DargonZine 16, Issue 5

The Ballad of the Potter and the Horse Thief

Melrin 3, 1018 - Melrin 4, 1018


Maurev’s hands closed on the smooth, cool surface of the clay. He lifted the sculpture from its plinth and turned it to better admire its lush curvaceousness and the artful blending of the glazes across the object. A surge of loud conversation to his left, from which he only caught the word “child”, startled him and made him clutch at the statue. A fraction of a moment later he felt a blow to his back that made him stagger forward. If he hadn’t been gripping the statue tightly it would have crashed to the ground with disastrous results.

 

Wild thoughts dashed through his head as his heart hammered in his chest. He had been admiring the statue with a professional’s interest; Maurev was a newly elevated journeyrank potter at the Corathin Pottery. He was anxious to prove that his rapid advancement was warranted, and hoped to produce something as good as the sculpture himself after the Melrin festival was over and the pottery opened again. He wasn’t at all sure, though, that he’d have been able to replace the object if it had smashed.

 

Maurev whirled around, statue still gripped in his hands, to see who or what had knocked into him. He found himself staring into the smirking face and squinting brown eyes of Haian.

 

Haian had never been Maurev’s friend even while they worked side by side as apprentices at the pottery. The obvious reason was the five year difference in their ages; Maurev knew of no other reason for the man to dislike him. Haian’s unfriendly demeanor had turned decidedly nasty since Maurev’s elevation. The new journeyrank recalled the spoiled formwork that had forced him to miss most of the first day of Melrin, and was sure that Haian’s metaphorical hand print was all over the accident.

 

“So sorry, Maurev,” Haian murmured, though Maurev could see no contrition evident. “You should watch yourself, though. Big crowds this year.” With an impenetrable glare, Haian turned and walked away, quickly becoming lost in the Melrin crowd.

 

Maurev stared after the man, knowing that the bump had been no accident. The teachers at Corathin would brook no fighting between apprentices, or any other ranks, but who could prove Haian’s intentions? Maurev ran his hands unconsciously across the smooth glaze of the sculpture, its rounded contours, and felt himself calm down. Music filled the air, snatches of songs drifting by. He looked back at the pottery between his hands and let the melody that accompanied the words “… move the rolling …” ease the rest of the tension away.

 

Maurev took a deep breath and held it for a beat or two, letting the ambiance of the festival relax him further. A different group of singers penetrated the background noise, their energy propelling the fragment “… ship, the black …” to his ears as he exhaled, calmer, and turned to put the statue back on its stand. The proprietor of the small stall was on its other side, engaged in selling some plates, and had never noticed the near disaster. Maurev looked a final time at the sensuous lines of the sculpture sitting amid mundane plates and mugs and wondered where the seller had gotten such a masterpiece. He was sure that it hadn’t come from his own employer.

 

Maurev continued his stroll along the main street of Hartim, the seat of the Barony of Madenee on the east coast of the Duchy of Dargon. Melrin had brought everyone from the surrounding countryside into the town, and the street was lined with stalls and thronged with people. Street corners hummed with musicians playing wildly different styles of music that still blended into a harmonious whole. Small eddies in the current of people betrayed the locations of players: puppeteers, jugglers, or prestidigitators, whose pretend magic was often more amazing than the real thing. Maurev wandered, savoring the sights and sounds, examining the wares for sale with fingers as well as eyes. He spent his Bits extravagantly on sweets and trinkets, knowing that he would now be getting piece-prices as well as his small wa ge from the pottery. He couldn’t remember Melrin ever having been so festive and amazing, not even five years ago when he had been apprenticed at eleven years old into the one trade he’d always dreamed of learning.

 

Maurev’s ambling eventually led him past the boundary of the town and into the fairgrounds that had been set up to the south of Hartim, adjacent to its meager docks. He skirted the horse pens, hearing the auctioneer calling out “number 81″ as he passed. He slipped into an ale tent, where the patrons were busily drowning out the band on the tiny stage next to the bar. The place was far too crowded for Maurev’s taste, and he could only hear a snippet of the heavily rhythmic tune the band was performing, which sounded like “… head. Tucked. Underneath …”, before he decided to try somewhere quieter.

 

He smiled as he passed the large tent housing the wares of the Corathin Pottery and heard faint whisper of song from within: “… what care I for my house …”. None of his wares were displayed in that tent, but come next Melrin he intended to be a featured artist. To be exact, his work was in there, but as an apprentice he had only executed the designs of his superiors, though not always his betters. Form work, by-rote shapings, nothing but craftings, without any creativity at all and almost no art: that was the way apprenticeship worked, and Maurev understood and accepted it. Next year, though, it would be different.

 

He continued his wandering, enjoying the reduced congestion on the fringes of the fairgrounds. He followed his nose, and some enticing scents led him to a food vendor with an almost empty tent. He splurged on a meal large enough for two. As he sat at the rough wood table and savored the excellent cooking, he wished that he could share the fair with Saunt immediately, instead of waiting until the cowherd returned from his duties. Saunt was a tall young man of eighteen years, with golden hair and fair skin despite his constant exposure to weather out in the pastures. He was also Maurev’s best friend. He had promised to spend Melrin with Maurev, but the baron had chosen Saunt, along with two other cowherds, to attend him while he brought the yearlings home. Maurev hadn’t even been able to tell his friend about his promotion, as the baron’s party had left on the 28th of Naia.

 

Maurev was rehearsing how he would tell Saunt about the excitement of the past few days when he felt the heat of the afternoon sun on his back vanish. Realizing that someone had to be standing behind him, he turned … and found himself confronted with an overabundance of barely-bound breasts.

 

He stared at the red velvet bodice that squeezed the breasts together and up, but mostly he stared at the whiteness that bulged above the red. His mouth hung open and he could feel his tongue drying out. His eye for detail noted the exquisite embroidery that edged the red velvet, and if the jewels that dotted that stitching weren’t real, they sure glittered as if they were.

 

A laugh came from above his line of sight, sounding like tinkling crystal. A beringed hand reached down and cupped his chin, and he automatically noticed that the fingers were soft and the palm smooth as his gaze was lifted above the canyon and the mountains.

 

Maurev gasped when he saw the face of Cheyon, Baroness Madenee. She was a beautiful woman with dark hair, stormy blue eyes, and a full, expressive mouth. She was almost as much younger than Daniled, her husband, as she was older than Maurev, which was at least ten years. Maurev was mortified; he had been staring at the ample charms of his baroness! He tried to say something, but his dry tongue refused to cooperate. He closed his mouth and his eyes, and tried to turn his head aside as he wetted his tongue as fast as he could. The crystalline laugh came again, and the fingers didn’t leave his chin.

 

Finally he was able to stutter out, “Y-y-your excellency! I ap-p-pologize …”

 

Cheyon let his chin go and said, “Had I been offended, little Maurev, I would not have let you stare so long.” The smile was evident in her voice, and Maurev opened his eyes to confirm its presence.

 

“You … you know my name, your excellency?”

 

“Please, Maurev, call me Cheyon, at least when we are alone like this. And yes, I know your name. My husband and I are patrons of the arts, and we take an interest in promising youths such as yourself. I’ve heard you’ve been elevated to journeyrank and came to offer my congratulations.”

 

Maurev blushed at the praise, and lowered his gaze quickly past Cheyon’s bodice and down to his own feet. He mumbled, “Thank you, your — Cheyon, ma’am.” He found himself staring again; her feet were clad in sandals, and she had rings on every toe, and an anklet dripping with more sparkly jewels.

 

Cheyon said, “I was wondering whether you could do me a favor, little Maurev?” He watched her step closer to him, her foot coming to rest between his. He lifted his gaze back to her face as she continued, “I’d like to be your very personal patron. I’d like you to create a statue of me. In the nude.”

 

Maurev could feel the heat from her body even through the rising heat in his own. The inane question, “And what will you be wearing?” flashed through his mind, but he knew what she’d meant. He debated the proprieties of sculpting his baroness naked, but couldn’t deny that he wanted to try it. He wondered what Saunt would think, and then wondered why he felt slightly ashamed of that thought, as if this was something he shouldn’t share with Saunt.

 

“I … ah, I think I would be honored, Cheyon, ma’am. When do you think …? We could use one of the studios in the pottery …”

 

Cheyon put her hand on Maurev’s shoulder. He could smell a faint perfume rising from her and it made his skin tingle. She said, “I don’t see any need to wait, little Maurev. It’s Melrin, so you have no duties, and my duties for the day are complete. Why don’t you come home with me and do it tonight? I’m sure we can be … finished … before morning’s light.”

 

Maurev suddenly found it hard to breathe. He gasped a few times, which only seemed to amuse Cheyon. Her giggle brought him around, and he took a few deep breaths. Trying to be adult about the situation, thinking of nothing but the sculpting, he said, “Do you have everything I’ll need at the manor?”

 

“Oh yes, Maurev. Absolutely everything.”

 

“Then I, ah …” he said, trying to think of a reason not to go with the baroness. Failing, he said, “Then let’s be about it.”

 

Cheyon’s crystal laughter rang out, and she turned. Blushing furiously, Maurev stood and followed her away.

 

***

 

Haian stalked away from his not-so-chance encounter with Maurev, his frown so fierce it made his forehead hurt. “The little rat-turd,” he thought, “He didn’t even drop the tupping statue!”

 

The crowd got in the way no matter where Haian tried to go, and the music was so raucous that it made his ears hurt. A red haze formed around the edges of Haian’s vision as he desperately sought a way out of the press of people and away from the noise. He darted between two stalls, and then through a door. He ignored the startled yelps of the people whose home he had invaded, and drove straight through it and out the back.

 

The alley behind the house was quieter, but it was also short, the respite it provided brief. As Haian dodged and darted his way through alleys and side streets, getting lost over and over again, the apprentice cursed the day his father had sold him to the Corathin Pottery. Haian hated clay, but his father’d had dreams that his coin didn’t stretch to. Thinking to do his son a favor, he’d apprenticed the thirteen year old with the best potters in the Duchy of Dargon. Haian hadn’t had a good day since he’d left the city of Dargon with the pot-seller eight years ago. He knew he wouldn’t have one, either, until he attained journeyrank and was free of his apprenticeship bond, or he decided to run away from that bond. He hadn’t reached a low enough point yet to break his word.

 

Haian eventually found himself among the tents of the fairgrounds south of Hartim. His body unclenched slowly as the noise and the crowds both thinned out. He found his way to the horse pens, where he stood for a while watching the animals being led away, the gate wardens carefully checking tail tags against receipts. Haian idly marked who’d had a good day at the auction by the worthiness of the horseflesh they now owned. He had grown up around animals on the farm where his family worked. He’d been grooming horses since he could stand, riding them for almost as long as he’d been able to walk. He’d milked cows, slopped pigs, and collected eggs for most of his childhood. He had come to understand animals. He knew how to care for them, how to work them, get benefit from them. He didn’t know how to make clay work, how to make it benefit him. Clay had no spirit, no life. Haian just didn’t comp rehend the stuff.

 

He found his thoughts turning inevitably back to the new rankings that had been announced on the last day of Naia, just before the beginning of the mid-year Melrin festival. Haian hadn’t expected to be journeyed, but he had hoped. At twenty-one, he wasn’t the oldest apprentice at the pottery, but he had been there longer than anyone who had any intention of advancing. Haian wasn’t going to work as a potter, ever, but he would never be anything else until he advanced out of his apprenticeship.

 

Maurev’s grinning image came to mind, accepting his journeyrank along with three other apprentices who were all Haian’s age or older. Haian had no friends at the pottery, but he now had an enemy. Maurev didn’t deserve advancement. Haian couldn’t see any difference between the work Maurev did and his own efforts, nor that of the other three new journeyranks, either. He had thought it would all come down to a matter of age and opportunity, until Maurev had stolen his spot among the journeyranks well out of turn.

 

At sixteen, Maurev was clearly too young to be a journeyrank. It galled Haian no end that the child’s backroom activities with the clay masters had been rewarded while Haian’s attempts at the same had all been rebuffed. His thoughts turned to Master Pretya, the youngest and prettiest of the three master potters at Corathin. Haian had given her countless presents, praised her work effusively, intimated his interest in taking private lessons from her. She always took his advances at face value, never acknowledging the subtext Haian knew she had to have seen. Yet she was always at Maurev’s side, praising his work, giving him the ‘private lessons’ Haian wanted. No, Haian had never been allowed the liberties that Maurev must have taken to receive his advancement so young. Haian vowed he’d get even with the little scut.

 

The ache in his ears and forehead finally eased as Haian continued wandering. He hated the town of Hartim as much as he hated clay, finding no way to favorably compare it to Dargon itself, but the Melrin festival made up for many of its shortcomings. The dreadful small sameness of the town was mitigated by the influx of people and the traders who came to sell to them. Haian perused the goods, finding nothing worth his Bits but happy to have something besides Maurev and clay to think about.

 

A short while later, Haian found himself near the edge of the fairgrounds. He made for his favorite food vendor, but when he got close his forehead started to hurt again; he saw Maurev sitting at one of the tables by himself, eating. Haian examined the situation, but saw no opportunity to bother the boy beyond direct confrontation. As much as he would have liked that, he needed to avoid it at all costs thanks to the pottery’s rules. Instead, he slipped behind an awning pole across a pathway from the eatery to wait for his enemy’s departure.

 

Haian fumed as he watched the boy eat, a stupid grin on his baby face. Maurev had wheat-brown hair and green eyes, handsome features and strong limbs. Haian compared his own coarse looks, his mud-brown hair and dirt-brown eyes, and felt rage begin to build again. The kid had every advantage, while Haian had none. It just wasn’t fair!

 

Haian indulged himself with a small fantasy. He imagined Maurev getting older, his hair falling out, his eyes dulling, his face and limbs collecting the clay-dust of the pottery and never coming clean. And then Haian involuntarily imagined the pretend-old Maurev standing there, a master’s medallion around his neck. His unruly imagination portrayed this master Maurev giving a journeyrank to someone standing next to a still-apprenticed, old Haian. He cursed, and slammed his fist against the awning pole. Pain in his hand joined the pain in his forehead, and he cursed again.

 

Haian missed Baroness Cheyon Madenee entering the eatery. By the time his attention returned to reality, the boy was staring at her cleavage. Haian watched avidly as that stare went on for an insultingly long time. But Maurev’s luck held and the baroness took no offense that Haian could see, instead taking hold of Maurev’s chin and gently lifting his gaze away from her breasts. They spoke, Maurev blushing, mild, the baroness bold, amused, perhaps even flirtatious. Haian forgot to frown as he concentrated on the inaudible exchange between the woman and the boy. He needed to know more about what was going on.

 

The pair in the eatery were intent upon each other, and the food seller was nowhere in sight. Haian slipped around the awning pole, across the path, and into the growing shadow next to a wall of the eatery’s tent.

 

Haian was in time to overhear the baroness saying, “I’m sure we can be … finished … before morning’s light.”

 

There was a pause before Maurev’s thin voice, childish to Haian’s ears, said, “Do you have everything I’ll need at the manor?”

 

“Oh yes, Maurev. Absolutely everything,” was the overheard reply.

 

Maurev stuttered, “Then I, ah … Then let’s be about it.”

 

The baroness laughed and turned to go. When Maurev stood and followed her, Haian almost laughed as well.

 

“This is perfect!” Haian thought. “Maybe Maurev didn’t do the seducing, but the baron doesn’t need to hear that. I’m going to make sure that he knows what’s going on at the manor before the sun sets!”

 

Every year, regular as Melrin itself, Baron Daniled Madenee took a handful of people out to his hunting lodge, where, over several days, his cattle were rounded up and penned to be eventually driven back to town. Everyone knew about the trip; the baron didn’t keep it a secret. Haian was sure that it wasn’t a duty that normally fell to the nobility — he couldn’t imagine, for example, Duke Clifton going out to bring the yearlings home himself — but the baron of Madenee seemed to think that it made him look like one of his people, instead of above them. Haian thought it made the baron look like a mud-footed hick. However, since that was about as highly as he thought of anyone in Madenee, he supposed that the baron had achieved his goal.

 

Haian made sure that the illicit pair was out of sight before he emerged from the shadow. He reviewed his options, swiftly discarding them one by one. The hunting lodge was too far to walk to quickly, so he would need transportation. Asking to borrow a horse would take too long, with the added wrinkle that he really didn’t know anyone who would lend him one without a great deal of convincing. Then he recalled the horse pens in the auction yard.

 

He dashed across the fairgrounds even as he gave a thought to the consequences of what he planned. Stealing horses was punishable by death, but Haian had no intention of keeping the horse. He was only borrowing one for long enough to inform the baron of an injustice being perpetrated on him. Surely the baron would pardon his offense?

 

The horse pens were empty of people. Two of the corrals were empty of horses as well, but the third and fourth gave him a wealth to choose from. His hard-earned childhood skills served him well. He spotted a likely runner and called it over. Accepting the risk of mounting the strange animal without any tack, he climbed over the railings and onto the horse’s back. It didn’t try to buck him off, and responded well to his direction. He trotted it over to the gate and let them out, closing and latching it after. He used his feet in its ribs and his hands on its neck to guide it out of the fairgrounds. As soon as they were clear of the tents, he kicked the horse to a gallop, and held on as his hopes of a runner were borne out.

 

Haian raced with the sun across the fields around Hartim, gripping the horse’s mane in his fists and leaning close to the neck. He rehearsed in his mind what he was going to say to the baron, how he was going to dramatically expose Maurev’s perfidy in sleeping with his wife. Along the way he felt the pain in his forehead ease, to be replaced with a very strange sensation in his cheeks. He eventually realized he was grinning fiercely, and he didn’t know whether it was because of his impending revenge on Maurev, or because he was enjoying the gallop.

 

When he came to the Yentz river, however, he forgot all about grinning. He cursed for a solid spring mene as he pranced his borrowed horse along the edge of the washed-out bridge, a product of the rains at the beginning of the season. He knew there must be another bridge or ford somewhere, since the baron was at his lodge on the other side of the Yentz and not at home, but Haian didn’t know where it might be.

 

Determined not to break his vow to himself, he took another chance. He turned the horse from the road and directed it down to the river bank. He continued into the water, and soon the horse was swimming across the river. The water was uncomfortably cold on Haian’s legs, and he spared a moment’s habitual thought for the welfare of his steed. He hoped that neither of them would be in the water dangerously long. He had a tense moment when the current and the horse’s own efforts brought them to an unclimbable section of the far bank, but they quickly came to a more suitable landing point and the horse scrambled out of the river. Haian dug in his heels again. The rushing wind of his passage soon had his pant legs dry.

 

The sun was on the horizon when Haian rode up to the baron’s hunting lodge. The small manor house was an impressive structure, but Haian paid no attention to the stone construction, the deep porches, or the slate roof. He slid, somewhat painfully, to be sure, off his horse’s back and strode over to the imposing door. He took hold of the bell-pull and yanked it. He was startled by the tinny jangling he got in response, having expected a more resounding result.

 

The door opened quickly, but instead of the baron standing there, Haian saw a stooped, older man in patchy leather and over-the-knee boots. “Can I help you?” the man asked in a quavering voice.

 

“Who are you?” Haian said.

 

“I’m Baron Madenee’s huntsman. Can I help you?”

 

“Ah, is the baron here?” said Haian, wondering what the geezer was fit to hunt.

 

“Yes, he –” started the old man.

 

“Who is it, Ned?” interrupted someone from within. Haian pushed past the old man to find the source of the voice, which he recognized as the baron’s.

 

He stalked intently down the dark hallway, ignoring the feeble calls of the huntsman behind him. Only one door was open, light spilling through it, and he entered the room beyond, full of confidence. Knowing he was intruding on the baron’s privacy but buoyed by his mission, he called out, “Your excellency, I bring news from Hartim!” before he took the time to look around.

 

The room was small and cozy. Wood covered the walls and ceiling, and a stone fireplace filled one corner. Four men sat around a low table with cards in their hands. Most of them were dressed casually in tunics and pants, though one of them was barechested despite the slightly chilly air. Two taller, narrower tables stood on opposite sides of the low table; one had mugs and several decanters on it, the other held bread, cheese, sliced meats, and small bowls of condiments. Next to the cards on the low table were several leftwiches with bites taken out of them.

 

The largest and oldest of the four men in the room stood and turned toward Haian. Baron Daniled was over forty, with broad shoulders and long, red hair. A full beard cloaked his mouth and chin, but Haian could tell that those lips were not smiling.

 

In a voice that matched his body, a rich baritone with occasional deeper bass rumblings, Daniled said, “What ho, my good man? News, you say? News you bring from Hartim? Has a tent in the fairgrounds caught fire? Bandits, perhaps? Or maybe the Beinison army has ventured this far north once again and taken my manor house for part of their empire?”

 

The baron’s tone of voice was playful, but the storm in his eyes convinced Haian that he was not joking about having his privacy invaded. Setting aside his ulterior motives for the moment, he delivered his news in as respectful and sorrowful a manner as he was able. “Your excellency, I regret to inform you that you are betrayed. Maurev the clay-boy is bedding your wife as we speak.”

 

Gasps came from the still seated men, but Daniled didn’t react. He waited a moment, then said, “You are sure of this, young man?”

 

“I’m Haian, your excellency, and I saw it myself.”

 

“You were at the manor house to witness this act?”

 

“No, your excellency,” said Haian.

 

The baron frowned, and said, “Then how do you know what my wife is doing?”

 

“I did not see the bedding, but I saw the seduction,” Haian said, getting exasperated and forgetting to whom he was speaking.

 

“And there can be no mistake?” said Daniled. “Think carefully, for you accuse my wife and this Maurev with your words.”

 

“I saw what I saw,” said Haian, almost shouting. His forehead was starting to hurt again from frowning. Couldn’t this clod of a baron understand the obvious? “I saw them leave the fairgrounds together.”

 

“Perhaps they were simply walking in the same direction.”

 

“I heard them speaking of going to the manor and spending the night there!”

 

“Perhaps …” the baron began, but he didn’t continue. He bowed his head, and Haian saw him clenching his fists. The baron paused for so long that Haian wondered just exactly what he was thinking.

 

Finally Daniled said, “We must ride back, then, with all haste.” He glanced over at the men around the table and said, “Saunt, put your tunic back on. Everyone, go get the horses ready. We’re going back to Hartim.”

 

Haian suppressed his grin, though he still wondered at the lack of passion in the baron’s voice. The other three men rose and slipped out of the room, leaving Haian alone with Daniled. The baron just stared at Haian, his face unreadable. Haian started getting nervous, and he almost jumped when the baron shouted, “Ned! Get the grey saddled!”

 

A moment later, the shuffling old man poked his head into the room and said, “Your pardon, my lord, but the grey is lamed.”

 

Something flickered in the baron’s eyes, but Haian couldn’t decipher it. Daniled said, “The black, then.” Ned shook his head. “The chestnut!” ordered the baron.

 

Ned said, “My lord, Tan and Ebin have the black and the chestnut, and they’re out in the far pastures gathering the herd. I’m sorry, we’ve no horses to spare beyond the four you rode in on.”

 

Daniled sighed in resignation, making Haian wonder why the baron needed an extra horse. The baron said, “I remember now, Ned. I’ll just have to …” Daniled’s voice trailed off, confusing Haian further.

 

“Very good, my lord,” Ned said before leaving.

 

Haian remembered about his ‘borrowed’ horse, and he decided to get his pardon before any more time had passed. “Forgive me, your excellency?”

 

“What?” barked Daniled.

 

There was such anger in that single word that Haian decided not to bring up any further wrongdoing. He fumbled for a response, and then hit upon something that actually made sense in context.

 

“Ah, in my haste to carry my news,” Haian said, “I didn’t have time to dress my horse. If you’ve got spare tack?”

 

The baron narrowed his eyes, then turned away. “Of course, of course,” he said in a grudging tone. “In the stables out back. Help yourself, but hurry.”

 

***

 

Saunt felt a trickle of something at the corner of his mouth. He brushed at it with a finger, and realized that it was blood; he had bitten his lip in his nervousness. He looked around guiltily, but no one else in the small group who were riding through the night to return to the baron’s manor was paying any attention to him.

 

He wasn’t nervous about the ride itself, but rather the reason for the journey. When the brown-haired, scowling man had barged into the hunting lodge, Saunt hadn’t recognized him. Once he had named himself Haian, though, Saunt had realized who he was from Maurev’s description. When the man had announced his news, naming Maurev, Saunt had been hard pressed not to cry out in surprise. He knew Maurev well and he found it difficult to believe that the handsome lad would ever take up with any woman, much less the baroness.

 

The small company rode in silence for the most part, allowing Saunt plenty of time to worry. Most of the conversation consisted of Haian urging Baron Daniled to go faster, which was ironic since the moderate pace had been set due to Haian’s delicate anatomy upon remounting his horse. The accuser had also grumbled rather loudly when the group had detoured to the ford across the Yentz instead of swimming their horses across it near the broken bridge. So loud had Haian become that the baron had finally shouted at him to remain silent.

 

Thanks to the time it had taken to get everyone ahorse and away, their pace on the road, and the detour to the ford, the faint light of dawn was brightening the horizon when Saunt saw the first hint of Hartim, still some distance away. He recalled the words the baron had taken him aside to deliver. He lifted his horn to his lips and blew as loud and strong as he was able, shattering the silence of the night with the carrying noise.

 

Three faces turned to him in shock, and Haian’s shout joined the echoes of the horn in disturbing the nocturnal peace. Only the baron didn’t turn his head or react in any other way.

 

Saunt ignored the looks his cowherd friends gave him, just as he ignored the insults that Haian shouted. He let the horn fall back to his side, his part played. He only hoped he hadn’t sounded too early.

 

***

 

Maurev came awake slowly, hearing a faint horn blowing that bridged his dream and reality. The oddness of the sound in the pervasive silence was what had roused him, but it was his strange surroundings that startled him fully awake.

 

Soft sheets over him felt like velvet to skin used to rough homespun. The plush softness of a featherbed beneath him felt like a cloud to one accustomed to a straw-padded pallet which, often enough, lacked the straw. Most strange, however, was the warmth of the body behind him that felt like nothing he’d ever experienced before.

 

He thought about the sensations surrounding him, and could find no danger in them. He considered the strange horn, and realized it couldn’t have meant anything. He settled back into the softness below and the warmth behind him, and tried to go back to sleep.

 

There was a stirring next to him, and a warm voice said, “What wakes you, little Maurev?”

 

The previous evening came back to the journeyrank potter in a rush that made him grin from ear to ear. “Nothing, Cheyon, ma’am. Just a horn blowing in the night.”

 

The baroness sat up, pulling the sheet away from Maurev. “A horn, you say?”

 

Confused, Maurev rolled over and looked up at Cheyon’s concerned face. “Yes, I’m pretty sure it was a horn. But it was probably just a shepherd gathering his flock, straight?”

 

Cheyon shook her head sadly. “No, I don’t think so, Maurev.” She looked down at him, her face serious and intent. “I don’t think so at all.”

 

***

 

Baron Daniled Madenee heaved himself rather ponderously off the back of his horse in the courtyard in front of his manor house just as the sun poked up over the horizon behind him. From the clattering to his rear, the rest of his small group of riders were following his lead.

 

Daniled allowed himself a brief grin as Lenna and Rall, his ostler and butler, appeared at the front door unsummoned, despite the time. Lenna stepped forward and took charge of all of the mounts, having no trouble keeping all five in line despite her diminutive stature. Rall looked around at the group gathered before the house and looked at the baron, shaking his head just a tiny bit.

 

Daniled wiped his grin away and signaled with his hand that Rall need not be worried. He turned to the three cowherds and the apprentice potter and said, “Thank you for accompanying me back. You may go and find your rest, now; the night’s ride has been long.”

 

No one moved. The baron looked at the four faces and saw from their different expressions that they were very much against leaving, though for mixed reasons. Daniled mentally shrugged, and said, “But if you have the stamina to see this through, then follow me.”

 

He walked toward the door, and Rall said, “My lord, there was news from town while you were away. Last night, someone stole a horse from the auction yard. There hasn’t been time to investigate thoroughly as yet.”

 

“I’ll take that up later, Rall. This is more important.”

 

“Very good, my lord,” said the butler as he stood aside to let Daniled enter the manor.

 

The baron strode through the front hall and climbed the stairs, the other four trooping loudly up behind him. He turned right at the top of the stair and slammed through first one door and then another before reaching his own bedroom. He could feel Haian almost stepping on his heels, and found it difficult not to backhand the little weasel where he stood.

 

The tableau he found in his bedroom didn’t surprise him. He locked eyes with his wife and returned her nod. He glanced at the boy next to her, covered to his neck by the sheet; Maurev looked frightened, but he nodded, too.

 

Daniled paused a moment, letting the four behind him file in and arrange themselves. He then stormed across the room and stood at the foot of his bed.

 

“So,” he said, “I see my featherbed is not being wasted while I’m away. It seems that Haian here tells truth as he tale-tattles. Are my sheets to your liking, young man? My pillow? My wife?”

 

Maurev blinked a few times, and said, “Yes, your excellency, they are, thank you.” The boy’s voice was none too steady, but he was putting on bravado rather well.

 

Daniled said, “Get up then, young man, and get dressed. We’ve got honor to serve here, and I’ll not duel a naked man.”

 

“No, your excellency, I don’t think I should do that,” said Maurev. “You’re armed, after all, and I …” He paused, lifted the sheet, looked under it, and let it fall. “I don’t even have a pocket to hide a knife.”

 

Daniled smiled, knowing only the pair on the bed could see it. He was about to take the next scripted step when from behind him he heard, “The baron has two swords, see? One for him and one for the rat in his bed!” Daniled knew without turning that it was Haian who had spoken just from the animosity in the voice.

 

“I was about to say,” Daniled said, “that as the challenged, Maurev gets the choice –”

 

Haian chimed in with, “Then let him choose which of your swords to use instead of giving him one!”

 

Daniled saw the eyes of the pair in the bed widen as the script got shredded. He turned to glare at Haian, and before he could turn back, Maurev said hesitantly, “Ah, but I’ve, well, never even held a sword before.”

 

Daniled faced the bed again, and he could see the boy’s white knuckles where his fists clenched the sheet. Daniled held his hand up in front of his chest where it would be hidden from those behind him and motioned for Maurev to calm down and wait. He took a breath and prepared to defuse the situation, but once again Haian interrupted.

 

“Just trade blows then. Let the clay-boy go first to be fair, and then you, your excellency. Maurev will be dead, and justice will be served.”

 

Daniled turned his back on the bed and faced the upstart. “Just who do you think you are, Haian?” he shouted. “This is my barony and justice is mine to serve out. You overstep your place at every turn. Now, be silent, or you will reap the trouble you wish to sow!”

 

The young man opened his mouth and closed it again. Daniled saw only scorn in Haian’s face, though, and his hand fell to the hilt of one of his swords. Haian opened his mouth once more, and then stepped back, dropping his gaze to the floor.

 

Daniled sighed and was ready to start over when the door crashed open. His eyes went to the entry with everyone else’s to see Lenna standing there. The ostler said, “Your excellency, when I was stabling the animals I just took from the courtyard, I found that one had an auction yard tail-tag. The number matches that of the horse stolen last night.”

 

The baron assessed the situation swiftly. He had let the entire cavalcade come back to the manor after Haian’s accusations in the hope that he could deal with the problem as he had previously prepared with his wife, salving honor and quieting the accuser. That man, however, obviously had blood on his mind, and Daniled was minded to give it to him.

 

He drew one of the swords at his waist, took a step forward, and even as Haian’s head came up and his mouth opened, Daniled ran him through.

 

Shouts filled the room, Maurev’s loudest. The noisy Haian made no sound as he clutched at the sword that pierced him and sank slowly to his knees. Daniled laughed at the confusion in the man’s face. He said, “Now is justice served, you tale-tattling horse thief.” He pulled his sword back, and the former apprentice potter toppled to his side, closed his eyes, and was still.

 

Silence filled the room. Daniled winced as he saw the Haian’s blood soaking into his favorite carpet. He lifted his gaze from the body and found that everyone was looking at him, not at the corpse as he’d supposed.

 

He put thoughts of the ruined rug from his mind and took charge of the situation. He said, “Thank you, Lenna, for your timely news. You two,” he said, pointing at two of the cowherds, “help Lenna carry the rug and the body out of here. Lenna, tell Rall to inform the town guards that the horse thief has been dealt with, and then ask him to clean up the rest of this mess.”

 

The three of them lifted the rug, and with it the corpse, and hustled it out of the room. Daniled took the few steps and closed the door. He looked around at the remaining people in the room, and said, “That was not the end I expected, but a better one than I had feared.”

 

Cheyon rose from the bed, gloriously naked, and walked to his side. Daniled saw Saunt look away from the baroness’ charms. He gave the cowherd a push toward his friend, and watched Saunt gather the staring, shaking Maurev into his arms.

 

The baroness kissed Daniled on the cheek, somewhat nervously. He hugged her tight and kissed her on the lips in return. She said, “We were lucky today, weren’t we?”

 

“That we were, my dear. But this could all have been avoided if you had been more discreet.”

 

“Melrin brings out the worst in me, I suppose,” Cheyon said. “But I never saw that rat anywhere near us. He must have been spying from somewhere.”

 

“Maybe you’ll let Lenna, or even Rall, do your procuring next time, straight?”

 

“I think I’ve learned my lesson, love,” Cheyon said. She rested her head on his shoulder and said softly, “I’m sorry.”

 

Silence reigned once again, until Maurev’s quavering voice broke it. “He hated me. He hated me enough to commit a crime to see me destroyed.” The young man leaned against Saunt, and Daniled saw his inward stare turn outward. Maurev looked up at him and said, “But how …? Why aren’t you angry at me? I mean, Che– her excellency told me what to do, how to act, once the horn told her you were coming, but she didn’t tell me why.”

 

Daniled smiled kindly at the very young man and said, “Cheyon and I have an arrangement, Maurev. You see, I had an accident some time ago while hunting, and I cannot get her with child. Unfortunately, I hadn’t managed to have any children before the accident. I’m the last Madenee, and she’s from another noble family, with their own lineage to maintain. If I don’t produce an heir, my lands will be ceded to another by the duke upon my death.”

 

“So,” Maurev hesitatingly said, “The baroness did this to get you an heir, straight?”

 

Cheyon laughed her crystalline laugh, and Daniled was glad that she had put the unpleasantness behind her. She said, “That’s certainly one reason, little Maurev. It’s also one of the privileges of rank, to do what you want. I like variety, Maurev, and you are very, very handsome. I must say that my diversions are not usually so complicated.”

 

Daniled hugged his wife again, and added, “I have other interests too, Maurev. But the continuation of my line, blood or no, is the primary justification.”

 

“What about Saunt and the others? They know …” asked Maurev.

 

Daniled shook his head. “I think their discretion can be relied on in this case. There’s really no profit to be had here, since my wife had my consent.”

 

Maurev nodded, but Daniled could tell from the confusion on his face that he didn’t understand. The baron said, “Perhaps Saunt and I could explain it to you better back at my lodge, if you would care to join us there?”

 

Maurev nodded again, his face smoothing out in a smile. Then he frowned again, lifted his head from Saunt’s shoulder, and said, “So, do I get to do that sculpture of the baroness or not?”

 

Cleansing laughter filled the room, ending only when a knock came at the door. Daniled fetched a robe for his wife, and then let Rall in with a bucket and a mop. As the room was straightened up, he hoped that the rest of Melrin would not prove so eventful.

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