DargonZine 15, Issue 8

Talisman Nine Part 2

Yuli 12, 1013 - Sy 5, 1013


This entry is part 31 of 38 in the series Talisman

Lord Aldan Bindrmon, son and heir of Baron Chak Bindrmon, galloped through Beeikar on the back of Firesocks as the sky lightened in the east. He had only one thought on his mind: revenge. He intended to ride north to the city of Dargon to find the blackguards who had killed his bride-to-be, Tillna.

 

It had been only a few bells since Aldan had stood over the dying young man, Weasel, and heard from his lips that the rest of the Menagerie had fled to Dargon. The Menagerie was a group of the offspring of some of the lords in the barony, and Aldan had been a member until his father had forbidden him to associate with them. Animosity had developed between the group and Aldan since that time, which had culminated in the gruesome murder of Tillna.

 

She had been a barmaid, and perhaps Aldan would never have proposed to her if his father hadn’t objected to her so strenuously. Not that Aldan was any less serious about avenging her. He wondered why she had been killed. Had it only been the cruelty of his former friends? Or had his father simply wanted the obstacle to an arranged marriage removed? Perhaps he would find the answer in Dargon. Even if the Menagerie answered every one of his questions, they would gain no mercy from him. Aldan intended to deal to them what they had dealt to Tillna: death.

 

He rode as fast as he could through the last bell of the twelfth of Yuli, and soon the dawn of the thirteenth rose on his right. Beeikar was falling ever farther behind him. As the leagues passed, he realized that he would soon be riding beyond the bounds of Welspeare, and he would eventually be going as far north as it was possible to go. Though his mission was grim, it was providing a way for him to travel to places that were just names on a map to him. He had always wanted to travel, but the duty he had been born to, the bonds of the heir to the baron, had always eclipsed his wanderlust. He had no desire to thank the Menagerie for this chance to see the kingdom, but he intended to make the most of the necessity he had been forced into.

 

He also realized that he should have taken the time to get a map before leaving. He had stopped in the keep while Ricce had readied Firesocks, picking up food, clothes, and money. A trip to the library for a map would have increased his chances of being discovered, but it might have been worth it. Then again, he could always just buy one somewhere, surely.

 

Part of Aldan’s upbringing had been learning how to ride and to care for horses, so he soon reined in Firesocks; not even his father’s charger could gallop all the way to Dargon. He wanted to enact his revenge as swiftly as possible, but he needed Firesocks to last the journey.

 

***

 

Aldan directed Firesocks up to the inn and slid stiffly from his back. It was early evening on his first day out, and he couldn’t ride another pace. He had been in the saddle all day, making the best speed he could, as he knew that his father would send people out after him, but Aldan had never ridden for such a long period of time and he was sore all over.

 

He groaned as he touched the ground. His legs protested by buckling, making him grab for his saddle to keep from falling. When he was steady, he looked across the back of his horse and worried about how much it would hurt to walk the few paces to the door of the inn.

 

He checked above the door for the name of the inn, but the square of wood suspended there was so weathered that it was blank. Before he could spend too much time wondering at the disparity between the well-maintained front of the inn and the blank sign, he heard a wheezing chuckle.

 

A thin old man stood in the open door of the nameless inn. He had white hair, a wrinkled up face, and fingers that seemed too long for his palms. The man laughed his rustling-paper laugh again and pointed an overly long finger at Aldan. “I know that look, I do,” he said in a creaky voice to match the laugh. “C’mon in, son, I know what’ll fix you up.”

 

Aldan hesitated, but not because he didn’t trust the man; he just wanted to make sure his legs were cooperating again before he left Firesocks’ side. When he was able, Aldan shuffled around his horse in preparation of striking out for the door.

 

The old man laughed one more time, his eyes twinkling, and then said, “I’ll just call the boy to take care of your horse.” He drew in a breath, but broke off in a fit of coughing, doubling over until he got himself under control. With a deep scowl, he stomped his foot, then turned and went into the inn.

 

When the old man returned, he had a piece of metal in one hand and a mallet in the other. He proceeded to hit the former with the latter, setting up a din that startled Firesocks and almost caused Aldan to fall.

 

By the time Aldan had steadied himself and calmed Firesocks, the summoned boy rounded the corner of the inn. This ‘boy’ was a big man with a bald head and wide girth who looked old enough to be Aldan’s father.

 

The blacksmith-looking stable boy led Firesocks away, leaving Aldan swaying slightly without his support. The old man went inside again, and Aldan followed, turning his shuffles into short steps by the time he reached the threshold.

 

The common room of the nameless inn held three tables and a fireplace, but no bar. The old man set the metal and mallet on a shelf next to the front door and crossed the room, saying, “Just stay there for a moment, young man. I’ll get the liniment.”

 

Aldan started to sit, but changed his mind quickly. He stood next to a table until the man returned with a small clay pot. “Here you go, son,” the innkeeper said. “This will fix you right back up. Nothing better for saddle burns and sore muscles. This must be your first long ride, huh?”

 

Aldan nodded, staring at the pot. Instead of handing it over, the man continued, “Don’t worry, young man, it happens to everyone ‘lessn they’re real careful. Drop your breeches, and I’ll fix you right up.”

 

Aldan didn’t quite know how to react, but he wasn’t about to let this stranger rub his legs, much less his seat. Falling back on his upbringing, he straightened himself up and, ignoring his protesting back, said cooly, “I think I can manage.” He held out his hand, even though he wanted to grab the pot and run out of the room.

 

The innkeeper shrugged and said, “If you’re sure. It would be no trouble …”

 

Aldan shook his head, and gestured with his open hand again. The man gave him the clay pot, and then just stood there.

 

After a moment, Aldan prompted, “Might I have a room for the night?”

 

“Of course, for sure,” said the old man. “Let me help you back there …”

 

Aldan flinched away from the helping hand that reached for his arm, and said, “I can do it myself, thank you.”

 

“Fine, fine. Through that door, take any one you want. You’re my only custom tonight.” The innkeeper turned away, and as Aldan shuffle-stepped across the room he heard the old man mutter, “Ungrateful pup. Well, it’s probably just the pain.”

 

The salve worked wonders. In just a few bells, Aldan felt so much better that he had his dinner sitting in the common room. He thanked the old man profusely and paid him generously for the room, the meal, and two more small clay pots of the salve. Taking the old man’s advice, Aldan applied the rest of the first pot before retiring, and the next morning he swung his leg over Firesocks’ back and faced the road ahead without apprehension.

 

***

 

Aldan had to make the first big decision of his journey three days later. He had reached the outskirts of Fremlow City, the ducal seat of Welspeare. He had dreamed of visiting the city once the duty of delivering the baronial taxes became his own, knowing that it was likely to be as far as he would ever travel from his home. That was certainly no longer the case; he was going much farther on this trip. Still, the city sat before him, enticing him to visit.

 

He had ridden as fast as he could without harming Firesocks, but he was still too close to Beeikar and his father’s men. No one could know that he was traveling to Dargon, but Fremlow City was an obvious possibility to those who must be following him. It wasn’t hard to make the choice to skirt the city and leave it behind unvisited, but he wished he hadn’t had to.

 

As Aldan took to the roads that ringed the city and linked the surrounding farms, he realized that there was going to be more to his journey than just a short ride and the satisfaction of revenge. After only two nights, he could tell that staying in a well-maintained inn couldn’t hold a candle to his own bed, and the food was similar from night to night. When he had set out from home, fired with the passion of his mission, he hadn’t considered just what he was taking on. He had no qualms about meting out justice to the Menagerie. What was beginning to worry him was the journey itself.

 

After detouring around Fremlow City and leaving the uneven tracks and tiny paths around that city’s outskirts, he realized how much help the broad, well-maintained Royal Road that ran through Welspeare was to any traveler. Some of the tax money his father delivered to the duchess every year went to upkeep of this road. He recalled that his father was pleased that the Welspeare Royal Road ran through Bindrmon; in exchange for a lighter tax burden, the baron maintained it within his borders.

 

Aldan knew the cost of the Royal Roads was high, and he understood why Welspeare followed the example of most of the other duchies in having only the royally-decreed minimum of one such road. He hoped he wouldn’t have to give up the ease of riding along one before he reached Dargon.

 

Aldan traveled north-west on the Royal Road and in due course passed from Welspeare into the Duchy of Kiliaen, a change marked only by two short posts blazoned with the colors of each duchy on the appropriate side. It was a momentous event in Aldan’s life, finally setting foot outside of Welspeare, but he almost didn’t notice the passage until he was even with the posts. He did drink a toast that night to Kiliaen, but didn’t pay the occasion any further notice. He had been on the road for five days, and it seemed to him that he had hardly begun his journey.

 

Two days later Aldan entered a small village named Henglewood. It was time to stop for the evening, especially as the new moon gave no light for night travel, and he took a room at the Purple Duck. He settled in, and came back down into the common room for dinner, selecting the stew over the roast meat after failing to identify the charred object on the spit over the fire.

 

Halfway through the meal, the innkeeper came over to Aldan’s table. “How is your meal, milord?” he asked.

 

Aldan said, “Fine, fine,” though only for politeness’ sake. Before the man could turn away, he continued, “I was wondering where in this town I might find laundry services.”

 

“The Purple Duck offers that service, milord, for a modest fee. I can have your clothes cleaned for you by the middle of tomorrow if you wish. Just bring them down after dinner. Do you need anything else?”

 

Aldan was about to shake his head no, but then he remembered something. “Maps,” he said. “I need maps.”

 

The innkeeper said, “We have n–” but seemed to interrupt himself. Aldan watched as the man looked at him for several moments, frowning. After glancing across his clothes and down to his shoes under the table, the man said, “You’re not from … no, of course you aren’t.” The man’s manner changed from strangely suspicious to completely helpful, and he continued, “Of course, good sir, of course there are maps for sale in our fine village. Tomorrow, just cross the square and find the sign of the quill. All of the arts of the pen in Henglewood are down that street, from books to drawings and everything in between. I’m sure that you will find maps among the wares sold there.”

 

Aldan watched as the innkeeper scurried away, and wondered what the man had been worried about, and why he had left so quickly. Then a whiff of his stew caught his attention, and he dismissed the balding man’s behavior from his mind.

 

He finished his dinner, fetched his clothes for the laundry, and then spent a restful night in his room. Early the next morning, he rose and set out to buy a map.

 

Aldan’s destination was not hard to spot: on the other side of the fountain in the center of the square was a wooden quill hanging from a pole that spanned the width of a narrow street. Passing under that quill, he entered the first shop on the right.

 

Aldan stepped through the narrow door and found himself in a small, cramped space. He stood for a moment in the gloom, surrounded by the scent of glue and ink and parchment. It reminded him of the workroom of Sestik, Beeikar’s only scribe. He and the Menagerie had studied there as children, learning their letters.

 

When he could see, he looked around the tiny store. Between the door and the counter was hardly room enough for more than a single customer. The same amount of floor was on the other side of the counter, only the shelves on either side of the curtained door further reduced the space. Filling the shelves were bottles of ink, quills, rolls of parchment, a single stack of paper, and, behind a door made of bars that was ornately padlocked, three books. Aldan couldn’t see anything that might be a map, but he wanted to be sure before leaving.

 

“Hello the shop,” he called.

 

The curtains at the back of the room parted, and a short man with big eyes who looked like he had dressed in the dark came through.

 

The man smiled and said, “How may I help you, good sir?” He had to crane his neck back to look up at his customer.

 

Aldan felt like he was being stared at by an owl: a rumpled, mismatched, smooth-voiced owl. “I hoped you might have a map for sale.”

 

The smile widened into a grin, and the man said, “So you are the young lord from the Purple Duck. Yes yes yes, I have a map or two in stock. Not many, hard to come by after all, but let me check.” He bent down, vanishing behind the waist-high counter for a moment. He popped back up with a scroll in his hand and snapped it down onto the counter. With a practiced motion, he unrolled it, revealing an ornately-bordered and decorated map labeled ‘Northern Baranur’.

 

Aldan bent down to get a better look at it in the dim light. He saw that it showed Baranur from Magnus northward, but when he bent further to see how much detail it displayed, it rolled shut under his nose.

 

Straightening up, Aldan looked at the owl, who was now holding the map down at his side. The shopkeeper asked, “Will this one do?”

 

Aldan nodded, and said, “How much?”

 

The little man looked up at the ceiling and began muttering. After a moment, the shopkeeper looked up, squinted at Aldan for a moment, and then grinned again. “This was made by the famous cartographer Fingatish forty years ago. Guaranteed accurate down to the last detail. How much, you ask? A Sovereign, and worth every penny.”

 

“What!?” Aldan was shocked. That was an outrageous price, much more than he had expected. He might have been a baron’s son, but his father had taught him how to haggle. The secret was knowing the honest value of the item. A piece of paper with marks on being worth a Sovereign? Aldan couldn’t imagine it. Not even the pen of a mapmaker that he had never heard of could make ink worth that much. “Th-th-three Nobles …” he stammered, which was what he had expected to start the bargaining at rather than an actual offer.

 

The shopkeeper took it as one anyway and, after blinking up at Aldan for a moment from under beetled brows, finally said, “You’re a shrewd one, young sir. I can see that I misjudged your … business sense. I think I can still make a profit at … five Nobles.”

 

This made Aldan blink in turn, confused. Half the value of a Royal was acceptable, when twenty Royals made a Sovereign? Worried that he was missing something, he accepted the deal. He fished the tiny coins from his pouch.

 

The shopkeeper took a close look at them in Aldan’s palm, then snatched them up and slapped the scroll down in their place. He started making shooing motions at Aldan, saying “If that’s all, I’ve got things to be doing. Thank you, and good day.”

 

Aldan backed up two steps, and bumped into the door. The shopkeeper’s stare unnerved him so much that he fumbled at the latch, and almost fell out of the shop. He was surprised at being run off so quickly, as he needed another map or two. Shrugging, he turned and continued up the quill-signed street to find some.

 

Aldan entered every shop on the street. He had never seen so much parchment and ink in one place before, but found no more maps for sale. He returned to the Purple Duck and spread out his purchase in his room.

 

The map was a shambles. The errors Aldan could pick out without effort included a single line of mountains crossing the map almost horizontally and labeled “Dersth Mountains”, Quinnat didn’t even have a border on the coast, and Welspeare cupped the eastern edge of Magnus all the way to Arvalia, interposed between both Kiliaen and Quinnat.

 

Aldan fought down the urge to shred the parchment into scrap. Recovering, he examined the map further. Error after error piled up, until he knew that it was worthless. As he went over the map, he noticed certain patterns in the fading of the ink and the age-browning of the parchment. He recalled Sestik’s lessons about fakery on scrolls and realized that this map wasn’t forty years old at all, it had simply been made to look that way.

 

He had been swindled! His father would never have stood for that, and would be sorely disappointed with him as well.

 

Aldan felt despair well up inside him. He knew that he would never be able to enact his revenge if he wasn’t even able to outwit a commoner. He needed wits and skill to succeed.

 

Before he could give up entirely, he remembered the last time he had seen Tillna in the taproom of the Boar-Ring Inn. Then he remembered the box in her room with its grisly contents, and the note. He realized that his failure was simply a lesson to be learned, and he wouldn’t be fooled like that again. He had vengeance to deliver, and he wasn’t going to let a greedy merchant get in his way.

 

There was one consolation: he hadn’t paid a full Round for the forgery. That comfort didn’t balance the disappointment of still not knowing how to get where he was going.

 

***

 

Aldan tried to collect on the guarantee of the shopkeeper, but the store was closed when he returned. After a restless night, Aldan tried the shop again to find it still closed. He made the choice to move on without satisfaction rather than waste more time in Henglewood.

 

The lack of a reliable map became important just a day later. Aldan had been told by the innkeeper of the Purple Duck that the Royal Road that came out of Welspeare connected to the ducal seat of Kiliaen. Noltor-on-Sea was, of course, on the western coast of the duchy and it was actually south of Fremlow City. The Royal Road began to curve even further away from Aldan’s route northward by heading due west during that day. Eventually it would have to bend more, ending up heading south-west and farther away from Aldan’s destination. He had no choice but to leave the easy route behind.

 

He waited for just the right northward branching path, hoping to find a well-traveled trading route instead of having to settle for a cow path. He found one before the Royal Road had shifted too far to the south, and struck off along it.

 

Aldan encountered another obstacle almost immediately. His newly-chosen path veered eastward almost as soon as he turned onto it, and after that it seldom held a single direction for more than a league. The only compass point it never took was south.

 

He switched roads four more times that day, and had to continue to ride for a full bell after dark before he located an inn. Aldan walked into the low-ceilinged front room with its minimal lighting and pallets already laid out in place of tables for the few half-Penny guests, and realized that he had left behind the assurance of well-maintained lodgings with the easily followed Royal Road.

 

He had to show his Penny to hire one of the two rooms the inn boasted, and he took his bowl of thin stew with him. The mattress was as thin as the stew, and supplied just as much satisfaction. He was glad to leave that inn behind as early as he was able.

 

But the quality of lodgings did not improve as he got further from the Royal Road, and once he slept under a tree when he couldn’t find any better accommodation. Aldan didn’t so much get used to the deprivation as become resigned to it. After a few nights spent in seedy inns, sleeping on rough straw covered by blankets stiff with someone else’s grime, eating food that a Beeikar rat would have turned up its bewhiskered nose at, he simply wished for the journey to be over.

 

Aldan didn’t give up, though. He only had to remember holding the box with Tillna’s heart in it, and he was spurred on again. He tried to choose roads that took him at least a little northward, often with less success than he wanted. He managed to progress, though not nearly as swiftly as he had hoped. When he rode into Thoragil and discovered it was located close to the northern border of Duchy Kiliaen but considerably west of the center of that line, he became thoroughly frustrated with the pace of his mission.

 

He quickly learned that Thoragil was very different from Beeikar. For one, it was totally landlocked: no river flowed next to it or through it to provide convenient transport for goods. And yet, majority of its businesses were oriented toward travel and trade. Unlike Henglewood, it wasn’t simply situated along a well-traveled road; it was a center of commerce. Seven major trade routes radiated from Thoragil like the spokes of a wheel, and situated astride each road as it passed through the town’s walls was a traders’ enclave, where caravans as well as individual travelers gathered, supplied themselves, and set forth.

 

Aldan thought he might try again to purchase a map, but he decided to get some information first. He went to the desk of the man who managed the rooms of the Lark and Pig where he was staying, and addressed the brown-eyed man with severely pulled back blond hair seated there. “Do you know of any map sellers in town?” he asked.

 

“Sure, half-a-dozen without thinking,” said the man. “I can give you directions, or have one of the runners guide you.”

 

Aldan hesitated, and then asked, “Can you tell me which ones have good maps? You know, accurate ones?”

 

The blond man said, “They’re all proper maps, sir. The guild wouldn’t let a bad map be sold.”

 

“Guild?”

 

“Cartographer’s guild, of course. You wouldn’t want to buy a map from anyone else, would you?”

 

“Oh, that guild. No, no, I don’t know what I was thinking. So where’s the nearest shop?”

 

“Treefid Enclave’s a good place to start. Out the door, go left, third right to the radial, and take that to the wall. Beyond the wall is Treefid.”

 

Aldan thanked the man and left. He had no problem finding the traders’ enclave. The first shop he found with a quill and parchment on the door turned out to be a large triangular space with maps covering every inch of the walls. He looked each one over, and they were certainly of better accuracy than the one he had already purchased, with all of the duchies that he knew about in their proper places. There were maps of every duchy in Baranur individually, and the Welspeare map agreed with his own knowledge of it. He checked for the major landmarks he knew about, and found that the Darst Range was correctly labeled and oriented.

 

Satisfied with their accuracy, he next examined the maps for the features he needed. Unfortunately, the only maps that had any roads at all on them were the ones depicting the cities of Thoragil and Magnus. Most of the maps had towns and villages marked, but not even the Royal Roads were marked out. He did notice, though, that every single one bore the seal of the Cartographer’s Guild on the upper left corner.

 

Aldan purchased a map of northern Baranur that would at least give him some idea of his general location, if not how he had gotten there. Looking at the distance between Kiliaen and Dargon, he wondered if he would ever be able to cross that vast expanse of parchment by himself.

 

He took the time to scour the town for a more complete map without finding one. Finally, in a narrow shop that was full of parchment but lacked the accompanying scent completely because of the way the walls at either end were folded back to let air flow through, Aldan asked the matronly proprietor, “Do you have any maps with roads on them?”

 

The woman said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t. It’s very rare to find a map with roads or trade routes marked. The cartographers have a deal with the traders: the map-makers get information from the travelers in exchange for not making it easier for just anyone to cross Quinnat, for example, on their own.”

 

“And if someone needed to do just that?” Aldan asked.

 

“Why, hire a guide or, better yet, join a caravan.”

 

That evening, Aldan sat at the bar of the Lark and Pig drinking steadily. He had confirmed the woman’s comments at other shops, and it appeared that the caravan masters guarded their trails jealously. He wasn’t going to find a map that would be more than general help in getting him north.

 

During a lull in business, the bartender, a rugged-looking individual with a square, jutting chin, stopped in front of Aldan and said, “You’ve been fairly serious about getting on the outside of our best ale for a couple of bells now, friend. You have a problem you’re trying to drown?”

 

“No,” Aldan replied. “Not really.” He paused for a moment, and then continued, “Well, ‘cept for needing to go north and not knowin’ how.”

 

“Well, you’re in the right place then, friend. Check out the enclaves. Your best option would be to find a caravan to travel with; they’re safer in general, and your comfort will be greater since you can take along a larger load. You might travel faster with a guide, but it would cost a great deal more and you wouldn’t gain all that much in terms of comfort or safety. But caravans are leaving Thoragil every day in this season. Surely you can find one going where you want to go.”

 

Aldan nodded and said, “Good advice, I’m sure, but I’ll manage on my own somehow.” He lifted his mug and said, “Could I have another?”

 

The bartender shrugged, refilled the mug, and moved on to another customer. Aldan continued drinking the flavorful, but not very strong, ale, and continued to worry about the amount of parchment between Kiliaen and Dargon.

 

Aldan happened to glance up as three men walked into the bar together. There wasn’t anything remarkable about them and when they left his field of vision, he didn’t bother to turn his head to follow them. He heard benches scraping behind him, and a conversation began that sounded like it had started elsewhere.

 

“So my brother, he drags himself home a sennight after he was supposed to get there. Said he and his friend got ambushed right off a Royal Road north of the Laraka, and he was lucky to have gotten away with only his arm crippled.”

 

A different voice, deeper than the first, said, “That’s nothin’. I knew this guy once, ‘e was a trapper. He told me one time about going out to check his lines, and finding a dead man. He said the guy looked fit, and had armor and a sword on, but he was tore up like a bear or a forest cat got him. Guess anyone can have bad luck, huh?”

 

A third voice, the deepest one yet, said, “Aw, you’re just trying to scare me outa going down to Noltor-on-Sea by myself.”

 

“No, no,” chorused the others.

 

The deepest voice continued, “And it won’t work. I’m not staying.” The others protested, and then the voice continued, “Instead, you’re coming with me.”

 

Aldan ignored the rest of the conversation and went back to his drinking. Only now, the possible dangers he might encounter as he crossed all of that parchment figured into his worrying. That night, he dreamed about wild animals and bandits and wandering for months and months and never even making it as far as the Laraka River.

 

It might have been the advice, it might have been the nightmares, or it might have even been too much ale, but the next day, Aldan went back to the enclaves to find a caravan heading north. He couldn’t find one going directly to Dargon, so he settled for passage to Valdasly, in the Duchy of Arvalia. That city was definitely on his way, and he had been assured that he would be able to find another caravan there to take him further north. He idled for two more days in Thoragil, and left with Chenzo’s ‘Van.

 

The train of horses and carts and people moved no faster than a moderate walk, and stopped four times, not counting their final stop of the early evening. By the end of the first day they hadn’t covered more ground than Aldan could have alone even taking as many wrong turns as he ever had. The bartender had been right about the comfort, as his tent that night was almost as comfortable as the inn he had just left. And the safety aspect was obvious, since there were enough men and women in the caravan that only an army of bandits would have attacked it. But no one had mentioned the snail’s pace that a large caravan set.

 

Aldan thought that maybe the pace would be better on the second day, but if anything, it was worse as their route deviated onto narrow, winding paths briefly in the middle of the day. On the third, when the distance they had ventured by fifth bell wasn’t even as far as the previous day, Aldan sought out Chenzo himself.

 

Chenzo was a very round man who rode in a wagon along with a driver. Aldan rode up beside the wagon and said, “Greetings, Chenzo. I was wondering whether your excellent caravan was going to maintain this rather leisurely pace, or if it might travel somewhat faster in the coming days?”

 

Chenzo looked over at Aldan and said, “No, Lord Aldan, I can’t really coax much more speed out of my caravan than this, barring road conditions of course. That’s the price of a well-stocked and staffed caravan. We’re big and thus safe, but slow.”

 

Aldan realized that Chenzo was right, and considered his options. He could remain with the caravan and only get as far as Valdasly in two months or more, by which time the Menagerie could be well hidden in Dargon, or he could brave the dangers of the road and actually make decent, if circuitous, progress on his own.

 

In the end, there was only one decision he could make. He was the son of a baron, and he should be able to brave the dangers of the wild on his own. He said, “I think that we should part company, Chenzo. My business won’t wait forever, and I must press on ahead.”

 

“If that is your decision then I wish you well, Lord Aldan. You may leave at your own convenience.”

 

“There is the matter of a refund, good Chenzo,” said Aldan.

 

“On what grounds?”

 

“I am leaving your caravan well before Valdasly, after all.”

 

“And why should that matter, Lord Aldan?” asked Chenzo. “Your fee allowed you to join the ‘van. I never agreed to get you to Valdasly. Fare well, Lord Aldan.”

 

The caravan master turned away, leaving Aldan gaping in astonishment. It was unthinkable that a commoner would treat him so badly! He took a deep breath and calmed himself. His rank meant nothing out here in the middle of the road, surrounded by people loyal to, or at least employed by, Chenzo.

 

Then he remembered the map seller in Henglewood and his vow not to be cheated again. He tried to puzzle out a way to get his own back, and in an instant he had an inspiration. If Aldan couldn’t use his nobility directly, there was still a way he could use his rank and influence.

 

“Merchant Chenzo,” he said.

 

The caravan master turned, and said, “Have you not left yet, Lord Aldan?”

 

“Not just yet, merchant Chenzo. I was thinking …”

 

Silence stretched for a few moments, and finally Chenzo answered, “Yes?” with a look that told Aldan that the merchant was aware of the trick and had only answered to move the conversation along.

 

“We had a deal, merchant Chenzo. You had your understanding of it, and I had mine, but a decent merchant wouldn’t let someone’s honest naivete lead them into an unfortunate situation like this.” Aldan paused and watched a frown form on Chenzo’s round face. “A bad merchant, concerned only with profit and not reputation, might do such a thing. A thief might perpetrate such a fraud, since reputation means nothing to such. But I cannot believe that a prosperous merchant, like yourself for example, would ever let such a situation arise.”

 

Chenzo’s frown had vanished, but the expression that replaced it was not welcoming. Aldan continued, “I am not challenging your decision here and now, merchant Chenzo; this is your domain and you rule within it. But I feel that my story would find receptive ears among my own peers, and I’m sure they would pass it on. After all, how could they resist a tale of the son of a baron being cheated by merchant Chenzo?”

 

Aldan feigned turning Firesocks away, and was rewarded by the barked, “Wait!” from the caravan master. Aldan released the reins and, putting on his most neutral expression, he said, “Yes?”

 

“Perhaps we can reach a new accommodation, my Lord Aldan,” said the frowning Chenzo. Aldan let himself show a small smile, and the haggling began.

 

Aldan left the caravan with some of his money once again in his purse, and some of the equipment he had been using tied up behind his saddle. He worked his way north again, taking as many east-bearing paths as he could. He made slow progress, but he was still faster than Chenzo’s ‘Van.

 

***

 

Three sennights after riding away from his home in Beeikar, Aldan rode into Pyinalt’s Crossroads. He was in the Duchy of Quinnat, and he was headed for Port Sevlyn as the easiest way he could see to cross the mighty Laraka River. Blindly following the roads and paths he came across, adjusting his heading by finding villages on his map, he had ridden into this town, which was too small to show on his map.

 

Dismounting in front of the Buzzard’s Roost Inn, Aldan noticed Firesocks favoring a hind leg. He stroked the horse’s haunch and carefully lifted the leg to examine the bottom of the foot. The stone he found was easily removed and he didn’t see any blood, so it couldn’t have been lodged in there for very long. He looked at the condition of the shoe and realized that Firesocks hadn’t been shod for this kind of travel. Lifting his head, he saw a large wooden horseshoe hanging from a gatepost across the square from the inn. He knew where he would be going tomorrow.

 

The Buzzard’s Roost was small, plain, and clean. The meal he ate was simple yet hearty, the straw in his mattress was fresh, and the blanket soft if threadbare. His room even boasted a window through which he could clearly see the full moon. He didn’t begrudge the three Bits it cost.

 

The next morning, Aldan led Firesocks across the square to the Eldirhan Blacksmithy. The moment he crossed beneath the gate into the walled-in courtyard, he felt strange. The large, open space seemed familiar, especially the bench beneath the tall chestnut trees at the back, near the door into what he was sure were the living spaces of the building. In the other back corner was a wide door, and that was where he led his horse, knowing it was the forge.

 

The room beyond the door was bigger than Aldan expected. A half-dozen forge fires burned in the back half of the room, and four young men and women worked bellows and heated metal at two of them. As he stood on the threshold, he was approached by a thickly-built woman with ruddy skin and short, brown hair. Her bare arms bulged with the muscle that came from swinging heavy hammers down on hot iron, and she extended a hand that was rough and already dirty from the work she had done that morning.

 

“Hail, stranger, and fair day to you. I’m Marigey, and this is my blacksmithy. What can my apprentices and I do for you and your steed this day?” Her voice matched the rest of her: deep, rich, and filled with contented assurance. Her hand enfolded his own and Aldan felt the strength in her fingers.

 

“My horse needs shoes fit for long traveling, Mistress Marigey. How much for a full set?”

 

The blacksmith glanced at Firesocks’ feet, and expertly lifted a forefoot onto her thigh. She tapped the shoe, and ran her finger along its edge, before releasing the leg again. “You’re right, young man. Those are common shoes, fit for exercising and the occasional hunt. I can have him shod in thicker, harder metal before fourth bell for only a Round.”

 

Aldan honestly had no idea of the value of long road shoes or the time of a blacksmith to shape and fit them; his father employed a blacksmith at the keep and paid him a wage. He did know a little about people, though, and he thought that Marigey was testing him by the way her eyes narrowed slightly while her left eyebrow went up slightly.

 

A Round wouldn’t significantly deplete his purse, but he didn’t want to pay more than the job was worth. Taking a deep breath and hoping he wasn’t going to insult the woman, he said, “I was hoping I wouldn’t have to let go of more than ten Bits for this chore.”

 

Marigey’s face relaxed, and she nodded. “Ten Bits, yeh? Ten Bits might get you the lot where you’re from, but it won’t get you more’n the shoes here. I have to set a fair value on my own time, after all.” She wasn’t frowning, and there was no heat in her voice, so Aldan knew that he had ventured the right counteroffer. “But I’ll tell you what. My time might be worth a premium, but that of my apprentices is not. They have all studied long, and shod many a horse, so the work will be worthy of my own hands. That being the case, I can offer you a discount at seventeen.”

 

Entering into the spirit of the moment, Aldan paused and pretended to consider. Then he said, “On second thought, perhaps I could spend as much as thirteen under the circumstances.”

 

Marigey laughed, nodded, and said, “Fifteen?”

 

“Fine, and thank you.” Aldan shook her hand again, and counted out the copper coins. She thanked him and said that he could wait in the courtyard. As she led Firesocks into the shoeing stall to one side of the wide door, she was already calling out to her apprentices to fetch the medium blanks and the deshoeing claw.

 

Aldan turned and walked slowly over to the bench under the chestnut trees. The strangeness he had felt when he first arrived, forgotten during the negotiations, was returning. As he settled into one of the worn sections of the bench, fitting his spine to the curve that had been hollowed out of the back, he felt it all around him. There was a pressure in his ears that reminded him of the time in his youth when he had been dared by Fox, his closest friend and fellow Menagerie member, to lift every hammer in the blacksmithy in town. He had started to struggle after the middle-sized hammer, but he hadn’t been more than twelve summers old at the time, either. Determined to beat Fox’s dare, showing off to all of his friends, he had managed to hoist every one but the last a double-hand off the ground. But the blacksmith’s largest hammer, that seemed to his recollection to have a head as large as his own, had defeated his mightiest efforts. It had been then, as he struggled against the unbeatable weight, that he had felt a similar sense of pressure at his ears, which had eased when he stopped attempting the impossible.

 

That memory led him to think about Fox. He remembered how close he and Fox had become over the years. Fox, or Lord Wannek to call him by his proper name, had reacted the worst when the baron had ordered Aldan to cease associating with the Menagerie. Aldan had never been totally sure whether his father had made that demand only for the reasons he had stated. Could he have learned of what had been blossoming between himself and Fox? Those deep feelings … but, no. It was useless to think on that, given that he was chasing Fox — and Bear and Owl — to Dargon to avenge Tillna’s murder.

 

Aldan’s attention was drawn to the gate by the sound of hooves. He looked up just as someone walked a horse through the gate. The figure stopped just within the courtyard, and something about the whole setting seemed strangely familiar to Aldan. The pressure in his ears increased, holding him down against the bench, and he felt like he had seen this — no, done this before. The shade, the seat, the horse, the person … It had all happened before, long before. Locked in place by the pressure still building around him, Aldan felt his lips beginning to move even though he had no idea what he was going to say … and then the moment broke as the stranger started walking toward him again.

 

The pressure vanished, and Aldan started to breathe normally again. At first he thought the figure was a woman for some reason, but it didn’t take long for him to realize his error. The man was tall and pale-skinned, with ash-blond hair and an amazingly large nose, which didn’t affect how handsome he was. As he got closer, Aldan noticed that his eyes were a bright grass green which went well with his coloring. He also noticed the bardic harps and stars on the man’s belt, which seemed somehow appropriate.

 

But he wasn’t comfortable sitting in the shade any longer. Something about that strange pressure — something about this bard — unsettled him profoundly. So he stood up and took a few steps toward the forge entrance. He called out, “Marigey, you’ve another customer. I’ll be back in a few bells for Firesocks.” As the stout blacksmith appeared in the doorway, Aldan turned and left. He gave the bard a brief nod as he passed, but the blond-haired, green-eyed man stayed in Aldan’s thoughts for a long time after.

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