There are Brothers… and
There are Brothers
by Julia Neal
NOTES: This is from my personal fantasy AU, and all characters but the Seven are mine. This is in Nathan’s first-person point of view, by the way. I took some liberties with Nathan’s past and family, but I hope it turned out well. I mean no harm to the Seven or their creators in this fic. Enjoy!
I urged my horse into a gallop, inwardly cursing. What were they trying to do? Their stupidity would them all killed -- or at least beaten. What gave them the idea to race out to face a challenge from the local outlaws? The army couldn’t take care of them -- what made my friends think they could? And on my birthday, no less. The one day a year I ask to have free. Seething, I turned and called over my shoulder:
“Are you sure that’s where they said they were going?”
“I’m sure,” JD called back.
I ground my teeth in frustration. Of all the outlaws to try to bring in, my friends were going after the one that I knew couldn’t be beaten. Abyss beneath me, I never could beat him. And if I couldn’t, I don’t think anyone could.
He’s my brother, after all, and I know him better than anyone alive.
I looked around the clearing, then dropped to the ground, giving my bay a pat on the nose as I knelt beside the road. JD crouched behind me. “What do you see?” he asked.
“It’s what I don’t see that concerns me. Look around you.”
He glanced about and looked back at me, his eyes wide. “No hoofprints. Look at these prints... something very big made these, but it isn’t any animal I’ve ever seen.”
Our horses started sidling away, whinnying in fear. JD and I exchanged a look and mounted up; we drew our swords and waited for the enemy to come. Judging by the prints on the ground, the sound of hissing, and the chattering of scales, those heading our way were riding iastilon, those strange lizard-beasts from Montran. I sighed. Those things were damnably hard to kill -- you have to hit them just so, in the throat -- and harder to train. But my brother loved them. Must be because he felt a certain kinship with them or something…
“Get ready, JD. Has that gelding seen iastilon before?”
“We’re in for some real trouble.”
They broke from the trees then, the men’s armor shining red in the twilight, the scales of the lizards sparkling blackness beneath. The hissing began in earnest as the *iastilon* saw us and smelled the horses. I reached up and snatched one of my throwing daggers and nudged my horse sideways. As it moved, I threw the dagger and nodded as it lodged in the back of a lizard’s red throat. The beast shrieked and lunged toward us, landing heavily on the ground, dying and trapping its rider.
JD raised his crossbow and fired it, the bolt smashing through the scales of another lizard. The others started clicking in their throats and the sound raised the hair on the back of my neck. “JD,” I said quietly. “When they come forward, kick that little horse and ride into the forest as fast as you can. I’ll meet you later. Got it?”
“Nathan, I -- ”
“Just do it!” I yelled as I sheathed my sword.
The riders kicked their steeds and the lizards lurched forward. I hit flint and steel and a spark flew to my stick of black powder -- dynamite, I think Ezra called it -- igniting the wick. The light captured the attention of everyone but JD, who kneed his horse and raced into the underbrush. I thanked the gods that he followed orders as I wheeled my bay and galloped in the other direction, flinging the dynamite into the midst of the pack and hearing the explosion and screams and shrieks as I left them in my dust.
I met up with JD soon after and we made our way through the forest toward the stream. “That was smart,” he said.
I nodded. “Always be prepared, JD. It keeps you out of situations that may kill you.”
He saluted smartly and I grinned at him, then clucked to the horses. They were going to meet my brother at the headwaters, JD had told me. So to the headwaters we would go.
I just wondered what other surprises Gideon had in store for me.
The surprise was, there were no surprises; we rode into Gideon’s camp unchallenged. My brother’s men watched us with knowing grins and I knew that my brother had something… special… planned for me. He always was a great believer in birthday gifts.
“Nathan!” I heard Chris call. I nodded at him and halted my horse in front of the dais my brother had erected.
“Greetings, Gideon,” I said.
“Ah, Nathan. So good of you to join us. Your friends have been telling me the most delightful things about your new occupation. Town guard, is it? Tsk, tsk, you could have done so much better.”
“I am where I wish to be.”
He leaned forward. “You seem to have acquired quite a strong conscience. Interesting. There was a time when you were better than any of us at stealing and killing.”
I heard gasps from my friends and sighed. My youth is not a time I’m proud of, but I have accepted it. Hearing this accusation has little sting for me now. “That is because I matured. I found that I can be more than a thief and a liar. I can help others.”
“You’ve turned into a woman, you mean.” Snickers from the outlaws.
“Humbling oneself to aid others takes more courage and intelligence than any raid you ever planned. You are stealing from yourself, Gideon, stealing truth and a good life. Have you ever thought about what you would do if you ever got enough money?”
“Travel. Never work again! Be fat and lazy!” his followers called out for him.
“Ah, the dream of every pustule that steals from his neighbors. Quite worthy of the things our father taught us, isn’t it?”
Gideon narrowed his eyes. “What would you know of Father? He despised you. You weren’t worth the spit it took to say your name. He was right. You’ve turned into nothing.”
JD broke in then. “At least he has a real life! Friends, respect, a home. You’ve had to steal or buy your friends and your home. And the only respect you get is from your lackeys. No one likes you. Go back to where you came from -- the bogs of Revallin -- with the rest of the filth.”
Gideon leaped to his feet, so angry that I could almost see the red surging to his face. I had to try hard to keep from laughing. “Get him out of here!” my brother roared.
“Can’t stand to hear the truth?” I asked.
He glared at me. “You won’t be so smug soon,” he said and reached for his crossbow. “Which shall it be, hmm? Black-cloak, Long-hair, Mustache, Red-Jacket, or Gray-Hair?” He aimed at each in turn, grinning. Vin caught my eye and I noticed that his hands were free. Now if I could just get him to pay attention to me for a while longer…
“Gideon, this is beneath you,” I said, shaking my head. “Don’t you see that live hostages are more valuable than dead ones?” I motioned widely with my hand. “You could all have much more for these men if you demanded ransom. The people of our town will pay a handsome sum to get them back.”
“Aw, he’s lying,” one man scoffed. I faced him and raised an eyebrow when I recognized one of my childhood friends.
“You think so, David? Why should I lie to you? If I have gained a conscience as Gideon believes, shouldn’t it be true that I won’t lie?” I hoped his grasp of logic had not disappeared over the years. It hadn’t.
David said after a moment. “Why would a righteous man want to lie?”
Gideon snorted. “To save his hide.”
“Look at it this way, then, if you can’t accept the truth,” I continued, speaking to David and ignoring my brother. “If I wanted to save myself, wouldn’t I have just left my friends here with you and stayed where I was? I don’t think any of you have a true obligation to anyone but yourself. I’m sure that if you were injured, the others would leave you to die. Isn’t that right, Gideon?” I asked, turning to face him.
“It’s not true!” he shouted over the rising clamor. “I will always protect you. Brothers of Theft, that’s us. Brothers don’t desert brothers!”
I smiled at him. “Oh, really? David, you remember what he did when I broke my leg on a raid, don’t you?”
David nodded slowly. “He left you. He left you behind and took your share of the wealth.”
I turned around in my saddle. “Brothers, he says. Never leave you, he says. He left me, his flesh and blood brother. Do you really think he’s tied to you, who are not of his true family?”
Chaos broke loose. No outlaw completely trusts another, but these had put aside their suspicions. Still, a seed of doubt once planted, sown deep, had begun to grow and crack the very foundation that united them. I’d seen the signs of discontent, and my words had shattered the ropes that knit them together. “Kill him!” I heard someone call. “We can lead ourselves without him trying to rule us!”
Vin and the others were free of their bonds and running for their horses. “Get them on their horses, JD. Quickly!” He spurred the little bay and rode for the picketed horses as I turned to Gideon, who was locking swords with an opponent. “Gideon! Come with me!”
“I can’t leave them. I can’t!”
“Even if they kill you? Where’s your wit and wisdom, brother? Where? I can take you to safety.”
“No. No!” he shoved the man back and turned to me. “Go, Nathan. Go with your new brothers. I’ll never change, and *they’ll* never defeat me. Never!” He raised a cask of olive oil and smashed it over a man’s head, then leaped off the dais and ran toward his horse and weapons.
I saluted his back and nudged my horse to my friends, who were mounted and ready. “Let’s go,” I said, keeping the pain from my voice. “We can do nothing here. Perhaps they’ll destroy each other.”
They looked at me, about to speak, but I kicked my horse and took off through the forest, forestalling any questions. We were even: I had deserted him in his weakness just as he had once done to me. I just wish that he’d listened to me and gone on living, for I had no doubts that he would be dead by moonrise.
I tried to push the thoughts away, but I knew they would come back, in my dreams if not in my waking mind. I had lost my brother. Again. I’d thought that once would be enough, that I wouldn’t feel it as much the second time. I was wrong.
But like any other wound, this would heal. In time.
(Several weeks later):
I looked up from my writing as Buck came in. I motioned to the chair in front of me and he took it. “Yes?”
He stared at his boots for a minute, then looked at me, his blue eyes probing. I sat in silence. “You’ve been keeping to yourself a lot lately.”
“I’ve had a lot on my mind: Gideon, my past…”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
I flinched. “I don’t want to talk about it, Buck.”
He leaned forward. “I know that. Just listen for a minute. We’ve all got things in our pasts that we’re not proud of, even JD. We can’t condemn you for what you’ve done, especially because you’re the best of us now.”
“Best? I don’t think so.”
He gave me a roguish grin. “Most moral, I mean. A lot of people in town think you’re boring because you’ve got your head on straight and you don’t give into your… instincts.” I opened my mouth to protest but he continued before I could do so. “Thing is, lots of us can’t understand you because we always thought you didn’t have flaws -- at least, none that we could see . Looks like you really *are* one of us.”
I coughed. “Thank you, I think.”
“I just wanted to let you know that your past is your past, and it’s none of our business. You’ve put it behind you. So will we.” He rose and walked to the door, then spoke again without turning around. “Just so you know, we’re in the tavern. Drinking and gambling and -- some of us -- carousing. Interested in tarnishing that armor?”
I laughed. “Do you think the town will think more highly of me if I do?”
“No, probably not.” He turned to face me and winked. “But I know a few other guys who certainly will.”
“I accept the invitation,” I intoned, dropping my quill and capping the ink bottle. Then, in my normal voice, “Knights in shining armor have become outdated, anyway.”
Buck clapped me on the shoulder and we headed down the stairs and across the street.
In the wind, I could swear I heard my brother’s voice saying: *Brothers in thought, if not in fact. Guard them well.*
“I will,” I answered. “I will.”