DargonZine 14, Issue 7

Talisman Eight Part 1

Yuli 7, 1013 - Yuli 13, 1013


This entry is part 28 of 38 in the series Talisman

The girl’s screams sounded in Rhonwn’s ears as he stabbed at her. He grinned as he worked: those screams were exactly what he was striving for. The louder she cried, the harder he worked. His hands moved, his weapon thrust, and her voice was silent for a brief moment, her face crumpled in surprise, before the screams rang out once again.

 

Rhonwn felt it would soon be over, that his efforts would soon bring their inevitable climax. He put more effort into his ministrations. This time had to be perfect; he was always perfect. The girl, Merilee, was shaking her head from side to side, hoarsely panting, “Stop …” and “No …” and “Don’t …”. In between, her screams had faded through exhaustion until they no longer covered up the noise from the taproom downstairs. The final moment was approaching, and Rhonwn stabbed one last time, stiffening above as she did below, and with one final “Yes!” from his own throat, it was over.

***

 

Rhonwn leaned down and kissed Merilee, whose eyes were closed and whose lips were dreamily smiling. Sweat covered both their naked bodies, and the candles dotted around the room — his own extravagance — made her plain face glisten like a gilded statue. A statue depicting satiated lust, by a master sculptor.

 

He eased himself off his lover, ending up on his side between Merilee and the wall so that she wouldn’t feel trapped. She lay there, unmoving, still reveling in bliss as Rhonwn gazed fondly at her.

 

He reflected on how he had met her that morning, completely by accident. He had only just arrived in Beeikar with his murntedd, Bobere. They were Rhydd Pobl, what the folk of Baranur called gypsies, and they had just traveled from Fremlow City, the capital of Welspeare, the duchy that also encompassed Beeikar. Rhonwn had finished helping Bobere set up their sales stand in the market square, and had then gone exploring the new town.

 

Before he had even left the market square, he had come across a pair of women walking towards him. One was tall and fair, with a pretty face, bright eyes, and a belted robe that showed off her fine figure. Her companion was short and somewhat ruddy, as if being outdoors didn’t suit her. Her hair was mouse-brown, her face was plain, and her robe was unbelted, offering no hints of what lay beneath. They were both young, and the guild braids at their shoulders, combined with their plain dress and youth told him that they were probably apprentices.

 

Rhonwn had smiled broadly, his eyes twinkling at the prospect the taller, prettier woman presented. He knew he cut a dashing figure in his typically gypsy-styled multi-colored clothes, with his long, wild brown hair, and his olive-toned, handsome face. Stepping in front of the pair, he had bowed low and said, “Praise to the gods of the roads, that I have been brought into the presence of such loveliness! May I know your names, so that my evening prayers may be properly attributed?”

 

The shorter woman had giggled, but the taller had just looked at him with a stone-face that would have made a temple idol proud. The giggling one had said, in a voice that was thin, yet shrill, “I’m Merilee and this is Shandly. We’re apprentice weavers –”

 

The stone-faced Shandly had interrupted with, “And we’re late. We’ll just be on our way.”

 

Rhonwn had quickly stepped in front of them again, saying, “I won’t take up much of your time, oh fairest of all apprentices. But, if either of you have some free time this afternoon, I could use a guide to show me around this marvelous town of Beeikar. And who better to show me around this most wondrous city in Welspeare, if not all of Baranur, than one of the most lovely women I have ever met?”

 

Merilee had giggled again, but to Rhonwn’s delight it had been Shandly who had asked, “If we should decide to spend our afternoon break like this, where might we find you?” Her lack of facial expression hadn’t put him off; likely she simply hadn’t wanted her friend to know of her own interest.

 

Rhonwn had pointed back to the sale table and said, “My murntedd … ah, my foster-father has set up our selling table right over there. I shall spend my afternoon there, eagerly awaiting your arrival.”

 

And, with mutual bows, and more giggling from Merilee, they had parted.

 

Rhonwn had spent the morning walking around the town, getting a feel for the people and the place. He had returned to their selling table after his midday meal, allowing Bobere some freedom. And, when Merilee had arrived at about sixth bell, he had sighed to himself, debated whether or not to go through with it, and then set about seducing the mousy woman.

 

It had been a challenge at first, but once Merilee had understood what Rhonwn was offering, the arrangements had been swiftly made. That evening, Rhonwn had slipped up the back stairs at an inn only a few blocks from the market square, and into the room that Merilee had given him the key to. The candles had been placed around the room and lit, the bottles of wine had been set on the table, and one opened, and Rhonwn had waited for Merilee’s arrival. And the rest had followed much as it usually did.

 

Rhonwn looked down on the slowly stirring Merilee, and thought that the old adage was certainly true: in the darkness, all cats become grey. Merilee was no beauty like Shandly, but in bed those differences had disappeared. He reached over and stroked a bead of sweat off of her breast, and then slipped his finger down her torso and over her hip. She giggled dreamily, and shifted her legs slightly apart — which was when Rhonwn saw the blood.

 

He leapt out of bed and looked down at himself, seeing it there, too. There wasn’t much, so it could only mean one thing: Merilee had been a virgin!

 

In a panic, Rhonwn dashed over to the washstand and cleaned himself up with a cloth. Then, he made a beeline for the table and the wine, gulping down a healthy swig of the potent, not to say raw, vintage. A virgin! He should have known! Her naivete, her response to his flattery, it all added up.

 

He looked back at the bed just as Merilee turned languidly on her side, her eyes shining with the last emotion he wanted to see: love. He swiveled back to the table, and swallowed another large gulp of the cheap wine. He knew he should have listened to his instincts, and just spent some nice time with Merilee. Beeikar wasn’t a small town, and he knew that he wouldn’t have had to spend the night alone if he hadn’t seduced the apprentice. Instead, he had taken the easy route, and had ended up with all of the worst complications his nightly assignations could possibly conjure up.

 

He knew he couldn’t just run, even though his instincts were urging just that. He had to let her down easily, make sure that she knew his intentions before they went their separate ways. Steeling himself for what was sure to be a long night, he took another healthy swig of wine, opened the other bottle and filled a mug. Carrying both his bottle and the mug, he turned back to the bed, and staggered a bit as the room went fuzzy for a moment as the alcohol in the wine went right to his head, unhindered by the evening meal he had skipped. He mentally chalked up another mistake as he walked back to his lover.

 

***

 

Several bells later, Rhonwn had finished his bottle of wine and was working on the second one. They had passed the time between drinks by talking — he now knew more about apprenticing to a weaver than he had any desire to — and making love again. That second engagement had just concluded, and Merilee was once again lying there, glisteningly golden with sweat, now running her hand possessively across his chest. She was still working on her first mug of wine, reaching across him to the windowsill from time to time to take a sip, and press her breasts into his chest. Rhonwn just wondered when that tenth bell was going to ring, so he could stumble back to his murntedd’s wagon and be free of mousy, golden Merilee.

 

“So, what’s it like, being a gypsy?” she asked, tracing the ridges on his stomach and being just short of tickling on the way.

 

Rhonwn said, “It’s … I don’t know, it just is. We travel, we sell things, we travel some more. That’s about all …”

 

“Traveling,” said Merilee in a wistful tone. “You’re so lucky, traveling. It must be so wonderful to see new places day after day, year after year. I’ve never been out of Beeikar, you know. Not even to the next town. And you’ve seen the whole kingdom! How exciting!”

 

Merilee’s voice made his ears hurt, and Rhonwn took another swig. He popped the bottle out of his mouth and gulped loudly, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. “Oh, it’s nothije … um, nothing. Most places are alike — people livin’ in houses, people plowin’ the ground, people lordin’ it over other people. We’re not like that, ya know. Nope, we’re not. No kings, no houses ‘cept our wagonsss, hunting and fishing and trading for shtuff. That’sh the life.”

 

Merilee said, “Ooh, it sounds so wonderful!” She hugged him and kissed his neck, then bit it playfully. “Just wonderful,” she murmured, her hands moving down his sides, again just short of tickling.

 

Rhonwn continued his own ramblings, keeping the wine bottle steady throughout. “Yep, wondiful, wondiful. Been to Pyridain, been to Narragan, been to Dargon and back. Just follow the map from place to place, never go wrong.”

 

Merilee propped herself up on her elbows and said, “Map? I thought gypsies didn’t need maps.”

 

Rhonwn blinked in confusion, and then took another swallow of wine. Looking her in all seven eyes, he said, “Of course gypsies don’ need mappppssss! Never be caught dead with a map! Unless you’re forgetful, like my tedd Bobere. Yep, big secret, big big secret, our map. Shameful. Don’t tell, straight?”

 

In answer, Merilee kissed him, guiding the wine bottle to the window sill next to her mug. Then, she climbed on top of him and proceeded to engage him in their other pastime.

 

***

 

Tenth bell finally rang, but Rhonwn was too exhausted and hung over to even hear it. It wasn’t until two bells later that he opened his eyes, stirred out of his slumber by Merilee getting out of bed in a rush. “It’s the 8th, right?” she asked, but Rhonwn didn’t think she was asking him, and he didn’t know the answer anyway. “The 8th of Yuli, yes, of course it is.” Rhonwn watched as she darted about the room getting dressed again. “Shandly and I will be going out with Mistress Jeesp to gather dye-stuffs, and I have to hurry.” Fully dressed, she dashed back to the bed and kissed him. “Have to go. When will I see you again?”

 

Rhonwn realized that, between the wine and her energy, he hadn’t made it clear to her that he wouldn’t be “seeing” her again. “Ah, about that …”

 

“Tonight? Here again?”

 

There was too much emotion in her face, and he was too hung over to deal with it. “No. Merilee … I … well, I … we can’t … ah, see …”

 

“What do you mean, Rhonwn?” Bewilderment had chased the happier emotions from her face, and that hurt him worse.

 

“I meant to let you know last night, but … ”

 

“You have someone else?”

 

“No! No … well, not exactly, no. I don’t have anyone else right now, but … you see, by tonight I will. I’m not ready to … settle down …”

 

Tears filled her narrowed eyes as she said, “Shandly was right! She told me she only asked you where to meet you so that we could be sure to avoid wherever you would be. I didn’t listen to her warnings, but she knew exactly what you were about.

 

“Well, thank you for last evening, Mister Gypsy,” she said with a scorn-heavy voice. “I hope I entertained you. Fare ill in our fair town!” The door slammed behind her, causing Rhonwn to wince for two equally good reasons.

 

***

 

Merilee hadn’t been the first complicated assignation Rhonwn had ever had, and as much as he hated hurting the girl, he knew that he couldn’t do anything about it now. So he put her out of his mind and continued on his way through life.

 

Recalling the adage about horses and falling off of them, he wasted no time arranging companionship for that evening. His experience with Merilee only gave him a momentary twinge as he agreed to meet a pretty young shopkeeper in the same inn, and when they parted the next morning with amicable words and thank-you kisses, his confidence rose another notch.

 

He didn’t see Merilee until the next day, when he was spending the morning at the selling table in the market. His attention was centered on the current customer, a tall, handsome man with blond hair cut short and high over the ears. The man wore a well-cut tunic and leggings, and the guild braid on his shoulder indicated that he was some sort of crafter. His hands went with that assessment; they were finely shaped, with long, slender fingers. The ring on his right hand, a thin oval of some red stone set in gold, was very distinctive.

 

Unfortunately for Rhonwn, the wares on the table in front of him were absorbing all of the attention of the handsome crafter. No matter what suggestive comment Rhonwn made, the man just nodded noncommittally and kept his eyes on the carvings on the table. As was often the case, the large stone semi-circular carving caught his attention for a moment, and was thereafter ignored.

 

When the crafter walked away, Rhonwn’s gaze followed regretfully. Halfway across the market square, the crafter was stopped by a distinctively dressed stranger. Rhonwn had certainly never seen the gentleman before, and he would have remembered someone dressed all in green from his hat to his boots. The two blond men talked briefly before walking away together, which is when Merilee walked through his field of vision, attracting all of his attention.

 

She looked his way and frowned, only it wasn’t a frown of anger but of hurt. She immediately turned away, changing direction and walking out of the market, leaving Rhonwn with the impression that whatever errand had brought her there would have to wait until later.

 

The next time Merilee’s path crossed Rhonwn’s was also linked with the man in green. Rhonwn was walking along Chandler Street the next morning when the green man and another man walked out of an inn right in front of him. As distinctive as the man in green was, his companion was equally so: he was stocky and rugged, and his hair, eyebrows and full beard were red. He had a scar on his left cheek, and he wore the hood of his cloak covering the back half of his head, such that his ears were fully hidden by it.

 

The pair were talking earnestly, but all Rhonwn caught of their conversation was “… has decided to join our …” from the scarred one before they moved out of his line of sight. Behind them was Merilee, just about to enter the inn they had left. This time, she turned away with no expression on her face, and continued on her way. Strangely enough, Rhonwn didn’t feel all that much better about it.

 

Later that afternoon, Rhonwn was walking Chandler Street from the other end, and he thought that he saw the red-headed, scarred man leading Merilee into that same inn, but he wasn’t sure. He entertained the notion of finding out for sure, before remembering that he was supposed to be forgetting about the apprentice.

 

***

 

Rhonwn encountered the man in green again on the morning of the 11th of Yuli. He was strolling down Rainmaker Lane, heading for the market square, when a hoarse voice called out from behind him, “Ho, Master Gypsy!”

 

Rhonwn turned around, and saw the green-clad man striding briskly toward him. As the man drew nearer, Rhonwn noticed that he was indeed dressed completely in green, with every article of clothing — gloves, belt, boots and all — exactly the same shade. The gypsy chuckled silently as he realized that the approaching stranger looked, with his very yellow hair, like a ripe ear of corn.

 

“Well met this morn, Master Gypsy!” rasped the stranger, coming to a stop in front of Rhonwn. “And how do you fare this fine day?”

 

The automatic responses of courtesy helped Rhonwn through the startlement of noticing that even the strangers’ eyes matched his outfit, and he said, “I’m well, good sir. And you?”

 

“To be honest, Master Gypsy, well and not well. Before I expand on that, however, let me introduce myself. I am Lacsil, once a sailor, then a merchant, and now a supplicant, at your service.”

 

“Greetings, Lacsil,” replied Rhonwn, extending his hand before continuing, “and I’m Rhonwn of the Rhydd Pobl.”

 

Lacsil, after looking at and then ignoring Rhonwn’s hand, said, “I have a proposition to make to you, Master Rhonwn. Upon occasion, my dealings as a merchant have been less than, well and well, above-board. Minor transgressions only, of course — I am not an immoral man, I’ll have you know. But every now and then, the authorities become aware of my activities, and I have to evade their so-called justice.”

 

Rhonwn could tell that Lacsil was an accomplished orator, and only his voice detracted from his presentation. His raspy, grating voice sounded like an ill-tuned viol, or a shawm with a cracked reed. It made the hair stand up on Rhonwn’s neck, and set his teeth on edge, but out of courtesy, he continued to pay attention.

 

“I am currently in the middle of such a situation, which is where I hope that I can solicit your help. I need to get to my friends in the north, to settle this business. Unfortunately, the authorities know this as well, and are sure to be watching the roads. However, I have heard that you, well and well, are traveling that way as well, and everyone knows that gypsies can go from place to place, town to town, without being seen. So I thought that we might be able to do each other a favor under the circumstances. I can pay, and pay well, and even gypsies need gold now and then. Believe me, I can make it worth your while, my friend. And in return, you can get me out of Welspeare without attracting the notice of the agents of the duchy.”

 

Rhonwn’s instinctive response was negative, and he gave it to Lacsil without hesitation. “I’m sorry for your troubles, Master Lacsil, but gypsies don’t take passengers. Our trails are our secrets, and we don’t give up our secrets lightly.”

 

“But surely you see the injustice here. What I’ve done has hurt no one — just a few people with lighter purses than they might have had. Yet I am being hunted like an assassin, and denied the freedom of the roads that my taxes have helped to build. Does that not, well and well, strike a chord with you? Can you not feel for my plight?”

 

Rhonwn frowned, and wanted to back away. He was insulted that this stranger was insinuating that the free ways of the gypsies were in any way similar to his own mercenary transgressions. But again, courtesy forbade him from being rude — another aspect of his Rhydd Pobl heritage, that wrong not be done unless done wrong first. He replied, “I do not equate the misunderstandings your kind has of my way of life with your own larceny. I have, indeed, run from those authorities you speak of, but that doesn’t make us tillanda, or family. I must still say no, Master Lacsil.”

 

The man in green’s eyes narrowed, and his lips parted to show his teeth in an avaricious grin. “Well, then, would two Crowns change your mind?”

 

Rhonwn’s own thoughts changed from affronted dignity to visions of profit. Gold wasn’t something that most gypsies sought to hoard, but as Lacsil had said, even one of the Free People needed it sometimes. Calculating what he thought the shady merchant might be worth, and the dire straits he was in, Rhonwn said, “I don’t think so,” in a voice that indicated it wasn’t his final answer.

 

“Would three be a more reasonable offer?”

 

“Perhaps,” allowed Rhonwn, thinking about what three Crowns could buy, “but I have to be honest when I say that it isn’t my decision. My murntedd, Bobere, is pinwban, or wagon leader, and it is for him to decide the merits of your situation and your … offer.”

 

“Fair enough,” said Lacsil, his grin softening into something more casual even though his eyes remained narrowed. “Do you think you could persuade him?”

 

“I think you could make your plea better than I could, Master Lacsil.”

 

“Perhaps you are right, Master Rhonwn, perhaps you are right. Might it be convenient to meet all together this evening? Matters are somewhat, well and well, pressing …”

 

Rhonwn knew just the thing. He had heard the ale at the Boar-Ring Inn recommended several times, and he had been assured that even a gypsy would be a welcome customer. He said, “Come to the Boar-Ring tonight, halfway between second and third bell. You know where it is, out by the river? Good. I’ll bring Bobere, and you can put your proposition to him then.”

 

“I thank you for your help, Master Rhonwn. Until tonight?”

 

Rhonwn extended his hand and said, “Until tonight.” Instead of shaking it, Lacsil gave a strange salute, turned, and walked away. Rhonwn watched him leave, wondering whether Bobere would accept the dishonest merchant’s offer, and if so, for how much.

 

***

 

The two gypsies, blood father and son as well as murntedd and murnmib, foster-father and foster-son by Rhydd Pobl custom, walked down the road by the Renev River, the light and noise of the Boar-Ring Inn leading them toward it. It was somewhat after the evening’s second bell, but the walk from the clearing where their wagon was parked had been long.

 

Rhonwn had told Bobere about Lacsil and the merchant’s proposition. He had also been asking questions about the man all day, but had gotten little information for his trouble. No one knew much about the man in green, and, strangely, no one seemed to be looking for him either. At least, not yet.

 

Bobere looked every inch the typical gypsy, with his neatly-tailored, multicolored patchwork clothes, black hair and hooked nose. Rhonwn knew that the family resemblance was strong, though his hair was longer and brown, his nose was not so pronounced, and his clothes were not patchwork, though they were multicolored. All in all, there was no mistaking the pair for anything other than proud members of the Rhydd Pobl, the Free People of the world, or, more commonly, gypsies.

 

So, Rhonwn understood when Bobere asked, “Are you sure we’ll be welcome in there, Rhonwn?” Gypsies tended to be driven from many establishments with varying force, from shouts to sticks, simply due to their mostly-undeserved reputations. But Rhonwn knew that such would not be the case here.

 

“I’m sure, Bobere,” Rhonwn said. “I have it on good authority. I wouldn’t have asked Lacsil to meet us here if I thought we’d get tossed out. So stop worrying!”

 

The door under the sign bearing a circle of swine opened, and three figures staggered out of it. Rhonwn noted their distinctive dress — leather vests wide open across bare chests, leggings tightly wrapped from the knee down in braided, beaded straps, and the half-circle hats worn sideways — and took the opportunity to further reassure Bobere. “See, murntedd, the Boar-Ring serves bargemen! Any place puts up with bargemen will be overjoyed to see the likes of us, yeah?”

 

Throwing a companionable arm around his father, Rhonwn made a path toward the door, detouring wide around the raucous bargemen on the way. He ushered Bobere through the door and then followed him to the only empty table in the place.

 

A lively crowd filled the taproom that evening. Rhonwn gave his most charming smile to the barmaid who came to take their order. She was attractive but with a worn-down air, and Rhonwn could tell that it wasn’t just because of the hectic atmosphere in the taproom. She had raven-dark hair piled up on the top of her head, and her green gown was tight at the waist and laced to press her lush breasts together and present them invitingly in the white undershift she wore. She acknowledged the young gypsy’s flashing-toothed grin with barely a twinkle of her brown eyes and the slightest hint of a smile on her full lips. She introduced herself as Aivney and took their orders. On the way to the bar she took three more orders prior to vanishing behind it to fulfill them all. Rhonwn noticed that the only other server on the floor was a sour-faced and bald old man, and he knew that what he had heard a bout the excellent ale had to be true to attract so many customers in the face of such a disagreeable server.

 

The door opened to admit a handful of people into the already crowded room, drawing Rhonwn’s attention from the swaying hips of the serving wench. He recognized one of the new arrivals, and stood to gesture Lacsil over. The green-clad man strode across the room, a broad smile on his face.

 

“Welcome, Lacsil, and well met,” said the young gypsy, extending his hand, and then gesturing toward his father when he remembered that the man in green didn’t like to shake hands. “May I introduce my murntedd, or foster-father, Bobere of the Blue Valley band of the Rhydd Pobl. Bobere, this is Lacsil, the gentleman I told you about. He has a business proposition for you.”

 

Bobere nodded to Lacsil and gestured to the bench on the far side of the table. Lacsil swept off his felt hat with a curious right-handed motion that Rhonwn didn’t quite catch, and stuffed it into his belt as he sat down. Rhonwn followed suit. As everyone got settled, the curvy barmaid returned with the drinks the gypsies had ordered and took Lacsil’s order before departing. Rhonwn tried not to fidget as he waited nervously with the others for the last ale to arrive before beginning their discussions so that they wouldn’t be disturbed later. Finally, the leather jack of alcohol was set in front of the man in green. Lacsil immediately took it in his left hand and lifted it high. “To profitable business!” he proposed in his raspy voice, and Rhonwn echoed the gesture and the toast along with his father before taking a healthy swallow of the cool, brown ale. Rhonwn grinned as he contemplated the refreshing beverage. One of the Boar-Ring’s secrets must be its location — it was easy to keep ale cool in running river-water.

 

Lacsil said in his raspy voice, “And now, to business. I’m sure your … son? … has told you of my situation, but let me put it in my own words, shall I?”

 

Rhonwn found that the gravely voice of the green-clad man still grated on his nerves. It was the kind of voice that made one look for noose-scars, though what showed of Lacsil’s throat was smooth skin. As Lacsil put forth his tale, Rhonwn turned his attention elsewhere. He had heard it just that morning, and with the way that voice was making his eyeballs and fingernails vibrate, he was sure he didn’t need to hear it again.

 

He let his gaze wander over the wealth of people in the taproom. The Boar-Ring seemed to attract all different types of people. Rhonwn saw laborers relaxing alongside merchants, crafters drinking with farmers, scum like the two bargemen in the corner sharing the room with the aristocrat that had just walked in the door.

 

Rhonwn stared at the young man with the long brown hair who had stopped a few paces inside the room. He wore his rank like he wore his very fine clothing: easily and naturally. He was handsome, with clear grey eyes, a fair complexion, and a full beard and mustache cropped close to his face. Rhonwn didn’t usually mix with the gentry — they tended to have even stranger ideas about land-ownership and peoples’ places than the ordinary folk. And this man looked like more than a mere lord. But Rhonwn was prepared to make an exception for that fine-looking individual.

 

The young man’s gaze swept across the room, resting on the very table that Rhonwn sat at for a moment before moving on without acknowledging anyone who sat there. Rhonwn watched as the curvy barmaid worked her way across the room until she stood next to the noble with the ease of one long known. Rhonwn couldn’t hear their brief conversation, but the handsome man didn’t seem to be looking for a drink, but the answers to some questions. All too quickly for Rhonwn’s liking, the man kissed the barmaid on the cheek, turned and left. The barmaid just stood there for a few moments, until the catcalls from the crowd and a few growls from the male server got her moving again.

 

Rhonwn returned his attention to his table companions, hoping that the negotiations were almost finished. He was disappointed to find that little had yet been decided.

 

“What interest might my, well and well, crimes be to you then?” asked Lacsil.

 

“Only so that I know what level of risk I would be undertaking were I to accept your offer, my good man,” answered Bobere. “Will I be risking the wrath of every baronial reeve between here and the north shore of Baranur? Or will the pursuit end at the border of Welspeare, if not Bindrmon?”

 

“I assure you, that the matters were not worth an entire kingdom’s wrath. You will be safe and safe once the border of the duchy has been trampled upon in passing. Is that little enough risk for you?”

 

Rhonwn shook his head and went back to ignoring them. He let his gaze wander around the room again as he sipped his ale. He was delighted to recognize one of the customers: the crafter he had seen talking with Lacsil on his third day in town. He was sitting companionably with a woman of about Bobere’s age, making her a good handful of years older than the crafter. She was good looking in a solid way, the few strands of grey in her brown hair not very noticeable. The cut of the tunic she wore told Rhonwn that she was probably a merchant. Perhaps she sold the wares the gentleman produced.

 

Rhonwn flashed his smile at the couple, trying to make eye contact with either one of them. To his delight, he received a meaningful look from both along with a sly smile from the woman and a broad wink from the man. He nodded once in return, since he noticed that neither of them was aware that the other had also responded to him, and continued to scan the room.

 

Another empty jack of ale later, Rhonwn returned his attention to his father in time to hear the deal being closed.

 

“Seven full Crowns,” said Bobere.

 

“Six and eight Rounds,” offered Lacsil.

 

Rhonwn watched his father’s eyes narrow as he studied the man in green. Rhonwn knew that the deal was almost closed; his father was calculating just how many more Rounds he could squeeze out of Lacsil.

 

“Six and fifteen,” was Bobere’s counteroffer.

 

Lacsil hesitated, and Rhonwn caught a glimpse of something he wasn’t sure he liked in the man’s green eyes. Finally, the rasping voice said, “Six and eleven, and not a Bit more.”

 

Bobere paused for a moment, and then said, “And if I accept that amount, what guarantee do I have that you are good for it, then?”

 

Lacsil’s eyes narrowed further, but he dipped his left hand into his belt pouch and set a Crown on the table before Bobere. Rhonwn watched with admiration as his father tapped the golden disk with a practiced fingernail, and nodded briefly in confirmation that it was real. Then, he turned his practiced ‘expectant gaze’ on the man in green and waited.

 

The wide smile thinned under the green eyes, and Lacsil produced another Cue to go with the first. Bobere said, “Thank you. I’ll expect the rest when we leave, which will be soon. We’ll let you know the location of our campsite the night before we depart. Will that be all?”

 

“I thank you for graciously agreeing to help me out of my, well and well, situation. I will await eagerly your summons. Fare well!”

 

Lacsil rose, bowed to each of them, and left, pulling his hat out of his belt with his left hand and placing it on his head. Rhonwn noticed that the man in green hadn’t left any payment for the ale he had consumed.

 

Once Lacsil had left the room, Bobere said, “I wonder whether that was wise, Rhonwn. I’ve done well in the markets of Welspeare these past months, though six Crowns is nothing to toss to the frogs.”

 

“It’ll be fine, murntedd. Lacsil’s a donkey’s behind of a man, but as long as his gold is hard, I think we can put up with his ways for a few fortnights. And if he really becomes bothersome, we can put a dagger in his ribs and leave him by one of our hidden gypsy trails, straight?” Rhonwn laughed as his father rolled his eyes at the joke, followed by a nod of agreement.

 

Bobere stood and fished for some Bits to pay for the drinks. When Rhonwn remained sitting, he said, “Coming?”

 

“Not just yet, murntedd.”

 

“Well, anything more is out of your purse. Be safe, murnmib.”

 

“Of course, of course. Don’t wait up.”

 

Rhonwn waited until his father had left the inn, and a little more until the crafter with the long fingers had left the merchant woman alone for a few moments. Then he rose and slipped over to her table, plans for the night already forming in his head.

 

***

 

Two mornings later, as the Baranurian calendar turned from the 12th to the 13th of Yuli with the rising of the sun and the tolling of the first bell of the day, Rhonwn stepped quietly out of a doorway into a shadowed back yard. He was cinching his belt and straightening his clothes while he looked around to be sure that he was not being observed.

 

A finely shaped hand with long, slender fingers reached from the shadowed back door, handing him his cloak. The long, thin, oval red stone set in the gold ring came into view as Rhonwn took the cloak from the crafter and swirled it around his shoulders. He smiled fondly at the dim shape within the house, but neither of them said a word; their heartfelt goodbyes had been given over the past bell.

 

Rhonwn turned away from his last conquest in Beeikar and made his way toward the alley that cut through the block at the side of the next house over. It turned out that the crafter owned both homes, and had recently rented the house that Rhonwn was sneaking behind to a newcomer for a sennight or so.

 

Rhonwn was long familiar with slipping stealthily away from his nightly assignations in the dim light of the first bell of the day. He had repeated the actions in town after town, city, and hamlet across the land the rooted folk called Baranur and beyond, and he hadn’t been caught yet.

 

He didn’t have the time to be leisurely about his departure, either. His father was planning to leave for the north today, no later than third bell. He enjoyed traveling, even if it didn’t provide quite the same kind of diversions as the time he was able to spend in a town and among its inhabitants. But traveling was life to a gypsy, and he heard the road calling to him just as strongly as the diversions of civilization.

 

Rhonwn was creeping under an open window glowing with light when he heard a sound he recognized. It was a voice, and a very distinctive one at that. He had last heard it the night before, when he had delivered the message of their departure time and the location of their campsite to Lacsil. But this was not the address that he had met Lacsil at.

 

Curious, Rhonwn stopped beneath the window and waited. His stealth was almost for naught when he caught sight of a curious rat sniffing at his boot, but he stifled his instinctive shout and just kicked the rat across the yard. His attention was drawn back to the window by a deep voice saying, “I think we’re ready, boss.”

 

Rhonwn was rising slowly, with the intent to peek in the window, when Lacsil’s rough and raspy voice said, “Are you sure? Well, there are supposed to be eight here and I only count six sitting. Where are the others?”

 

The deep voice, sounding gently admonishing, said, “Boss, you’re not counting us. Six there, two here, that’s eight. Straight?”

 

Lacsil’s voice sputtered, and Rhonwn dropped back into a full crouch. Eight people gathering? Lacsil being addressed as boss? What was going on? Rhonwn’s curiosity was more than idle now: he needed to know what their fellow passenger was up to.

 

Suddenly, the deep voice boomed out, “Quiet!”, even though Rhonwn hadn’t heard any other talking going on. After a moment, Lacsil’s voice filled the still dawn air, just as raspy and annoying as before. Rhonwn just clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from vibrating, and listened closely.

 

“Welcome, my friends, welcome. My associate, Hissek here, has gathered you all together for a, well and well, noble purpose. You all have reason to hold a grudge against the gypsies that call themselves the “Reethe Pobul”, the ‘Free People’. Well, I do also.

 

“A year ago and more, I was in the wrong location at the worst possible time. In a small barony in the south of Pyridain, I was apprehended following a series of minor but destructive and, well and well, disruptive incidents. The reeves had laid the crimes on the ‘Free People’ and I was taken to be one of them.

 

“None of the gypsies could actually be found, and the reeves wanted someone to practice their justice on. Their justice was this!”

 

There was silence for a moment, and then gasps. Lacsil continued, “Yes, my friends, the reeves took my right thumb to satisfy their justice. And it was all the fault of the gypsies!”

 

A babble of comments rose in the room, and Rhonwn thought back to his few meetings with Lacsil. He remembered that the man in green had never removed his gloves, and had only seldom even used his right hand, despite hanging his sword and belt pouch on his left hip as if his right hand was his main hand. Rhonwn recalled that strange hat-removing gesture that, he now realized, had used only fingers, no thumb.

 

The young gypsy wondered how much of Lacsil’s story was true. He doubted that any of the Rhydd Pobl had actually been involved in any kind of concerted series of disruptions. A wagon-group of ‘Free People’ might undertake one or two acts of revenge, but only when they had been done wrong first. But they well understood both the danger of rousing the public uniformly against them, and the results of too much mischief on the by-standing innocent. He also found it incredible that anyone would take Lacsil for a gypsy, though he did dress oddly. And, he supposed, there were many who lumped all who were strange together in the same wagon.

 

“My friends, please!” rasped out Lacsil’s voice again. When quiet had returned, he continued, “We all have been hurt by the gypsies. But soon will come an opportunity to avenge our hurts. An opportunity heralded by the heavens themselves!

 

“In two months’ time the Reethe Pobul are having a gathering in the northern forests of the Duchy of Dargon. At the same time, in the night sky above us, the Sword of Sageeza will move into the Caravan. The signs are clear, and all the Bloody Hand of Sageeza, a group I am a proud member of, needed was a way to find that hidden meeting place.”

 

Rhonwn’s imagination leapt ahead of Lacsil’s speech, and he knew he had to warn his father: they couldn’t take Lacsil north with them! He was just about to creep away when Lacsil’s next words froze him in place again.

 

“Our cause must be just, my friends, for that way has come to us in our, well and well, time of need. The great Sageeza guided my steps to Beeikar at just the right time. My aid, Hissek, who also does the bidding of Sageeza, found our key. And that key is right here. Straight, Merilee?”

 

Rhonwn’s eyes grew wide. He could understand Merilee holding a grudge with him and, by extension, all of his kind. But what could Merilee possibly offer to the Bloody Hand that was so valuable?

 

Merilee’s voice, almost as annoying as Lacsil’s, drifted through the window over Rhonwn’s head. “I met a gypsy not very long ago. He was nice to me. We talked, and … and other things. But after that, after all we did together, he said he didn’t want to see me anymore.

 

“We talked about all sorts of things,” Merilee continued. “I asked about what it was like being a gypsy, traveling all over. He told me tales that made me wish he would take me away with him. I asked in all innocence how his people found their way across pass-less mountains and through trackless forests, and he told me that most gypsy wagon-masters memorized the routes, but that his ‘murntethe’ had a secret …”

 

Rhonwn gasped, and slapped his hand over his mouth to silence himself. He didn’t remember much about their conversations, especially later in the night when he had been drunker than a lord, but if he had mentioned Bobere’s secret, they were both in great trouble indeed.

 

Merilee’s next few words caused Rhonwn to panic. “He said they had a map.”

 

Rhonwn needed to get home even more, now. Lacsil had very dangerous knowledge, and he mustn’t be allowed to profit from it. The young gypsy had heard rumors of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza, a group of purists dedicated to wiping out all wanderers, all those considered outsiders. They were cranks, malcontents, and small-minded fools, but dangerous for all of that. If they were able to find the annual gathering, it would be disaster.

 

Rhonwn slipped back to the alley, leaving the Beeikar chapter of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza to their further planning. He had to warn Bobere. They had to leave immediately, or at least before Lacsil arrived. They just had to!

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