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NINE: A Short Journey

"Damned saddles get hard," Oryon grumbled. He, Bragi, Ragnar, and the wizard had just ridden up to the Bell and Bow Inn.

"Change of horses," Ragnarson told the innkeeper. "On the Crown Post." He showed an authority he had written himself. "We're over halfway there, Colonel. Twenty more miles. We won't make it till after dark, though.... In time?" he asked Varthlokkur.

"You ready to tell me what this's about?" Oryon demanded. Ragnarson had told him nothing.

"Trust me, Colonel."

Oryon was a short, wide bull of a man Bragi had first met during the El Murid Wars. He hadn't liked the man then, and felt no better disposed toward him now. But Oryon was a stubborn, competent soldier, known for his brutal directness in combat. He led his troops from the front, straight ahead, and had never been known to back down without orders. He made a wicked enemy.

Oryon neither looked it, nor acted it, but he wasn't unsubtle. Dullards didn't become Guild Colonels. He realized that a crisis was afoot, that Ragnarson felt compelled to separate him from his command.

Why?

"Something to eat, landlord. No. No ale. Not with my kidneys. Still got to make Baxendala tonight."

"Papa, do we have to?" Ragnar asked. "I'm dead."

"You'll get a lot tireder, Ragnar."

"Uhn," Varthlokkur grunted. "You know how long it's been since I've ridden?"

The innkeeper mumbled, "Five minutes, sirs."

Only Oryon seated himself immediately. Despite his complaint, he was more accustomed to saddles than the others. Oryon was, as he liked to remind Ragnarson, a field soldier.

Varthlokkur took up a tiny salt cellar. "A trusting man, our host." Salt was precious in eastern Kavelin.

Varthlokkur twitched his fingers. The cellar disappeared.

It was a trick of the sort Mocker might have used. Pure prestidigitation. But even the High Sorcery was half lie.

Ragnarson suspected the wizard was making a point. He missed it himself. And Ragnar merely remarked, "Hey, that was neat, Mr. Eldred. Would you teach me?"

Varthlokkur smiled thinly. "All right, Red." His fingers danced in false signs. He said a few false words. The salt reappeared. "It's not as simple as it looks." The salt disappeared. "You need supple fingers."

"He doesn't have the patience," Bragi remarked. "Unless he can learn it in one lesson. I gave him a magic kit before."

"I'll do it slowly once, Red. Watch closely." He did it. "All right, what did I do? Where is it?"

Ragnar made a face, scratched his forehead. "I still missed it"

"In your other hand," Oryon grumbled.

"Oh?" Varthlokkur opened the hand. "But there's nothing here either-except an old gold piece. Now where did that come from?"

Oryon stared at the likeness on that coin, then met Varthlokkur's eye. He had grown very pale.

"Actually, if you'll check behind the boy's ear, and dig through the dirt...." He reached. "What? That's not it." He dropped an agate onto the table. Then a length of string, a rusty horseshoe nail, several copper coins, and, finally, the salt. "What a mess. Don't you ever wash there?"

Ragnar frantically checked the purse he wore on his belt. "How'd you do that?"

"Conjuring. It's all conjuring. Ah, our host is prompt. Sir, I'll recommend you to my friends."

"And thank you, sir. We try to please."

Ragnarson guffawed. Somber Oryon smiled.

"Sirs?" asked the innkeeper.

"You don't know his friends," Oryon replied. Bragi read concern, even dread, in the taut lines the Colonel strove to banish from his face.

The innkeeper set out a good meal. It was their first since leaving Vorgreberg.

"Colonel," Ragnarson said, after the edge was off his hunger and he was down to stoking ihe fires against the future, "Any chance we can speak honestly? I'd like to open up if you will too."

"I don't understand, Marshall."

"Neither do I. That's why I'm asking."

"What's this about, then? Why'd you drag me out here? To Baxendala? To see the Queen?"

"I brought you because I want you away from your command if she dies while I'm there. I don't know what you'd do if it happened and you heard before I could get back to Vorgreberg. The Guild hasn't given me much cause to trust it lately."

"You think I'd stage a coup?"

"Maybe. There's got to be a reason why High Crag keeps pressuring me to keep your regiment. They know we can't afford it. So maybe the old boys in the Citadel want a gang on hand next time the Crown goes up for grabs. I know you have your standing orders. And I'll bet they cover what to do if the Queen dies."

"That's true." Oryon gave nothing away there. It took no genius to reason it out.

"You going to tell me what they are?"

"No. You know better. You're a Guildsman. Or were."

"Once. I'm Marshall of Kavelin now. A contract. I respect mine. The Guild generally honors its. That's why I wonder.... One word. Wasn't going to tell you for a while. But this is a good enough time. Your contract won't be renewed. You'll have to evacuate after Victory Day."

"This'll cause trouble with High Crag. They feel they have an investment."

"It'll bring them into the open, then. Every King and Prince in the west will jump on them, too. High Crag has stepped on a lot of toes lately."

"Why would they? The legalities are clear. Failure to fulfill a contract."

"How so?"

"Kavelin owes High Crag almost fifteen thousand nobles. The Citadel doesn't forgive debts."

"So you've said during our negotiations. They want paymentnow? They'll have it." He laughed a bellybreaker of a laugh. "About four years ago Prataxis started applying a little creative bookkeeping at Inland Revenue, and some more in Breiden-bach, at the Mint. We've been squirreling away the nobles, and now we'll pay you off. Every damned farthing you've imagined up." His smile suddenly disappeared. "You're going to take your money, sign for it, and get the hell out of my country. The day after Victory Day."

"Marshall.... Marshall, I think you're overreacting." Ory-on's wide, heavy mouth tightened into a little knot. "We shouldn't be at cross-purposes. Kavelin needs my men."

"Maybe. Especially now. But we can't afford you, and we can't trust you."

"You keep harping on that. What do you want me to admit?"

"The truth."

"You were a Guild Colonel. How much did they tell you?"

"Nothing."

"And you think I'm told more? Once in a while I get a letter. Usually directions for the negotiations. Sometimes maybe a question about what's happening. Marshall, I'm just a soldier. I just do what I'm told."

"Well, I'm telling you. To march. Ravelin's in for rough times. The signs are there. And I don't need to be watching you and everybody else too."

"You're wrong. But I understand."

Varthlokkur continued demonstrating his trick to Ragnar while they argued. The wizard occasionally glanced at Oryon. The soldier shivered each time he did.

"You may not need a regiment after all," Oryon muttered at one point, nodding toward Varthlokkur.

"Him? I don't trust him either. We're just on the same road right now. Innkeeper. What's the tally here?"

"For you, Marshall? It's our pleasure."

"Found me out, eh?"

"I marched with you, sir. In the war. All the way from Lake Berberich to the last battle. I was in the front line at Baxendala, I was. Look." He bared his chest. "One of them black devils done that, sir. But I'm alive and he's roasting in Hell. And that's the way it should be."

"Indeed." Ragnarson didn't remember the man. But a lot of Wesson peasants had joined his marching columns back then.

They had been stout fighters, though unskilled. "And now you prosper. I'm pleased whenever I see my old mates doing well." He often found himself in this situation. He had never learned to be comfortable with it.

"The whole country, sir. Ten years of peace. Ten years of free trade. Ten years of the Nordmen minding their own business, not whooping round the country tearing up crops and property with their feuds. Marshall, there's them here that would make you King."

"Sir! For whom did we fight?"

"Oh, aye. That was no sedition, sir. The only complaint could be raised 'gainst Her Highness is she's never wed and give us an heir. And now these strange comings and goings of a night, and rumors.... It worries a man, Marshall, not knowing."

"Excuse me," Ragnarson told his table mates. "Sir, I've just had a thought. Something in the kitchen...." He placed his arm round the innkeeper's shoulders and guided him thither.

"You whip up something. A dessert treat. Meanwhile, tell me what you don't know. Tell me the rumors. And about these comings and goings."

"Them others?"

"Not to be trusted. The boy's all right, though. My son. Too bull-headed and big-mouthed, maybe. Gets it from his grandfather. But go on. Rumors."

"Tain't nothing you can rightly finger, see? Not even really a rumor. Just the feeling going round that there's something wrong. I thought you might ease my mind. Or say what it is so's I got the chance to be ready."

"Makes two of us. I don't know either. And I can't nail anything down any better than you. Comings and goings. What have you got there?"

"Tain't much, really. They don't stop in here."

"Who doesn't?"

"The men what travels by night. That's what I calls them. From over the Gap. Or going over. Not many, now. One, two groups a month. As many coming as going, two, three men I each."

"You seen them in the daytime?"

"No. But I never thought they was up to no good. Not when they skulks around in the night and skips the only good inn ten miles either way."

"Do they come by on the same nights every month?" Ragnarson's brain was a-hum. Thinking he might be on the enemy's track raised his spirits immensely.

"No. Just when they gets the feeling, seems like." "How long has it been going on?"

"Good two years. And that's all I can tell you, excepting that some went past this morning. After the sun was up, too, come to think. Riding like Hell itself was after them. "Less they steals horses up the line, they's going to be walking by now."

"You said...."

"I never seen them by light? Yes, and it's so. These ones just showed me their backsides going away. Three of them, they was, and I knew it was the same kind 'cause of the way they just went on by."

"What's that got to do with it?"

"Everybody stops here, Marshall. I picked this spot the day we dragged ourselves back through here after we chased that O Shing halfway to them heathen lands in the east. It's right in the middle of everywhere. Gots water and good hayfields.... Well, never mind the what do you call it? Economics? People just stops. It's a place to take a break. You stopped yourself, and it's plain you're in as big a hurry as them fellows this morning. Even people what has no business stopping do. Soldiers. A platoon going up to Maisak? They stops, and you don't hear the sergeants saying nay. Just every body stops. Except them as rides by night."

"Thanks. You've helped. I'll remember. You can do something else for me."

"Anything, Marshall. It was you made it possible fora man like me to have a place like this for himself...."

"All right. All right. You're embarrassing me. Actually, it's two things. We go back out, you put on a show of what a good choice of dessert I made."

"That's it?"

"No. It starts when we leave. You never saw us and you don't know who we were."

"True enough, excepting yourself, sir."

"Forget me too."

"Secret mission, eh?"

"Exactly."

"It's as good as forgotten now, sir. And the other thing?"

"Don't argue with me when I pay for my meal. Or I'll box your damned ears."

The innkeeper grinned. "You know, sir, you're a damned good man. A real man. Down here with the rest of us."

Ragnarson suffered a twinge of guilt-pain. What would the old veteran think if he found out about Elana and the Queen?

"That's why we followed you back then. Ain't why we joined, I grants you. Them reasons you can figure easy enough. Loot and a chance to break our tenantcy. But it's why we stuck. And there's plenty of us as remembers. The hill people too. Some of them comes in here of a time, and they says the same. You go up on the wall over there in Vorgreberg City sometime if n you got trouble, and you stomp good and hard and you yell 'I needs good men' and you'll have ten thousand before the next sun shows."

He only wished it were true, dire as tomorrow smelled.

"You marks me, sir. There's men what never marched in the long march, and men what even missed Baxendala, but they'd come too. They maybe wouldn't have the sword you said they should have, because swords is dear, and everybody wanting one, and they wouldn't have no shields, except as some makes ' they own out of oak in the old way, or maybe green hide, and they wouldn't have no mail, but they'd come. They'd bring they rakes and hoes and butchering knives, they forge hammers and chopping axes...."

Ragnarson sniffed, brushed a tear. He was deeply moved. He didn't believe half of it, but just having one man show this much faith reached down to the heart of him.

"The hill people too, sir. 'Cause you done one thing in this here country, something not even the old Krief himself could do, and, bless him, we loved him. Something not even Eanred Tarlson could do, and him a Wesson himself and at the Krief's ear.

"Sir, you gave us our manhood. You gave us hope. You gave us a chance to be men, not just animals working the lands and mines and forges for drunken Nordmen. Maybe you didn't mean it that way. I don't know. We likes to think you did. You being down in Vorgreberg City, we judges only by what we seen in the long march. Coo-ee, we gave them Nordmen jolly whatfor. didn't we sir? Lieneke. I was right there on the hill, not fifty feet from you, sir."

"Enough. Enough."

"Sir? I've offended?"

"No. No." He turned away because the tears had betrayed him. "That's what I wanted. What Her Majesty wanted. What you say you've got. Down there in Vorgreberg, it's hard to see. Sometimes I forget that's only a little bit of Kavelin, even if it's the heart. Come on now. Let's go. And remember what I said."

"Right you are, sir. Don't know you from the man in the moon, and I'll gouge you for every penny."

"Good." Ragnarson put an arm around the man's shoulders again. "And keep your eyes open. There's trouble in those riders."

"An eye and an ear, sir. We've got our swords in this house, me and my sons. Over the door, just like it says in the law. We'll be listening, and you call."

"Damn!" Ragnarson muttered, fighting tears again.

"Sir?" But the Marshall had fled to the common room.

"What do you think?" Ragnarson asked, referring to the creamed fruit he had helped the innkeeper prepare. "Mixed. A trick my mother used to pull when I was a kid." And then, to Oryon, "Colonel, I don't think I'm as frightened of High Crag as I was."

"I don't understand."

"I thought of something when we were mixing the fruit. You know my old friend? Haroun?"

"Bin Yousif? Not personally."

"Five, six years ago he published a book through one of the colleges at Hellin Daimiel. You might read it sometime. Your answer is there."

"I've read it already. Called On Irregular Warfare, isn't it? Subtitled something like The Use Of The Partisan In Achieving Strategic As Well As Tactical Objectives. Excellent treatise. But his own performance discredits his thesis."

"Only assuming he has failed to do what he wants. We don't know that. Only Haroun knows what Haroun is doing. But that's not the answer. Now, innkeeper, the tally. We have to get going."

Somehow, now, the future looked a lot brighter.


EIGHT: The Prisoner | All Darkness Met | TEN: Lord of Lords



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