By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Out Of The Woods

Jacob woke with the light again, then turned over to hide from it. It was somebody else’s turn to make the breakfast. Jacob had been awake far too late wondering whether he would have another set of tracks to follow in the morning, when Ceann and Athena had nonchalantly entered the campfire’s circle of light. Jacob had asked sourly how such a skilled tracker had failed to find firewood in the middle of the forest, when he had kept the flames going through half the night all by himself. Ceann had had the grace to look embarrassed. Athena had simply patted him on the shoulder and replied that, you know, it was really dark out there, but thanks for the help. She then had helpfully added that he was welcome to let the fire go out now, though, and then stretched out contentedly under the edge of the tent.

Now it was Jacob’s turn to sleep in, and he’d let someone else take care of the food, dammit. When he had told himself that a dozen times and no one else moved, he gritted his teeth and slowly got to his feet. His stiff legs responded slowly. Older folks tended to complain about how getting sore only came with age, but Jacob was sure that was an exaggeration. He did know that he would feel like a new man by the time he had checked the snares, picked a few of the berries Daniel had marked the evening before, and stoked the fire to a full roar. Someone had to make sure they made the most of daylight with so much at stake, and Jacob supposed that he was up for it. Maybe that was the advantage of youth. If so, Jacob had no doubt he would miss it when it was gone.

But, enough stalling: it was time to cook. Jacob usually liked menial tasks, because they set his mind free to think. Unfortunately, they also had a tendency to set him to stoke his anxiety. Jacob tried to resist worrying about the trail they were following, or how many hours it had been since they passed the clansmen’s campsite. There was nothing he could do about it, nothing at all. If the clansmen had traveled through the night, if Daniel or Athena had missed a horse leaving the road, they would travel a full day in the wrong direction and likely never catch up. That was out of Jacob’s control: it was best not to think of it. But the enigma that was Francis: maybe he could make headway there? He knew almost nothing about the monk, so what made him rely on the man so soon?

Jacob had always been an idealist, quick to forgive, and eager to trust. Yet, despite his words otherwise, letting Brother Francis take a spot in his party had been a leap of faith. It had felt right, but feelings were untrustworthy. Francis, by his speech, must have been a Travanian noble, which would explain his training. But the man not only had amazing skill with a sword, he seemed to have practice teaching it. Almost certainly, he had been an officer in some form of Travanian service, but which? Was he, like Jacob, a younger son employed by his family? Had he been part of Travan’s standing army? Afterward, how had Francis become a monk? Was it that leg injury that showed when he was tired? Maddeningly, Jacob could not ask directly, not yet. He was fascinated by the stranger, and he didn’t want to risk ruining his relationship with the man. Strangely, Jacob trusted him more now that he knew Francis could have slaughtered them all given only the element of surprise: which he had given up willingly. God did indeed work in strange ways. Including, seemingly, coercing him into cooking a breakfast of greasy spiced meat, berries, and crusty flatbread.

By the look of and smell of it, the mix was almost done. And like the day before, the aroma woke most of the sleepers and started the day. Jacob flattered himself that it was the food and not the smoke.

Brother Francis was the first to take his share, followed by Daniel. “That smells absolutely wonderful,” the monk assured him.

“This is actually pretty good,” Thaddeus agreed, after a few moments. “I’m rather impressed that you noticed the berries. One would think you’d been camping for years.”

“You can thank Daniel.” He nodded to the young tracker, who was busy chewing hungrily. “If you’ll remember, he pointed them out yesterday.”

“Ah, yes. I had forgotten,” Thaddeus added. “I hope you weren’t up too late last night.”

“Not at all, just long enough to count my worries.”

“You are not even twenty years of age,” Thaddeus scoffed. “You couldn’t have blinked more than twice before you were done counting.”

Jacob grinned, “You have me there. And so here is my revenge: our little party is still missing two celebrants. Will you fetch them for me?”

He waited in silence while Thaddeus rose to fetch Ceann and Athena. One of these days, he was going to have to get some more sleep, or at least make time to shave the scruff forming on his chin. “We’ll have to make good time today.”

“Yes,” Brother Francis replied, raising an eyebrow, but saying nothing about the late risers. “Despite that, I have a feeling it will be a good day. We’ll see sign of our quarry soon.”

“I do hope you’re right,” Jacob replied quietly.

The monk was right about one thing; Jacob’s party had not lost its prey. Athena was the first to call it, but Daniel ran over quickly to confirm the discovery. Three men with three horses had left the road to make camp. Though Jacob could not see it, both Athena and Daniel claimed the marks were distinctive. They had been gaining, and were only a few hours behind now. It was the third morning of their journey, and they were nearly caught up. If they upped their pace, they might find the murderers this day.

Unfortunately, the good luck did not hold, and the gap to the clansmen they followed failed to narrow. For whatever reason, the clansmen who bore the Shield from Ironwood also accelerated their pace, and rode well into the night. What Jacob had hoped would be a short hunt became a much longer race, with the barbarian party still moving a little slower, but riding on into the night. This continued for days.

Jacob and his comrades fell into a routine. During the light, they traveled, keeping their eyes on the ground, watching for tracks. During the evenings, they sparred as before, but more briefly. They risked longer days, and they pushed their feet and horses as hard as they dared. Brother Francis avoided sparring, except in demonstration. He drilled forms into any who were willing once it was too dark to spar.

He took special care in teaching Jacob. It was almost frightening how quickly he was able to break down and reconstruct the man’s fighting style. He also coached the others, but Jacob was the most ready to learn. The nights by the fire were pleasant despite the bugs, and they sung or told stories before collapsing with exhaustion.

This too passed. The forests to the east of Ironwood were large, but not endless. On the fifth day of traveling, the tracks left both the trees and the highway, turning on to a broad dirt road that headed northward. The road until now had been lightly traveled. Now they passed the wagons of farmers, clansmen traveling on foot, and even a few riders. None were the group they sought. So far the dirt road they walked was soft enough to frequently confirm the distinctive footprints they followed. After a frustrating sets of gains and losses, they were now holding roughly steady at Athena’s guess of four hours behind their prey. So far, the pack animals had proved an invaluable asset. The clansmen they chased could travel longer hours without the need of light to track by, but their horses were beginning to flag, and they must be light on provisions.

The bad news was that with the increasing population, the clansmen they followed might be nearly home, and who knew what reinforcements they might find there? The westerners had entered the territory of the Sarronen kingdom, and that could be good or bad. The Sarronens were an older clan, one that had split from the Kharshe early. They had done well here, thriving and even establishing cordial relations with Ironwood, though they were not close. There was occasional tension with the Travanians, who had been slowly expanding since being nearly eradicated over three hundred years ago. There was no immediate conflict, though, as they were buffered from Travan by the Kulls. Right now, the Sarronens were at peace.

Unfortunately for Ironwood, the prosperity of the area meant that soon the tracks they followed faded into the background of the more recent traffic. It became increasingly difficult to distinguish the signs they were following from the rest. Thaddeus began to look especially nervous. Jacob was about to ask why, when he saw a large village up ahead, growing around a heavily rutted crossroads. The tracks would not be readable here, and the road split into three new directions.

Jacob pulled over right before the crossroads and began to wait, with all the hope he could muster, for the trackers to make a determination. After a few minutes, Athena was cursing, and Daniel’s brow was furrowed in frustration. By unspoken agreement, they started in the center of the square and worked to both the left and the right. Later Athena split off to check the northern road.

While Jacob waited, he examined the area. The village was poorer than those immediately surrounding Ironwood. Its houses were smaller, the walls more weathered, and more of the roofs made of sod than thatch. Still, for a proud people with semi-nomadic roots, the village looked remarkably like those which could be found in Margon. Poor or not, it was a civilized place where men and women from the dozens of surrounding farms could come and trade. The women of the village were busy beating laundry, drying meat, or curing herbs. Their children ran played heedlessly through the common area. Some few men watched from the doorways of small shops, or unloaded goods from rickety wagons. In the center was a broad wooden sign upon which was written in the local dialect of Kharshe, “The Black Cross”. The domestic scene was not quite enough to distract him from his anxiety that this time, skill at tracking might not be enough.

Some of the locals watched on as Athena and Daniel carefully paced the road, their reactions ranging from sympathy to wicked amusement. After long minutes that stretched into a good part of an hour, Athena and Daniel returned with the news of their defeat.

Daniel was first to speak, “The trail is lost. We might have to follow the forks for miles to find our murderers.”

Ceann swore feelingly, saving Athena the trouble.

Jacob rubbed his scrabbled chin slowly, waiting a few moments for the others to vent their disappointments, before holding up a finger to silence them. “Alright, I know you are all as frustrated as I am, but I’d like to talk about our options.”

Ceann rose to the challenge. “The way I see it, we can make a guess and try a direction: the traffic on the road will likely lessen away from the crossroads and we may pick up the trail again. Or we can split up and try a similar technique down two or even all three of the other directions, though it would be strange if the barbs headed west. But I would not bet my life on it, either. The capitol city of Sarronen is eastward, but there are smaller towns both north and west.”

“We may not have to guess,” Jacob remarked. “There’s a good chance three men on horses were seen coming through. If we spread a few bribes around, maybe we can make friends with someone who can help us.”

Thaddeus nodded. “Even a village this size is likely to support a tavern, though not likely a real inn. It wouldn’t be a bad plan to drop by and see if anyone has come through. It shouldn’t take too long compared to the time we might save.”

Brother Francis added, “There is risk with any choice, but asking around sounds as promising as the other options. It might be difficult to explain exactly what we are looking for.”

Jacob shrugged. “We stick to the truth. We’re looking for a personal item that belonged to my father: a shield that has been in the family for generations and holds some sentimental value because of its age. Three men broke into our home and stole it, and we’re looking for information on any three such who might have ridden together through here sometime earlier today.”

Athena added, “We’ll need to use some charm. Not everyone out here likes us very much. We may do better as travelers than hunters, though.”

Jacob frowned. “What are you saying?”

She winked, “As winning as you are, maybe a lady or monk alone could get a better response from a room full of men. We’re less threatening, you see.”

Jacob responded waspishly, “Sounds good, but where are we going to find a lady? Oh, and I almost forgot: how’s your Kharshe? All the clans nearby speak some dialect of it, but few speak Mirakan.”

“Ha,” Athena returned. “I’m up on my swear words. In fact, come over here and I’ll teach you a few. For the rest, it’s not something I get much chance to practice. Anyone else?”

Thaddeus shrugged, “I’ve been through Sarronen territory a few times. I’m not great with languages, but I can follow ad make myself understood.”

Ceann nodded. “I don’t usually make is this far, but I know some of the clan dialects around Ironwood. Sarronen will be similar.”

Daniel chimed in, “I’m very rusty, but my Dad made sure I picked up the basics.”

Brother Francis added quietly, “I speak Sarronen well enough.”

Jacob patted his horse’s head absently. “In that case, why don’t you, Athena, and Daniel follow up in the tavern? While you’re off drinking, I’ll see if I can get some shopping done, and take Ceann and Thaddeus with me.”

Athena looked at him quizzically, “And what exactly will you be shopping for?”

“Something pretty,” Jacob replied sarcastically. “Maybe some new shoes,” he added.

Ceann rolled his eyes. “I still prefer to send trackers north and east. But if we’re going to do this, we’d best get it done.”

While Jacob and Ceann headed up the street with the horses, Athena, Daniel, and Brother Francis approached the local tavern. It was only late afternoon, but over a dozen men and women chatted amiably in the spacious common room of the Dancing Bear. That was a good sign. The Travanian entered and took a quick look around.

The “Bear” was a common man’s escape, rough around the edges, but not unpleasant. Its walls were a well-packed wattle and daub, and the bright sun through the open shutters made the rest of the room seem dim and cool. A long bench ran along three of the four walls but there were also smaller benches seated next to the six rough tables, so folk could look one another in the eye easily as they sat. Despite the light breeze, a faint acrid smell hung over the place, and the grasses laid on the hard-packed dirt floor were beginning to brown. At the front of the room stood a dark-haired man with a face that seemed reddened even in the shadows. He surveyed the newcomers with a wary eye.

Brother Frances approached, and greeted the barkeep in the local dialect, making the guttural accents of the language into a rough song. “Well met, my good man. Is this a place where I could find a good mug of ale? The road has been long.”

The red-faced man looked up. Curiosity was written into his features, and a little suspicion, but his tone was polite. “My name is Harald, and this is my place. Ales, we have. Do you offer coins, or are you planning to work for your supper, monk?”

Francis shook his head with honest regret, and reached for his pouch. “You may call me Brother Francis. I would gladly trade honest work, but I lack the time, and must offer only coin.”

Harald’s lips pulled up around his crooked teeth as he wiped down a ceramic mug. “Coin is best. But what new thing is this, a monk short on time?”

“I am committed. Some folk need my help, you see.” He began to make a story of it, explaining how a lad and his friends had recently lost an item of some personal importance, and then asked for his help. They were unused to the road, and the theft had disturbed the lad, threatening his inheritance and maybe even his marriage. How could a man who loved both God and the open road turn down a chance to help such innocents? Might anyone have any news that could help?

Daniel listened appreciatively as Brother Francis began to charm the local. Daniel could follow the language better than he could speak it, but even listening took concentration. He raised his hand and silently dropped a coin on the bar, motioning for ale so as not to disturb the monk’s speech. The barkeep responded absently, engrossed in Brother Francis’s exposition.

The inside of the tavern was not fancy, but showed better care than the outside had promised. With the traffic in the square outside, this place probably brought in quite a bit of coin from travelers. So many travelers could hardly impose on individual hospitality, though the Kharshe esteemed hospitality almost as much as Lazerrians. However, from the look of the place, it attracted some local custom too. That was interesting, because taverns in the West were a diversion for the relatively well-to-do. Social drinking was an important tradition for most of the clans, but even sitting in a barbarian tavern, Daniel had trouble with the idea of one. Yet here he was, watching locals put back ales and share company. There were no dice games, no cards, no expensive fare. The people here looked like working folk enjoying an hour out of the sun.

Daniel glanced over to see how Athena was doing, and found her in conversation with four large men wearing rough smiles. She might not speak the language well, but did know how to make an impression. A hand reached out to grab Athena’s bottom even as Daniel watched. She blocked the man’s arm with a stinging slap. It was delivered with barely a glance down, and her challenging smile never slipped. She continued gesturing, showing three fingers, maybe for the three men they were chasing? By her knowing smile, she enjoyed the attention, if not how it was expressed. She was intent on her task, though.

In the corner of the room, three men were sitting, but they neither looked threatening, nor were dressed for travel. If those relaxed farmers with dirty, calloused hands and sun-burned faces were the culprits they sought, Daniel would eat his hat. In a table near to that one were two girls chatting, well-dressed for the area. They were pretty: near his own age, with startling blue eyes, and the set of eye-catching curves and slightly plump pale softness that made up the special beauty of women. They wore modest dresses of different shades of blue, and straw hats with bright bows. One, chewing on her golden-blonde hair, gave him a slow, smoldering smile that near took his breath. Then she returned to laughing with her friend, or perhaps her sister, and Daniel was left wondering if he had imagined it. He carefully refrained from staring.

Instead, he wrenched his eyes back to Brother Francis, who had finished his story and was indulging in the sympathy of his listeners. Unfortunately, most of the men seemed to have come in only recently for their afternoon break. They were soon to return to shop or field, and had not been free to watch outsiders travel. If they had, how would they recognize these vile thieves from a set of brothers passing through the market? This was a crossroads village: travelers were too frequent to bother counting.

Daniel nursed the last of his ale, waiting for Brother Francis to take his leave. If anyone was willing and able to help, they would have done so by now. Just then, he heard a loud thump. By pure reflex, he jumped to his feet and spun to face the sound. Athena stood looking down at a broad young man laying the floor. The poor lout and his companions stated at her, stunned. She wore a grimace that carried both frustration and embarrassment as she moved briskly towards the exit. “I hate it when I miscalculate,” she murmured. She added, more loudly, “It’s been fun, but I must take my leave.”

Daniel nervously dropped a couple coins on the bar, and made a bow of apology to the three men helping their friend to his feet. Strangely, they responded with amused grins. He heard a sweet, high-pitched laughter as he dragged an exasperated monk to the door. As he glanced over his shoulder to find the source, his gaze was met by a pair of gleeful blue eyes set over mirthful pink lips. Luck was not with him today.

Jacob carefully took in the broad streets, and the rows of shops and cottages. By Margon standards, the buildings were roughly constructed. There were cracks in the daub in many of the walls, and little in the way of paint. Most of the roofs were made of sod placed on racks of pine: bright emerald grass waved lightly in the wind from them, matching the hills behind. Shutters were thrown open to let in the warm spring air. The smells of meat and pies mixed with the faded scents of animals and dung. The village was small enough that little refuse filled the streets, but there were sheep, goats, and chickens in plenty.

Stands and wagons in the street held small quantities of Spring produce: cherries, asparagus, and apples, carrots, lettuce, leaks, turnips, and onions. There must be enough merchants and travelers passing through to make such stands worth their while, as farmers often preferred to barter with their neighbors. Jacob approached one of the stands and began to speak, carefully, in the guttural language of the locals, while Ceann crossed his arms and listened impatiently. Jacob hope to spur conversation, but it was a good opportunity to supplement his supplies. He could have relied on Ceann for this, but he needed the practice. He asked about carrots, leeks, and such, things that lent themselves to stews.

“Jacob,” Thaddeus interrupted, “could you throw in some cherries?”

Jacob assented, and a pouch full of cherries joined the rest. The conversation continued for a few more moments before he handed over a few coins and started to walk again. “Cheap bastard. I paid extra for information, and all he could tell me was that sure, some travelers passed by today, some going north and some east. Maybe westward too, maybe not: he wasn’t here all day. I fear this afternoon may cost us. Ah, look: there’s a gentleman outside of his door there: I suddenly feel the need for some dry goods.”

Thaddeus looked longingly back at the tavern Brother Francis and the others had entered. “That’s not all that’s dry.”

Ceann gave the older man a hard look. Vegetables were an indulgence he could afford, but pining for drink betrayed a lack of discipline.

Jacob responded absently, “You have water. Come on, let’s be about it.”

“Water! Don’t tell me you’re lost to civilization after less than a week in the wild,” the older man groused.

Jacob shook his head. “Not just yet, Thaddeus.”

A tall, fit, blonde-haired man stood beside a large wagon, watching them as they approached, enjoying both breeze. Something about the local caught his eye. The wagon itself was perhaps more lovingly built than its neighbors, or the carpentry better. Or perhaps it was the friendly confidence he read in the man’s body language, even among outsiders.

Jacob called out in Kharshe, “Hail!”

The shopkeeper gave his clothing a meaningful look and replied gently in his own Mirakan, “Hello, my friends. How can I serve?”

Jacob’s lips twitched, and he acknowledged the man with a grin. “It is always a pleasure to converse in one’s own language,” he replied diplomatically. “Thank you. My colleagues and I have been on the road for some time, and we could use some travel goods. A couple good blankets, a rope, and some flour perhaps? Are these things we might find here?”

Ceann gave Jacob a look, but said nothing. If Jacob wanted to throw away money as well as time, he would hear about it later. But you never argued during a deal, so later would have to do.

The clansman’s reply came with a heavy accent. “Yes, I have. And gladly I will sell what you ask. But this is why you come so far, for rope?”

Jacob shrugged. “We have been traveling, and such gear would be useful. If you have these things, I will happily pay a reasonable price. But if you ask why we are on the road, someone has stolen a possession from my father, one that his been in the family for some time. Might you have seen three armed Clansmen traveling through here this morning from the southern road, each with one horse, and light saddlebags? There would be a round shield most likely fastened to one of the horses.”

“Could be. Could be answering question like that has consequences. Who is your father, that I should help him? A wise man chooses friends with care.”

“He is Lord Sterik Ironwood.”

“Hmm. A great trader, this Ironwood. We have more than rope and flour here. We have jewelry and good weavings too. Maybe you and your friends will join me for dinner? We can talk more then, and maybe find some deal.”

“It would be my pleasure, though if I find trace of the thieves in the next hour, that must take priority. Before you offer, there are three more of us in town. Do you wish us all to join you?”

“Yes, I saw you arrive. You will all be welcome to my house tonight. It is already late in the day, so you will lose little. My wife will be pleased to show her skill at the table. Come back when darkness falls, and I think you will not regret it! Then we will talk business.”

“It will be an honor and a pleasure, my friend. You may call me Jacob.”

“This pleasure is mine. Call me Thane.”

It was at least fifteen minutes before Jacob moved on. The three who had recently escaped the Dancing Bear joined him to complete his shopping, though he bought little else. Athena reluctantly explained that she might have managed to make herself unwelcome in the local tavern. Brother Francis looked uncharacteristically put out: the experience had been a first for him. On the positive side, Jacob and Ceann managed to refill their bags. They could travel for almost another week without having to shoot for their dinner. Unfortunately, though they had spoken to a dozen other farmers and shopkeepers, Jacob found no solid leads for their pursuit.

With hours gone and no solid leads, Jacob and Ceann reviewed their options, which fell to guessing, splitting up, or taking this Thane fellow up on his offer of hospitality, in the hope that he actually did know something useful. Thaddeus helpfully suggested retiring to the tavern until this fellow was ready to welcome them. After all, he had not screwed up and managed to offend the populace within minutes of his arrival. Athena pointedly reminded him that was only because his ass was too bony and unlovely to merit attention. Thaddeus replied that he could live with that.

Ceann shook his head, irritated. “Jacob, every time before you wanted to gamble and trust your trackers. We’ve spent the last three days trying to make up only a couple hours. It’s late in the day, but we’ll still lose hours. Why are you so willing to throw away the time now?”

Jacob sighed. “Because it will be half a day on the road before we see tracks, if that. The roads are too well-traveled to pick out the men we pursue. If I were to guess which way to go, I’d say east. But if I’m wrong, we probably never see those tracks again. The risk is too high, unless you want to split the party in half and hope we can defeat them on even terms.”

Ceann folded his arms. He didn’t like the options at all. He imagined to himself explaining to Lord Sterik that he had led the entire party down the east road and found nothing. It wasn’t a pretty picture. If they split, he and Jacob would have to be in different groups, and each would need a tracker. So it would be Jacob, Daniel, and the monk on one road, and Athena, Thaddeus, and himself on the other. He realized he didn’t want to bet his life or Athena’s against three assassins any more than he wanted Jacob to bring the shield home without him. That left Jacob’s idea, unfortunately. But he couldn’t fully get behind that, either, in case it didn’t work out. “I don’t like it. Do you trust this Thane?”

Jacob’s lips pursed. “He knows something. Whether he’s with us or against us, we’ll learn something, and that’s better than our other options.”

Thaddeus nodded in agreement. “He won’t attack us if he’s offered hospitality. He’ll help, but he wants something in return.”

“It’s the best option we have,” Jacob decided. “If you’ve got a better idea, share. In the meantime, do what you like. After a week on the road ending coming to this, I’m ready to sit under a tree just outside of the village and watch some grass grow. But we need to be back at that fellow Thane’s place by sundown, which is only a couple hours away.”

In the end, Thaddeus had indeed gone to the tavern and taken Ceann with him, with the justification that there might be more to learn there. Jacob had been good for maybe an hour of rest before he was back to working on his sword technique again, with Brother Francis instructing and Daniel and Athena joining in. Brother Francis even went a few rounds, with predictable results. The monk’s skill was unreal, though Jacob felt he was making good progress. By the the time sundown approached, Jacob had worked most of the worry from his mind, at least for now.

Thane’s house was a broad brick structure with a thatched roof, just under a mile away from the center of the village. Beside the house, there was building serving as barn and stable, as well as an outbuilding. The house itself looked to be a comfortable one, perfectly suited for guests. From the front entrance, a hall lead straight back to the pantry and buttery. There was a storeroom to the left where hired hands ate and slept, and a large room on the right with a great hearth; this was where the guests would eat tonight. Behind it was a sitting room and office. There was in the back at the end of the main hall a stair to the second floor and the upper bedrooms.

The main room included a hearth, and a long rectangular dining table of well-polished oak. The ceiling was higher here, open to the second story. It was lit by firelight from the hearth, and by several wax candles. The floors were finely smoothed earth, with long local grasses freshly strewn upon it. It was a comforting setting on the cool spring night, especially after a week of sleeping on the ground.

Benches sat on either side of the dining table, and there was a chair at its head. The room was tastefully furnished, with small side tables and shelves to hold wine, spices, and decorative vases. The sight and scent of freshly cut flowers mixed well with the meal, and with the aroma from the food on the fire. Jacob was pleased to see some smaller wooden pieces on the shelves were of Ironwood make. Excepting the hangings on the wall, the furnishings were stylish, but not extravagant: the sum was more impressive than the parts.

The long woven tapestries on the wall, on the other hand, were of Clan make, but truly exquisite. The Kharshe of centuries ago had preferred large and colorfully decorated tents, but in recent generations most clansmen had adopted wattle-and-daub wood-framed houses with woven wall-coverings. The hangings had grown more sophisticated over the decades: these were breathtaking, and Jacob imagined they would fit well in any Margon hall.

Thane ushered the group in, and bid them sit and eat. Thane himself sat in a chair at the head of the dining table. Jacob he place on the bench at his right, and his wife Hannah on his left. Ceann sat beside Hannah, Thaddeus beside Jacob, and so forth. Thane’s two lovely teenage daughters were near the end by Daniel. His two young sons were next to Athena; they were already staring at her in awe.

Hannah made good on her husband’s earlier boast: her cooking was amazing. The meal itself was hearty, with well-spiced lamb, potatoes, onions, carrots, and turnips, as well as freshly baked bread and a tangy home-brewed stout that accented it perfectly. Some of the Ironwood folk struggled with Hannah’s pickled beets, but otherwise the food was fantastic. Thane had even brought out a bottle of wine in addition to the usual ale. Jacob was impressed. This was the home of a well-to-do individual prepared to entertain in style, even if it was a little crowded for six guests.

“The food is wonderful”, Jacob remarked. “The lamb especially is magnificent. If I could not be upon my errand, this is the most pleasant diversion I could ask for.”

Thane smiled in acknowledgment. “No business until after dinner. I am sorry to take part in delay, but will try to make it worth your while. And the beets? They are good, no?”

Jacob did not normally consider himself a picky eater, but he could only tolerate the pickled beets in very small portions. He had crushed them into small pieces, mixing them into the other foods in the hopes in the hopes of making them edible. He thought he caught Daniel doing the same, though Thane and his children ate the stuff up like honeyed apples. Confronted directly, Jacob somehow managed to force down a large spoonful of beet-tainted carrots with a smile on his face. “They are quite good, but much different from what I am used to in Ironwood.”

Thane, nodded, then belying his earlier statement, added, “They keep weeks, also. If you would like a jar to take with you, I am sure you could talk Hannah into it. I am sure they would like, at Ironwood.”

At this point, Hannah rolled her eyes and elbowed her husband’s ribs gently. “This one is always business, whatever he says. Judging by that one’s reactions”, she gestured towards Daniel’s failed efforts to suppress his blanching, “my beets will do better here. My daughter Anginette prepared them, so she may not forgive you, but I will survive the offense.”

Daniel turned to the blond seated at his right, his eyes widening as he recognized her as the girl from the table at the Dancing Bear. She was young, maybe a year younger than he was, and very pretty. She wore a light blue dress, and her pink lips were curled in a smile. Something in her appearance touched him. Maybe it was her eyes, a confident pale blue filled with joy and amusement, and unless he was mistaken, a warmth just for him. He stiffened as she leaned up against him on the bench murmured I his ear, “Now you must make it up to me. Maybe you have some ideas.”

Hannah, noting his daughter’s smile but missing the words, laughed. “See, nothing to worry about, young man. We do not bite.”

Jacob smiled, “No, you have been most generous hosts, and we nothing but outsiders.”

Thane’s lips quirked in return. “You have seen the color of my hair, and that of my wife and children. We are not of the purest Kharshe blood. In Sarronnen, that is not so rare. I take what is good from all my ancestors and share it. Sometimes it is hard on the children, for Kharshe pride is high now, but not all that is good is easy.”

Jacob smiled gratefully. “I am always pleased to encounter open minds. But this is hard on you?”

The blond man shrugged. “At times. Anginette’s friends, they are marrying, but she is not courting now, though she has much to offer. Men of mixed blood are accepted in Sarronen, but not among better families. I work too hard to see my daughters lack. So I think, if I can make allies elsewhere, maybe they will have more options.”

Jacob nodded slowly. “You think friends in Ironwood, and money from Ironwood, might help. It is a gamble, though. You might only find yourself further from your neighbors.”

Thane’s grin was wide. “All of life is a gamble, my friend! But respect follows success. We are prosperous enough to earn courtesy. I think with your help we will do better.”

Hannah sighed mockingly. “If you are done with dinner, you can take your business across the room.” She gestured to a corner bench across the room. “Off with you!”

Thane laughed loudly, but obediently grabbed his mug and moved to the corner. Jacob, Thaddeus, and Ceann did likewise, leaving the others with more room to chat at the table.

Jacob, switching to Kharshe, asked the blonde man, “So, my friend, what I can help you with?”

The blond man and Ceann both shook their heads, but Thane with good humor answered in Kharshe. “If you need the practice of speaking in a better tongue, I will oblige. But I am not looking for charity; indeed, in a year you will come to thank me! Look at these marvelous tapestries around you. Can you believe they are made by my own wife and daughters? The better ones are by Yenna and by Anginette! Their like are selling in Margon and Travan, but only a few pieces here and there. But that is because the best of Sarronen will only sell a few, and they are too proud. They weave images of battles won by Kharshe warlords. But my daughters make beautiful art of their own, original pieces. They work quickly, and they never disappoint. There is much money to be made, but we need the right contacts to sell.

In fact, what I really need is a strong partner, and a trustworthy one. I was thinking, if you are man enough to make a change, you could be that partner. You have probably found that no one will answer a foreigner’s questions. As a partner, naturally I would help you find what you are seeking.”

Ceann responded thoughtfully, “I have bought Kharshe weavings before, some as good as this. As you say, few sons of Kharshe will sell images a Margonian would buy, and only in small numbers. Worse, no Sarronen wants to hold much Margon coin. They want tools, weapons, good iron, and sometimes western fruit. Many of those things are costly to transport this far, and selling weapons to Sarronen will not make us friends in Margon.”

Thaddeus nodded reluctantly, “Coin exchange has been a problem in the past, which is why Ironwood merchants seldom come this way.”

Thane frowned. “True, Margon coin is best dealt with in small quantities. Do you say Ironwood has nothing we want?”

Seeing Ceann about to continue on the issue, Jacob smoothly cut in, still in Kharshe, “Not at all. Most in Sarronen want an easy deal, to sell what they would buy for themselves. But you are an ambitious man, and see further. For example, you have a truly excellent chair. Did you make it yourself?”

Thane’s acceptance touched his eyes, and he nodded.

Jacob continued, “Could you make a better one with cured ironwood and iron nails? How many would buy a chair inset with leather and pearls? Or pure gold or silver wire? Exotic materials you could craft to Sarronen tastes. Your flax is exquisite, but imagine weaving it with a Maragon loom. I see you have a few small carved items of ironwood: others may value them, also. You might also sell Ironwood hinges. Let me go to my horse: I have a few things to show you.”

Ceann looked thoughtful, but Thane’s eyes were aglow. “Yes, I see you are a man of ideas. Some are good, and some need work, but we can do the work. Please go, I will get some things from the storeroom.”

On his way out, Jacob noted Thane’s older daughter hanging rapt on Daniel’s every word, her face close to his and eyes aglow. There: now she was squeezing his arm and leaning on his shoulder. Jacob wasn’t sure where her other hand was, but it was not visible. Demonfire! Hannah seemed distracted for the moment by whatever tale Athena was telling, but she couldn’t be happy about Daniel leading her daughter on. Things were going well with Thane so far, but the man still hadn’t shared anything useful. At any offense, Thane might well tip off the assassins instead of helping Jacob. Daniel’s trying to get his daughter in bed (or appearing to) would definitely qualify as an offense. Jacob put a warning hand on Daniel’s shoulder as he walked by and mouthed the word “careful”, but all Daniel did was return a nervous look, and Anginette didn’t move. So he caught Ceann’s eyes briefly and gestured with his head towards Daniel. He returned a slight nod. Hopefully he could handle the situation.

Ceann stood watching Jacob and Thane wander off in different directions, and shook his head. It was all very well for Jacob to lead Thane on, but what would happen when he found out Jacob had nothing to offer? Ceann had taken his wagon this far more than once, and never got a commitment in advance: Saronnens traded for what he had on hand and then tried to forget about it. Jacob had very little on hand.

Meanwhile, Daniel seemed about to ruin the whole show. That girl was hanging far too much on whatever anecdote he was sharing, and it was obvious that whatever Jacob had said to him was accomplishing absolutely nothing. It didn’t speak well for the lordling’s leadership, but at least he had the sense to ask for help.

Ceann would have to fix this himself. He took a few steps over to the budding couple, and spoke, in what he hoped was a reasonable tone of voice, “Daniel, I hope you’re not showing off too much.”

Anginette laughed, but Daniel just replied nervously, “Not my style, sir.”

“Good, we’re the guests here, and we should respect our hosts, if you catch my meaning.”

Daniel and Anginette both looked confused for some reason. The lady of the house also turned away from Athena towards him, her face unreadable. Ceann was about to elaborate on proper etiquette when Brother Francis interjected, “My good lady Hannah, I happened to bring with me a flute. Would you be pleased to hear a song?”

The lady responded warmly, “That sounds wonderful. Yenna, will you fetch your lute and accompany him? I am sure there is some ballad you both know.”

After a few moments of commiseration, the duo launched into a popular song with a catchy tune. Daniel, recognizing the melody, immediately joined in to sing the words. The young bowman had a lovely voice, and soon the trio had completed beautifully, and launched into another. Anginette’s eyes widened, and Ceann saw that Daniel was singing to an audience of one. Hannah’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed thoughtfully. Oh, excellent, Ceann thought. Athena met his eyes, and for some reason, she seemed highly amused.

“Anginette,” Athena spoke. “Would you mind coming with me for a moment? There’s something I’d like to show you.”

* * *

Jacob was grinning widely, and he had switched back to the Mirakan language. “Yes, I think the main two goods of exchange will be your dyed flax, and Margon copper wire. Those can be bought and sold in quantity, and are unlikely to fluctuate much in value. We can denominate other goods in terms of those.”

“Yes, of course,“ Thane answered in his own language. “It would be easier if we could set up a warehouse to stock up on these staples, but that is quite an investment. For now, we will have to start a little smaller, but I could handle a couple barrels of each. Where and when should we meet?”

“In the fall,” Ceann replied. “The caravan should be on the Great Road near here within a few days of the solstice. I should be able to convince Lord Ironwood to add to the caravan.”

“So we bring a couple barrels each of wire and iron?” Jacob asked. “Then a few boxes each nails, tools, copper wire, wood stain, and a small chest of pearls. We’ll fill out the rest of the bulk with ironwood: planks and staves. We can plan on returning with a similar weight of flax, wool, woven goods, and maybe some local spirits. The return goods will be a bit bulkier, but not any harder on the horses.”

“Yes,” Ceann mused, almost. “Actually, I think that would work well, if we attach to the caravan.”

Thaddeus nodded. “I often do the fall run. I should be able to accompany the wagon, and handle the trades, unless Ceann prefers to. I could live out of the wagon, but I would be in the area for two weeks.”

Thane stroked his beard. “That would do. Yes, that would do nicely.”

Jacob nodded. “I think that’s everything. Oh, except one more thing to seal the deal.”

Thane met Jacob’s eyes, waiting.

“Are we friends or no?” Jacob asked quietly. “Because friends would tell us what he saw today concerning a certain shield.”

Thane sighed lightly. “I had hoped it would come to this moment, but feared it also. Sarronen is split among multiple factions, each following a different God. Some, especially the Water Goddess, want increased trade and friendship with our neighbors. The fire God, Shakath, is less trusting. The three men who passed through did not wear a God’s colors, but they were dressed in the clothing of the capitol. One way or another, you will find them in the city of Sarronen. I do not know why they would steal this thing, and I hope it does not mean a fight is brewing. I housed you in the hope of improving business: If anyone asks, I did not tell you this thing. Any good man must plan for peace, but I still fear trouble. I need your discretion in this. Am I clear?”

Jacob nodded slowly. “Crystal. I am glad to find such a good man and friend in the Crossroads. We will not betray your trust.”

“Then let us trade a few samples. I have two tapestries you can take, along with a few yards of dyed flax and some of our jarred beets. Will you show me again some of that wire, and a few of those pearls?”

Jacob nodded to the others. “Actually, I trust Ceann and Thaddeus to handle the amounts. I am overgenerous by nature. But do you mind if step away a moment to take a little more of your truly excellent brew? When was that laid down? It’s almost too good for last harvest.”

Thane laughed and clapped him on the back. “Of course, my friend. It is a wheat and apple ale from last fall. If you like it, I can offer a wineskin for the road. But if you want a barrel for next year, you will have to let me know before your caravan arrives. Ceann, Thaddeus, you look thirsty too. Would you join us?”

Thaddeus’s eyes twinkled at the request, and he agreed with relish.

Ceann also nodded politely. He was unsure if it was wise or lazy of Jacob to delegate the horse-trading to him, but he had acquitted himself better than expected. The red-haired man looked over to where Hannah and her children were laughing as Athena and Brother Francis spun stories. Anginette still sat next to Daniel, but not too close: her mother’s tension was gone. Things had somehow worked out tonight, on all fronts. Had Daniel taken his warnings to heart? Had Thane simply been a more reasonable trader than those Ceann had encountered before? Ceann had spent years looking for a break like this. What had Jacob done that he hadn’t? Or was it simply luck? Either way, Jacob bore watching.

Jacob regarded the truly excellent ale as he returned, walking again by the other table. He touched Athena’s shoulder to gather her attention. The young boys had just gone to bed, and so she had been quietly sitting with Thaddeus and Daniel. Hannah and her girls were busy extinguishing the fire, and burying the coals. Athena turned and flashed Jacob a smile with four flasks of ale behind it, “Hey, Jacob. Done with business?”

Jacob return his own tired grin. “Almost. Things are going well, but it’s been a long day. How are things with Anginette and Daniel? They looked pretty friendly.”

She patted his hand in return and replied, “I’ve got it under control. So business is all worked out, then?”

“Almost,” he replied. “We ride to Sarronen in the morning. Then it gets interesting, unfortunately. For now, I have to get back. Ceann and Thaddeus are handling the details, but I’m learning a lot.”

Meanwhile, Hannah and her girls began to clean up some dishes, and Daniel took the opportunity to approach Athena alone and speak to her, “You saw… with Anginette. Athena, what do I do? She was acting so forward, and then she stopped. But she still likes me, right? I mean, I was a little put aback at first; I was kind of scared of what she might do when she started like that. But still, she’s pretty amazing too, once she got to really talking. What did you say to her?”

“Oh,” she chuckled, “I told her not to be so obvious, that her mother was on to her, and Ironwood men appreciate a little more subtlety. So, have another drink and practice your Kharshe.”

“She’s just — she’s not like anyone I know,” Daniel finished lamely.

“Just talk to her. Don’t be the King of Hearts: be yourself. I can tell the way she looks at you when you turn away: she’s plenty into you. Almost too much, actually: she’s just being more careful about showing it. No, don’t push her away: she’s not likely to take that well! That’s a girl who know what she wants, so we’ll just have to let things work themselves out. We’ll talk about the rest later. She’s coming back.”

* * *

After subjecting himself to a few more drinks and several bad jokes, Jacob finally took his leave and retired to the barn, a surprisingly spacious accommodation. The breeze was warm tonight, and the animals had been left outside in the pen in favor of the guests. All in all, the evening had gone as well as he could have hoped. Now Jacob had a destination to plan for.

Thoughts of tomorrow filled Jacob with some trepidation. If their host had been correct, by tomorrow night Jacob would be in the same city as the men that had stolen Ironwood’s holy relic, killed one of its guardians, and if the more superstitious were correct, ended centuries of divine protection. He could not help but resent the time lost in the chase, but he was in no way ready to lead the group barreling out into the night. Still, he couldn’t sleep just yet.

What culprit would he find in the city of Sarronen? A greedy noble? A religious zealot? Or was the theft of the Shield of St. Thomas political in nature; could it it have been sponsored by their king? The thought chilled him; the thought of an entire nation growing hostile to Ironwood seemed far less theoretical than before. It was late, but he needed to talk.

He saw Thaddeus and Ceann still preparing their beds, and pulled them aside. “I know it’s late, but I’ve had some thoughts I need to share before the morning. Will you come with me?”

Ceann inspected his face in the moon’s shadows, then grunted softly. “One moment.”

Thaddeus dropped his pack by a by a bale of hay, then followed Jacob out of the barn, with Ceann following. “What troubles you?”

Jacob shook his head, then met the older man’s eyes. “What we’re walking in to. I’ve always wondered who could send three professional assassins our way. This is not Chalta or Balina where such men can be bought. Who among the Clans short of a king or a powerful noblemen could send such men to Ironwood? What if it is the King of Sarronen?”

Thaddeus just shook his head. “I just don’t know, Jacob. It could be. I guess I just don’t want to believe it. That’s serious business.”

Jacob turned to his adviser. “Ceann, please: tell me I’m wrong here.”

The broad-shouldered redhead met his eyes in the moonlight. “I can’t. You know I’ve been critical of some of your ideas, but this one? The Sarronens have excellent hunters. Some might even have a really cold-blooded temperament and access to noseburn. But lone hunters wouldn’t benefit enough to make the mission worth it. Even if they wanted to sell the Shield, who would trust them enough to buy it? If the theft is political, though, that’s not hard to believe. It might be wrong, but it’s far from crazy.”

Jacob straightened his shoulders. “Then we can’t just walk in there without letting Ironwood know what we’ve discovered, even if we have no proof the Shield is there. Despite asking us to return sooner, my father would wait a month from now before taking any action at all, and then he would just send more men.”

Ceann raised an eyebrow. “You just want to turn around and go home?”

Thaddeus put his hand on Ceann’s shoulder. “No, I think he’s suggesting I should.”

The broader man frowned. “Is that true, Jacob?”

Jacob assented. “Well, I can’t send you, Ceann: you’re the adviser my father gave me. Daniel’s a witness, and we might need a tracker yet. Athena might work if we didn’t want a second tracker, but aside from concerns about sending a woman dozens of leagues alone, I think my father would sooner believe Thaddeus. The monk is not under my authority, and you know there’s no way I can turn back.”

Ceann looked at him a long moment, and nodded grudgingly. “I can see that. Well, so be it.”

Thaddeus added, “I really wanted to see this through, and I think I would be helpful to you in the city. But I’ll do what I must. I’ve tried to be a mentor for you, Jacob, ever since you wandered off and almost got yourself killed on your first caravan. But you’ve grown up a lot since then, and I’m sure you’ll do fine without me. In the morning, I’ll head south. Good luck, Jacob.”

“And to us all,” Jacob replied.

Daniel breathed in deeply, and leaned back against the wall of the barn before entering. His heart and nerves had been bobbing around all night like a cork at sea. He fixed his eyes on a milky white field of stars, and let the chirp of crickets soothe his mind into the night’s pace. Before long, he finally began to feel himself again. It was unlike him to be so rattled by a pair of eyes, but he was in a strange place with strange new rules. Of course, he had been allowed so few opportunities to be alone with a girl. Quiet and hardworking, he spent most of his time trying to live up to the reputation of his father, Ironwood’s Master-at-Arms, and failing. His father’s skill was legendary, while Daniel felt like he could barely hold his own in the yard, and had no head for command, even given the opportunity. He was far more at home alone in the wilderness following a trail, one of the few things he did with any distinction. Neither Jacob nor his father seemed to realize it, but Jacob seemed to have talent to spare, and out on the road, he seemed to be growing into it quickly. Daniel, on the other hand, felt utterly ordinary at best.

Daniel was startled from his thoughts by Athena’s whispered voice in his ear, “Hey, lover boy.”

He jumped and spun to face her, heart racing. “Oh, it’s you. I thought you preferred it when men knew you were coming. Though most probably thank you for it.”

Athena clapped him on the back, stifling a bark of laughter. “And for good reason, flatterer. No wonder she likes you! Still, don’t believe everything you hear. So, what are you going to do when Anginette shows up tonight?”

Daniel froze. “I’m sorry, what?”

“I saw the way she bid you good night, and it sure didn’t look like ‘goodbye’ to me. So the question, lover boy, is what are you going to do when she walks in here looking for you?”

Daniel ran his hand through his hair nervously. “Umm, ask her to leave because she’s not supposed to be here? Or wait, is that wrong?”

“Well, you could reject her out of hand like that and hope she forgives you. Most likely she’d just run back to her room crying, wiser and brokenhearted. Or she might say something to her father you wouldn’t like. Hard to be sure.”

Daniel looked horrified. “So I just pretend all of this is normal?”

Athena shook her head at the poor little duckling. “Just talk to her. Definitely don’t sleep with her. Make sure she gets back to bed before the sky starts to lighten. Don’t touch her anywhere she doesn’t put your hands. You do like her, right?”

“Yeah! Actually, I think I do, but it’s just - I mean…” He trailed off helplessly.

“It’s a lot like this in certain peasant families in villages near Ironwood, those with some Eastern influence. Sometimes the girls have to find their own men early if they don’t want their parents to pick for them. If you like her, just talk to her. Maybe hold her hand, and don’t let her take you too far out of our sight. Blame Jacob if you have to. As for the rest,” she shrugged. “It’s up to you. It seems likely some of us will be back in the fall. Say the right word, and you can be among them, or not. Myself, I need some sleep. Call me if you need me, but please don’t wake me if you don’t.”

Then she muttered to herself, “But first, Ceann, where are in the Lazarus’s Great White Ghost World are you?” She was starting to get jealous: was a goodnight kiss too much to ask?

Daniel was about ready to curse Athena for the hope, and the fear, that there would be footsteps at the barn’s door. It was very late, and he was tired. Still, there was no way he could sleep now. When the door to the barn slowly opened, it came as a surprise. Anginette, standing before him in her pale nightgown, was smiling hesitantly in the moonlight.

This time she was more nervous than he as she whispered in the dark. “I - I only wanted to see you. I waited until no one could be up, but you are awake. How did you know I would come?”

When he saw her hesitation, Daniel suddenly realized just how very vulnerable she was, how much she must have risked to come here, different culture or no. His heart went out to her as he whispered back. “You said good night, but you didn’t really say goodbye.”

Anginette shivered. “Am I so easy to read?”

“Not for me. Apparently, it took a woman to know.”

“The strong one, Athena? But you are not with her, I can tell. How strange for a woman to accompany men in travel! Or is that the way of your people, to have women who do not have to listen to men?”

Daniel almost laughed out loud at that. “She’s kind of unique in what she gets away with. I have no idea how she does it. But you are a very brave woman, and there are men more interested in appreciating a woman than controlling her.”

Anginette recovered some of her confidence and stepped close to him, almost into his arms. “Are you such a man?”

It was Daniel’s turn to tremble. “Yes. But please God, don’t tempt me: it would break my heart to turn you down.”

Aginette took a step closer and whispered in his ear. “More than your heart, I think.” The she pulled him over to the corner and sat beside him. “But you are right. Brave is one thing, but perhaps I have also been stupid. Still, since we are here, can we - can we just talk?”

Daniel nodded, and swallowed. “Tomorrow comes soon, but we have a few hours left.”

So she sat next to him, cuddled up to him for warmth, and they spent the night engaged in quiet whispers, brazenly holding one another. They spoke of each other’s exotic lands, their lives and hopes, and the dreams they could only tell strangers. They startled at the footsteps of mice, and dreaded the morning. They talked about when he would return to see her again, though neither dared to believe such a thing would actually happen. Eventually she feared she could wait no longer, and she stood up to go. Her single kiss was stolen sweetness itself, and then she was gone.

When Jacob arose with the light, morning felt even earlier than usual. Again, he was up first, and Brother Francis shortly after. This time, however, there was little to pack, and instead of the normal morning cooking routine, he encountered Thane just outside of the stables.

“Good morning to you!” Jacob called out, though he pitched his voice so as not to wake the house. “No rest for the weary, eh?”

Thane nodded soberly. “We are lucky. We have a large plot of land, and good help. Still, it makes for long days, especially when I must play the merchant too. Without my nephews, I could not keep up with it all. With them, we stay ahead. But I came only to ask if you would break your fast with me.”

“It would be my honor,” Jacob assented. “But perhaps you might allow Brother Francis to help with the preparation. We have no camp to break, and he has a very good eye for spices.”

Thane waved them over. “That seems only fair. Show us your magic, then, monk!”

Francis lifted a small bag and grinned wickedly. “Ask and you shall receive, my friends. You do have some of that lamb left over from last night?”

Jacob excused himself only long enough to prod Thaddeus awake, and bid him get the others moving. Then he returned to help.

Hannah and her daughters came down next to help with breakfast, but were pleased to let the men do the cooking for once, though Yenna was recruited into fetching water from the well. Then, the young boys came in and began to play at sword-fighting in the corner. Athena and Thaddeus sneaked in and began to help the boys with their form. Ceann and Daniel entered last, the former having spent the time tidying the barn, and watering the horses. Daniel was red-eyed enough just to be thankful he hadn’t missed breakfast entirely. Anginette, on the other hand, seemed alert but withdrawn. She gave him a smile once when he teased the boys over their performance, but she quickly turned away, and was quiet through the meal.

Breakfast was eaten almost as quickly as it was served, with Thane and Francis standing proudly beside the large pot until everyone had tasted the thick stew and biscuits. The others were free with their compliments, which Thane took as his due.

Finally, after all had eaten, Thane placed his own empty bowl in the sink. “Thank you, Brother. That was truly an excellent meal: I’ve never seen lamb handled quite like that. I hope you don’t mind if Hannah and I borrow your recipe.”

Francis himself demurred, “I pick up a few such things in my travels. Use it with my blessing, and consider it some small repayment towards your own kindness.”

Thane nodded appreciatively, and turned to Jacob. “And you, my friend, for I hope we will remain friends: please forgive me for any delay. No regrets?”

Jacob smiled and clasped the man’s hand. “No regrets, my friend. If our God wills us to recover the shield, it will be done. I will not be so blind to his generosity as to turn away the goodness of folks like yourself. I hope I can return this way myself, but even if not, you have my regards. And I will keep to my word: look this fall for a wagon to arrive from Ironwood.”

Jacob gestured towards Ceann and Thaddeus, who each nodded graciously. He noted, however, that Hannah’s calculating eyes remained on Daniel as she spoke. “You will all be welcome at my table should you return, but do not fear to bring some good Ironwood wine!”

“We will remember it,” Daniel found himself saying. When Hannah nodded, Anginette met his eyes for the first time that morning, with something like relief in them, though her face quickly became guarded again. A stolen night was one thing: another day together might be too much to ask.

“With that,” Jacob sighed, “we must bid you farewell.”

“So you ride for Sarronen?” Thane asked.

“Most of us,” Jacob agreed. “One of us will need to return to Ironwood with news, and make sure our promises here are honored.”

Thane nodded, “That is wise.”

Thaddeus showed his teeth. “I was getting tired of the road, anyway.”

“Then Thaddeus, you can carry the pickled beets,” Thane added sagely.

Thaddeus could not help but laugh. “Of course. You keep the tents, Jacob. I will travel faster without. I guess this is goodbye, then.”

After a few more hugs and handshakes, it was. Thaddeus rode one way, and the five remaining party members rode another.

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