He took the last swig from the goblet at his right hand and made a face. The foul-tasting potion burned, and he rubbed his chest through his thick robe, cursing his rotten heart and the aches that kept him up nights. Take more exercise his physician said, don’t work so hard, go on a trip on one of your ships. As if he’d travel on one of those rotting hulks.
With a crash that made him jump, two young men with swords broke through the back door and entered the room.
“Joseph Nathaniel and Deerdunn Griffin!” He recognized them. Their families, like everyone in town, owed him money. “What is the meaning of this?”
Joseph, a tall young man with his father’s wide jaw, pointed a rusty sword at Bandhurst. Griffin, his shorter and rounder friend, held his sword as if it might bite him.
“Is this what’s become of my family’s legacy?” asked Joseph, stepping forward and deliberately knocking over the stacks of neatly arranged coins with the tip of his sword. “My father and his ship are missing and my mother and our family have been thrown off our own land. You have left me, the eldest son, nothing.”
The frail banker raised his hands. He couldn’t stand with his heart pounding as if it wanted to burst from his chest. “Joseph,” he said, “you wouldn’t loan Deerdun a great sum of money without some assurance you’d be repaid. You’d need something of his of equal value in case they were unable to pay you back. Your father understood that before he asked me to finance his voyage.”
He managed a weak smile, aware that borrowers frequently complained of his harsh, one-sided contracts. Quellumtown was a dying seaport, and the few remaining captains borrowed funds from him to buy cargo and pay their crews. Bandhurst was the only man in town capable of making the loans they desperately needed. If they forfeited, they were forced to give their lands and holdings to the town’s only remaining banker. It had made him a very rich man.
He looked beseechingly at Joseph’s partner, remembering too late that he’d sent Old Man Griffin to a workhouse for not paying what he owed.
Young Griffin’s face reddened. “Let’s just take his gold, Joseph, and get out of here before the servants wake and summon the constable. We can be halfway across the southern swamps by dawn.”
“He’ll just pay someone to track us down and get it back,” said Joseph. “We’ve got to kill this poisonous snake. Do the whole town a favor.”
“Wait!” begged the old man, knowing it was unlikely the servants would waken and come to his rescue. Everyone in the house was older than he was and aware of how he hated being bothered when he counted his money. Too late he regretted not hiring a personal guard. “Think about Quellumtown, boys. Who will the sea captains go to when they need to provision their ships? Where will the farmers get money for next year’s grain? Kill me and this town dies.”
“It’s already dying,” said Joseph. “Just like our fathers. Now, it’s time for you to repay what you owe, Goldgreedy Bandhurst!” He approached menacingly.
“Uncle?” queried a young woman. A fresh-faced blonde in a traveling cloak stood in the doorway. “If these are the kinds of guests you entertain here in the city, perhaps we should have stayed in the mountains.”
She stepped into the room, her blue eyes flashing in the lantern light. She was dressed in brown homespun, and her green cloak was dusty and patched. Behind her stood a large man, so tall and wide he filled the entire doorway. He held a large broadsword, shiny and deadly, and pointed it at Joseph.
Bandhurst was speechless. Was this some kind of trick? He had no nieces. The girl and the similarly featured giant must be friends of the robbers.
Griffin lunged toward the old man, his sword raised. The girl moved quickly, tripping him and snatching his weapon as he fell.
The large man took advantage of the distraction to strike Joseph’s puny blade with his mightier one. Joseph’s blade didn’t break, but he cried out as his old sword fell to the floor.
Griffin struggled to gain his feet, but the girl pressed her worn boot against the nape of his neck and kept him pinned to the floor.
The old man stood, shaking from fear and outrage. “Who are you?” He turned from the man holding Joseph at knifepoint to the girl ignoring Griffin’s ungentlemanly oaths.
“Why, Great-uncle Bandhurst,” the girl replied sweetly, “I am Amberlith, and this is my older brother, Tate. We’re Throckmortons from Two Rivers Bridge.”
The old man searched his memory for the familiar sounding name. “My mother’s mother was a Throckmorton,” he said finally. “I didn’t realize there were any left.”
“We just discovered that you existed, Uncle,” she said.
Tate spoke for the first time, his booming voice appropriate for one of his stature. “We’ve come a long way, Uncle, and our request is urgent. We thought to find you abed. Instead, we find you entertaining guests.”
Bandhurst’s housekeeper, Mrs. Block, and his manservant, Mr. Block, appeared, finally woken by the commotion. They roused the few servants in the rest of the house and dispatched the cook’s husband to fetch the constable. Bandhurst’s heart didn’t stop its urgent pounding until Joseph and Griffin were led away. When he testified against them, they’d either be hanged for plotting his murder or spend the rest of their lives in prison for robbery.
“I’ll put fresh bedclothes in your rooms,” Mrs. Block, still in her nightdress, told the youngsters. “It’s so rare we have guests.” She smiled at them and scurried away.
Had he not owed his life to his country cousins’ timely rescue, he’d have offered the stable for them to sleep in. He wouldn’t have riffraff, even blood relations, taking advantage of him. One look at the scattered coins and they’d know he wasn’t a poor man.
“What is your urgent business?” He scooped the lose coins from his desk into a bag.
To his surprise, the brave girl sagged onto a window seat and started to cry.
Tate moved to comfort her. “It’s our little brother, Archer,” he said. “He was killed by a falling tree while clearing land.”
“I’m sorry,” said Bandhurst. “Are you here to invite me to the funeral? Do you need to borrow money for the burial monument? I give good rates to family.”
“No,” said Amberlith, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “We can’t raise the price for his resurrection.”
“Resurrection?” repeated Bandhurst.
“Mama remembered that we had a cousin, you, who might be willing to help us revive Archer. We came as quickly as possible. Please help us restore our brother!”
Bandhurst took his seat and shook his head. “I don’t understand. People can’t be resurrected. Dead is dead.”
“Not in Two Rivers Bridge where we live,” said Tate. “The Phillio Brothers can restore you if you have the price.”
“And if it’s soon enough,” added Amberlith. “They cannot restore anyone who’s been dead over a week. You must help us.”
Bandhurst stared at them. “This is some sort of trick, isn’t it? You’re friends of Joseph’s and think I’m an old fool. No one can be brought back from the dead.”
“The Phillio Brothers can do it,” insisted the girl. “Their mother was Exphoria the Enchantress.”
“Exphoria, the…” began the old man, recalling wild stories of a long-dead healer said to bring her deceased patients back to life. “That’s just an old wives’ tale! That crazy witch never existed, and the tales don’t mention sons.”
Tate slowly removed his cloak and tunic to reveal his naked torso. His wide shoulders and expansive chest were impressive but weren’t what made Bandhurst stare. The young man’s body was crossed with scars, some of them as wide as the old man’s hand. One angry gash across one of his biceps looked like a leather band that joined his arm to his body.
“What happened to you?” Bandhurst had never seen someone who’d been so injured and able to walk among the living afterwards.
“I tried to save my wife from being swept away in a flash flood,” said Tate, the sadness of the memory evident on his face. “I managed to grab her, but the bridge collapsed and pinned us to a stone wall. It took me a long time to die.” He put his tunic back on.
“It took all we had to bring him back,” said Amberlith.
“And your wife?” asked Bandhurst. “Did they resurrect her, too?”
Amberlith answered for her brother. “There wasn’t enough left of her to be restored.”
“It was a long time ago,” said Tate. “Now the Phillios can do the same for Archer, but we cannot meet the price.”
“It can’t have been too long ago,” said Bandhurst, finding their fairy tale fascinating in spite of himself. “You are yet a young man.”
The young people chuckled.
“Older than you might think,” said Tate. “My wife died before Amberlith was born.”
“He’s my much older brother,” said Amberlith with a smile. “When the Phillio Brothers brought him back, Father said he could barely grow a beard.”
“The brothers can resurrect the dead and make them younger?” Bandhurst’s chest hurt, making it hard for him to think.
Tate nodded. “When they cut and stitch you back together, they say it’s easy to repair and replace the old parts. Sort of like clock pieces.”
Bandhurst was still questioning their elaborate charade when Mrs. Block returned to usher the visitors to their beds. Letting them go with a brief goodnight, Bandhurst gathered up the remaining coins and counted them carefully.
His chest hammered with a strange discordant rhythm, but his mind was ablaze with the fantastic tale. Robbers. Enchantresses. Beggars with incredible stories of people put back together like broken dolls. It was too much to grasp.
But the possibility of it being true was too attractive for him to ignore. He should send his newly discovered cousins home without a coin, but he had to meet the Phillio Brothers. If his gold resurrected Archer, he’d secure a deal for himself when he died. With any luck, the brothers might even work for him. His heart fluttered as he pictured a room full of gold coins, garnered from resurrecting the rich.
The trip to Two Rivers Bridge, a village Bandhurst had never heard of, was difficult and rushed. The old man loaned Tate one of his horses and provided Amberlith with a pony. He rode a sure-footed mule and wondered if the animal would be carrying his corpse by the time they arrived at their destination.
After a long day of hard travel to reach the base of the northern mountains, they spent most of another day making their way up a little-used path to their village. Bandhurst brought no servants, afraid they’d carry wild tales about the hamlet where dead people came back to life. He had left a note with the constable. In his saddlebags was gold for Archer’s revival, not enough to be killed for by greedy cousins, but enough to show the Phillios he meant business if Archer was resurrected successfully.
They finally reached the valley high in the mountains. Cottages were far apart, allowing pastureland and crops to grow between them. As the road followed the larger of the two rivers, Bandhurst spotted a waterwheel-driven mill and a smithy furnace.
The Throckmorton homestead was larger than most, resting in a meadow not far from where the bridge crossed both rivers. Petula Throckmorton, the mother of the clan, came out to welcome him to the rambling home. Bandhurst, sore and stiff, required help getting down.
“Come in, Cousin Bandhurst,” said the gray-haired woman. “Poor Archer’s body is in the root cellar, ready to be moved to the Phillio cave.”
Bandhurst joined them in a family meal while other cousins used his mule to transport Archer’s body to the Phillio Brothers’ cave. Papa Throckmorton and some of his other sons were out clearing the field where Archer had died, but enough of the noisy family were home to make Bandhurst appreciate he lived alone.
An old woman approached him at the end of the meal and handed him a mug of elderberry wine. “You are a good man, Cousin Bandhurst, for paying Archer’s price. If I was able, I’d have gladly paid. He was a good lad with many years ahead of him, unlike you and me.”
Amberlith appeared and gently led the old woman away.
After lunch, Bandhurst insisted Tate and Amberlith introduce him to the Phillio brothers. He hoped to speak to them about working for him. If they really were the sons of the legendary enchantress. No wonder no one had heard of the brothers’ abilities. Two Rivers was so isolated one had to know where it was to find it.
Tate helped him onto the pony as the rest of the family waved farewell. Bandhurst was exhausted after the long ride and the heavier-than-expected lunch. He found himself nodding off as his young cousin led him further up the valley.
He awoke with the realization that an old acquaintance – his chest pain – was gone. He raised his head to find he was lying on a stone slab, cold and restrained, but strangely unbothered by it. His heart beat slowly and, for the first time since he could recall, painlessly. As his awareness of his surroundings increased, he could make out the roof of the cave over his head and two men working on a slab near him, busy with a young man’s body. Archer.
“Ah,” said the shorter of the two men, moving from Archer to Bandhurst. His black, curly beard hid half his face. “I see the benefactor is awake. We thought you’d sleep through the entire thing.” Both brothers laughed. Bandhurst wanted to tell them about his offer of employment and ask them about the terms for his own resurrection, but he couldn’t open his mouth. He could only lift his head and move his eyes. Again, his lack of alarm surprised him.
“Terribly nice of you, old man,” said the other brother, thinner but with an equally robust beard. “We were afraid Papa Throckmorton would pay his son’s price, but then Mama remembered there was an old family member in the city. We’re glad Amberlith and Tate found you in time.”
“You’re not much of a talker,” the younger brother addressed Bandhurst. “They probably gave you something to calm your nerves. You don’t need to be awake for the transfer, just alive.”
His brother placed an outsized needle on a nearby table, the needle coated with clotted blood. “Archer is ready. Time for the old man to provide his half of the bargain. The transfer container is ready.”
The man placed his hand over Bandhurst’s nose and mouth and turned to his brother. “This one’s not going to take long. We’ll have young Archer back in time for evening chores.”
“This would be so much easier,” complained the brother from far away, “if the price didn’t have to be paid by blood kin.”
“Yes, lucky they had this one willing to come all the way up here. Must have a heart of gold, this old guy.”
The hand over his mouth clamped down harder, and Bandhurst’s vision blurred as he struggled. The fading rattle in his chest sounded like stacks of gold coins falling over and rolling across the floor.
©August, 2017 Tom Howard
Tom Howard is a science fiction and fantasy short story writer living in Little Rock, Arkansas. He thanks his family and friends for their inspiration and the Central Arkansas Speculative Writers' Group for their perspiration. Find more of his work here.