Authors: Jr. L. E. Modesitt
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic
I touched her shoulder, briefly, realized that she was older than she looked, and offered a touch of order and reassurance.
“You're one those teacher fellows. I knew it.”
“I keep your secret. You keep mine.”
She nodded, and was gone down through the opening to the stable below.
I carried my things below, shaved quickly at the water pump, quickly enough to cut myself, and was checking Gairloch when a thin black-haired man, his face scarred from old bums on the left side, appeared by the stall. “You the one who slept here last night?”
“I didn't see you. I'm Jassid. This is my stable here.”
“I paid Ystral, and I was here. There's my bedroll.” I offered a smile, extending my senses to the man. I tried not to recoil at the amount of chaos in his system. I even reached out with my senses, then drew back. He was so touched with chaos that any attempt to change him wouldn't work... unless it killed him.
He just stood there, as if expecting something.
I nodded and put the blanket on Gairloch, then the saddle. When I looked up from cinching the girth, Jassid was gone.
I didn't want to enter the Overflowing Platter again. So I fed Gairloch, and we rode out into the drizzle, leaving Faklaar behind.
Should I have killed Jassid by removing the chaos from his system? Could I have done it? I frowned. Had I done so, would the next stable-master have been any better?
Did I have any right to kill a man because I thought a stable girl had been abused? Did I have any right not to do something?
I wiped the dampness off my face and turned Gairloch toward the muddy track north toward Sunta. The air was still, and the acrid mustiness of graying leaves grew even stronger as the drizzle continued.
Gairloch tossed his head, and I patted his neck.
That I hadn't done anything for Daria bothered me. She'd asked me not to do anything, but it still bothered me. Yet the thought of acting like an ancient angel bothered me. Who was to say my vision of the angel might not be someone else's demon of light?
I watched the road, and Gairloch plodded along, and I continued to think about Daria and Jassid, and Ystral, wondering why some people enjoyed hurting others so much, and having no real answers. I'd already discovered that order and chaos had little enough to do with morality, but more with the mechanics of the world.
I patted Gairloch again. What he'd said made as much sense as anything.
West of Arastia, Hydlen [Candar]
THE GROUND RUMBLES, and a slight swell of earth runs eastward through the valley, swaying tents, ruffling the scattered clumps of grass and the branches of the scrub trees at the eastern end of the narrow valley.
The screeing glass on the table vibrates and hums.
Gerlis rubs his forehead and frowns, glancing over his shoulder toward the northeast. When the shaking of the ground subsides, he looks into the glass again. The mists form, and in their center is the figure of a half-bald, brown-haired man in brown robes, his belt a soft rope tied in an intricate knot. The air around him seems to sparkle, although the man in brown stands in the middle of a room empty except for a draped wooden case filled with volumes of books, a pallet bed, a chair, and a table with a single lamp. His eyes are closed.
The white wizard watches the image for a moment, frowns again, then gestures. The image fades. He looks at the copy of the scroll purchased from the hermit wizard by Berfir, the one with the mixing method for the rocket powder.
“Overgrown herder still...” he mutters. “Thinks a coronet and a blade make a duke. Or that fancy weapons can stand against chaos.”
The rumbling sound of another heavy wagon carrying dried brimstone north to Telsen echoes across the valley, but the wheels do not shake the ground.
Gerlis glances back at the glass, where the mists part to show the image of a young man wearing a brown shirt and brown leather trousers, and riding a mountain pony, a dark staff in place of a spear or lance.
Gerlis shakes his head, almost sadly. “Poor fools... all of them. None can stand against the chaos of the earth... nor those who wield it.”
His eyes flick to the charred handle of the dagger on the trunk by his head, and a faint smile crosses his face. The smile fades, and he takes a deep breath. The white wizard's eyebrows knit, and he concentrates once more, this time bringing up the image of a bubbling spring, yellowed steam rising from each set of bubbles.
Another slight shudder rocks the ground under the carpet in the center of the pavilion tent, and, again, the screeing glass hums.
Gerlis smiles momentarily, before his brows knit in further effort, and the ground shakes. In the glass, the spring waters bubble even more furiously, and the surface is cloaked in yellow mists.
The ground beneath the valley groans.
SOMETIME AROUND MID-morning Gairloch carried me from the muddy slop of the track from Faklaar onto a firmer road composed mainly of small stones and gravel set in a clay as hard as rock. About then the rain lifted into low gray clouds. The wind picked up, enough that the trees swayed in the wind, but the air still smelled acrid and musty.
Huts gave way to small cottages and stubble-turned fields set off with split-rail fences, alternating with tree-covered hills-presumably local wood lots. In short, the countryside became more ordered, and Gairloch carried me more quickly. The mustiness in the air gave way to wood smoke.
Midday found us just beyond another unnamed village on a hillside over another stream I had never known existed. Gairloch found grass, some actually with a trace of green, and I ate hard biscuits and harder cheese, and the last of the dried peaches. I wished I'd brought more dried fruit, and even dried meat, tough as it could be. Instead, I had hard cheese and biscuits-plenty of both.
Then we traveled on, under a colder, drier wind.
The first hint of a larger town was a brown haze over the hilltop; the second was a line of trees bordering a fair-sized river; the third was a raised causeway leading to a stone-pillared bridge across the river. The stone-paved causeway- wide enough for two wagons abreast-ran through lower-lying fields filled with graying hay stubble.
I edged Gairloch to the right as two oxen pulled an empty farm wagon off the bridge.
“Gee... eee...” The drover had a light goad, but held it loosely. The oxen seemed to respond to his voice alone, unlike a lot of horses. Gairloch stepped around two women carrying baskets in slings and onto the bridge.
“... always looking, Nirda. Clersek is nice enough.”
“You have him, then.”
“And maybe I will.”
From the central span of the bridge, squinting against the sun that hung just above the town, I could see the walls of Sunta, not so impressive as those of Jellico or Fenard, but of solid gray stone. Another short causeway led from the edge of the river across low-lying muddy ground almost to the walls themselves.
The southern gates to Sunta, while guarded, looked almost rusted open, and I doubted they had been closed in years. At the outer gate, one of the guards, a thin man in brown leathers with a crimson sash, motioned to me. “What do you have there, young fellow?” He pointed to the bigger pack.
“My tools, ser.”
“Tools?” He raised his eyebrows.
“Chisels, planes, a small crosscut saw, an adz head, that sort of thing. I'm a woodworker.”
Since he didn't radiate chaos, but more a bored look, I decided not to create shields and disappear. That would certainly have the whole city looking for me, based on my experiences in Jellico. I could always disappear, anytime short of someone putting chains on me.
I got down and started to unfasten the pack.
“That's enough,” he said as the smooth wood of the saw grip appeared. “Why are you coming to Sunta?”
“To seek out a journeyman position.”
“Pretty young for that, aren't you?”
“I have to start sometime, and there was no room in the village.” I shrugged, then gave a self-conscious grin.
“Good luck, fellow.” He waved me on. “The craft quarter is off to the right of the main square, just beyond the Temple.”
I climbed back on Gairloch and looked at Sunta as if I'd never seen a big town before. Inside the gate, the street was paved in a fashion, with flat stones of all shapes, pieced together and roughly level. Some urchins walked alongside.
“... show you the best inn in Sunta... just a copper, ser...”
“... you want more than an empty bed, ser, I'll show you where to find it...”
“... they're all Kyphran goats, ser,” declared a taller youth with a scar over his eyebrow and a knife at his belt. “Best you try the Black Skillet.”
I frowned. The older youth didn't press or jostle. I slowed Gairloch with a gentle tug on the hackamore. “A Kyphran goat? How is a Kyphran goat different?”
“You an outlander, ser?”
I nodded. My accent was obvious. “Montgren way.”
“You got goats there?”
“Mostly sheep. Famous sheep.” I still wasn't about to forget my work with the sheep of Montgren-or the serious Countess Merella. I grinned. “But smelly sheep.”
The youth grinned back, then erased the smile professionally. “Sheep or goats, they're the same. The ones that run free, they're the smart ones. The ones that are penned or slaughtered, they're the Kyphran goats.”
“I fail to see.” I did, but it seemed better to play dumb. I could have come from Worrak as well as from Faklaar.
“The Kyphran ruler says any goat that isn't penned can be killed or held for a bounty,” explained the youth slowly, as he walked beside me. The other urchins had peeled away, waiting for another traveler.
I decided he wasn't exactly an urchin, and let my order senses extend around him, finding a touch of chaos, and a thin-linked mail vest under the stained shirt and tattered herder's jacket.
“The Black Skillet, you say?”
“The very best, ser. And tell 'em that Hempel sent you.”
He turned away, but I was bothered. So the autarch's law about free goats had become the basis for a derogatory term in Hydlen. And someone was watching the city gates, if casually. All of it was to be expected, in a way, I supposed, but it still bothered me.
Unlike the houses in Kyphros, a lot of those on the edge of Sunta seemed to have thatched roofs, although the walls seemed to be plaster over a basketlike frame of saplings. The plaster walls had a lot of cracks and patches.
“... 'way... give way...”
I edged Gairloch to the side of the street as a two-horse team rumbled past us and toward the gate. The slightly acrid odor of tanned hides remained in the air, mixing with smoke, and other less appetizing odors, some coming from the open sewer on the other side of the street.
Gairloch picked his way toward the square, where a handful of carts were scattered around a patch of browned grass and a few trees in their gray winter leaves. In the center was the pedestal for a statue, but no statue. Had it been for the previous duke? Or just empty from neglect?
Beyond the square I could see two inns-the Black Skillet and the Golden Bowl.
In addition to the black of the pan on the sign, the plaster walls of the Black Skillet were painted black, imparting a gloomy air to the place that seemed less than orderly. The yard was churned mud, and a smoky haze surrounded the building.
I rode past it and toward the Golden Bowl, which was situated another hundred cubits along the street off the square and seemed slightly higher-or higher enough that the yard was merely damp packed clay. The smoke seemed to come from the chimney, rather than through the windows and doors, and the plaster was dirty beige.
I rode to the back and found the stable. Two men wheeled an empty carriage into the big door at one end.
“Hello, the stable.”
One of the men pointed to a figure in the shadows. The other stable hand was a sullen-faced youngster with a bruise across one cheek. “Two for the pony double, three single.”
I gave him three and got another corner stall half under the brace posts where a taller animal would have hit its head. Gairloch just whuffed as I unsaddled and brushed him.
I shielded my gear and made my way through the fading light toward the public room. The Golden Bowl appeared at least marginally drier and cleaner, and it hadn't been recommended by a shill-or whatever Hempel might be.
The smoke in the public room smelled like food, rather than pure grease, and there was a table along the wall. I'd gotten very fond of wall tables since I'd come to Candar.
“You're new here, aren't you?” The voice was warm, almost sweet, and the young woman-a girl not much older than I-had red hair and freckles. She also had a nice smile above the wide leather apron. She wore a wide bronze bracelet without ornamentation.
“I haven't been to Sunta. What do you have to drink?”
“Light or dark ale, redberry, green juice, and white thunder.”
“If you don't know what it is, you don't want it.” Her smile turned wry.
“I'll have redberry. What's good to eat?”
“Most of it. Tonight the kisha's pretty good, and it's cheap.”
“If you say so. I'll have it.”
“Good choice.” She wiped the table with a half-clean rag and then slipped back toward the kitchen.
I glanced around the room. In one corner were three older men, clustered around what looked to be a Capture board. As I watched, the other serving woman, red-haired also, but older and hard-faced, refilled all three mugs with light ale. She also wore a bronze wristband.
A man who looked to be perhaps Justen's apparent age, neither old nor young, sat in the other corner next to a woman with painted lips who leaned against his shoulder, even as they both ate.
The younger serving woman set two crockery platters on the adjoining table. “That's six.”
“Six... reasonable, but it must be dog meat,” laughed the thin man.
“No, ser. Not dog, not horse. Teilsyr got a good price on an ox.” The serving girl turned to me. “Here's your redberry.” She set the redberry on the table, gently, without a thump, and offered another smile. “That's three. I'm Alasia.”
I set out the coins.
“You come from a long way away?”
“Montgren,” I lied again.
“Are you going back before long?”
“Depends,” I answered.
A wistful look crossed her mobile features. “Someday, I'd like to see a place like that. Travelers say it's peaceful there.”
“It is peaceful. It's mostly sheep. Sheep and more sheep.”
She offered a quick smile and was gone, responding to the insistent beckoning gesture from the man with the woman clinging to him.
I sipped the redberry, waited for the kisha, whatever kisha was, and listened to the conversations around the room, those I could catch.
“... keeps a nicer place, Teilsyr does...”
“... fine if you're aware of the tariff...”
“Try the burkha if you like hot, or the Kyphran chilied mutton...”
“Real Kyphrans don't eat mutton; they eat goat and beans.”
“... young fellow a soldier, you think?”
“... could be. Trying not to be, maybe. Short hair, no beard to speak of...”
Half consciously, I ran my fingers along my jaw, fingering the scab I had picked up shaving in Faklaar.
“... anyone could be anything these days... Duke not much more than a herder with a deadly blade... white devil at his side...”
Clearly, the new Duke had some problems, at least with his image.
“Here's your kisha.” With the dish and a small loaf of oat bread, I got another friendly smile. “That's three.”
I gave her five and smiled back, but she didn't linger long. Wondering if I'd see her again, now that she had my money, I shrugged and began to eat the kisha, long strips of meat soaked in a mint-bitter sauce and laid over flat green noodles. Not as good as burkha, but better than the stew I'd had in Faklaar. As I ate, I continued to listen as well as I could.
“... seen Stulpa lately?”
“... just his apprentice... said he's gone off... left with Duke Berfir's troops... have to keep Freetown from taking the valley...”
“... need with a chemist?”
“... stuff the apprentice gave me... didn't work right with the glazes...”
“... frig... noble Duke Colaris... bless his soul...”
A clinking sound at the corner of the public room-that and the look on Alasia's face-alerted me. Three men barged in, and I threw up shields. That meant I couldn't see anything, but they also couldn't see me as I stood and edged toward the archway to the kitchen.
“There's a young fellow. Came in here. Brown-haired and wearing browns. He's a spy. Where is he?”
Their information was right, and their techniques were unsettlingly direct. I kept edging toward the kitchen, using my senses, and trying not to touch anyone.
Someone's mug went over, probably because I brushed it.
“Why'd you do that, Hyld?”
“I didn't do anything! Clumsy oaf.”
I kept moving.
“He was sitting there,” offered Alasia. “He left a while ago.”
The not-too-sturdy plank floor vibrated as the three stomped toward the wall table where I had been.
“Sure, miss. His kisha's still hot, and he didn't finish it, and his mug's half full. Check the back!”
One of the guards went running toward me, and I flattened myself against the wall as he rushed past. I had the urge to trip him, but refrained, instead swinging out and following him into the kitchen.
“You! Did you see anyone come this way?”
I could feel the cold iron of his blade as he jabbed it toward the cook and the scullery maid.
“No, ser. There's been no one here, 'ceptwise Alasia and Rirla.”
“... who else'd be here in this friggin' heat?”
Predictably he marched right out the back door and into the yard. I followed him.
Unpredictably, he turned around and ran into me.
His blade whipped through the spot where I had been. Half sitting, half rolling, I scrambled away and a line of fire creased my arm. Lips squeezed shut, I rolled from under his swings and rebuilt my shields.
“Frytt! Son of a bitch's out here somewhere. I sliced him! I know I did. He's another damned wizard! Won't escape cold iron, the bastard!”
I didn't think that it was that dark in the yard. I had seen him with my momentary lapse of shields. Since I couldn't see while holding the shields, and was finding my way toward the stable in my own private dark, I certainly wasn't in any position to know. With the fire in my arm, I wasn't dropping the shield to find out, or to find out why he was so upset.