"She was a Maid," the Storyteller said, "a Maid such as a man would not see again his whole life."
The people sat close, despite the heat of the fire, to hear.
"Where did she come from, this Maid?" asked one of the young men, a boy too young to have heard all the story, but old enough to wish to know of maids.
The Storyteller nodded at the boy. "They say she was of the Behroozi, a people of the River."
He gestured at the encampment around him. "It was late in the evening, an evening such as this, with the nights lengthening."
And so the Storyteller began his tale.
Magdar, the son of the Tribe's Elder, their name now lost to time, had returned home. His closest warriors were with him. Twenty of the strongest, the bravest, sworn to him.
One of them was Thon. Thon of the River, as he became known.
Thon, son of Feddar, son of Dar. Thon son of Erith, daughter of Raven. Thus was Thon noble from both his father's and his mother's line.
This Thon, and Magdar in front of him, stood in the center of the throng, his dark hair swept back from his fierce eyes, the grime of battle clinging to his strong arms.
"This was ill-done, Magdar," he said, and silence fell over all who heard.
Magdar reached for the long-handled sword at his hip, but his father stayed his hand.
"Harsh words," the Elder said, "harsh words from he who is as my son these long years of fostering." He gestured to Magdar. "Who is as a brother to my own son, Magdar."
Thon nodded at him who had fostered him.
"Harsh words, yes," Thon said. "Harsh words, but true."
The young men, Magdar's warriors, stirred. Magdar's hand fell to the hilt of his blade. The Maid stood off to the side between two warriors, watching all from wide-spaced green eyes.
She did not stir.
"Speak," the Elder commanded.
Thon gazed at those around him. His eyes rested briefly on the Maid and came to a halt on Magdar.
"We were sent 'to scout', your words Elder, to scout and bring word of assistance after the storms of the past months. We were to bring offers of help, of bonds between peoples."
He looked at the Maid again, and back to Magdar.
"We brought death, and bondage."
The Elder stood silent for a time. Then, "Magdar, what have you to say in answer?"
Magdar half-turned from Thon, half-turning to his father.
"What was done is now done. Our influence is spread. There are now men who will stand with us when the need comes."
The Elder pursed his lips.
"With an offer of help we might have had the same," he said.
Magdar turned fully to his father.
"Echtar, their leader, spurned your offer. He bid us leave. He cast our help back in our teeth."
"And swords were drawn," said the Elder.
"And swords were drawn," said Magdar, "and reddened with their blood." He nodded to his father. "They learned of our strength."
"And tribute taken?" asked his father.
Magdar gestured to gold and iron piled at the feet of his warriors. "And tribute taken," he said. As he said this he gestured, less confidently, to where the Maid stood.
The Elder spoke to Thon. "When blood was shed, what did you do, fostered son of this tribe?"
Thon's voice was clear. "I fought. I am sworn to protect he who is my brother."
The Elder nodded. "That was well done," he said. "Yet you disagree with your brother."
"People died, people were taken," said Thon, "who did not need to die." He turned to the Maid. "Who should not have been taken."
There was silence for a time. Magdar's hand gripped the hilt of his blade. The warriors ringing the three in the circle shuffled, tense.
The Elder, who had been staring off into the distance, turned his gaze once more to Magdar and thence to Thon.
"What was done," he said, "is done."
Silence fell again. The warriors relaxed. Magdar loosened his grip on his sword.
Into this silence Thon's quiet "No" fell like a thunderclap.
The silence held for another instant and then Magdar roared in anger, his long-handled blade flashing in the firelight as he drew it. Thon drew his own and their blades met with the ringing of steel on steel.
The warriors around the circle stood fast and the night was filled with the clash of metal, the grunting of straining men, the hiss of breath as blades drew blood.
Magdar's sword flashed and danced in the light. Thon's bladework was that of a craftsman, efficient, measured, accurate.
He stepped inside Magdar's guard and crashed the hilt of his sword into his brother's face. Magdar fell, tripping over Thon's outstretched leg. His sword fell from his hand.
Thon, his blade held close to Magdar's throat, bent and picked up the fallen sword in his left hand. He looked to the Elder.
"My 'No' remains," he said.
There was a pause as Magdar got to his feet and looked to his father.
The Elder looked at Thon and slowly nodded his head. Thon nodded in answer and turned to leave the circle.
"No," shouted Magdar and drew his short knife to strike at Thon's back.
Thon whirled around. His blade slashed a deep cut across Magdar's chest, blood flowing freely from the wound.
The long-handled sword sliced through skin, through sinew and muscle and lodged in the bone just below the shoulder of Magdar's right arm.
Magdar's knife fell from lifeless fingers and he dropped to his knees.
Thon stood, looking at the Elder.
"You have proven your case, Thon of the River," the Elder said. "You have the right of this."
After a pause he continued, "but you can no longer share the fire of this people. Go now. Go with your honor known and remembered."
Thon nodded, sadness clear in his young face. He freed the blade from Magdar's arm and cast his own to the ground.
The warriors opened the circle and he moved through them to gather his belongings. Of the Maid, when they thought to look, there was no sign.
The Storyteller brought his tale to an end and the people sat in silence for a time before, one by one, they left the fire for the dark and the warmth of their tents.
Three women stood watching as Thon made his way from the village, shield on his back, the long-handled sword at his hip.
"Will he find his way, Mother?" the Maid asked of Aine.
Aine nodded, not taking her eyes off the young man cast out for honor's sake.
"His is a long road," she said and she looked at the Maid. "But, you are here, so he must have found his way."
The old woman, leaning on her staff, spoke.
"He has a good eye, that one. If he learns to see what is true, he will find his way."
Bio: Kevin J Mackey is native Irish but now lives in the far drier climate of
the San Francisco Bay Area. He reads widely - "whatever may be found
between book covers" - but has a particular fondness for science fiction
and poetry. He has had short stories and poetry published in 2010, 2011 and 2012.