking for him,” Tam gestured towards the knight. “Well, let's carry him back to the village anyway.”
Tam picked up his end of the litter.
“The village?” Rueren looked faintly surprised. “Just how long do you think that might take? No. This way, I think. We're wasting our efforts trying to carry him to the village when the others are still out there.”
“So what were you doing out here, any way?” Tam asked.
“I come this way from time to time to do some hunting,” said Rueren, taking his end of the litter. “Now — save your breath, let's move.”
The rise Tam had climbed earlier gave him a glimpse of a streamcut on the other side, steep sloped and choked with undergrowth, but providing excellent cover. Trees and undergrowth lined the crest of the rise but upon reaching it Tam didn't feel there was sufficient coverage. The slope looked more promising, with loose rocks, a variety of bracken, and trees thick enough to hide a reclining gardell. The footing was manageable for a human carefully walking backwards, but probably difficult for any mounted pursuit.
It might have been possible to carry the litter down, but probably more trouble, so they dropped it. Tam grabbed the knight under the arms and Rueren took his feet.
As they carry him feet first downslope, he stirred, struggled a bit, and shook himself out of their grasp. The knight fell on some rocks with a crunch; a few pebbles were lodged free and skittered down the slope.
The knight sat up, holding his head in his hands, then lay back down. Then suddenly he seemed aware that he was with people.
“Who are you?”
With a start, the knight became more alert. “Where did that red bandit go? He took my gardell! Help me up,” he said to the peasants. “I must win back my beast.”
They helped him up, but found that they still had to support the man.
“I need a good pint of ale is what I need. And a good bed. Why is everything so fuzzy? Fetch me a healer!”
Distracted momentarily, Tam was surprised when two gardells come crashing from the woods several paces downstream from him. They lept downslope; their momentum did not allow them to stop until they had reached the pebbled bank of the creek below him.
“Well, the tracks did lead here,” said one of them. “But there's just a couple of peasants.”
“You there!” said the other to Tam. “Have you seen a knight,” he asked, holding a gloved hand just above the shoulder of his mount, “this tall, probably lost ....” He turned his head to consult with the other rider. “what else?”
“Smells like a bag of lard.”
“And you, Gaidrach, smell like your mother's arse!” cried Ennemath.
“Ennemath! Where is your gardell?” Gaidrach asked him.
“I was ambushed!”
“Raeglin here followed your gardell's tracks ....”
Just then the red-robed figure launched his mount from behind cover on the other side of the creek, and swung a studded mace at Gaidrach's head. The blow knocked the knight senseless, and he fell from his mount. Raeglin spun around and drew steel, but by then red-robed rider had picked his way up Tam's side of the slope.
“Hello!” he said, pulling back his hood and tilting his head to his mace in salute.
“Bruehan!” said Raeglin from below. “I would've smelled your foulness from afar, but I see you were clever enough to hide yourself downwind!”
Bruehan smiled. He looked over at Ennemath. “This is a fine beast, Sir. I thank you for it. It's not quite as good as my old one, but it'll do!”
“What happened to your old one?” asked Raeglin.
“Lost it, no doubt,” spat Ennemath. “And the coward won't admit it.”
“You shall have it back soon enough,” said Raeglin. “Just as soon as this bandit has felt my steel.”
Raeglin charged toward Bruehan, splashing through the creek and running up the bank. Bruehan waited there, and just as Raeglin made the top of the bank, the red-robed knight launched a large rock. Raeglin fell off his mount, landed on the bank, rolled down and ended up in the water. Bruehan brushed Raeglin's gardell aside, descended the bank and dealt a finishing blow.
Bruehan paused momentarily to admire his handiwork.
“Well, now,” he said. “That more than makes up for my losses. I think I've accomplished enough today. Goodbye!”
He trotted off into the woods on the other side of the creek.
During the fight Tam lurked behind a tree, keeping out of the way. Afterwards, Tam said, “Rueran, you're better at these things than me — see if you can help those fallen knights.”
Rueren had already begun descending the bank to approach the fallen knights and their gardells. He wasn't sure if he was heard. Ennemath looked up at him and asked, “What happened? I didn't see!”
After Rueren had explained the event, a painful look filled Ennemath's eyes. “Alas, Raeglin was not yet a full knight. The youth has lost his chance at a full life.”
To Ennemath, Tam said, “Can we help you track down that brigand, sir? My father was a knight like yourself. I'd like to offer my services.”
“Ha,” replied the knight. “A brave lad. Aye, you may help. My head does not feel so clear, and I'm not sure if I can stand, but if you can get me to a mount, I think I can lead you.”
Tam helped Ennemath up and to one of the gardells, hoping that the thing wouldn't bite him.
“Who is this Bruehan?” he asked. “He looks like a knight of sorts, but he can't be from Riudsech.”
“Of sorts, indeed!” laughed Ennemath. “Bruehan claims to be a knight, but is errant, like Westlan. He could be Sir Westlan's evil twin.”
“Bruehan is little more than a bandit!” said Gaidrach.
Gaidrach removed his helm as he stood, and shook out his long auburn hair. He was a huge man, taller than Rueren by a hand's breadth. Glancing curiously at Rueren, he casually rubbed at the new dent made by Bruehan's mace, then stepped over to the water's edge. He scooped up a helm full of water and dumped it over his head. Then he shook his hair out again.
“He dresses in Crohelm's colors to strike fear in the religious, and haunts Sioncarwood,” said Ennemath.
“But the coward will not stand up to anyone in a fight,” said Gaidrach. “Instead he slaughters children.” Gaidrach now stood over the body of Raeglin, grimacing at the sight of the corpse.
“Raeglin was but months from being admitted into the Order,” explained Ennemath. “Had these two not been here,” he said with a nod to the two peasants, “he'd have done all of us in, through his trickery. But he fears even a peasant with a good bow.”
“Aye. You look familiar,” said Gaidrach to Rueren. “You dress like a peasant but I have seen features like yours before. Who is your father?”
“I don't know about him,” said Ennemath, “but this one [indicating Tam] says his father's a knight.” He laughed shakily.
Gaidrach lifted the body of Raeglin and carried it over to his gardell.
“If you can sit up straight in the saddle, you can borrow Raeglin's gardell. I think someone hit you in the head too hard.”
“No, I only fell off my gardell. You were the one hit in the head.”
“I have a hard head. It was the fall that did me in. Are you telling me you fell off your gardell without any assistance?”
“Nay, you rogue. I was thrown from the saddle,” said Ennemath. “Well, neither of us seem to be in any condition to fight. Perhaps we should enjoin these two brave men to accompany us as footsoldiers.”
“Certainly,” said Gaidrach in agreement. “And perhaps a reward for not looting our sorry bodies.”
“Well what have you, lads?” asked Ennemath. “Pat yourselves on the back and go home, or accompany us to town and receive the hospitality of a pair of knights with dubious reputation?”
At Ennemath's mention of Bruehan attacking children, Tam felt a momentary fear for his cousins, but then assumed that Samhar had gotten them to safety.
After a moment's thought, he replied, “I will accept your hospitality sir. My name is Tamhan, but my friends just call me Tam. I am keen to know more about being a knight, and of this Sir Westlan of whom you speak.”