By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action


The party had just crossed onto the Great Highway east to Talyk, when the skies darkened, and turned to a steady, soaking rain. The resin-protected cloaks postponed their misery, but by the evening, Jacob was a soggy mess. The one blessing was that the storm dampened the need for conversation, as he had been in no mood to talk. The only member of the group who did not seem to be drenched was Francis. It was almost as if the rain parted, and ran from the air around him, leaving the former monk dry. Jacob was sure it was least considerate thing Francis had ever done.

In other circumstances, he would have enjoyed the ride despite the rain, and the chance to examine more of the ruins of Miraka, but the fate of Ironwood weighed too heavily on his mind. A part of him thought that if providence had somehow both delivered the Shield of St. Thomas to him, and arranged for the death of those who murdered for it, that maybe God favored him. Maybe He had a purpose for Jacob, and would help him save his home town. Then again, if he was honest about it, Jacob had no leverage at all over Shakath. Even if Travan had a Sorcerer of its own, they would have nothing to offer Shakath, and no means to stop him, even if they cared to. Jacob himself didn’t have the power, and Francis had made clear that St. Thomas would not provide it.

Yet, a part of him refused to accept that. Fragments of his conversation with the Travanian kept echoing in his head: Step up and God has your back. There may be a price to pay. It was unlikely Jacob could save Ironwood, but he had to try. Yet, everywhere he had succeeded, it had been according to God’s plan, and Francis had as much as said that God was done with him. The thoughts repeated themselves in his head, over and over. Could he step up again? Or had God abandoned him? Was it time to give up?

By dinnertime, the rain dispersed into a cool, dense fog. The warriors all stripped their armor, laying it before the blazing fire in the hopes of minimizing the rust they would later have to polish out. Some feared the kindling would be too wet to burn, but the Sorcerer had a fire burning in no time. Laranna and Francis provided an excellent roast, with biscuits and some fruits from the Sarronen market. Jacob helped them where he could, the distraction of the task lightening his mood somewhat. Both had been glad to see him pitching in. Laranna had carried the conversation, keeping it both light and genuine, to his gratitude. She did not comment on his mood, but when the food was ready, only handed him the first bowl and cup, and shooed him off to eat.

Athena, too, had been almost uncharacteristically helpful, throwing herself into setting up of the tents, fetching of firewood, and helping Daniel with the care of their horses. Any time Ceann sidled up to help, she thanked him, and shuffled off to the next task. Eventually, he got the hint. But once they were all eating, there was a silence to fill, one only punctuated by the call of owls and the crackling of the fire.

Daniel was the one, finally, to cut through heavy air among them. Lifting his cup, he called out, “To Timothy! And to Father Gerrold! May their souls, wherever they are, finally find rest.”

“Hear! Hear!” the others responded, lifting their own cups.

Laranna asked carefully, “These were your murdered friends?” At Daniel’s answering nod, she asked, “What were they like?”

Athena was the first to speak, “Timothy was a good guy: young and loud, but he would do anything for you. He just joined Ironwood’s Town Guard, and he was so proud, you’d think he was saving the world. He probably thought he was. He was big, and handsome for a big guy. I watched him in the practice yard, and he wasn’t bad for someone so young. He lost at least every other match, and still came into every one grinning like he was invincible. He liked his trash talk too, before a fight. Losing was never his fault, if you asked him, but he never sounded bitter about it, either. He was always one fight away from a win. When he did win, he knew when not to rub it in. He was a good man. I’ll miss him.”

“Here, here!” they shouted, and drank.

“Father Gerrold was a kindly soul,” Daniel began. “But you wouldn’t know it from his face. He was a right terror among the young lads, and he always had a hickory stick for rapping knuckles. He loved to tap it against his palm, just to let everyone in the schoolhouse know he was serious. But I swear I never saw him use it twice. There was only once I ever saw him give a punishment, against this arrogant kid who had got caught putting pitch on his chair. For some reason he thought Father Gerrold wouldn’t dare punish him, just because his father was the Baron!”

“That was a long time ago,” Jacob murmured, his fingers covering the sad smile on his lips. He buried his face in his hands in mock shame, but added softly, “He was a good man, if strict. I loved to scandalize him. I kept hoping I could make him smile, like the other kids smiled. He deserved a good laugh. But every poor child who needed an extra lesson, or a loaf of bread knew they could count on Father Gerrold, always.”

Daniel continued, “He was sympathetic, too. Whenever I was most frustrated that I couldn’t fight like my father, he would point out my gifts, and remind me that God always had a plan. Maybe not the one I wanted, but possibly something better, something with a surprise twist. He always said God had a sense of humor, though Father Gerrold always seemed so stern. I know better, though. He smiled when he thought no one was looking. He was a good man.”

“Here, here!” the group shouted, and drank. Before long, they were all sharing anecdotes, not just about the two from Ironwood, but of other friends they had lost, missed, or left behind.

Francis even added his own dedication, but cryptically. “To the lady whose service I once gave my life to. You were stronger than the oak, and more cunning than the fox. You always did the right thing, whatever the cost. Your smile could light any room, and your laugh fill any hall with joy. When you tossed me into the fire, you did what you had to do. I thank you, and wish you well. Would there were more like you.”

“Here, here!” the group called out soggily at his odd eulogy, and drank. It was that kind of night.

It was past the middle of the night, but Jacob stared out into the swirling fog, his thoughts still thick from the wine. The fire behind him long since fallen to coals, though he tossed in some sticks from time to time. When one of them popped, Laranna started and sat up in her tent. When she saw Jacob still watching the coals, she walked over and sat by him. “Difficulty sleeping?” she asked.

“I suppose so,” he replied. “I have a lot to think about.”

“I’m sorry, Jacob. I still can’t believe all that’s happened, much less Serren’s threat. You deserve better,” Laranna offered.

“I don’t, though, at least not more than anyone else.” Jacob sighed. “Ceann was right: it wasn’t great skill or wise choices on my part that got us the Shield, or defeated Serren. It was the hand of Heaven, and that hand has moved on. There’s no one left to save Ironwood, now.”

Laranna’s brows furrowed, but she did not turn away. “I’m not so sure. The powers that turn the world are beyond even Francis’s understanding. I know you’ll do everything you can to save Ironwood or warn it, and my heart goes with you in that. The thought of you losing your home is beyond horrible, though I can’t imagine even Innoken being so hard as to kill all its people. I have to believe most will be driven to Margon, at worst.

However, if Serren was right, and Ironwood does face Miraka’s fate, you still won’t be alone. You’ll always have a place to stay in Northspire, if you need it.”

Her kindness pierced even Jacob’s dark mood. “Thank you. That means a great deal to me.”

Laranna shrugged self-deprecatingly. “Don’t thank me until you’ve seen it, but I am serious. Father’s always looking for good people, and you qualify in my book.”

“Then I look forward to seeing it,” Jacob answered. “I’m sure your father is also a good man, and your descriptions of Northspire make it seem even lovelier than yourself.”

“That flattery must work on someone, for you to keep using it,” Laranna answered, “However, I mistrust it. My face or my manner frightened my last two suitors away, while the one before was pleased to lie to me for the sake of a chance at my inheritance. Luckily, I overheard him talking about his shrewish and beak-faced prospect with his brother, and sent him packing. I know you mean it well, but if you want my attention, speak plainly.”

“I’m sorry, my Lady,” Jacob offered apologetically. “I spoke out of reflex. But I rather like your prominent nose, and I prefer the company of women who speak their minds. You have met Athena.”

Laranna’s chuckles burst from her mouth without permission. “I suppose that’s alright, then. Athena operates less from thought, and more from instinct, but she is more perceptive than I initially gave her credit for. You are wise to listen to her. I will say, it is unusual to see a man and woman who are such close friends.”

“And not physically intimate, you mean?” Jacob’s returned, knowingly.

“Yes, since you mention it. How did you meet her?”

“Her father, Jannick, is a blacksmith for Ironwood, and my father always held him in esteem. Both the Guard and the Mercantile Company were growing quickly, and his work was in high demand, so Father had a forge installed for him near the keep. Arianna, that’s her real name, would hang out around the forge with the boys who liked to watch her father work. I was one of them. She was tougher than most of the boys, and when we started learning how to fight, she wanted to learn too. Her father let her; he figured that when she grew older, she would tire of it and learn to be a proper woman. Somehow that never happened.”

Laranna’s eyes brightened in the glow of the coals. “Are women usually allowed such freedom in Ironwood? My father provided me as much tutelage as any man, but that is rare, in Travan. In Margon too, from what I have read.”

Jacob lowered his eyes, and his voice. “Not usually, no, and Athena’s freedom is hard-won. That’s kind of a sad story, actually. Athena defied her father and her step-mother to marry a lumberjack, ignoring the man they chose for her. Her step-mother and half-brothers turned away from her entirely. She still talks to her father occasionally, but they are no longer close. Athena’s husband took her away from her remaining childhood playmates, and when he died in an accident, she didn’t have many friends left but her sword and bow.”

“And you,” Laranna guessed.

“Yes. We always understood each other. I think she thinks of me as the younger brother who actually listens to her.”

Laranna chewed on her hair for a moment, a habit her mother had always hated. “And that works for you? I haven’t known many men who can see a woman’s mind and ignore her body. Unless it’s an unattractive body, anyway.”

Jacob raised an eyebrow. “I notice it, but it’s a small part of what I see, and she’s not really my type. And I surely noticed what happened to her when she defied her father. It wasn’t pretty, how the town treated her. Let’s just say neither of us are stupid, even if Athena is sometimes a bit on the impulsive side. Besides, our relationship works: we have each other’s backs. You don’t mess with that.”

“Well,” said Laranna, “you’ve done me a great favor by taking me from Sarronen before my secret got out. I’m no good with weapons, but if you need another friend, you’ve got one.”

“Thank you,” Jacob, replied gratefully. “I could use one, right now.”

So they sat, and kept company against the dark, their conversation turning to trade, politics, and other less personal matters. Jacob was glad of it, for it kept his mind busy, and insulated his heart. While Jacob knew more about the trade routes and goods of the region, Laranna’s knowledge of its history, people, and politics outstripped his own. He didn’t know how long they talked before he began to nod off to her soothing alto, but he obeyed when she finally patted his hand and sent him to bed, the deep pain in his soul having subsided a bit, for now.

Athena woke tired, despite a long night’s sleep. As usual, the early birds had already made breakfast. She and Daniel would make up for it later by packing the tents, and seeing to the horses. For now, she enjoyed the biscuits in sauce, and the salty hot sausages. She was tired, but she also felt good. Jacob gave her a brief smile across the the fire, and she returned it.

When she had just finished eating, Ceann quietly joined her side. She tolerated it. As frustrated as she was with him, a voice in the back of her mind noted that he had never been less than a gentleman to her. She could not tell him everything, but she did owe him some sort of explanation, once she could think of one. Suddenly, she knew it was going to be a long day. “Good morning,” was all she could muster.

Ceann smiled broadly at her. It was a handsome smile, showing good white teeth. “So you are talking to me, finally. I had begun to fear you never would.”

Athena put a finger to her temple and tried to meet the man’s eyes. “I don’t hate you, Ceann, just because you’ve said some damn fool things. I’m sure I’ve done that myself, at least once.”

Ceann’s eyes widened, his hand rising and his mouth opening for a retort. Instead, he stilled himself visibly, and dropped his hand. When he spoke, his voice was calm, “Jacob had more thought behind his plans than I was aware of, because he never bothered to tell me. It’s no crime to point out he made mistakes, though. I’m not going to worship him just because he’s good with a sword.”

“Nor should you,” Jacob replied from the other side of the fire, as he rinsed and wiped the pots. “If you have precise criticisms, we can discuss them. I only ask that we do it with calm and respect.”

“I don’t remember talking to you,” Ceann responded, irritated.

“If you want to have a private conversation, you should have it somewhere private. I’m still picking up by the fire.”

“Athena is here,” Ceann answered.

“Then that should tell you something,” Jacob replied. “Athena, would you prefer I stay or go?”

“You’re fine, Jacob,” Athena replied. “But this is a conversation Ceann and I need to have. Ceann, will you come with me?”

“Gladly,” Ceann stated, following her away from the fire and past the tents.

She wound her way behind a small tree, stopping short of where the waving grass rose above her knee. After a moment, she turned to face him, arms folded across her chest. The breeze was fraying the wispy clouds above, and the sun was bright. It looked to be a clear and bright day, an announcement of the swiftly approaching summer. She wasn’t feeling it. “Go ahead and ask,” she said wearily.

The corners of Ceann’s face fell. “You aren’t interested in me, anymore, are you? Is this about Jacob?”

Athena shifted her weight to her right foot, considering her words. “Is it about how you treated my oldest and most reliable friend? Yeah, that’s part of it. I knew you didn’t like him, though I never understood why. But you were polite enough, and so I thought I could live with that. But since Sarronen, it’s just gotten worse and worse. You’ve been jealous and thoughtless.

Your feelings are getting in the way of your brains. You give Jacob and Francis the third degree whenever you get the chance, but you have no ideas of your own. No, everyone else is just wrong. And you never say you’re sorry for anything, not even to me. So I can see how you’ll be in a relationship, after you’ve got the girl. You’ll have to be right about every little thing. That’s not where I want to be, with someone like that.”

“So it is Jacob,” Ceann snapped. “What’s the deal with you and him, anyway. It’s not like you’re sleeping with him.”

Athena’s eyes widened, and she responded indignantly, “No! Of course not, nothing like that.”

“Something must have happened,” Ceann accused, “while you and he were out at the bandit camp. You were gone a long time, and even your undershirt has washed-out bloodstains. I saw when you took off your armor in the rain.”

Athena held herself tight, voice angry and defensive, but more than touched with remembered fear. “We washed our shirts. Mine was covered in blood and filth. Ceann, I killed one bandit, but four angry men had me knocked down. Imagine you’re on the ground looking up at four men, with weapons, all of them kicking you and laughing. Now imagine you’re a woman. I’ve never been so scared. When that happened, I got dirt everywhere. Hell, I got blood everywhere, some of it theirs, but a lot of it mine. You want me to just walk around in that? No way.”

Ceann bowed his head in a moment of sympathy. It didn’t last. “Well, that must have been hard. Good thing your Knight in unstained White was there to fight off all the bad guys, like in some bad play.”

He really was incapable of backing off or backing up, not for a moment. “You’re damned right he did! Just like he always has when I needed it, and I never gave him anything. Where were you?”

Ceann’s snort of denial looked exactly like a snarl. “Francis wouldn’t let me follow. I knew I never should have listened to him. And then when you were vulnerable, your precious Jacob took advantage of you.”

“No,” Athena half-shouted, fists clenching and shooting towards the ground. “That didn’t happen. You don’t listen to me, and you don’t understand anything. Not about women, not about me, and sure as Hell not about what’s going on! None of our problems, none of your problems, are about Jacob. They’re about you. And us? We’re done.”

“Good!” Ceann screamed, enraged. “I sure don’t need a slut like you. I should have listened to what the guys in Ironwood said, but hey, I figured I’d give you a chance to prove them wrong. I guess I did make one mistake, after all.”

By the end of the sentence, Athena was already gone. If she stayed any longer, she really would kill him. Unfortunately, killing a man was no longer a theoretical concept for her, and that nauseated her almost as much as he did.

“How long before we stop?” Laranna asked, later in the day. “It’s not like I’ve never ridden a horse before, but my legs are killing me.”

Jacob stared down the road a moment, estimating. They were in Travan, now, and farms were visible in the distance on both sides of the road. There were no Mirakan ruins here: locals had long ago carted away the stone to build the mighty walls and keeps for which Travan was famous. It was still too far to see, but Talyk would be off in the distance. The Great Highway lead right to its gates. The town of Talyk had been rebuilt upon its own ruins, decades after the city had fallen.

“I’d like to make for Talyk tonight,” Jacob said. “Ironwood keeps a house there, and we should be able to lodge in it. Definitely, if my brother is there.”

Larranna lifted her face up to enjoy a fresh breeze, seemingly glad of it. Jacob certainly was: with summer approaching, armor became a sweaty burden. Still, after his last run-in with bandits, he was not about to remove it while he was on the road. Despite Laranna’s complaints, she had held up well. Her hat had not entirely kept her fair cheeks from reddening in the sun. But the contrast looked surprisingly well against her dark hair and startling blue eyes. Those eyes twinkled now, as she replied, “Oh, I think we can do better than that. Begging your pardon, Jacob, but I suspect Count Ervallyn’s accommodations will be more spacious. As pleasant as it has been under the stars, I look forward to having a bed of my own, and a room too. I’ll even share it with Athena, if I have to.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Athena added from Jacob’s right. She had been uncharacteristically quiet today, after her fight with Ceann. She had been far enough from the others to hide everything but her tone, but whatever they said must have been ferocious, because they had not spoken since. Ceann, riding alone behind the group, seemed almost repentant. That would be a first.

“That’s fine,” Jacob said, “I still need to check in with anyone from Ironwood, but then we’ll head to the Count’s. After that, if you still want our company, we can ride to Northspire.”

“I don’t want to inconvenience you,” Laranna said, “though I would be and have been grateful for your company.”

“All your company,” Laranna amended, with a nod to Athena. “You have both made me feel as at home as possible. After weeks in a city where my hosts were liable to turn on me and kill me, that’s no small gift.”

Athena place her hand on Laranna’s arm. “It’s been a pleasure. I’m glad to have a chance finally to travel with someone of sense.”

“Oh?” Laranna responded. “I don’t think Jacob’s entirely hopeless, whatever his tutor says.”

“Are you kidding?” Athena replied. “It was only two years ago that he broke his leg trying to jump onto Dorienne’s roof from a tree.”

Jacob carefully cleared his throat. “In fairness, the cat had been up there for half the day, and Dorienne was very pretty.”

Athena grinned. “She was grateful enough to call the physician over, eventually. Maybe if you hadn’t knocked out a shutter when you fell, she would have been faster. Remind me, did she ask for your help?”

Jacob examined his boots carefully. “Not as such. As far as the shutter, she needed a new one, anyway. It was starting to rot. Now, she didn’t really have to spend five minutes laughing at me before she believed my leg was broken. But I’ll wager everyone does a few things they regret.”

Athena’s wicked smile continued. “Like the time you tried to convince Thaddeus that someone had stuck a spear straight through you, and the stick near poked through your ribs when he panicked and tried to pull it through? You must have lost a pint of blood. Or the time Jonah dared you to kiss a pig? Or the time Mariana got you to run into the Clever Swordsman in just your small-clothes, singing ‘The Tinker Stole my Trousers?’”

Laranna fluttered her lashes at the scion of Ironwood’s barony. “Oh, my. Do you do requests? I think I might like to see that.”

Jacob threw up his hands. “Tell me again why I saved your life, Athena?”

Athena ignored him, still facing Laranna. “Mariana only promised him a kiss, and you’re prettier than she was. She was a good kisser, though, and she kept her promises. She’s married now, of course, with a child on the way.”

Jacob lifted a hand to his ear. “I’d love to stay, but I think I hear Francis calling for me ahead. Carry on, ladies.”

“Don’t worry, Jacob,” Laranna answered lightly, “We’ve all been embarrassed before. Some of us just do it a little better than others. I’ve suspected you would never settle for mediocrity, and it’s a pleasure to be proved correct.”

Ears still burning, Jacob road several horse-lengths ahead to join the former monk. To his chagrin, the middle aged man only added wood to the fire. “You really don’t do things half-way, do you?”

“I suppose not,” Jacob replied heavily. “I suspect that’s why my father was so frustrated with me before we left. The things he really wanted out of me, I didn’t do half-way, either. I barely did them at all.”

Francis patted the young swordsman’s shoulder. “It’s a good lesson to learn. Whatever you do, you should find a way to enjoy. Otherwise, you need to find a way to be doing something else.”

Jacob stared off into the distance, listening to the chirp of the birds. It really would be a pleasant day without so much chainmail on, and the chatter of the women behind; the laughter still continued. “Sometimes you don’t get a choice, I think. For example, I wonder why Athena was so keen to get rid of me.”

Francis gave the two women a sunny smile. “It’s probably been a while since she’s had the company of a woman she actually likes. I gather the ladies of Ironwood made up their mind about her a long time ago. No doubt you made an excellent icebreaker.”

“Yes,” Jacob agreed sourly.

The former monk frowned slightly, compelled to change to a more serious topic. “Son, have you made up your mind what you’re going to do at the Summit? Or after, if things go poorly? Convincing Sarronen to back off is not going to be easy. They have always feared Travan, but a Sorcerer changes the equation.”

“Not exactly,” Jacob replied. “I don’t really think Travan will be able to pressure Sarronen out of its plans for Ironwood. If I had any way at all to fight Innoken, I would. But you keep telling me I don’t. Maybe if you could share what other Sorcerers were in play.”

The monk shook his head. “Jacob, you might be able to take out Innoken with a catapult, if you hit him a dozen times, but a sword has no chance. The other Sorcerers I know of all answer to the council of Vallaton. They may contend with each other, but none will side with you.”

“Then,” the dark-haired young man continued sadly, “I need a plan for failure. Erik could set up a new business with the supplies and people he has, and I might be able to work with him, or by myself as a peddler. I’m sure I could sell my sword out to someone in Travan; Athena might like that. Laranna has also offered to take me on in some capacity, but I’d have to see Northspire and its people before I can think seriously about that.”

The middle-aged man patted his horse gently, as Jacob spoke, his eyes unreadable. “There is another option you might consider. I’ve been asked to set up a temple to Heaven, as a refuge to those dedicated to peace, who want no part in a world torn apart by those who call themselves Gods. Innoken is not the only Sorcerer waging war to expand his kingdom. In Margon, Chaltan, Balina, and even in southern Travan, Sorcerers are gathering their armies, and preparing to fight. Heaven would rather use its power for healing than war. You could join me if you wanted to, help me set up my temple.”

“I don’t know, Francis. It sounds like a good cause, but part of me is too angry with Heaven for abandoning us. There’s no shame in running, if the fight is hopeless, but from what little you’ve said, God has fled the field already. I don’t understand - I thought God was above all the Angels and Demons. Why will he not clean up his own mess?”

Francis, uncharacteristically, struggled to find words. “God is, well, he’s not what you think. I suspect he’s as far above the spirits fighting as they are above us, and hidden from their knowledge. Heaven is just a realm of humans, Ascended humans, with an agenda. One I agree with, mostly. They want to help people be free and happy, now and in the Spirit World. Remember too that St. Thomas saved your life, and asked nothing in return. He took your side when you faced Serren. He does care about Ironwood, even if he can’t give more.”

Jacob’s brow furrowed. “That’s true. I suppose I owe him. But why is Heaven running away from this? Why sign off on the Compact?”

“They are biding time until Warlords like Shakath can be opposed on even terms, hopefully without violence. In the meantime, they want to keep the violence against innocents to a minimum. They have almost no leverage against the Sorcerers of the Warlords directly, but they figure if they can keep them from killing each other, there will be fewer people caught in the middle. The Warlords are fine with that; it reduces their risk of losing their toys.”

Jacob remained agitated. “Don’t the Warlords care about the violence towards innocents, too? Shakath seems more than willing to flatten Ironwood.”

“Some of them,” the former monk replied. “Most aren’t too worried about it. They call themselves Ascended because they believe they are better than normal humans. They have near complete power over themselves and their surroundings, and they are essentially immortal. At best, humans are like pets to them, doomed to short lives that will be forgotten soon anyway. Only once we Ascend do we become interesting as individuals, in their view.

Shakath considers himself humane, from a spiritual perspective. He doesn’t want to cause pain; he wants to bring out the strength in people. But if they’re miserable and don’t like their situation, he’d just as soon give them a quick end and a chance to start over.”

The Ironwood nobleman’s eyes burned. “How is that his right to choose? Ironwood houses thousands of good people, who want to live. How is killing them humane?”

“It is not” Francis replied gently. “Shakath considers his people first, and other nations after, if at all. But you don’t have the power to face him, and neither do I.”

“So it seems,” Jacob answered, though he did not seem convinced. “I suppose I’d better keep those back-up plans handy, though, just in case.”

In the distance, beyond the thickening rows of huts and cottages, stood the impressive main walls of Talyk. They covered an area far smaller than Sarronen, but stood dozens of feet in the air, and they were in excellent repair. In the center of city stood an imposing keep on top of a great hill, reddish-gold in the fading light. It had been visible since before the shadows had begun to lengthen, and had been growing taller since. A smaller outer wall, little over a dozen feet high, protected most of the cottages, but the city continued to overflow its lines. Beyond the city proper, villages dotted the countryside in all directions. Talyk might be built for a siege, but only a fraction of the area’s people had its full protection.

“The Travanians sure know how to build,” Daniel commented. “Maragon is way bigger, but I’ve never seen walls like that.”

“Talyk was burned nearly to the ground when the Kharshe Horde came this way,” Jacob explained. “The Travanians have learned to take their defenses seriously. They still have skirmishes every decade or two with one clan or another. Usually they end up taking a new chunk of land, but a few times all this stone has come in handy.”

Daniel barked a short laugh. “Did your tutor tell you that? Do you always cram so many facts in your head?”

The second in line to the possibly short-lived Barony of Ironwood shrugged. “I read it, actually, in a book Father bought from Talyk. The attack of the Karshe horde was the most important event in history, and there’s a lot of material on it. But until Ironwood re-established direct contact with Talyk, everything we knew about the Travanian Empire had to come by sea to Chaltan and through all of Margon. Information on the Empire’s survival and recovery was for generations scarce, and usually wrong.

History books from Travan are still worth a small fortune, and my father has nearly a dozen in his library. My tutor made sure I read them, I think mostly for the chance to examine them himself. Anything that impressed him that much, I had to respect.”

Daniel chewed his lip, then asked hesitantly, “Do you think, well, will we ever get back? What you and Francis have been talking about lately scares the pants off me. Even if Sarronen decides not to attack, do you think they’ll ever let us go home?”

Jacob paused, trying to think of something reassuring to say, but eventually settled on honesty. “I don’t know, Daniel. If we can pressure them into making peace with Ironwood, yes, that peace will protect us. Unfortunately, Shakath’s pulling the strings in Sarronen right now, through Innoken. How can we change the mind of a God? It would be easier to kill Innoken. But if it’s Margon you want to see, we could at worst sail there.”

“Even sailing to Chaltan would be better than giving up, Jacob. But it’s all so hard to believe! Things started out so well this trip. If the Fire God weren’t there, we could set up a wagon route to Thane’s, maybe see how things with Anginette go. I like her, and I like her father. God’s whiskers! I liked almost everyone I met in Sarronen. The funny thing is I felt they were so open, and you knew were you stood with them. The idea seems like such a joke now.

If anyone can figure a way to deal with Innoken, it’s you. But even if there is no way home, I’ll still follow you. God favors you, Jacob. I’d be foolish to walk away from that.”

Jacob put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “Thank you, Daniel. That means a lot to me.”

The two men walked in a silence at the head of the party until they reached the outer gate. There were three guards in chainmail standing against the wall on either side of the open gate, wearing the deep red and brown of Talyk on their tunics. They looked tired, but alert, like men at the end of their shift. They were chatting quietly, but keeping their eyes on the road. A tall, dark-haired, and mustached man stood a bit ahead of the gate, dressed like the others except for the sewn badge on his chest. He stepped forward as Jacob approached, lifting his hand to signal him to halt.

“Good evening,” Jacob called out. “How can I help you?”

“Good evening,” the man replied brusquely. “I’ll need your name and business here in Talyk.”

The dark-haired scion of Ironwood frowned. Talyk’s main road was heavily traveled, and it seemed odd to be interrogated. On the other hand, he and his friends were armed, and approached the city late. “My name is Jacob Ironwood. I’m looking for my brother. He should be here with the caravan.”

The mustached man gestured past the young lord. “Any particular reason why you’re traveling with two women and a monk?”

“This is the lady Laranna of Northspire,” Jacob replied. “The other is Athena, of the Ironwood Mercantile Company Guard.”

The guard started. “Lady Laranna? My lady, you’ve been gone for weeks! Everyone thought you were dead.”

Laranna urged her chestnut mare forward, patting it gently. “I was taken against my will, but rescued and brought to Sarronen. I regret any anxiety caused by my absence, but I was unable to return until Lord Jacob offered me escort home.”

The mustached man seemed unable to take this in. “You were missing then, but you’re not hurt?”

“It’s a long story,” Laranna replied, “I’m very much looking forward to getting home, but I’m fine now, thank you.”

The guard hesitated, then nodded and turned back to Jacob. “Count Ervallyn will want to see you, since you have the Lady Laranna with you. The Ironwood caravan is here, too, with Lord Erik staying in Ironwood’s warehouse. Do you know how to find it?”

“I do, Jacob answered. “Thank you, officer.”

“Of course,” the guard answered, scratching his ear. “I’ll have a runner sent to the Count and let him know that you’ve gone to join the rest from Ironwood. Can’t be too careful, though, with people and livestock gone missing lately. Well, I guess not people missing anymore, now you’ve brought Lady Laranna back: good news, that. Anyway, you can pass on through, now.”

“Thank you, and a good evening to you,” Jacob replied, and rode through the gate, horse’s hooves clacking on the flagstones of the main entrance to Talyk.

The twilight sky continued to darken as the sun lowered behind the trees. The party passed swiftly through the outskirts of the city, and entered the broad gates of Talyk’s great wall. The sight was awe-inducing when you could stand directly before the wall, looking over sixty feet straight up into the deepening blue. It was nowhere near as tall as the Wall mountains west of home, but this was man-made. It would take more than a couple visits for Jacob to accept such things as normal.

The city of Talyk was prosperous, and its center was in better repair than Sarronen. Left and right there were broad stone buildings three stories high and more, with tile roofs and carved friezes. Wooden beams and great oaken doors were visible on the larger stores and warehouses, as the party rode the broad cobblestone streets to the great Market Square. In the commercial district, most of the market stalls were packed up, and the shopkeepers were sweeping their floors. If the streets lacked the sheer gaiety of Pearl Bay’s Colored Way, they also lacked the crushing poverty that surrounded it. In Pearl Bay, there would have been dozens of beggars by now, accosting every passerby. Here the poor, the crippled, and the victims of poor harvests, once they swallowed their pride, would be crowding into one of the Free Kitchens.

The goods that flooded the Square during the day would be similar to those in Pearl Bay, in many respects, but with Talyk’s local flavor. There would be fewer fruits, pearls, trinkets, and curios. There would be more furniture, needles, nails, and other goods for construction. There would be as many clothes, in even more fabrics, but bright colors would be rarer. Dyes were expensive, for they were mostly imported. What’s more, conspicuous consumption was discouraged in much of the Travanian Empire. Taxes were high, by western standards, and they went largely to military and construction projects. The military barracks, the Count’s keep, the great walls, the open Theater, and the Lazarus Cathedral with its gold-inlaid steel bells: these were treasures unmatched in the West.

However, the merchants and nobility here were less colorful, less open about their success. The stone mansions north and east of the town center were large and well-built, but lacked the great statues and gardens of their Pearl Bay counterparts. Most of their beauty was confined to the inside. Oddly enough, the public rooms, with their kitchens and tables, had beautiful furniture, but furniture was a practical investment, however expensive. A Margon socialite might wear a faux-silk dress made of Sautha for every day of the week, each in a unique stunning color, though the light fabric might fade or tear in time. A Travanian woman of means would instead buy wool, amfantha fur, clan linen, or southern cotton, but of such workmanship that it would flatter her with its shape and color for years. Quality and longevity were highly prized in the Empire, while the beautiful and disposable were the height of fashion in the far West.

As they neared the warehouse his father had bought here, Jacob noted again the excellent engineering, the ports in the covered sewers that carried away refuse and horse dungs from the streets. Already, the evening street sweepers heaved out broad brooms and brushed away the refuse of the day. It almost made him feel guilty, bringing several horses through the center of the city, knowing all they would leave behind for the cleaners.

“Up ahead on the right,” Jacob called out, gesturing to a large warehouse, to his eyes as plain as the others. It did have broad wooden beams holding up sturdy eaves, and a smart-looking tile roof.

Laranna rode up to look, peering by his right shoulder. “Not bad. The Ironwood Mercantile Company must be doing well here. A credit to your brother, no doubt.”

“He’s a good man - better than myself,” Jacob replied absently. “I fear to tell him what we’ve discovered. Still, there’s nothing to do but get started.”

Jacob dismounted with a stifled groan, then patted his horse and placed its reins over the post near the door to the warehouse. The iron ring of the knocker made a deep and satisfying sound, followed by the squeaky voice of a young teenager, “One minute, sir.”

The youngster swung the oaken door wide on its well-oiled iron hinges, and peered out into the evening. It had not been all that many years since Jacob was the one opening doors and playing page, and it brought a smile to his face when the youngster earnestly greeted him. “Lord Jacob, what are - I mean, it’s good to see you here. Can I help you?”

“Yes, thank you, Dorbin. I have some important news that my brother will want to hear. In the meantime, we could use some help getting the horses stabled, and maybe a warm meal.”

“Of course, Lord Jacob. We’ll get you set up. Lord Erik is out for the moment attending to business, but I expect he’ll be back soon. I’ll let him know you’re here as soon as he arrives.”

“Thank you. It’s good to be home, or at least, at the next best thing.”

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