From the steps of a small shop, Taneris strained to see through the crowd. People pushed past each other on the cobblestone street, rushing to and from Dargon’s busy marketplace. He struggled to see if anyone had stopped or slowed when his foster-father had entered the shop, but even from his vantage point on the steps he couldn’t tell; he was too short.
Taneris hated the crowded city streets. He missed life on the trail almost as much as he missed his well-worn and brightly-colored clothing. The garments he wore to disguise his origin were all uninteresting shades of brown. They also itched horribly in the Sy heat. The subterfuge was necessary, though. Without it, there would be little hope of saving his people from the Bloody Hand of Sageeza.
The Bloody Hand was a secret sect whose members hated and persecuted those outside their own culture, such as Taneris’ people, the gypsy group known as the Rhydd Pobl, or Free People. Almost a month earlier, Taneris’ foster-brother Gwill had returned to their bantor, or wagon-group. He had brought word that members of the Bloody Hand were planning an attack during the annual gathering at Eariaddas Hwl. Gwill had also reported that a captured member of the Bloody Hand had revealed an important secret in exchange for his freedom. The prisoner had spoken of a tome called the Crimson Book of Sageeza, which contained the tenets of the Sageezan religion as well as the cult’s secret methods of communicating. Taneris’ murntedd, or foster-father, Hadrach had agreed to lead an expedition to the city of Dargon to find this book.
A high-pitched laugh caught Taneris’ attention. The crowd had thinned for a moment. Across the street he spied two boys. They were around his size, one dark-haired and lanky, and the other blond and stocky, both dirty from head to toe. The stocky one looked Taneris in the eye, elbowed his companion, and said something. The tall boy laughed again, and the blond boy stuck his chin out, as if daring Taneris to cross the street and fight him. Taneris felt his cheeks burn with anger. He decided that his watch was over, and entered the shop.
Two men looked toward the door as Taneris entered. One was his murntedd, Hadrach, a middle-aged gypsy dressed in drab city-dweller clothing. The other, an older man with a black moustache, had to be the scribe Genarvus Kazakian, the owner of the shop. He was a swarthy man, darker than Hadrach, which marked him as a foreigner to northern Baranur.
Hadrach spoke sternly. “Ah, there you are, boy. Thought you’d wandered off. I was about to come looking for you. Don’t let it happen again.”
“No, father, it won’t,” Taneris replied, his voice sullen.
“See that it doesn’t.” Hadrach turned back to his conversation with the shopkeeper without another glance at Taneris.
The veiled exchange with Hadrach had been for Kazakian’s benefit. Those few carefully chosen words had allowed Taneris to report that he had seen no sign of anyone following them without alerting the scribe. Still, Taneris felt his resentment rise at being treated like a child, even if he did look the part. He thought about Gwill. They were the same age, nineteen summers, but where Taneris was small and slight, Gwill had grown tall and broad-shouldered. He was already regarded among the Rhydd Pobl as skilled and capable. Hadrach would never treat Gwill as a child.
Inside, the sounds from the street were muted. The front of the shop was well decorated, half-store and half-parlor. Facing the door was a carved wooden desk, littered with sheets of parchment. Most of the left-hand wall was covered by an enormous tapestry woven in red, green, and gold. To the right stood a huge hearth, unlit in the Sy heat. The two men were seated before the hearth, facing each other across a small table. Through a curtained opening in the back wall, Taneris could see the trappings of a kitchen, indicating that the shop doubled as the owner’s home.
Taneris glanced around the room, feigning a young boy’s disinterest in adult matters, and listened as his murntedd and the scribe discussed details of the Manifest religion. The young gypsy smiled to himself. He knew that Hadrach could talk for bells on almost any subject if it would help to improve a deal. It was a part of what the old gypsy called “the art of the trade”.
Taneris moved to examine the tapestry. It depicted what appeared to be a gigantic mythic beast resembling a serpent whose coils wound through a countryside, wrapping around a castle, a village, and even a mountain peak. The creature was being attacked on several fronts by mounted armies: men dressed in red armor of curious design wielding impossibly long lances. It was unclear who the victor of the battle would be, but Taneris suspected the serpent; one small section of its coils was shown scattering a dozen riders like leaves before a storm.
He moved on, walking across a floor piled thick with carpets, passing a huge brass urn under which a green flame danced. The urn emitted a light smoke with a sweet scent that pervaded the room. Taneris paused briefly to glance at the scribe’s desk. It was cluttered with rolls of parchment, pots of ink, writing implements, and a block of red material that Taneris concluded was sealing wax.
He stepped away from the desk, being careful not to disturb anything. Hadrach had warned him repeatedly how protective scribes were of their scrolls. Taneris pondered the idea of earning a living from the ability to read and write. He tried to imagine living his life as a city-dweller, stuck in a dusty little shop with his fingers stained with ink and his back permanently bowed from squinting over old parchments. He shook his head. That was no life for one of the Free People.
Taneris listened with mild amusement as Hadrach skillfully turned the conversation from a discourse on religion back to business, while making it seem that the scribe had done so instead. This was more of Hadrach’s art of the trade. Taneris never tired of watching Hadrach work his trader’s magic, even if he had no talent for it himself.
“You said you were looking for certain religious texts, did you not, master Balish?” asked Kazakian. “Evrin Balish” was the name Hadrach had been using in Dargon to pass as a Baranurian. “Do you seek religious doctrine, or histories? Is there a particular religion you desire? I don’t have any such books myself, you understand. My own meager collection consists of a few histories and some reference books. I do know one fellow whose library includes quite a number of Olean texts. Or perhaps you are interested in books of the Stevenic faith?”
Taneris found himself smiling as he watched and listened to the scribe. The man had a strange, almost lyrical, accent. His hands gestured wildly as he spoke. He wondered where on Cherisk this man had been born. It was certainly someplace far from Baranur.
“No, I’m not looking for anything Olean or Stevenic,” Hadrach replied. “I seek something a bit more obscure. A text on Jhel, or Shuul, for instance. Or perhaps a book concerning the worship of Sageeza.” Taneris wondered if Kazakian could hear the trace of bitterness that crept into Hadrach’s voice as he finished speaking.
Kazakian scowled and flapped his hand as if waving away an unpleasant odor. “Vosh, vosh,” he muttered in his own language, shaking his head. “Why would you want such a book, master Balish? I warn you, those who appeal to dark gods often wish that they had kept their prayers to themselves.” Kazakian spoke the last sentence with the weight of a proverb.
Hadrach chuckled. “I do not seek faith, only knowledge. Like you, I am merely a scholar. To study a religion one need not subscribe to its beliefs.”
The scribe rose from his seat and rubbed his hands together as if washing them. “I think you follow a dangerous path. Some knowledge is best left unlearned, and some names are best unspoken. If this is what you search for, I cannot help you.”
Hadrach stood at this obvious dismissal. “Good day to you, then, master scribe,” he said to Kazakian. “Come along, boy!” he called.
“Ts’sutyen,” Kazakian said, waving farewell as Hadrach and Taneris reached the door. “I would like to say that I wish you luck in your search, but I feel you would be better served if you fail.”
Hadrach was silent during the walk back to the Inn of the Panther, their home for the past five days. Taneris longed to ask Hadrach what his thoughts were on Kazakian’s behavior, but he held his tongue. He knew that Hadrach would speak of the encounter with Gwill when they returned to the inn. Taneris had come to expect strangers to think of him as a child, but it rankled when his own foster-father did so.
Taneris had been taken in by the old trader as an infant after his parents had been slain. Gwill was Hadrach’s son by blood. He and Taneris were almost the same age, and had been close friends since early childhood. They had often roamed the forests of Baranur once their chores were complete. They would race each other up trees, or practice stalking one another through the woods. They had shared a dream of becoming hunters, those men and women who provided food for the Rhydd Pobl on the trail and served as scouts and, when necessary, spies. At the age of eleven, Gwill had begun to leave Taneris behind. He grew tall and muscular; his demeanor became more serious.
In their twelfth year, he and Gwill had been fostered to another bantor and apprenticed to a hunter named Senlin. The boys had learned quickly, eager for knowledge. Senlin had worked them hard, preparing them for their trial of passage: the test that marked a Rhydd Pobl youth’s transition to adulthood. It was during his preparations for the trial that Taneris’ affliction first became evident.
He had simply stopped growing. While Gwill grew tall and lithe, Taneris’ body had refused to change. His hopes of becoming a hunter had been dashed when he discovered that he was too small to use a proper bow. He barely had the strength to pull to full draw. Senlin had felt there was no choice but to send him back to his bantor. He had heard that Gwill had passed his own trial the next year.
He was no taller now at nineteen than he had been at age twelve, and the shadow of a beard had yet to darken his cheek. He had been brought to healers, witches, and even a Baranurian wizard. They had mumbled spells over him, and forced him to drink bitter potions and inhale strange vapors. All attempts had failed to cure him of his peculiar affliction.
Taneris followed Hadrach into the inn’s common room. An enormous panther’s head looked out from above the cold hearth at the early evening crowd as they ate, drank, and danced. He followed Hadrach to where Gwill was seated, waiting for them. As Hadrach and Taneris approached, the tall hunter rose.
“Father,” Gwill said. He used the Baranurian word. Hadrach had drilled them all in Baranurian language and culture during the journey to Dargon. Gwill embraced Hadrach, and then pulled out a chair for the older man. “Tanner,” he added with a smile, indicating that Taneris should sit as well. Taneris knew that there was as much pity as affection in that smile. Despite the growing rift between them, Gwill often tried to include Taneris in as many adult matters as possible.
“How did your meeting with the scribe go?” asked Gwill. From the look on Hadrach’s face, he answered his own question. “Not well.” His gaze fell to the table.
“No, not at all well.”
“Was he not the scholar you were led to believe?”
“No, if anything, he was even more learned than I expected. He displayed a great depth of knowledge on the Olean religions. It was only when I mentioned the darker gods that things turned sour.”
“Could he have been one of them, murn — Father?” Taneris offered, then silently cursed himself for almost using the gypsy word.
“Will you never learn to read people, Tanner?” Hadrach made no comment on Taneris’ slip, but the rebuke was plain in his expression. “If he had been one of them, he would have feigned disinterest when I mentioned their god, and then felt me out later in the conversation to see if I might be an enemy or a potential recruit. Kazakian is obviously foreign to this land, his ways as different from the Baranurians as our own. The Bloody Hand would no sooner have him than one of us.”
“He didn’t have a copy of the book, then, or know where to find one?” Gwill asked, relieving Taneris of Hadrach’s scrutiny.
“He would not speak of it,” Hadrach replied. “I am sure that he has more books than he claimed, and even more sure that he could aid us in our search if he chose. But I fear that his door is now closed to us.” Taneris’ frustration grew. Gwill’s question had been at least as foolish as his own. Instead of chastising Gwill, Hadrach had answered him as an equal. As their conversation turned to reviewing prior contacts in their search and determining which would be most likely to lead them to a copy of the Crimson Book, Taneris looked away from the two men. He scanned the busy common room for the fourth member of their group: Rhadia.
Rhadia was two years younger than Taneris and Gwill and had been fostered to their bantor in her eighth summer. She had often helped them in their game of stalking each other, or played the prey as they followed her through the forest. Her passion was not for the hunt, though. Rhadia was a social being who loved to meet new people, talk around the fire in the evening, sing songs, and share stories. It was this that had led to her apprenticeship with Hadrach. Many of the Rhydd Pobl traveled to the cities of Baranur trading in goods and information. Among them, Hadrach was considered a master. Rhadia had come with them to Baranur to learn, although her beauty and vivaciousness had proven useful as a diversion during Hadrach’s bargaining.
Taneris had come as Hadrach’s student as well. It was uncommon for Rhydd Pobl children to be apprenticed to their parent; it was usually taken as a sign of weakness, unless the child had shown a great aptitude for the parent’s craft. Taneris had no gift for the art of the trade. He knew that Hadrach had no choice but to take him. After his failure as a hunter, Taneris had been fostered to a succession of bantors and apprenticed to several different craftspeople: a woodcarver, a weaver, and a ropeworker. Each had been initially eager to take Taneris as a student. His fingers were long and nimble, and he had learned the rudiments of each craft quickly. However, he had left his more tedious tasks unfinished to wander the woods dreaming of the hunt. His unfulfilled desire had ultimately brought failure in every apprenticeship. Each of his masters had dismissed him, relegating him to children’s chores until he could be fostered to another bantor. Now none but his father would take him as a student.
Taneris spotted Rhadia among the small group of dancers and immediately wished that he had not. She was dancing a reel in the arms of a tall man with a dark blond beard. Taneris’ gaze was drawn to where the man’s hand rested casually on her hip. He looked away and tried not to imagine Rhadia in the blond man’s embrace, his beard tickling her neck as he kissed her.
Hadrach and Gwill were still discussing the relative merits of the various scribes, scholars, and priests they had visited since their arrival in Dargon. Each of them owned books, a hobby that could only be indulged at great expense. Most of them knew each other, and were familiar with the others’ interests. Hadrach, posing as a merchant and scholar, had managed an introduction to their circle. His inquiries had been circumspect by necessity. One didn’t just ask around for a text like the Crimson Book of Sageeza without drawing the wrong kind of attention. His conversations often went like the one with Kazakian. He would start with a discussion of religion and religious texts, and then express an interest in a few of the more obscure sects, including the Sageeza cult. He had enjoyed only limited success . In most cases, he had been directed to another scholar. He had managed to broach the topic of the Crimson Book only a few times. Taneris, in his role as a harmless child, had attended several of these meetings. He remembered some details that he could add to the conversation, but could not be certain that what he planned to say hadn’t been discussed while he was looking for Rhadia. Rather than reveal his inattention, he decided to remain silent.
The music stopped. Taneris looked toward the dancers again, just in time to see the blond man whisper something in Rhadia’s ear. She laughed and slapped him on the shoulder. Then, looking in the direction of the gypsies’ table, she waved to Taneris. Smiling, she said something else to her dance partner, and then left the dance floor.
As she approached, Hadrach looked up. “Ah, here’s Rhadia,” the old trader said as he stood. “Tanner, be a good lad and fetch us all something from the kitchen.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a few copper Bits.
When Taneris returned bearing a large bowl of fish stew and several smaller bowls for them to eat from, Rhadia was regaling Hadrach with stories that she had learned throughout the day. When she was not with the older trader, her instructions were to meet as many people as she could, both to improve her social skills and to increase her repertoire of tales to use while trading. She kept Hadrach amused throughout the meal, while Taneris wondered how many more ways could be found to prepare fish in Dargon. He longed for the taste of wild rabbit, caught by his own hand and cooked over a campfire.
As they finished their meal and Rhadia ran out of stories, Hadrach and Gwill resumed their conversation.
Taneris mustered his courage. “Rhadia?”
“Yes, Tanner?” she said as she turned to face him.
Her eyes, beautiful and dark, almost stopped him, but he forced himself to continue. “When the music starts again will you dance with me?”
Her brow furrowed. “Oh, Tanner, it’s just that you’re …” She paused, and then continued, “Well, I am supposed to be meeting new people while we are here, and I’ve known you most of my life.” She smiled, trying to make a joke of it. “Besides, I want to listen to what Hadrach and Gwill have to say.”
Taneris tried to return her smile, and then looked down at his empty bowl. It hadn’t mattered to him what she had said after the pause. In his mind, he had already finished it for her. It could have been any number of things: “too small” or “a failure” were possibilities, but mostly he thought it was “not tall, blond, and bearded”. He tried for several menes to follow the conversation, but he couldn’t escape Rhadia’s rejection. Excusing himself, he went upstairs to the room that he and Gwill shared.
When Rhadia had first joined their bantor and Taneris had been a finger taller than Gwill, she had fallen hopelessly in love with Taneris. He had been ten, two years her senior and too young to care about the differences between boys and girls, and the important things those differences led to. Seven years later, when Taneris had returned from his last failed apprenticeship, she had blossomed, as had his interest. Rhadia, however, was still attracted to older boys, and Taneris had looked little older than when she had first fallen for him.
Taneris shut the door of the small room behind him. He closed the shutters on the window and stripped for bed. He lay down, listening to the muffled sounds from the street and from the inn below him. He sighed in frustrated rage at whatever strange fate had caused him to stop aging. His child’s body had cost him the respect of his murntedd and his peers. Peers? He had none. Gwill and the other boys his age had grown to manhood and left him behind. Even the younger boys had passed him by. Rhadia’s rejection hurt him more than anything else. She had loved him once: a girl-child’s love for an older boy. Now that he was ready to return her love, she fumbled for excuses.
He wished that his true parents could offer him some explanation, or at least a hint of why this had happened to him, but he had never known them, or at least remembered nothing of them. Hadrach had told of how he had followed a plume of smoke to find a ruined Rhydd Pobl ban, or wagon. From the tracks surrounding the ban, Hadrach had determined that several mounted men had murdered the young couple, stolen their horses, and set fire to their wagon. Fortunately they had not remained to see if the blaze caught. Hadrach had pulled the infant Taneris from the smoldering ban and decided to raise him as his own son.
Half a bell later, Gwill entered, and whispered, “Brwd?” Taneris feigned sleep, having no desire to talk to his foster-brother. He expected to hear Gwill preparing for bed, and instead heard the sound of the shutters being opened. He risked opening one eye a slit and saw Gwill, framed in the light of the open window, donning a cloak. The tall gypsy youth then pulled himself up on the window ledge and disappeared onto the roof.
Unable to resist, Taneris slipped out of bed and looked out the window in time to see Gwill hanging off the eave and dropping down into an alley next to the inn. He watched as Gwill reached the street and marked his foster-brother’s direction.
Taneris dressed quickly, the beginnings of a plan forming. Rhadia might not have wanted to dance with him, but could she resist Gwill-stalking? Would indulging in their childhood pastime remind her of her old feelings? Taneris hoped she hadn’t completely outgrown the games of youth.
He stepped into the hallway, trying to close his door without a sound. He slipped past Hadrach’s door and knocked softly on Rhadia’s. She answered, still dressed but looking tired.
“What do you want, Tanner? I thought you were asleep.” Then, perhaps seeing the mischievous smile on his face, her eyes lit up. “What is it?” she asked with more enthusiasm.
“Gwill slipped out. I’m not sure where he’s gone, but I think he needs to be tracked.”
She returned his smile. “I think you’re right, Tanner. We can’t have Gwill sneaking off on his own.”
She grabbed his hand and they rushed down the stairs and through the common room. Once they were out on the street, Tanner pointed in the direction Gwill had taken. Rhadia released his hand and they took off running, exchanging gleeful looks. After a few moments, they saw a cloaked man with Gwill’s build ahead of them, and slowed.
“Where do you think he’s going?” she asked in a whisper.
“No idea. He and Hadrach didn’t say anything about it, did they?”
“Not while I was there, no. I did dance some more before I went upstairs, though. They might have talked about it then.”
Taneris’ hand tingled with remembrance of Rhadia’s touch; he longed to take her hand again, but did not want to spoil the giddy mood.
Gwill stopped several times, apparently alert for pursuers. They were prepared for this tactic, though. Gwill had often used it in the forest to get behind them. They had learned long ago to stop when he did and to disappear into the brush. There was no undergrowth on the streets of Dargon, but there were steps to hide behind and alleys to slip into. These served just as well.
Taneris began to suspect Gwill’s destination when he turned onto Thockmarr Street. He held his tongue until his foster-brother passed the now empty marketplace and turned onto Red Avenue.
“He’s going to Kazakian’s,” he whispered to Rhadia.
“The scribe you visited today? But why?”
“Maybe to ask him more questions?” Taneris ventured.
“This late at night? And Gwill?” They both suppressed a chuckle. Away from close family and friends, Gwill was the least talkative of any gypsy they knew. It was hard to imagine the taciturn hunter striking up a conversation with a Baranurian.
“Maybe not,” Taneris acquiesced, but added, “No, that’s Kazakian’s shop, and Gwill just stepped into the alley. What is he doing?”
They stopped at the alley and Taneris peered around the corner to see if Gwill was waiting for them. He wasn’t, and Taneris motioned for Rhadia to join him. They reached the corner at the back of the scribe’s shop and peered around it. There they saw Gwill trying to climb up onto a window ledge. As they watched, the tall gypsy froze and then dropped to the ground in a crouch. Had he seen them? No. Two men were approaching from the other end of the alley!
Gwill straightened as the two men approached. From his vantage point, Taneris could see that the men were dressed in simple tunics and breeches, not uniforms. They weren’t guards, at least.
One of the men spoke. “Straight. What have we here?”
Gwill didn’t reply. Clearly he was unsure what to say. Taneris and Rhadia exchanged a look.
The other man said to his companion, “Looks to me like it’s just gypsy filth doing what gypsy filth does, Erich.” He turned to look at Gwill. “Couldn’t get what you wanted by begging at the front door, so you decided to steal from the back, right, gypsy filth?” Taneris started at the man’s comments. How did these men know Gwill was a gypsy?
Gwill turned to run but the first man, Erich, grabbed his wrist. The tall gypsy punched him, rocking his head back and forcing him to release his grip. The second man grabbed Gwill from behind, pinioning his arms.
Erich rubbed his jaw as he stepped forward. “That hurt, gypsy boy. I think we need to show the gypsy boy what happens when he strikes his betters. Hold him still, Garon.”
Taneris turned to look at Rhadia again, but she was already in motion, heading up the alley toward Gwill. He tried to follow but he couldn’t move; fear had turned his legs to lead.
Rhadia reached them just as Erich began to pummel Gwill. She stomped down hard on Garon’s heel. He yelped in pain and dropped Gwill. As the man dropped to one knee, she began to pound on his head.
Gwill took Erich’s next punch on his arm and countered with a blow to the chin. Erich, surprised that his victim was fighting back, retreated, covering his head. A voice called out from the shop as Gwill moved to pursue.
“What is going on out there?” Taneris recognized Kazakian’s heavily accented voice.
Everyone in the alley froze. Erich was the first to move; he bolted. Garon managed to push Rhadia off and follow, limping. Gwill and Rhadia exchanged a glance before running the other way. Able to move again, Taneris followed them as they sprinted past him up the alley and onto the cobblestone street.
After several blocks, they stopped to catch their breath and compose themselves. Gwill patted a spilt lip and checked his mouth for loose teeth.
When they could all breathe normally again, he asked, “What are you two doing here?”
Taneris, too embarrassed by his inaction, did not reply. Rhadia said, “Following you, of course. And what were you doing?”
Instead of answering, Gwill looked at Taneris. “Pretending to sleep, were you, brwd? I suppose I should be mad, but it seems the two of you saved my life. Still, Hadrach will be angry that you were out here.”
“Only if we tell him,” said Rhadia.
“We have to tell him. If I come back empty-handed, he will want to know why.”
Taneris halted and stared at Gwill. “Wait. He sent you?”
“Yes. And I know what you are going to say. How could I steal from the scribe when he isn’t a thief?”
“Do no wrong unless wrong is done first,” Taneris quoted the Rhydd Pobl credo.
“I wasn’t going to rob him. Hadrach suspected that the scribe had a copy of the Crimson Book, since he reacted so strongly. I was going to see if the book was there, and leave fair payment if it was.”
“That’s stretching the rules a bit, isn’t it?” asked Rhadia. “We don’t know what the book is worth to him, do we?”
“I wasn’t about to wake him up and ask him.” Gwill said with a shrug. “Let’s get back to the inn. We need to talk to Hadrach.”
As they continued down the street, something still puzzled Taneris. “I do have one question. If Hadrach sent you, why did you go out the window instead of through the common room?”
Gwill looked down at Taneris smiling and simply shrugged. Taneris laughed. Grown as he was, Gwill had apparently not lost his sense of mischief.
Hadrach was initially furious with Taneris and Rhadia for following Gwill, but once he learned that they had saved Gwill’s life, he seemed mollified. After they told their story, he began asking questions.
“These men knew you were a gypsy?”
“Yes,” replied Gwill. “I think they were waiting there for me. They knew one of us had been to the shop earlier that day.”
“Did you recognize either of them?”
“No.” Gwill shook his head.
“What about you two?” Hadrach asked Taneris and Rhadia. “Could they have followed you from the inn?”
“I don’t think so,” Taneris answered. “We were following Gwill, so we would have seen them. If they had been behind us, they couldn’t have made it to the opposite end of the alley in time.” He waited for Hadrach to find fault in his logic, but the old trader just nodded.
“Perhaps the scribe told them to expect us,” offered Gwill.
“No,” said Taneris before Hadrach could reply. “That was the scribe’s voice from the window while you — during the fight,” he finished lamely, not wanting to draw attention to the fact that he had frozen.
Hadrach nodded. “If not the scribe then who? Someone must have known that we were at Kazakian’s home.” He looked squarely at Taneris. “Are you quite sure no one was following us this afternoon?”
“Y-yes,” stammered Taneris, feeling his palms begin to sweat. “At least, I’m pretty sure. It was hard for me to see over the crowd, but I looked for everything you told me: someone stopping when we did or the same person crossing back and forth in front of the shop. I didn’t see any of that. Just –” he stopped, his cheeks flushed, remembering the two boys.
“Just what?” prompted Hadrach.
“Nothing. It was nothing.” He couldn’t bear the thought of telling this in front of Rhadia.
“Out with it, Tanner.” Hadrach crossed his arms and waited, scowling.
Taneris folded under the old man’s scrutiny. “There were these two boys. They … they made fun of me.” He looked at his feet.
“Describe them to me.”
“They were …” Taneris paused, struggling for words, “peasant children, I guess. Their faces were dirty, and their clothes were ragged. They were about my size.”
Hadrach sighed. “Shadow boys,” he said. “I should have expected it.”
“Shadow boys?” prompted Gwill.
“The street children of Dargon. They run errands. Give tours. Steal things.” He sighed again and added, “Follow people. Especially foolish old gypsies. I’ve been so long away from Dargon, I’d forgotten them.” He clapped Taneris on the shoulder. “It’s not entirely your fault, Tanner. I should have warned you about them. It’s easy to disregard children.” Despite Hadrach’s admission, Taneris felt a lump rise in his throat. He had almost cost Gwill his life.
“Now,” said Hadrach to all three of his charges, “we need to get some rest. Rhadia, pack up your room. You’re bunking with me tonight. Everyone keep your knives handy.”
There was a message waiting for Hadrach in the morning. It had arrived at the Inn of the Panther addressed to Evrin Balish. The gypsies gathered in Hadrach’s room again as he examined the note. It read, “Master Balish, I have located a copy of the tome you are seeking. Please enquire with Master Tyrus Vage, at his shop on Murson Street.” It was signed “Genarvus Kazakian”.
They descended the stairs to the common room and occupied a table. A tired looking serving-girl brought them porridge and honey cakes. They ate in silence while Hadrach stared at the note and brooded. Their previous breakfasts had been filled with cheerful discussion of the day’s planned activities, and which of the three would accompany Hadrach to the next scribe or scholar. Despite the seriousness of their mission and Taneris’ misgivings about the city, the younger gypsies had been enjoying their time in Dargon. The events of the previous night had changed that. The silence continued as they awaited Hadrach’s decision on who would attend him this day.
Taneris was certain that Hadrach would choose Gwill or Rhadia. His own failure the previous day would no doubt have lessened Hadrach’s trust in him.
The old man looked up and answered the unspoken question. “All of us are going.”
“All?” Gwill looked surprised. Hadrach had never taken more than one of them with him.
“We need to stay together. After last night, it is certain that the Bloody Hand knows we are here. This is their territory, not ours. As we move unseen on secret trails, so they can make their way through the city undetected by us.” Hadrach gestured, indicating the other patrons scattered about the inn’s common room. “Any one of them could be part of the Bloody Hand, and we will never know until they strike. If Kazakian is right, and Tyrus Vage has the book, we can end this business today and be gone from the city before nightfall. I won’t risk losing any of you before then. Your concern is valid, though, Gwill. We don’t want to look like a band of gypsies.” This elicited a tense laugh from the younger Rhydd Pobl. “Tanner and I will enter first. You and Rhadia will follow a few menes later.”
Taneris felt a wave of jealousy at the thought of these arrangements. Of course Gwill would be the one to accompany Rhadia. He could easily pass for her husband, or lover. Taneris was once again relegated to the role of a child. He was so lost in his own bitter thoughts that he almost missed Hadrach’s next comment.
“We all go armed. Take your knives, but keep them hidden. I don’t want to alarm this Tyrus Vage, but we need to be alert for another attack by the Bloody Hand. I doubt they will move against us in daylight, but we must be prepared for it.”
The hilt of the knife rubbing against his calf did little to reassure Taneris as he walked beside Hadrach. All of the Rhydd Pobl learned to fight with knives through a camp game known as cylel chware. They would leap and whirl about with knives of hardened leather, engaging each other in battle. When one player stuck another in a vital location, the victim would scream in mock agony and fall to the ground, out of the game for that round. If the Bloody Hand attacked, though, there would be no getting up for the next round.
Trying to avoid these dark thoughts, Taneris thought back to the strange little shopkeeper, Genarvus Kazakian. He remembered the scribe’s odd accent, his habit of talking with his hands, and the way he peppered words from his own language as he spoke. Taneris remembered Kazakian’s change in demeanor when Hadrach had mentioned the dark gods: his abrupt yet somehow polite dismissal. Something about that conversation worried at his mind, like a rat gnawing at a sack of grain. He tried to grasp the thought, but it eluded him.
“Here we are,” Hadrach said, interrupting Taneris’ train of thought. They stopped in front of a shop with a small sign by the door. He managed a quick glance back up the street as Hadrach led him inside, and wished that he had not; a short distance behind, Gwill and Rhadia walked together, hand in hand.
The interior of the shop was a disordered mess unlike any shop they had visited in Dargon. Instead of scrolls and pots of ink, the tables in this shop were piled high with a variety of trade goods: clay bowls, bolts of cloth, cooking implements, candles, and dried spices bound in small cloth bags. The puzzled look on Hadrach’s face echoed Taneris’ own thoughts: had they come to the wrong place?
Two customers looked over the items on the tables. One, a matron of middle years, wore an expression that suggested she smelled something foul. The other was a young man with stooped shoulders and a slight paunch. Near the door, a clerk wearing an apron swept together a pile of dust. A tall man with weathered skin and a dark, well-trimmed beard surveyed it all: a king in his own tiny realm.
He addressed Hadrach. “May I help you, sir?”
The ever garrulous trader seemed at a loss for words as he scanned the cluttered shop, and could only stammer in reply, “I, um, that is …”
The tall man appeared struck by an idea, and stepped toward Hadrach. “You must be the fellow that Kazakian mentioned to me. Master, ah, Balish, was it?” he asked with a smile.
Hadrach returned a hesitant smile, still looking a bit puzzled. “Yes, I’m Evrin Balish. You must be master Vage?”
“Tyrus Vage, at your service,” the man replied, extending his hand. “You look confused, master Balish. You were no doubt expecting to find scrolls, maps, quills, and ink on display. Writing is not my business, but books are my hobby. It is an expensive pastime, but trade has been good to me, and I can afford to indulge myself upon occasion.”
Hadrach grinned then, clasped Vage’s extended hand, and pumped it vigorously. “I see, master Vage. You will have to forgive my confusion. Always happy to meet a fellow scholar …”
Taneris stepped away. He knew that he was supposed to learn by watching Hadrach, but he was too distracted by the image of Rhadia’s hand in Gwill’s. He knew that it was part of their act; a young married couple would be expected to hold hands. Even if it wasn’t, he knew Rhadia didn’t want him. Why should he be angry if she wanted Gwill instead? He thrust the thought aside, only to return to his elusive thought about Kazakian. The rat was back, still gnawing patiently at the back of his mind. He concentrated, trying to remember every detail of Hadrach’s meeting with the scribe.
The door to the shop opened, interrupting Taneris’ thoughts again. Gwill entered and held the door open for Rhadia. Her fingers lightly brushed Gwill’s broad chest as she walked in past him. Taneris felt his face redden and jerked his gaze away. He picked up a cooking pot from a cluttered table and pretended to inspect it.
Tyrus Vage raised his voice to greet the newcomers. “Good morn to you. I will be with you as soon as I can. Please feel free to look about.” He gestured broadly, indicating the expanse of his domain.
Taneris put the cook-pot down and tried to focus on Hadrach’s discussion with Vage again — anything to keep his attention away from Gwill and Rhadia. Vage put his hand on Hadrach’s shoulder and gestured toward a curtain-covered doorway at the rear of the shop.
“I brought a few of my books with me today, master Balish. I put them in the back, for safekeeping.” He turned to look back at the man with the broom, who nodded as if to say the kingdom would be safe.
“Ah, most excellent. The tome I seek is exceedingly rare, or at least it has proven most difficult for me to locate.” The old trader spread his hands, indicating helplessness, and laughed.
Tyrus Vage pulled the curtain aside, allowing Hadrach to enter before him. “Yes,” he said, “but I believe I can help you. Master Kazakian mentioned that you were looking for a copy of the Crimson Book of Sageeza.”
Taneris’ eyes widened in surprise as he finally grasped the elusive memory. It wasn’t a detail from Hadrach’s discussion with Kazakian; it was something missing from the conversation. Hadrach had never mentioned the Crimson Book to the scribe! Taneris’ thoughts raced. He had to alert the others, but his tongue seemed glued to the top of his mouth.
He could only watch as Hadrach, perhaps also sensing something awry, stopped in the doorway and turned back to look at Vage, once again wearing a puzzled look. Vage grinned at him, but it was a cold grin, devoid of friendship. “So, you seek to learn about the Bloody Hand, master gypsy? There is but one thing you need to know: we are everywhere.”
Taneris managed to free his tongue and shout “It’s a trap!” only after it had become obvious to all concerned. He watched as Hadrach went for his knife, but the old man’s hand never reached it. Someone lurking in the back beside the doorway chose that moment to attack. The gypsy trader’s head rocked forward with a sickening crunch and he collapsed onto Vage, who pushed him away with disgust.
The aproned man used his broom to bar the door, and advanced on Gwill and Rhadia with a knife. The matron, suddenly transformed into a shrieking harridan, closed on the two gypsies from the other direction. Taneris heard a sound behind him, and turned in time to see the stoop-shouldered man swinging a heavy wooden cudgel toward his head. He ducked, but only managed to turn the attack into a glancing blow. His vision went black, and his knees went out from under him.
Taneris heard the sounds of a scuffle as he lay on the floor. When his vision cleared he saw Gwill and Rhadia, knives drawn, fighting back to back between two of the tables. The clerk and the former customers had them surrounded, but the two Rhydd Pobl were keeping the members of the Bloody Hand at bay.
“Get out here,” barked Vage into the back room. “Finish this.”
Taneris watched as two more men emerged from the back of the shop. He recognized them. The first was Erich, from the night before, who held a large axe in his hands. The other was Erich’s friend Garon: the one with the limp. He held a mace; it had blood and hair stuck to one side of it.
Taneris’ head spun from the blow he had received. He willed himself to stand, but his limbs were cold, leaden. All he could do was watch from his position on the floor, helpless, unable to draw his knife and join the fight.
With the odds now five to two, Gwill and Rhadia were hard pressed. Gwill made a move of desperation, taking the cudgel on his arm in order to close with the wielder. The man went down clutching at his throat, blood pouring between his fingers. The clerk grabbed Gwill’s knife arm, but Gwill jerked his hand free, giving the man a gash across the forearm in the process while ducking a blow from the matron. The delay had been enough to allow Erich to get behind him. His axe whirled through the air, striking Gwill between the shoulders. Gwill staggered forward, dropping to his knees. His knife fell to the floor as his fingers twitched. Erich reversed his swing, burying his weapon in the young gypsy’s chest.
Rhadia gasped in pain. Taneris looked in time to see her collapse to the floor, arms wrapped around her midsection. Above her stood Garon, holding his mace.
Taneris cursed his inability to move. He closed his eyes, unwilling to watch the end of the fight. He waited for death.
“Hold!” he heard Tyrus Vage say. “Don’t kill her. I know some foreign gentlemen who might be interested in her. Let us see how this gypsy scum enjoys life as a slave.”
One of the other Bloody Hand spoke. Taneris thought it sounded like Erich. “Branit’s dead, Tyrus.”
“What of it?” Vage replied. “If he was such a weakling that a gypsy boy slit his throat, he wasn’t a fitting member of the Bloody Hand to begin with. We can’t wipe this filth from Makdiar if we’re weak, straight? Now, take down that sign outside and lock the door. We’ll take the girl with us. You two fetch the wagon. I want everything cleared out by the fourth bell.”
Taneris heard the sounds of Rhadia struggling as she was lifted. They were silenced by the sound of a sharp blow. He waited for one of the Bloody Hand to notice him. He hoped that he could find the strength to move when one of them got close. If he could fight hard enough, they might have to kill him. He thought he would prefer that to Rhadia’s fate.
He heard the front door open and close. A moment later a door slammed in the back of the shop. Taneris forced himself to open his eyes. The cultists were gone.
Taneris reached a sitting position before he realized that he could move again. He stood on shaky legs and drew his knife, aware of the futility of the gesture. The fight was over.
Taneris looked toward the back of the shop. He was alone for the moment, but he knew at least some of the killers would return soon to carry out Vage’s orders. He had neither the time nor the means to take his murdered family with him, so that he might put them to rest properly, but he decided that he could take a moment to say farewell.
He walked to where Gwill lay in a crumpled heap, his chest torn open by Erich’s axe. Taneris touched his brwd’s face, remembering the friendship they had shared as children, but also aware that the last thing he had felt about Gwill was bitter jealousy.
“Gwill, I’m so sorry I wasn’t able to help you. I was hit in the head, I couldn’t move …”
An icy hand gripped Taneris’ stomach as he realized the truth of it. He hadn’t been paralyzed by the blow to his head. He’d been able to stand well enough once Vage and his thugs were gone. He’d been paralyzed by fear, the same fear that had held him motionless in the alley the night before. Tears welled up in his eyes, and he buried his hands in his face. His weakness had cost his family their lives.
Fighting back a sob, Taneris turned to Hadrach’s still form. The old man was on his side, and Taneris could see that the back of his head had been crushed by the mace. He stood next to the body, looking down.
“What should I do, murntedd?” he said through his tears. Hadrach was no longer able to guide him. No one could. He would have to make his own decisions now. He felt a lump form in his throat as his resolve stiffened. He was the only Rhydd Pobl in Dargon besides Rhadia. He would have to rescue her, or die in the attempt, but how could he begin?
A noise from the street startled him out of his thoughts. He realized that his enemies could return at any moment; he had to flee for now and gather his thoughts. Before he left, he bent over Hadrach’s still form and drew the note from the old man’s vest pocket. With a final glance at the blood-spattered room, he slipped out the front door and joined the morning traffic on Murson Street with thoughts of rescue and vengeance flowing through his mind.