Authors: Donita K. Paul
Bardon took the lid to the jar from where it lay in her lap. “Well, indeed.” He screwed on the lid and handed the jar to her. “You’re done.”
“What are we going to do about all this?”
“I would appreciate it if you would begin by forgiving me for being a dolt.”
She grinned and placed her hand on his cheek. The welt had lost some of its flame already. “I do.”
“Then you must forgive the dragons for trying to protect you.”
She glanced around at her crew, who did not look at all repentant but were busy having fun in their quiet dragon way. “Yes, they meant well.”
“And then we go on with our quest. Paladin has given us a charge to find out as much as we can whenever we encounter the Followers.”
“And you saw Paladin, when?”
Bardon rolled his eyes and slapped his head in a mock gesture of chagrin. “It was so difficult keeping the ball a surprise, I ended up guarding every thought. I was so worried about spoiling your pleasure in the gala event, I kept my lips buttoned on any number of issues.”
Kale sighed. “I think I’m already tired of this adventuring. It does strange things to my husband’s honesty.”
“We’ve only just begun.”
She waved a dismissive hand at the tent and disheveled camp. “But I enjoy sleeping behind four walls with a roof overhead and the windows closed.”
“That can be arranged, lady of mine.”
After a day of travel, Bardon and Kale landed in a field near a small settlement on the Hierson River. They unsaddled Greer and Celisse, tucked the gear into a thicket, and walked into town.
Bardon pulled Kale’s arm through his and kept her close. Walking right beside him, she was less likely to notice his wincing. The long ride had stiffened his joints.
People lingered in the streets, even at the dinner hour. Small clusters of adults talked earnestly while youngsters darted in and around the crowd.
“Do you think today’s market day?” asked Kale.
“There do seem to be a lot of people for such a small village.”
“There’s the inn.” Kale pointed across the street.
Pain shot through Bardon’s thighs as he took the two steps down from the wooden sidewalk to the street. He grabbed the wrought-iron handrail to keep from falling.
So much for not telling Kale he hurt. “May I borrow Gymn?”
The green dragon hopped from her shoulder to his without waiting for her reply.
“The stakes?” Kale whispered.
Bardon nodded once. “I believe the poison from the black dragons set it off again. I was feeling fine.”
“We’ll get you in a comfortable bed for the night. Maybe tomorrow you’ll feel better.”
Bardon didn’t bother to answer but gritted his teeth as they mounted three steps and entered the inn.
Round tables seating four to six customers apiece crowded the room. Air swept in the open windows in gusts that sent the red curtains fluttering.
“Kale, which one of these people is the proprietor?”
Kale looked around the room and then discreetly pointed. “That tumanhofer.”
They approached the innkeeper, who was giving three young servants their orders. The gentleman clapped his hands, and the children scattered.
He turned to Bardon and Kale. “May I help you?”
“A room for the night?” asked Bardon.
“I can barely serve you supper. A bed is out of the question. But there’s a few folks in town in the habit of renting a room during market days.”
Kale looked quickly around. “Is that what all this commotion is about? These men don’t look like farmers.”
The tumanhofer sneered. “This lot? No, they’re not farmers. They call themselves Followers, and they cause a lot of trouble.”
“Trouble?” asked Bardon.
“Oh, I don’t mean they drink and carouse. They’re demanding. They want their food fixed just so, and my wife is accustomed to fixing meals that make your mouth water as soon as you get your first whiff of what’s in the pot. But no, they don’t like it. They want slop I’d throw to the pigs.
“They fuss over the rooms not being clean. My rooms are clean. But they want everything taken out but the beds and fresh linens brought up as if we hadn’t changed the sheets since the last customer.
“And they sit around and whisper. That drives me batty. They hush when I come near as if I wanted to know what their confounded secrets are. And they look down on me and my family. I’d rather have you in my rooms, but I’ve already filled up.”
Bardon studied the groups of mariones and o’rants. “Do they come here often?”
“Once a month. It’s too often, but I can’t say I don’t like their coins. I fill up my coffers and wouldn’t have to rent a room any day of the time in between if I didn’t want to. But these Followers are trouble, and it’s good to have regular folk stay a night or two after I’ve had my fill of this lot.”
He caught a passing child by the back of his collar. “Jahannasamran, take these people to the Buckners or the Peeps first. Take ’em around till you find them a room, then hurry back.”
“Yes, Da.” Jahannasamran bobbed a bow to his father and then to Bardon and Kale. “If you’ll follow me.”
“Don’t use that word ‘follow,’ son,” the innkeeper grumbled under his breath.
The boy gave him a cheeky grin and trotted to the door with Kale and Bardon behind him. He led them to the outskirts of town on the opposite side of where they had left Celisse and Greer.
The second house admitted them, and the marione housewife gave Jahannasamran two daggarts and a coin for his trouble.
“Come in. Sit down. My name’s Elma, and my husband is Garmey, but he’s off learning from the visitors.”
Kale removed her cape and hung it on a peg. The dragons crept out of their pocket-dens and roosted on shelves, the mantel over the hearth, and sturdy furniture. Bardon and Kale took the wooden seats Elma indicated at her table. The common room held the kitchen, dining area, and a gathering of soft chairs around a fireplace. The home matched Elma’s friendly smile.
Elma tiptoed closer to the big chair where Dibl perched. “Aren’t you a pretty one?”
Dibl flipped backward, landing on his feet again on the same spot. Giggling rippled from under the kitchen table.
“Are they dangerous?” asked the marione housewife.
“The children under the table?” Kale frowned. “No, I don’t think so.”
A snort of laughter countered a plaintive inquiry. “Does she mean us?”
A voice piped up. “Can we have one?”
“Your da wouldn’t like it, though they do look pretty sitting around. And right at home, not like wild creatures.” Elma faced her guests. “Did you have your evening meal yet?” she asked. At Kale’s shake of the head, she went on. “I’m not surprised. Your dragons would have put off the inn’s guests. Better you eat with us, anyway. These are my young ones, Tallidah and Zepzep.”
Two golden-haired young boys peeked out from under the tablecloth. The older crawled out, stood, and presented a bow to both Kale and Bardon.
“My name is Tallidah,” he said. “I’m older. Zepzep, get up. Bow. Say your name.”
The younger child scooted to his brother’s side and hoisted his bottom in the air. Tallidah took his arm and helped him stand. The bow was mostly done with Zepzep’s head. “Chipchip,” he pronounced with a grin.
Tallidah shook his head, not hiding his disgust. “He’s two. I’m four. May we play with your dragons?”
“Will you be gentle?” asked Kale.
They nodded solemnly.
“Then ask your mother if she will permit it.”
Elma beamed at her sons and then looked skeptically at the minor dragons. “They don’t bite?” she asked.
Kale shook her head. “Not polite little boys.”
“Well, that does it, then. My boys don’t fit the bill.”
“Ma!” The little ones danced on their toes.
“We’ll be good,” promised Tallidah.
Elma sighed and gave her consent. Bardon watched Kale introduce the dragons as the mother put a meal on the table. His wife sat on the floor and enjoyed the antics of the boys as well as her dragons. He and Kale needed more children in their home. Some of their own would please him fine.
Elma’s boys came reluctantly to the table, not willing to leave their new friends just to eat. Kale laughed and lifted each one into their seats. “You must let the dragons rest. Then they’ll play with you before bedtime. While you’re asleep, the dragons will investigate all your nooks and crannies and eat the bugs that bother your mother.”
Elma’s meal steamed in the bowls she set on the table. Bardon ate slowly, savoring the wonderful tastes. The broth slid down his throat and warmed him. His jaws began to ache with the chore of chewing the crusty bread, so he concentrated on the tender jimmin chicken and tasty, buttered vegetables. He listened to the lively conversation between the women and children and felt his muscles relaxing. Gymn hadn’t left his neck and shoulders since he’d settled on his perch. The healing dragon helped, but not enough.
The back door swung open, and the man of the house entered.
Elma introduced him. “My husband, Garmey.” Elma beamed as she nodded toward their guests. “This is Sir Bardon, Garmey, and his wife, Lady Kale.”
Bardon stood to shake hands with his host. Garmey eagerly welcomed him to his home. But his demeanor shifted when he turned to the rest of the table. He sent the children to their room along with the dragons, frowned at Gymn, and sat at the head of the table. From that moment on, Elma spoke little and quickly saw to her husband’s needs. She filled his plate and cup whenever he raised a finger. Obviously, a signal had been established in their household.
Excited about the meetings that had been held for two days in his village, their host monopolized the conversation.
“I’ve been accepted to the next level of the Followers,” Garmey told them. “I’ve got a lot to learn. I know that, but they’re willing to teach me.” He looked at Bardon. “Do you know the things they teach?”
“I am Paladin’s knight, sir. I have studied the Tomes all my life.”
“Yes, but they’s telling me even those at The Hall would benefit from instruction. And I’m going to get all this learning for free without going off and leaving my farm. Then, of course, when I prove myself, when I’m done, they have prepared a place for me to go. A place where I’d be important to the group.”
Bardon frowned and chose his words carefully. “A knight knows that his education is never completed. He studies wherever Wulder places him.”
Kale put her knife and fork down. “This is true of anyone who wishes to know Wulder and follow His ways.”
Garmey nodded in agreement with Bardon but totally ignored Kale’s words.
“It’s an honor to have you here,” he continued with his eyes on Bardon. “The Followers say to deal only with those who honor Paladin, and that brings honor to you. I mean me. I’m going to elevate myself.” The marione tapped his chest. “I have aligned myself with the Followers. They will lead me in the path of righteousness.” He spoke the last words as if he had memorized them. “’Course, I can’t do it on my own. I never was much good at book-learning, but the Followers are going to help me better myself. Elevate myself.”
Kale tilted her head. “If the Followers promote an understanding of Wulder, then the natural outcome of such knowledge is a whole host of virtues.”
Again, it was as if she had not spoken.
Garmey offered Bardon more tea. “I’ve always had a yearning to be a knight, to do big things, go places, and have people look at me like I was something special. Not just a farmer.”
Squeals of laughter pierced the calm. The marione looked annoyed and glanced at his wife. Elma rose from the table and touched Kale’s arm. “Would you like to help me put the children to bed?”
“Oh yes.” She rose eagerly.
Elma picked up the two serving bowls and carried them to the kitchen counter. Kale gathered a handful of cutlery and placed them beside the other dishes to be washed.
As Elma returned to clear more off the table, a burst of gaiety punctuated by a loud cry of “Do it again!” met their ears.
Garmey spoke coldly. “Elma, the boys.”
Bardon watched the flicker of hurt in young Elma’s eyes, followed by cold anger. She left the disorder and marched out of the room. Kale cast Bardon a puzzled look and followed.
Garmey took another swig of drink and belched loudly. Bardon wondered if he intended for the vulgar sound to follow his wife to the other room.
The temperature in the room stifled Bardon’s ability to breathe. The air seemed heavy with the odors that an hour ago had been a pleasant meal.
Bardon stood abruptly. “Come with me, Garmey.”
He turned on his heel and left the welcoming home and strode out into the sultry air of a late summer night. Clouds covered the stars, but sheet lightning played high in the sky as if skipping from one matted covering to another.
The knight put his arms behind him, folding them over one another at his waist. Wincing at the stiffness in his shoulders, Bardon relaxed the pull on his sore muscles and waited. He listened with keen ears as the young husband came out behind him.
“You wanted me, sir?” Garmey closed the distance between them with quick steps. “Would you like a smoke? I’ve ’bacco and pipe.”
“Thank you, but I don’t smoke.” Bardon’s quiet voice competed with a platoon of frogs in a nearby pond.
“You’re displeased with me in some way.” Garmey swallowed and lowered his voice. “I’m a country man, sir. We’ve never had a knight and his lady in our home before. You won’t give a negative report to the Followers, will you?”