“You must be Liat.” Cael smiled and held his hand out to clasp wrists with the man who had just joined him in front of Dargon’s Old Guard House. Both men were dressed in the blue and grey uniform of the Town Guard. Cael’s uniform, which had cost him more than he would earn in his first few sennights as a guard, was new. He had spent several bells the previous night preparing it: shining his boots and buckles and trimming off the loose threads.
The other man scowled down at Cael’s hand for a moment before giving a perfunctory wrist clasp. “Why must I be? Because I’m the only one fool enough besides you to be standing out here before first bell?” The man’s gaze traveled up from Cael’s hand to his face.
Cael felt his smile falter under the older man’s scrutiny. He was suddenly nervous about his appearance, despite the time that he had spent the night before, and despite the fact that his companion’s uniform looked even more careworn than the man who wore it. Liat’s boots looked particularly battered and worn. Cael thought he might be in for a very long day.
Cael had arrived in Dargon only the day before and, after several bells spent searching for Murson Street and the Old Guard House that stood on it, had presented his letter of reference from Sir Harbid Heahun to the sergeant. Cael knew that the letter described him as a man with a strong, logical mind, who would benefit much from service in the Dargon Town Guard and in turn provide great service to the city. The sergeant, a man named Cepero, had asked him a few questions and then told him that he would spend the next day patrolling with Liat before taking over Liat’s patrol. From what Cepero had said about Liat wanting to be reassigned, Cael had assumed that Liat would be pleased to meet him.
He realized that the older man was still staring at him. “Straight,” he said with a nod, trying to regain his smile. It faltered again as he saw the other’s eyes narrow. “N-n-not that I think you’re a fool,” he stammered, “but Sergeant Cepero told me to expect you here, and, well, here you are.”
“Hmmph. Well, I am Liat.” His eyes traveled up and down Cael again, the look of contempt on his face growing. “Shiny new boots, eh? You’ll regret that. It’s a long walk.”
Cael swallowed. “I’ll be all right,” he said, feeling the pride about his new uniform beginning to slip away. Eager to move the conversation beyond his uniform, he asked, “So, what do we do first?”
“First,” replied Liat, “you’ll check in with the night sergeant, but I’ve already done that. Told him I was glad I wouldn’t have to look at his ugly face again for a while, too.” He chuckled.
“But won’t you have to check in prior to your new watch?”
“Straight, but not this early. My new patrol will be down by the barge docks. I’ll be seeing Sergeant Cepero, and at a decent bell. Bet you were wondering how you managed to land a day patrol when you’re the newest guard, huh? You’re about to find out. Like I said, it’s a long walk. And we’d better get started or we won’t be back by midday, and Cepero’ll have my ass, and yours, for being late for afternoon duty.”
Liat turned and began to walk northeast on Murson Street. Cael fell into step beside him. He was suddenly very aware of the stiffness of his boots.
“What do we do for afternoon duty?”
Liat snorted. “Whatever Cepero tells us! Why don’t you worry about the morning? Afternoon will come soon enough. For now, we have a patrol to make, so get moving.”
Cael followed behind him. “What should we be doing?”
This evoked another snort. “Guar-ding,” Liat replied, pronouncing each syllable carefully.
Cael felt his cheeks redden and was glad the other man could not see his face. He decided to refrain from further questions, at least until he could come up with one that wouldn’t be met with derision.
Although the sun had not yet broached the horizon, the city had begun to come to life. To the left, a shop door banged open as an apprentice swept dirt from the floor out into the street. To the right, a woman loaded up a cart with pots, pans, and various earthenware containers, doubtless for the day’s trade in some nearby market. Cael tried to get the woman’s attention in order to say “good morning”, but she glanced past him and his greeting died on his lips. After several more failed attempts to catch the eye of a passing townsperson, Cael realized his mistake. His home village of Heahun was so small that everyone knew everyone, so it was natural for him to say “hello” to everyone he met. Dargon, he realized, was so large that even a lifelong resident would know less than three in ten people that he passed. Cael supposed that he would eventually get to know m any of the people on his patrol, but a glance at Liat, whose gaze was fixed straight ahead, made him wonder.
Reminded of the size of Dargon, Cael marveled at the buildings, some two or even three stories. Before arriving in the city, Cael had only seen one building over one story: the aptly named Heahun Inn in his home village. Here they were packed so tightly that there was no room between them, or at most a narrow alleyway.
Liat paused as they came to an intersection with another major street. “This is the Main Street. Look there.” He pointed to a sign with large black boot painted on it. “You’ll know it by the cobbler’s sign, there.”
Cael nodded, but noticed a pole nearby with two hand-lettered signs hanging from it. The signs, which hung at right angles to each other, said, “Murson” and “Main”. “Couldn’t I just figure it out by reading the signs, Liat?”
“Oho! Know your letters, do you?” Liat scowled, making Cael wonder how the older man could have contempt for his being both stupid and smart. “Don’t let Cepero know, unless you want to spend your days crouched in a dark room with ink-stained fingers, writing reports instead of out on patrol. This way.” Liat crossed Main Street, continuing up Murson.
Cael followed, thinking that Liat was more concerned about losing his replacement than about Cael’s potentially ink-stained fingers. Before long they came to another large intersection, where Murson met the Street of Travellers. Cael remembered the name from his arrival the previous day, but did not recall this intersection. Liat turned left and proceeded up the Street of Travellers without pausing to speak or point out any landmarks.
The Street of Travellers was wider than Murson Street, about the width of four wagons, and quite a bit busier. Cael suspected that was as much due to the approach of daybreak as it was the greater number of shops on the street.
Before long, they passed Nochtur Street. Then the bustle truly started to increase; daybreak had come, and they had entered a business district. Cael wondered if they would pass through the marketplace, the one with the foreign-sounding name, that he had passed on his arrival. Then he caught a glimpse of the ocean ahead and realized his error: the marketplace was at his back, the opposite direction on the Street of Travellers.
Cael enjoyed the sharp tang of the salt air as they approached the docks, even though it was mixed with the scents of tar and unwashed bodies. He did not, however, enjoy the cold ocean breeze that was blowing those smells toward him. The sun had barely crested the horizon and the pace of Liat’s patrol was doing little to ward off the chill air of the Seber morning. Cael hoped that the guard’s uniform included a heavier cloak in winter. Then he began to wonder how much that cloak would cost him.
“Pardon me, sir,” a raspy-voiced man said to his left. Cael turned to see a man festooned with baggage of all shapes and colors. Before Cael could reply, the man continued, “Where might I find the home of Aardvard Factotum?”
Cael, stunned by both the unusual name and by his inability to help, could only stammer. Liat barked out some directions to the man without even breaking stride.
Cael watched for a moment as the man continued up the Street of Travellers lugging his burdens, and guessed from the man’s rolling gait that he must be a sailor. Amused that the only person, apart from Liat, who had spoken to him on his patrol had also been a stranger to Dargon, Cael chuckled and then ran to catch up with Liat. As he did, he recalled that Liat’s directions had included crossing the causeway.
“Liat,” he said as he came abreast of his companion, “didn’t the causeway collapse into the river?”
Liat snorted. “He’ll figure that out when he gets there. Still, better directions than you would have given him, straight?” Liat laughed then, a series of short barks, but stopped and scowled when Cael did not join in. “Well, we can’t be stopping to give directions to every stray deck hand that comes ashore, and the sooner they learn it, the better. Now come on. We have a lot of ground to cover.”
Caught short by both the meanness of Liat’s joke and the odd logic that giving bad directions to one stranger would keep others from asking, Cael said nothing and fell into step beside Liat. Soon the Street of Travellers ended at Commercial Street, which was really just a broad expanse between the docks and the various warehouses, shops, and offices that lined the waterfront. As Cael followed Liat up Commercial Street, he began to enjoy the warmth from the rising sun on the left side of his face. It was difficult for him to take in the sights because even though Commercial Street was no busier than the street they had just quit, unlike on the Street of Travellers traffic seemed to come from every direction. Cael had to focus his attention on dodging people, carts, and vendors’ stalls as he kept up with Liat.
The chaos receded as the docks ended. Commercial Street sloped gently upward from there before ending itself in an intersection with another street and a dirt path. Cael saw a signpost indicating Traders Avenue to their right, and Sailors’ Shrine to the left, where the path led toward a rocky outcropping that overlooked the docks. Liat turned right and Cael followed, making a mental note to visit the shrine at some point so that he could enjoy the view of the city.
As they continued up Traders Avenue, Cael noticed that the buildings on his left, a mix of shops and houses, had begun to get smaller, and the spaces between them larger. Between the buildings he was able to see a very large hill with two peaks, or perhaps one hill with a larger one behind it. He began to wish that the hill wasn’t there, as the sun was now warming his back and he thought that the path of their patrol might put the sun behind it.
He was still looking at that hill, which was looming larger and larger, when he almost ran into Liat as the older man stopped short. Liat turned and glared at him and Cael quickly stepped back.
“This,” said the older man, indicating the collection of buildings around them, which Cael quickly saw were arranged around a small green with a great old oak tree standing in it, “is Foxmarten Square. You’ll no doubt be able to tell that by the sign.” He flicked his hand disdainfully at a battered old board that hung from a post. “Traders Avenue keeps going through here, but we don’t. That’s Garay’s patrol. He’ll be through here later, after meeting with Cepero at a decent bell, and somehow he’ll manage to make it back to the Old Guard House ‘fore we do.
“That, there,” he indicated a dirt track that led off to the left, toward the large hill, “is Ebbit’s Road. We go that way.”
“And is that Ebbit’s Hill that it leads to, then?” asked Cael, hoping that it wasn’t.
Another snort. “Nope. Road’s named for a farm. Ebbit’s the farmer, or was ’til those Bennies came through a few years back.”
“Beinis–” Liat started pronouncing each syllable carefully, as he had done with “guarding” earlier, but seemed to become stuck.
“Beinisonians?” Cael offered.
This earned him a glare. “Straight. Those bastards from the south. Came up here and tried to take over, but we drove them off. They killed Ebbit and his whole family. Lot of other people, too. Not much of a farm, anymore. Ebbit barely made a living off it, and no one else has tried. There’s better land to the east, I’m told. Less rocky.”
Before Cael could ask where the road did go, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned and found himself looking into the wrinkled face of an old man. The old man’s eyes stared wildly, and the skin around them was so weathered and wrinkled that it made Liat’s face seem that of a young man. The corners of the old man’s mouth were turned down and his lower jaw trembled.
“What is it?” Cael asked. “What’s wrong?” Behind him, he heard Liat bark a short laugh.
The old man moaned. The wave of stench that emerged from his mouth made Cael recoil, as did the sight of the old man’s teeth, those few that hadn’t rotted away completely. “Can’t,” the old man said plaintively. He shook his head and looked at the ground. “Can’t lie. Truth teller can’t lie.” He looked up and met Cael’s eyes again. “Can’t,” he added.
“No, they can’t,” Liat said, and plucked the old man’s hand from Cael’s shoulder. Cael noticed that most of the man’s thumb was missing. “Truth tellers can’t lie. And guards patrol. Now move along.” Liat pushed the old man away, gently, and he began to shuffle away.
“That’s just Otar,” said Liat, before Cael could ask. “He doesn’t say much else. Sometimes his name. Sometimes a little bit of a story that don’t make much sense. Whatever happened, he seems to think it’s his fault.”
At that, Otar turned back to look over his shoulder at the two guards. “My fault, for certain,” he said and nodded slowly, before resuming his slow shuffle.
Cael watched the old man depart, wondering why he was reminded of his mother. There was nothing about Otar that was like his mother. Her teeth had been strong and beautiful, her breath sweet, her mind clear, and her gait strong. Her voice had been melodious, where Otar’s was rough and cracked. She had been, in fact, quite the opposite of Otar. So, why did Otar remind him of her?
“Who is he? Where did he come from?” It was suddenly important to know more about this strange old man.
“I told you, he don’t say much else.” Liat resumed walking. “Locals take care of him, keep him fed. He does a little odd work in exchange, as best he can, I suppose.”
“Straight, I saw his thumb –”
“Thumbs.” Liat emphasized the “s”.
Cael considered that for a moment, before he realized the implication.
“Someone used thumbscrews on him, didn’t they?” Cael had heard of that particular torture device, but never seen it used.
Liat stopped and looked him up and down again, only without his customary sneer. “Straight, that’s what I figured. Took a long time for him to talk, too, if he ever did.”
Cael took one more look at Otar. Whatever had happened to the man had been horrible, but it could have nothing to do with Cael’s mother. She had been slain years ago, when a band of marauders had attacked Heahun. She had been one of the group who drove the killers off, but had died in the battle. Her example was one reason that Cael had decided to come to Dargon and learn to be a guard.
“Don’t worry about that old man, Cael. Let’s get some breakfast before we head up Ebbit’s Road.”
The mention of food drove all further thought of Otar from Cael’s mind. Liat led him to a vendor’s cart on the square, where they enjoyed a quick meal of fish leftwiches. The two guards quickly finished their meal, washed it down with a dipperful of water, and crossed the green on their way toward the dirt track known as Ebbit’s Road. Houses lined the road on both sides, but the spaces between them grew larger the further they were from the square. Where the houses ended, a larger building stood: an inn perhaps. Beyond the inn, Cael could see that the road did, in fact, wind its way up the massive hill. To take his mind off the impending climb, Cael decided to ask Liat another question.
“So what is a foxmarten?” he asked.
“It’s a long story.”
“You said it was a long walk.”
Liat snorted again, but this time it was accompanied by half of a grin. “Straight. Well, you’ve seen a fox, of course.”
“Yes, we had plenty in the woods near Heahun.”
“Do you know what a marten is? Like a big tree rat, only they eat tree rats.”
Cael nodded. He’d heard of martens before, but never seen one.
“Straight. Well most martens are brown like tree-rats, too. As the story goes, there was a marten that was red, like a fox. They say it lived in that old oak, in the square. The farmer who worked the fields here — years ago, before Dargon was as big as it is now — they say he saw the foxmarten in the oak, so he didn’t cut it down. He thought it was a good omen. In return for sparing his home, the foxmarten protected the farmer and his family. When more people settled up here, they spared the oak too. I figure it was either to gain the foxmarten’s protection, or maybe just to avoid being cursed.”
The two men walked in silence for a full mene. Cael saw that the space between the houses had barely grown in the time that Liat had spoken. “I thought you said it was a long story.”
Liat shrugged. “Try askin’ someone who lives in the square about it sometime. That is, if you have a few bells to spare. Me, I got no time for it, or them.”
Cael had no response. He continued to walk beside Liat, glancing at the houses they passed, and keeping an eye on the road. It was deeply rutted by wagon wheels, which made the footing treacherous. His companion gazed steadily ahead, looking neither right nor left. The two men walked like this for some time, as the houses to each side became sparser. These homes were older and a bit smaller than those that had lined the square. Occasionally, they passed someone at work in a garden plot, or hanging laundry on a line. Cael ventured a friendly wave a few times, but received only a nod or a sideways glance in return.
As the houses came to an end, Cael could tell that the larger building was, in fact, an inn. It was small for an inn, though, only one story. Cael supposed that it contained only a half-dozen or so rooms for guests. There was no stable for horses, only a roofed area with a trough and a bale of hay. Only one horse was evident, tied to a rail and within reach of both food and drink. A sign above the inn’s door gave the name “The Piping Pig”. Above the letters was a surprisingly well-drawn pig, prancing on its hind legs and playing a recorder. A few musical notes drifted about the pig’s head. Cael thought it was an unusual place for an inn: on a road that went to nowhere. Most visitors to Dargon would have no cause to venture out on Ebbit’s Road. Perhaps the owner liked it quiet, though.
“Feet hurt yet?” asked Liat, ending Cael’s speculation about the inn.
“They’re fine,” replied Cael, but they weren’t. His feet had been getting warm for a while, particularly in one spot on his left heel. He was certain that it was an indication of an impending blister. Still, he would rather endure a little foot pain than more condescension from his companion.
“Good, ’cause now’s when you’ll really get to break those shiny new boots in.”
Liat spoke the truth. The road ahead of them climbed steeply at first, and then cut left and right in what looked like a series of switchbacks. Trees obscured the path after the first turn, but Cael thought he could trace a faint line zigzagging up the hill further ahead. The two men began to climb, and what little conversation that had passed between them came to an end as they saved their breath for the climb. As they approached the end of the straight path, Cael could not decide which burned more: his lungs or his feet. He was certain that both of his heels had begun to blister, along with the big toe on one foot and the smallest toe on the other.
The switchbacks, though less steep, were even more demoralizing: a seemingly endless walk for very little progress. Not knowing how many turns there were ahead made it even more difficult. Cael would not have asked Liat, though, even if he’d had the breath to do so. Instead he tried to keep track of the turns, so that he would know how far it was the next day.
As they climbed, Cael found his thoughts drifting back to Otar. What had happened to the old man that drove him mad? Was it the torture? And why did the old man make Cael think of his mother? Not just his mother, he realized. It was her voice that Otar brought to mind. Something about the old man made him think of his mother’s singing. Why?
Cael had loved his mother’s singing. His favorite songs had been happy, silly songs, like one about a rat and a toad sailing on the ocean in a hollow log. Her voice had been prettiest, though, when she sang sad songs. Cael had never understood why his mother had loved sad songs as much as she did. Wasn’t there enough hardship in their lives, without telling stories about lovers who have their hearts broken, or people who die when there’s no need? The worst was that sometimes they started out like a grand adventure, but in the end …
Cael stopped in his tracks, just before the next turn.
Liat made the next switchback before he noticed, but then he glanced down at Cael. “What is it, boy? Tired already?”
“N-no, I’m okay.” Cael hurried to catch up.
He was far from okay, though. He had remembered a song, or part of a song, that his mother used to sing. It was, in his mind, the worst of the sad songs, because it told about a group of people with a marvelous power who had been persecuted simply for trying to share the benefits of their ability. He became so lost in thought about the song that he lost track of the number of switchbacks. He didn’t realize that they had ended until Liat brought him to a halt in a small, almost level clearing that was little more than a wide spot in the trail. The older man, chest still heaving, pointed toward a smooth stone large enough for both men to sit on.
Cael sat, regaining his breath. As the blood stopped pounding in his ears, he realized that he heard a trickle of water. Liat, meanwhile, was reaching into a hollow in a tree. He pulled out a carved wooden mug and peered inside it. He turned the mug upside down and knocked it against the side of the tree and peered inside again. With a satisfied smile, he moved over beside the smooth stone, and brushed some branches aside. The source of the trickling sound was revealed: a small spring. Liat dipped the mug inside, drank deeply and passed it to Cael, with a single word between gulped breaths. “Cold!”
Cael took the mug and drank. Despite Liat’s warning, the coldness of the water took him by surprise. It chilled his teeth to their roots even as it refreshed him. He drank as long as he could, until he too was gulping for air, and passed the mug back to Liat.
The older guard had regained his breath. “Not too much, you’ll cramp up. I carved this myself, after getting tired of my fingers getting numb as I tried to get a drink here. I’ll leave it for you. My gift, for not having to make this cursed climb anymore.”
Cael nodded. “Thanks. How much further?”
“Not much, but it’s steep. And there’s another good spot to rest at the top. Then the long climb down the other way.”
“Why is this road here?”
Liat shrugged. “Might as well ask Ol,” he replied. “The better question is why do I — no, make that you — why do you have to patrol it? We’re Town Guards. We should be patrolling the town. Let them that live outside the town look out for themselves.”
Cael didn’t know how to respond to Liat’s indifference about those he was supposed to watch over. He was not quite ready for the final ascent, though, so he decided to continue the conversation with another topic.
“I’ve been thinking about Otar, and I remembered something. Have you ever heard of a song called the Truthteller’s Lament?”
Liat took another sip of water, and then passed the mug back to Cael. “Truth *Hearer’s* Lament, I think you mean, straight?”
“No, I think it’s –”
Liat continued as if Cael hadn’t spoken. “I’ve heard it from three different bards and at least twice as many other singers. You can’t think Otar’s one of them. It’s just a song, made up by some bard to entertain you, maybe get you to buy him a meal. You might as well say that Otar’s a sea hag.” The older man snorted at his own joke.
Cael felt his face redden. “It’s not the same thing. In the song I’m thinking of, there were people who could tell whether someone was lying or not.”
“And the first one to reveal herself went to work for the Duke of Northfield, straight? I know the song. He became known as the wisest and most just ruler in Baranur, and soon every noble in the country wanted one, and truth hearers started to reveal themselves and go to work for the nobility and the common courts. Only then they realized why they used to keep themselves hidden in the first place. Dishonest men hated them, straight, but it turned out that every man is a little dishonest, not the least of which were the nobles. Ha! At least that part of it’s true.”
Cael gaped, awed by Liat’s ability to reduce a story that would take Cael’s mother almost a bell to sing into a few short sentences, and to make the story sound ridiculous at the same time. “Yes, that’s the one. And they all went into hiding afterwards. So perhaps Otar is –”
Liat stuck out a finger, interrupting Cael again. “First, old as he is, Otar isn’t half old enough to have been one of the truth hearers in that song. Second,” he extended another finger, “he says he’s a truth teller, not a truth hearer. And third,” another finger, “he can’t be one, because they don’t exist! Now, let’s stop talking about that old fool and get climbing, or we’ll be late getting back.”
Scowling, the older man shoved his wooden mug back into the tree he had taken it from, and stalked out of the clearing and up the trail. Cael rose quickly to his feet and followed. The final part of the ascent was every bit as steep as the beginning of the trail had been. Cael was quickly out of breath again, but that did not stop his mind from churning.
Was the Truth Hearer’s Lament nothing more than a song for entertainment, or was it true? He remembered asking his mother if her songs were true or not. She had always replied, “For certain.” He recalled asking her why she never said “straight” like everyone else in Heahun and in Dargon, but she had never answered him. Had she been wrong? According to Liat, she hadn’t even known the correct name of the song.
Cael didn’t like the idea that his mother had been wrong, but he knew that it was possible. It was not like when he had been a child and, like all children, thought his parents were perfect. That brought back another memory, one of running home crying when another boy had taunted him, saying that Cael’s mother wasn’t from the village. His mother had chided him, even while wiping his tears. Of course she had grown up somewhere else. Why had he thought that was a bad thing? He’d been unable to answer, but the other boy had certainly thought that it made her, and Cael by extension, somehow inferior.
Cael smiled at his own foolishness. What did it matter if his mother had been wrong about the song, or thought it had a different title? She had believed it, and that was for certain. It had just been chance that Otar had used the same word, truthteller, to describe himself. He wondered what had happened to the old man to drive him mad. Was it the torture from the thumbscrews? Or was it the guilt from whatever Otar blamed himself for? “My fault,” the old man had said.
Cael stopped in his tracks again, chest heaving from the climb. No, the old man had said, “My fault, for certain.” Cael resumed climbing with renewed energy. Was Otar’s choice of words there a coincidence as well? It seemed unlikely. What was it then? What was the connection? Was Otar from the same distant place as Cael’s mother, someplace where they said “for certain” instead of “straight”? Did they also say “truthteller” instead of “truth hearer”?
Did that make Otar a truth hearer — no, truthteller? Could it be that, aside from knowing when others were lying, truthtellers were incapable of lying, themselves? That would explain much of what happened in the lament. Of course the nobles would want someone who was capable of telling them when someone was lying, but when it came to their own lies, they would have wanted their truthteller to swear to the veracity of their words.
But Liat had said that Otar was too young to have been one of the people from the song, and that was true. Perhaps he was one of their descendants. In the song, the truthtellers had kept the source of their ability a secret, but it had to come from somewhere. Was it obtained through inheritance? Apprenticeship? Cael decided that it did not matter. If Otar was a truthteller, and they truly could not lie, Cael thought he understood the source of the old man’s madness. He must have revealed something under the thumbscrews, perhaps something that led to the death of another. He had maintained silence for so long that it had cost him both of his thumbs. When he had finally been compelled to speak, he had been unable to say anything but the truth.
Cael felt great pity for the man, but also a great sense of loss. He imagined how much good could be done by someone who could always tell when others were lying. What a great boon such a man would be to the Dargon Town Guard, even to the duke himself! Cael imagined the recognition he would receive for discovering Otar, who had been hiding in plain sight for years. But what use was a truthteller who was a lunatic? None, Cael supposed, unless he could be cured. Cael resolved to find a healer once his shift was over to see if anything could be done to cure Otar’s madness. He knew that he would need a healer for his feet, anyway.
“Here we are,” said Liat. Cael realized that they had reached the top of the hill. The climb had taken more than a bell. He leaned against a mound of large rocks that was overgrown with vines, once again gulping breath. Liat walked past him and pushed aside a branch, and Cael found himself blinking in bright sunlight. He looked out, and down, onto the town of Dargon. He could see the rooftops, and could make out some of the major thoroughfares, including the Street of Travellers and Murson Street. He did not know the names of some of the others. In the distance, he could see the ruined causeway that spanned the Coldwell River. Across the river, he could see the triple towers of Dargon Keep, standing over the Old City.
Cael realized that the hill he had just climbed must be almost as prominent a feature to the Dargon locals as the keep. “Liat,” he asked, “does this hill have a name?”
“Straight. It’s called Stone Man’s Hill.”
Cael thought that was an odd name. “Who or what is it named for?”
Another snort. “You’re leaning on him.”
Cael started and leaped up, wondering if he was on someone’s grave.
“They call that pile of rocks there the Stone Man, and say he’s supposed to watch over the town. Me, I never saw anything but a big pile of rocks. Ha! I wonder if old Stony here protects the square, too, or if he leaves that to the foxmarten. Don’t see why they need to invent all these magical protectors, anyway.”
Cael thought that it might stem from the indifference of their human guardians, but he said nothing. He stepped back and looked at the pile of stones. As Liat had said, it seemed no more than a jumbled pile of rocks, but … Was that rock perhaps a shoulder and an arm? He circled around, so that he was between the Stone Man and the city, slightly off the trail. Atop the “shoulder”, half obscured by vines, was a rough-edged piece of granite. Cael could make out of a ridge of stone that might be a brow, and below it, an embedded piece of quartz that could be an eye. Cael stepped back further, peering beneath the leaves and branches, and suddenly there he was: the Stone Man. The massive figure was broad and squat, facing the city below in a crouch as if ready to leap to its defense. From the vines and roots that bound him into place , Cael could tell that it had been a long time indeed since the Stone Man had leapt to do anything. Dargon would have to rely on its human protectors, it seemed.
“See anything?” Liat asked.
Cael said nothing. He suspected that Liat’s lack of imagination would prevent him from seeing the Stone Man. The older guard would no doubt mock Dargon’s ancient guardian if he did see it, or mock Cael if he did not. Silence, Cael decided, was his best alternative. Instead, he followed Liat down the other side of Stone Man’s Hill.
The descent was easier than the climb, but caused Cael’s new boots to rub his already blistered feet in an entirely different way. The blisters were torn open and bleeding before they were halfway down the hill. That evening, following an afternoon watch that thankfully involved very little walking, Cael did find a healer to tend to his feet. He made no mention of Otar, though. Of all the people in Dargon, the old man needed his protection more than most.