The long ship with the red dragon prow was still sliding along the dock when Aiden Skalgi leapt over the rail. He landed on the wooden planks and pushed through the crowd, hurrying toward the shore. His guardsmen followed him, one falling, the others cursing as they tried to keep up with him. Aiden laughed. It was good to be home.
He passed a group of soldiers from Shorian and Kell. He paused to thank them for coming to protect his people. A Shorian officer saluted him. Instead of returning the salute, he clapped the man on his shoulder and told him to come by the great hall.
“There will be celebration tonight.”
Aiden knew where he would find his family. They would be far from the docks, likely outside of the city, gathered in a camp with others from their town. Poor folk from the outlying communities didn’t have money to purchase rooms in town, so he headed out of the city with his guardsmen trotting behind him.
His old friend, Gistav, had picked the guards, all young axmen from noble families wanting to become great through association with him. He did not know them well, but there would be time to win them over and ensure their loyalty. If not, Gistav intended to use them as hostages against their fathers should any raise their axes against Aiden’s claim. None of that was important right now. The only thing that mattered to him was finding his family.
He asked directions at the first ramshackle camp he found and was told where to find the people from his village. He could no longer jog. The pace was not fast enough. He broke into a run. He crested a hill and saw a familiar tent. He recognized faces, people from his village. He hollered down to them and his run became a sprint. A few people looked in his direction. His guardsmen hurried to keep pace, some of them falling back. He didn’t care.
Thora, his wife, stepped from the tent. She brushed a strand of hair out of her face, looking around to see what the commotion was. Then, her eyes met his. She started to run. They met on the road. Embracing. Kissing. She held his cheeks. “Don’t ever leave again!” she told him.
“I won’t,” he promised.
His son, Arvid, reached them and wrapped his arms around them both. “Father,” he cried. There were tears on the boys face, but Aiden did not chastise him for being weak, as he generally did. The boy would never be a fighter and that was all right. He had decided that if Arvid wanted to be a scholar, then he would send the boy to Guildhall.
Aiden looked toward the tent. His daughter Disa was limping toward them on her twisted leg, carrying a practice shield and wooden sword. After a short distance, she dropped them in the road in order to hurry. Disa wanted to be a shield maiden, so she would never cry in front of him. He could see the emotion in her face as he embraced her. She was his favorite. His tough little girl, crippled at birth by the gods so cruel, but never giving up on her dream.
His family stood together, holding each other for a long time. The fighting men and women of their village started to trickle in. Other families joined in happy reunions, knots of laughter along the road. A few would not be returning and he heard the grief stricken wails. Their sorrow cut him deeply, but he pushed it away. It was not his fault.
He had forced no man or woman to accompany him on the raid to the Dale. They had come on Gunther’s promise of riches and died for that mad fool’s greed. Aiden had picked up the pieces and brought them all home. If not for him and the Guildsmen of Evermoore, they’d still be killing and dying their way across the Dale.
“Let’s go home,” Thora said to him, she looked longingly toward the high mountains, far inland from the coast. Towards the village he had once ruled. It had been a poor place and he had no wish to return there.
“To our drafty house?” he asked her with a grin. “To our farm of rocks?”
She would not meet his eyes. “Let’s just go home and make do,” she said at last.
“Arvin?” asked Aiden. “What about you wanting to be a scholar.”
The young man shook his head. “I’ll help on the farm. You and mother can’t do it alone.”
“Let’s go home father,” said Disa. “I can practice sword and shield anywhere. I’m ready for you to teach me some more of your tricks.”
“I am sure you are.” He tussled her hair. She dodged away, stumbling slightly on her leg. A stumble like that in a real fight would mean her death.
“I practice every day,” she insisted.
“She does,” affirmed Thora, but there was a sadness in her voice because she knew that a crippled girl would never be a shield maiden. She would never pass the tests, and if she did, death would find her quickly.
“Then let’s go home,” he told them, smiling large to hide his concern.
They gathered their things. Aiden helped them, stuffing threadbare blankets, an old pot, five chipped plates, and mis-matched flatware into one sack. Some worn clothes went into the other. The bedding was tied into bundles and soon they stood in front of their tent. Arvin and Disa moved to take it down.
“Leave it,” Aiden told them. “Let’s go home.” He started walking back toward the city. His family did not follow. “Come along,” he motioned.
“Father,” said Disa, laughing. “Our house is that way.”
“No,” Aiden said firmly. “In that direction was the place where four of my children starved, sickened, and died. Our home is this way.”
Thora sighed, shook her head. “Aiden,” she said in the voice she used when he carried a joke too far. “We are done with raiding. You were right. Let’s just go home. Children take down the tent.”
Arvin and Disa pulled out the stakes and the cloth fell in on itself. Aiden crossed his arms and waited as the children worked.
Gistav walked up with another group of raiders returning to their loved ones. Gistav had never married. He always said, ‘why have one woman when you can have many.’ He was Aiden’s oldest friend. His house was down the street from theirs. He was a carpenter by trade, but fancied himself a bard. He’d spend so much time with Aiden and his family that Thora often remarked he was like another child for her to care for.
“Thanks for waiting on the docks,” grumbled Gistav. The large man was out of breath. “I bet you ran the whole way.”
“I did,” Aiden replied.
“I guess I would have run too if I had Thora to come back to.” Gistav laughed loudly at his joke. “Hello Thora.”
“I’m glad you’re not dead.” Thora told him.
“What are they doing?” asked Gistav, pointing to the children.
“Packing our tent,” Aiden shrugged.
“I see that,” Gistav shook his head. “But why?”
“My wife told them too. They always listen to her more than they listen me.”
The people in the village were beginning to gather around them. Strange looks of awe on their faces. Some were talking to Aiden’s guardsmen. Others were gesturing toward Aiden and looking back to the town.
“Children,” said Gistav. “Come over here.”
“We are working,” Disa said, indignantly folding the tent. They never listened to Gistav.
Gistav walked over and stepped on the cloth. “You don’t need this old tent.”
Disa stood up. “You’re in the way.” Her voice was cross, but she was not angry. Gistav always teased her. “We need that tent to get home.” She pushed his ample belly, but he did not move.
“You are home child,” Gistav told her. “Look there.” He pointed to the high house on the hill overlooking the town, dead king Harjen’s Hall with its beautiful woodwork and magnificent views. “That is where you live now. Your father is our King.”