Early in the morning of the 13th of Yuli, not much past second bell, Rhonwn charged into the clearing where he and his father were staying, crying, “Bobere! Murntedd!” over and over. His heart sank when he saw that no progress had been made toward readying the wagon for travel; there were crates of wares stacked on one side of the clearing, the horses were bare of tack on the other side, and around the embers in the fire pit was almost every cooking utensil they owned. Despite the urgency of his news and the consequent need for a hasty departure, Rhonwn knew that the wagon wasn’t going to be ready to leave for well over a bell.
After one more shout, the elder gypsy appeared at the door of the wagon parked half-a-dozen paces from the fire pit. “What’s the noise about, murnmib? Your dawn returnings aren’t usually so noisy, luckily for me. I need more sleep than you, my son, as you well know.”
Rhonwn rushed over to his father and said, “Disaster, murntedd, disaster for all of us, that’s what. I overheard a sinister meeting gathered by our passenger-to-be, Lacsil, and it bodes disaster!”
“Calm down, Rhonwn, calm down!” Bobere said. “Come, sit and rest yourself, and give me your news.”
Rhonwn protested, “But we don’t have time, Bobere!” even as he let himself be led to the folding chairs set by the fire pit. He settled himself into the cloth sling of the chair, took a few deep breaths, and then said, “Father, I’ve learned that Lacsil is a member of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza.” He was pleased that his father’s expression changed from amused tolerance to the beginnings of concern. “It’s true. He revealed that the Bloody Hand has plans to intrude upon the gathering of our people in the forests of the duchy of Dargon this fall, with the intent of killing as many of us as he and his fellow malcontents can manage. That would be bad enough under normal circumstances, but with the numbers that will attend this gathering for the union between Maks and Syusahn, it c ould be completely disastrous.
“But that’s not the worst. It seems that Lacsil has learned that you possess a map of the Rhydd Pobl trails, through an indiscretion of my own. I’ve put everyone in grave danger, father. What can we do?”
Bobere’s expression had changed to deepest worry. “We can leave, as quickly as possible, son. Lacsil must not have that map. You harness the horses, and I’ll stow the interior of the wagon. We may have to leave our stock and our kitchen gear, but those can be replaced. We must not be anywhere near when Lacsil comes to find us. Go!”
Lacsil, dressed all in green as usual, rode with his assistant, Hissek, through the woodland paths that surrounded Beeikar, the baronial seat of Bindrmon. He rode with two of the towns-people who had been at his dawn meeting of the newest recruits of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza. He had sent the others at the meeting off to spread the word to other groups of the Bloody Hand — the word that Lacsil had finally gained the key to striking a major blow against their foes, the gypsies!
For ages, the Bloody Hand had sniped at the gypsies, ambushing them here, inciting people to rise up against them there. But Lacsil was marshaling what would be their crowning glory: an attack in mass on the annual gypsy gathering. And he would have the means to lead each and every Hand right to their enemies!
All he had to do was meet up with the gypsies he had hired to smuggle him north out of Welspeare. Somewhere along the way, he would find the map they had, the only map in existence that cataloged the hidden ways of the gypsies, and break away from them. Armed with that map, and the legions of the Hand who would be gathering in Tench by the end of Sy, he would strike a righteous blow against the “Reethe Pobul”!
Lacsil had been told the previous evening that the gypsies would be leaving at about third bell. Knowing that he couldn’t afford to be late, he had set out as soon as the morning meeting had ended. How could they object to his arriving early, after all?
Rhonwn’s directions had been explicit, so Lacsil knew when he was nearing the gypsy’s clearing. He reined in his horse, signaling his associates to stop as well. When they had all dismounted, he gathered them around and clarified his plans.
“I want the three of you to wait within earshot while I continue on into the gypsy’s campsite. I’m sure there won’t be any trouble, but this is too important not to have a backup plan, and that’s you three, straight? If anything goes wrong, I’ll shout out, which is your signal to come running. Got it? Fine.
“Now then, since everything is going to go perfectly, when I leave with the gypsies, you’ll follow us, Hissek. Once again, as a, well and well, contingency. You two have already been told where to take my message as soon as you are finished here. Is everything clear? Then let’s be about it.”
Lacsil took hold of the headstall of his horse and set out down the path to the clearing. His intention hadn’t been stealth, but he arrived unnoticed to see both gypsies concentrating on preparing to leave. Bobere, the older gypsy, was hurriedly stowing items into the wagon parked near the fire pit while his foster son, Rhonwn, was draping the horses in blankets, and buckling straps around them.
Lacsil knew that it was not very much past second bell, and the haste with which the gypsies were acting alerted him that something was not right. Surely, if his guides were still intending to leave at about third bell, there was no need for such speed? Warily, yet putting on a cheerful face, he said, “Greetings, fellow travelers! I didn’t want to inconvenience your departure plans, so I have arrived, well and well early!”
Both gypsies stopped in their tracks and turned toward him when his voice sounded across the clearing. Was that fear on their faces? Bobere rattled off a sentence in their strange language, which set Rhonwn to work harnessing the horses again, though at a more sedate pace. Then the older gypsy approached Lacsil and said, “Ah, sir Lacsil, I regret that you have made your journey in vain. Matters have rearranged themselves, and the upshot is that our wagon no longer has an extra seat this journey. Here, let me return your Crowns, and I hope that you will be able to make other arrangements.”
Lacsil cursed inwardly, but maintained his friendly mask. “Oh, but are you sure? I fear that the forces of so-called justice are closing in on me and I don’t know how long I might have as a free man. You were my best chance at escaping and reaching my friends in the north. I assure you I would be no bother; I have my own gear and can fend for myself. All I need is a guide. Perhaps you might change your mind for another, well and well, two Crowns?”
Bobere was backing away as he said, “No, no good sir, the sticking point is not the amount of payment. I’m afraid that, much to my regret, there is no leeway for compromise this time. Fare you well, Master Lacsil.”
“So be it, Master Bobere,” said Lacsil, with feigned resignation. However, instead of turning and leaving, the man in green drew his knife and shouted, “For Sageeza!” Not waiting for his companions to arrive, he charged at Bobere. He didn’t even regret the change in plans all that much; after all, a gypsy dead now rather than at journey’s end was still a gypsy dead!
Yawrab closed the servant’s door of Denva Manor and turned the key in the lock, securing the residence. As chatelaine of the manor, Yawrab had returned early to prepare it for the imminent return of the Lord and Lady Denva and their twin children from their recent trip to Fremlow City. Arriving the previous afternoon, she had worked well into the evening getting the large house ready.
Despite being tired from her own journey from the ducal seat and retiring rather later than usual, she still found herself rising with the dawn, as was her habit. Faced with the prospect of sitting alone and idle for the day — her duties had been carried out, and the other servants not yet returned from their holiday — she chose instead to take herself into Beeikar to visit her sister, Tillna. The Denva estate was some distance from the town proper, but Yawrab faced the two-bell walk in good spirits. She had spent quite enough time recently on horseback, and the weather that fine Yuli morning was well suited to a short trek.
As Yawrab started walking, she wondered how Tillna was. Her sister worked at an inn in Beeikar, the Ring of Swine or something similar, and seemed to like it. There had been a time when Tillna was little more than a trollop, using her beauty and her body to earn favors from men. Yawrab had found that both demeaning and personally repugnant, the latter due to a particular incident in her past, the very one that had led to her traveling north from Shaddir Barony to Barony Bindrmon. Her sister, as her only family, had come along, though Tillna hadn’t known why her sister was moving so far away from home.
Things were getting better for Tillna now, though. Yawrab’s younger sister had set her cap for the handsome and dashing Lord Aldan, son of Baron Bindrmon and heir to the title. She hoped that Tillna wasn’t aspiring too high. Could the baron-to-be really be romantically interested in a bar-maid? Could the daughter and sister of servants really aspire to a coronet of rank?
Sometimes, Yawrab found herself wishing for that kind of uncertainty in her life, but in general she was happy with the boringly familiar. She was ten years older than her sister, but it sometimes felt more like fifty, so set in her ways was she. Her world was well defined by the limits of the Denva estate, where she knew everyone and everything, and even had some small measure of control over well delineated portions of it. The largest source of discomfort over her recent trip to Fremlow City had been in how she had been removed from her safe surroundings for more than a sennight. Fortunately, she was well used to that periodic upheaval by now. She had learned to adjust to it by confining herself to the apartments that the family stayed in. She would take them over from the normal staff and re-create her familiar world, as much as possible, within them. All she had ever seen of the ducal seat of Fremlow City was the Street of Traders that they rode in on, and Harthone Hall, where they stayed. And she was quite content with that.
Yawrab had trekked her way past several other estates and two farms as she traveled along the road to Beeikar. It might have been around second bell — still very early, in any case — when the road she was on curved around some trees and neared the Renev River. She had stepped well clear of the cover of the trees when she realized that in the clearing between the road and a bend in the Renev there was an empty barge pulled up on the bank of the river.
Barges weren’t normal parts of the scenery and, moreover, they usually implied bargemen. And bargemen were only trouble. Yawrab cast about her for a quick exit or some concealment. The trees she had just cleared were only a few steps behind her. The road continued on past the clearing, but the trees didn’t resume for at least three score strides. The road branched about halfway across the expanse of the clearing, but she couldn’t see anything down that branch that looked helpful.
Her heart beating wildly, she continued on at an even pace, praying to any and all gods of defenseless women that nothing would happen.
Her prayers were answered. Unfortunately, the answer was ‘no’.
Two bargemen stumbled out of the trees on the opposite side of the road from the clearing. Laughing suddenly and for no obvious reason, they lurched to a halt almost directly in front of Yawrab but facing away from her. One was tall and lean, the other was short and round; both were obviously drunk, taking long swigs from the wineskins they were carrying. The tall one turned first and spotted Yawrab, and wasted no time elbowing his companion into noticing her as well.
“Look, Jurce, a fine, fine filly,” said the tall one. “A fine filly for to end our respite, yas?”
The round one chuckled, a low and utterly filthy sound. “Ah yas, Essipt, a fit end, yas. Couldn’t see getting back to the barge without doin’ for this filly so fine.”
Yawrab began to shake. It was just like before, even if it was nothing like before. These bargemen, these scum, these filth, these dregs of humanity shunned by almost all polite society, were as far from Lord Cranhull as one could get, but the look in their eyes was exactly the same. Last time it had been in a wood paneled room with fine wall hangings and elegant furniture; this time it would be in the grass like an animal. But it would all be the same in the end: rape!
It wasn’t until the two men actually grabbed her that she cried out, shouting and flailing in anger and fear. It didn’t inconvenience the men in the least. The short one even said, “Good, she can talk. It’s better when they can talk, right Essipt?” The tall man’s chuckle wasn’t as deep as Jurce’s, but it was just as filthy.
As the bargemen dragged Yawrab off of the road and into the clearing by their barge, the chatelaine saw a gypsy wagon up along the part of the road that branched away. It was a large wagon, colorfully painted, drawn by three horses, with two people on the bench in front and another riding along side.
Hope dawned inside of Yawrab; she was going to be rescued! But that brief ray of hope only made the despair that followed deeper, for the wagon turned aside a good way from the clearing. Her shouts turned to sobs as the golden fox painted on the side of the house-like wagon vanished into the trees.
Ganba of the Rhydd Pobl, the Free People, had been riding her wagon along the paths of Bindrmon since before the sun’s awakening. It was now something like second bell by rooted-folk reckoning, on the day they labeled the 13th of Yuli. For Ganba, it was simply early on a day in the middle of summer, and she loved the freedom that gave her. For her purposes, it didn’t matter what divided one day from the next; she counted days and nights from event to event, like the number of days from her last camping spot to her next. For her, the question of when the 13th had begun was only interesting in as much as she had to interact with those to whom it did matter. Whether it began at sunrise or sunset, mid-day or mid-night, it was all the same to her. But as the rooted-folk changed their numbers at sunrise, so would she.
Folk like those who lived in this part of the world — Bindrmon, Welspeare, Baranur — grouped the passing of time into months and gave the days within a month a number. The joke of it all was that, even with all of their marshaling of time into twelve even months of thirty days each, they still had to throw five, or sometimes six, extra days into the middle so that the first of Yule fell on the summer solstice. Ganba had never understood why the middle of their year had to be so precise, since the beginning of their year only sometimes actually fell on the winter solstice. She wondered how many times they had lost count of exactly how many years had passed over the supposed one thousand thirteen since they started trying to keep track.
Ganba and her brothers were currently making a detour from the rest of the bantor, or wagon group, of her family, as it made its casual way north for the annual gathering. This year the gathering would be made even more special by the union between Maks and Syusahn, and she was looking forward to the ceremony.
The detour was to meet up with Bobere and Rhonwn, who were supposed to be stopping to sell their wares in a few cities in Bindrmon during this second month of summer. Their last stop was to be Beeikar, from which they would be setting out for the gathering. Of course, she wasn’t sure whether the pair had already left, or had even arrived yet; gypsies seldom scheduled anything for a specific day beyond very large gatherings since any number of things could delay one in travel. She knew roughly where their camp would be though, and there would be blazes on the surrounding trails to direct them to the right location.
Ganba was an artisan, as was most of her bantor. She carved figures from wood with more than a little skill, according to her family. Bobere often sold her wares for her, and she was always eager to see which of her fanciful creations had caught someone’s eye. The money her carvings brought was secondary in importance, but well received in any case; even gypsies needed gold from time to time.
Ganba’s older brother, Hiranw, was driving the large, brightly painted wagon on this trip. Ganba had the skill too, but Hiranw’s touch was more sure, especially with the larger wagons. Three horses pulled their wagon along the wooded pathways around Beeikar, and although they were well matched and used to the harness, Ganba was happy to let Hiranw drive even though she had been given the leadership of the detour trip.
Her younger brother, Shaiff, was riding alongside the wagon on his own horse for this trip. Shaiff and Rhonwn, Bobere’s son, were friends and when the detour had been approved he had asked to go along, even though the wagon’s steering bench wouldn’t hold three comfortably for any length of time. Which meant that he was riding alongside, instead of along with, his siblings.
Ganba caught sight of the glint of sun on water well down the path at the same time as she noticed the small blaze on the tree indicating that they needed to turn away from the path they were currently on. Since Hiranw was already coaxing the horses to slow and bear right, she knew that he had seen the marking as well. As the wagon turned away from their former trail, she looked back toward the sun-glint.
She was shocked to see three figures move into view in the clearing at the end of the path. It looked as if two men were dragging a struggling woman between them. Ganba knew that something was wrong, both from the knife in the tall one’s hand and the sideways-circle hats that the men wore that marked them as bargemen. That woman was in trouble!
“Stefyll!” she commanded, indicating that they should stop.
Hiranw pulled back on the reins, and the wagon slowly ceased moving. Shaiff drew up beside the wagon’s seat on horseback, and asked, “What’s wrong, chwrd?” of his sister.
“Just as we were turning off the other trail back there, brwd,” she answered her brother, “I saw a woman being dragged along by two bargemen. She was struggling, and one of the men had a knife. We have to help her.”
Hiranw said, “Well, the wagon won’t turn around in this space. Do either of you know whether this path meets that one again?”
Ganba sneered at her other brother. “What, has your brain shut down from being sat on for so long? We don’t need a wagon to get us down to that clearing, Hiranw. Grab your bows, boys, and your knives too. We need to hurry! Move!”
The men fetched their bows from the wagon, which Hiranw hurriedly secured. As Ganba led them through the trees toward the clearing and the water, she hoped that nothing spooked the horses — the locked wheels of the wagon wouldn’t hold against three frightened animals if it came to that.
As the edge of the trees came into view, Ganba needlessly hushed her brothers and slowly crept closer. She could hear the bargemen mumbling to each other, but nothing from the woman. Had she fainted, or been gagged, or even killed?
Ganba sidled up behind a tree and peeked around. She saw the woman on the ground, and the two bargemen kneeling on either side of her. They were grinning at each other and making pleased-sounding, unintelligible conversation with each other. The fat one was pawing at the victim’s breasts, while the thin one was waving his knife around while plucking at the hem of her dress.
Ganba turned to her brothers, who had their bows ready and were taking in the scene from their own concealment. She said, “Hiranw, can you shoot the one with the knife? Not to kill, just to disable. They’re filth, but human for all of that.”
Hiranw gazed thoughtfully across the intervening distance for a moment, and then nodded. Ganba turned to Shaiff and said, “And the other one?”
The younger brother took his own look at the situation, and then said, “Sorry, Ganba, I don’t see any target that wouldn’t kill with that one. The way he’s kneeling and bending over … I just don’t see a shot.”
“Fine. Hiranw, put your arrow in the one with the knife. Maybe that’ll scare them both off. If not, well, be ready for anything.”
They both nodded, and Hiranw pulled an arrow from his quiver and nocked it. Taking a step sideways, he drew, aimed, and fired in a smooth, practiced motion. By the time Ganba turned her head from her brother to the bargemen, the arrow had already hit its target and was buried deep in the knife-wielding arm. The knife slipped from the bargeman’s hand as he cried out and lurched backwards. Then he fell flat on his back, clutching his wounded arm.
The other bargeman straightened up and looked around somewhat stupidly for a moment. Then he noticed his companion with an arrow in his arm, lying flat on the ground. “Essipt!” he cried. “What happened, Essipt?”
The thrum of a bowstring to Ganba’s left seemed almost coincidental to the appearance of an arrow in the remaining bargeman’s shoulder. Whether Shaiff had been aiming for the same place as his brother or not, his arrow had the same effect. With a grunt and then a grimace of pain, the other bargeman fell over as well.
Ganba was up and running in a trice, her brothers following shortly after. She knelt beside the woman, checking to see that she was still breathing. Ganba couldn’t see any sign of injury, and the woman seemed to be breathing normally. Relieved, she said to her brothers, “You two take care of these brutes. Dump ‘em in their barge and push it off the bank, yes? I’ll see if I can revive her.”
Ganba dipped her sleeve in the river and bathed the woman’s face lightly, hoping to wake her up without frightening her any further.
Yawrab was dragged across the clearing by the bargemen and dropped carelessly to the ground. She had ceased to struggle, ceased to sob. What was the use, after all? These two brutes were going to have their way with her, and she was just as helpless as she had been in the face of Lord Cranhull’s advances. But this time, if she survived, there would be no one to be her advocate against the injustice. No one to go to the perpetrator and shame him into getting her a job at another estate on the other end of the duchy. No daughter of Lord Cranhull, no Lady Shorilen, to be her bastion of courage.
No, these bargemen would go free, back to their fellow animals, free from recriminations, from justice. It was all so unfair! How could this happen to her again?
As the two grease-smelling drunks knelt down on either side of her, looming over her like the fate she knew she was going to suffer, Yawrab felt an all-encompassing despair flood over her, as if she was at the bottom of a cataract being battered by the water falling on her. The water turned into years, pummeling down on top of her, drowning her in time. Every year of her life pooled above her, and then twice that, a hundred years, four hundred, a thousand, more. She was trapped by the past, by a history that she didn’t know but that seemed to be part of her, borne down until she couldn’t move, crushed, pulverized like herbs in a mortar.
And then, the years turned into flames that ringed her all around. But instead of bringing fear, they brought calm, safety, release. She felt reassured, comforted, happy …
The strange dream faded away slowly as Yawrab felt something cool against her forehead. She opened her eyes to find the face of a young woman hovering over her. Brown hair, brown eyes, pretty in a swarthy way, something about the face connected with her fading dream and made her feel safe, despite her sudden recollection of the bargemen and their intentions.
“Are you all right?” asked the brown-haired face in a slightly-accented voice. “Did they hurt you?”
Yawrab stared into the brown eyes and answered, “No. No, they didn’t actually hurt me. Are you … are you from the golden fox wagon?”
“Yes, I am. I’m Ganba, and these are my brothers, Hiranw and Shaiff. Do you think you can stand?”
Yawrab sat up with Ganba’s help. She looked around and found no sign of the bargemen or their barge. Ganba’s brothers were squatting a couple of paces away, and Yawrab was grateful that they had the sense not to crowd her just at this moment. Even though she knew that they were no threat, they were still men and she had just been through quite an ordeal.
Yawrab was next helped to her feet and then, slowly and solicitously, up the trail and to the gypsies’ wagon. The back was lowered into a platform, and Yawrab was given a seat on the steps while the older brother, Hiranw, fetched her an herbal concoction to drink. It smelled horrible, but tasted fairly neutral and she did feel more steady once she had it inside her.
She said, “That does help, Hiranw. Thank you. And … well, I … ah, I don’t know how to thank you enough for rescuing me. It was … well …”
Ganba said, “No need, no need. We were there, and able-bodied enough to help, so we helped. What else could we have done?
“So, where were you headed when you were … when it … ah, this morning?”
Yawrab smiled at Ganba’s stumbling phrasing, and said, “I was headed for Beeikar to visit my sister. Were you headed that way?”
“Well, honestly, no,” said Ganba. “But, in the interests of not having our good deed wasted by giving some other ruffians the chance to attack you, we’ll happily give you a ride into the town.”
“That would be most welcome, Ganba. Thank you again. I just … thank you.”
Ganba just smiled, and then the three gypsies were bustling around, getting the wagon ready for travel again. Soon, the caravan was on the move again, carrying Yawrab into Beeikar.
The sun was sliding past its zenith, what the locals would call fifth bell, by the time Ganba and her wagon were once again among the roads and paths through the forest around Beeikar, looking for the trail blazes that would lead to Bobere’s camp. She didn’t regret the time spent rescuing Yawrab, nor getting her safely to the Boar-Ring Inn where her sister worked. This was just one of many things that could delay a journey, and it was all for a good cause.
As Hiranw drove the wagon expertly through the forest, finding the blazes left by Bobere with ease, Ganba couldn’t stop thinking about Yawrab. There had been something about the woman, something just on the edge of familiarity even though they had never met before. Yawrab’s black hair, pale skin, and most especially her differently-colored eyes, one blue, one brown, had struck a chord deep within her. That wasn’t why she had put herself out helping the woman, of course, but it was why she couldn’t get Yawrab out of her mind.
The older woman hadn’t revealed much about herself during the ride into Beeikar. Ganba had learned that she was the chatelaine of an estate a short distance from the town, and that she had recently been to the ducal seat of Welspeare with the noble family that lived at the estate. Yawrab had also mentioned that Tillna was her younger sister, and worked at the Boar-Ring Inn. But that was all, despite a ride of more than a bell.
Ganba hadn’t pressed, knowing that despite the woman’s tough exterior, she was probably still unsteady after the attack. They had said farewell in front of the inn, then Ganba had left, probably never to see the woman again. But that, too, was the way gypsy life was, ever traveling, ever meeting and departing.
Her thoughts were still on the enigma of Yawrab when Hiranw said, “Chwrd, we’ve arrived. But … by the ocean’s depth, what’s happened?”
Ganba looked around, and gasped. Bobere’s campsite was a shambles. A stack of wooden boxes on one side of the clearing had been smashed open, revealing the kinds of wares Bobere usually sold, including some of her statues. Kitchen gear was scattered about the fire pit, and it looked as if half of the contents of the wagon itself had been thrown around the clearing. Several holes had been smashed into the side of the wagon, and one of the wheels had been cracked. There was no sign of life anywhere — not Bobere or Rhonwn, nor the horses.
Ganba and her brothers hurried into the clearing and started looking around. Shaiff called out, and Ganba raced over with Hiranw to the back of the wrecked wagon. They found Shaiff kneeling next to Bobere, who was breathing very shallowly and looked very pale as he lay amongst the debris of his caravan. It was easy to see why; the older gypsy’s multicolored tunic was reduced to but one color by the blood that soaked half of it, blood from a knife that was still impaling his side and which was probably the only reason he hadn’t yet bled completely to death.
“Take a look around,” said Ganba, “and see if you can find any reason for this. Also, see if Rhonwn is lying under something, similarly wounded. I’ll see what I can do for Bobere.”
As her brothers did her bidding, Ganba wondered what she might be able to do for a fatally-stabbed man. This wasn’t going to be made better by a damp sleeve across the forehead. She touched his neck gently, and could barely feel his life-beat. She could hear that his breathing was raspy, even bubbly, which wasn’t a good sound at all. She took his hand, and it felt cold. She tried rubbing some warmth back into it, as if that would heal his wound, but she knew that it was too late. Only magic would have had a chance to reverse Bobere’s course now, and there was none to be had.
The older gypsy stirred, his head turning weakly. His eyes opened, and focused with some effort on her. His lips moved slightly, and then he said in a very faint voice, “Cytwer Ganba, is that you?”
“Yes, Amdan Bobere, it’s Cousin Ganba. What happened, uncle? How did you end up like this?” The gypsy convention of referring to the members of other wagon-groups as cousins, and the leaders of those groups as uncle, was even more poignant here, with her good friend grievously wounded next to her.
“Attacked. Bad man, Lacsil, of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza, attacked us. He wanted us to guide him north, to get away from some bad business, but Rhonwn found out what he really wanted, who he really was. Where’s Rhonwn? Rhonwn!”
“Quiet, uncle, rest. I’ll ask my brothers if they’ve seen Rhonwn. You conserve your strength.” Ganba looked up, but both Hiranw and Shaiff shook their heads. She turned back to Bobere and said, “No, uncle, Rhonwn isn’t here.”
Bobere said, “Did he get away? Did they take him?” He struggled briefly to sit up, but cried out in pain as fresh blood oozed out around the knife. “Ahh! Uhn, did they … the map …”
“Map, uncle? What map?”
“I didn’t see. Lacsil stabbed me, I didn’t see. Did they get the map? Look, cousin, look for a map case. Tell them to look, and I’ll tell you …”
Ganba gave her brothers the new instructions, and then sat beside Bobere as he gasped out the story of the map. How he had set down the hidden ways of the Rhydd Pobl onto parchment because of his bad memory. How Rhonwn had let that information slip, and how Lacsil of the Bloody Hand of Sageeza now knew about it. About how Rhonwn had overheard Lacsil’s plans to gather his fellow Bloody Hand followers and attack the northern gathering in force, with the map as their guide.
Ganba was appalled. Bobere probably wasn’t the first gypsy to set the secret trails to parchment, but to have the bad luck of having a fanatic like this Lacsil find out about it! She checked with her brothers, but they had found no map case yet. There was a lot of debris to search through, but since Lacsil had left, he had probably left with the map.
Bobere squeezed Ganba’s hand, drawing her attention back his way. “Cousin, you have to find that map. That, or stop Lacsil. He’s heading north. Follow him and stop him. This is all my fault, but I can’t do anything about it any more. But you can. Promise, Ganba. Please?”
Ganba looked into Bobere’s eyes, holding his hand tightly. There was no question about her answer. She said, “I promise, uncle. I promise.”
Bobere smiled, and then he died. She felt it happen. She felt the strength leave his hand, saw his chest halt in mid-rise, watched the light fade from his eyes. In an instant, he was gone, leaving an empty husk behind.
It happened so suddenly that Ganba was unprepared. Having his life leave him like that, where she could all but feel it go, wrenched a sob from her. She couldn’t help herself, and soon she was crying full on, bent over Bobere’s chest.
Suddenly, Ganba seemed to be standing in the rain. Except it wasn’t rain falling on her, it was chips of wood. The sawdust piled up, higher and higher, faster and faster, and she knew that each chip was a day, one day of her life. The days piled up around her ankles until she felt like she was standing in her lifetime’s worth of sawdust. But it kept spilling down from above. Another lifetime, and another, and the pile around her rose higher and higher, to her knees and up her thighs, and even higher. Decades of chips, and then centuries piled up, and just kept piling higher and higher. She felt the constriction of so much sawdust, so light one chip at a time, but smothering in their abundance. A thousand years of sawdust, fifteen hundred years, and the sawdust rose to her neck, squeezing her chest until she couldn’t breathe. Higher and higher, covering her mouth, her nose, almost to her eyes …
And then, the chips turned into flames that flared up all around her. But instead of bringing fear, they brought calm, safety, release. Ganba felt reassured, comforted, happy …
The strange vision faded, and she realized that she was no longer kneeling over Bobere. Ganba was sitting on the rear platform of Bobere’s wagon, and she saw Hiranw covering the older gypsy’s body with a blanket. Despite the death of Bobere, despite the disappearance of Rhonwn, and despite the threat of Lacsil’s minions of Sageeza, she felt hopeful, serene, at peace.
Ganba looked around and found one of Bobere’s favorite carvings lying on the platform next to her. It was a fragment of a strange stone sculpture, about a foot and a half across and comprising perhaps a third of what had once been a fully-circular, plate-like carving. It had a series of glass, gold, and silver bands interwoven across the inner two-thirds of it, while the outer third had a stylized fox facing a stylized cat carved as if they were sitting on the outer, curved rim. She remembered the piece well, because the shape of the fox was the exact shape she had chosen as her primary decoration; the golden fox on the side of her wagon looked exactly like the fox on the stone. The memorable part was that she hadn’t seen the stone until years after she had chosen the shape.
Pulling the stone next to her, she decided to keep it in memory of her Uncle Bobere. Ganba knew what needed to happen next. She would return to her bantor with the news of Bobere’s death and the news of Sageeza and the map. And then she would head north to Dargon to find Lacsil and avenge Bobere.
It was half past fourth-bell when Yawrab walked onto the grounds of Bindrmon Keep. She instinctively walked up to the servants’ gate, and was admitted with no questions. Perhaps it was her serious manner, or her severe expression that won her past the guards, or maybe it was her unconscious air of ‘I belong here,’ gained through years as chatelaine of a noble manor, that got her in.
Once in, however, she was at a loss as to where to go. Bindrmon Keep was far larger than the Denva estate, with all manner of outbuildings and store houses within the outer walls whose purpose she didn’t recognize. She did know the stables, though, so that was where she headed.
Yawrab was at Bindrmon Keep because of what she’d learned at the Boar-Ring Inn. She had asked the gypsies to drop her off at the inn because Tillna often worked during the day there, and because even if Tillna wasn’t on duty, Yawrab had felt in need of a good hearty breakfast after her morning ordeal.
But what she had found first at the inn was a stranger waiting tables. She knew Aivney, the older barmaid that Tillna worked with, but this willowy redhead was not Aivney. Yawrab had asked the newcomer about her sister, and had then received the shocking news that Tillna was dead.
“What?” she had asked. “Dead?”
“Yes,” said the redhead. “Some man that Aivney said was Lord Aldan came in last night and said that Tillna was dead. Then, he ran out again.”
“That’s all? Who did it?”
“I don’t know anything more. I didn’t even know who Lord Aldan was until Aivney told me that he was the son of the baron. I only just arrived in Beeikar a few days ago, you know …”
“Tillna’s dead. No, it can’t be true …”
Yawrab had stumbled to a seat, overwhelmed by the realization that the only family she had left was gone. The redhead had fetched Oablar, the owner of the inn, whom Yawrab also knew. The unhandsome, but basically kind, man had done his best to comfort her, while revealing that there wasn’t actually any proof that Tillna was dead save for Lord Aldan’s word, though she hadn’t been seen anywhere for almost three days.
Eventually, after some good, cold ale and some bread and cheese, Yawrab had recovered from the shock and formulated a course of action. Lord Aldan had brought the news, so Lord Aldan was the one she had to find. After thanking Oablar for his help, she had set out for Bindrmon Keep.
Entering the stables of that keep, she searched for someone to talk to. In the tack room, she found a man repairing some leather straps. He noticed her standing in the doorway, and said, “Good day, good lady. Can I assist you?”
“Perhaps,” Yawrab said, hesitantly. “I’m Yawrab, the chatelaine of the Denva estate, and also sister to Tillna.”
The man didn’t seem to have any particular reaction to the mention of Tillna’s name, which puzzled Yawrab. He said, “My name is Ricce, and my job is stablemaster to the Bindrmons. I’ve heard of the Denvas, and I believe I’ve heard of your sister — she works at the Boar-Ring down by the river, right?”
“Ah, yes. Yes, she does,” Yawrab said, not wanting to tell the whole truth just yet. She continued, “I was wondering … my sister has mentioned the son of your employer, Lord Aldan, several times. I was wondering if you knew where he was? I’d like to speak to him, ah …. well, concerning Tillna.”
“So those rumors are true, are they?” Ricce’s grin and chuckle told Yawrab that the rumors weren’t of her sister’s death, but of her involvement with Lord Aldan. Ricce continued, “I can see why you’d want converse with him; just looking out for family, straight?
“Just now, though, Lord Aldan’s away. He came bursting in here in the last few bells of last night, rousted me out of bed, and demanded that a horse be saddled for him. I’ll say that he was acting somewhat strange, asking me how far away Dargon was, and all. Never been out of Welspeare myself, so I couldn’t tell him.
“Anywise, I got busy putting saddle to horse while he left for the kitchens over there. By the time he returned with a few bundles, his mount was ready. He thanked me over his shoulder as he swung up onto the horse, and then he was galloping away.
“Of course, I wondered what the hurry was, but it wasn’t my place to detain him. Do you think that he and Tillna have eloped? Between you and me, and no slight to you or your family, I doubt that Baron Bindrmon could possibly have approved of his son and your sister. Have you heard anything?”
Yawrab said, “No, no, no I haven’t. Lord Aldan’s gone, then? Fine. My thanks, Master Ricce. You have been a great help. I’ll take my leave now.”
She turned her back on the stablemaster and retraced her steps out of Bindrmon Keep. Lord Aldan had fled to Dargon a few bells before dawn, which could mean only one thing; he was fleeing the town because he was guilty of murder. The murder of her sister!
Yawrab started walking back to the Denva estate, but she had no intention of stopping there for long. She was headed for Dargon just as surely as Lord Aldan was. Noble or not, Aldan was not going to escape justice!