By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

The City

Jacob was becoming used to riding all day, and he had taken to enjoying the exercise and the quiet time to think. His legs were still sore, but that was just the dull ache of a week without a chance to recoup, and he scarcely noticed the discomfort. One difference today was that the shadows were lengthening, and yet Ceann had no intention of calling a stop soon. Athena and Daniel still walked on the wings of the road ahead of the others, looking for tracks separating from the road, but with little expectation of finding them. Traffic was heavy enough to make tracking near-impossible. There really was nothing to do but trust Thane’s word that that Sarronen was the right target. If the heavily pitted road and steadily increasing density of villages was any guide, that target was close.

The travelers were quiet as they watched the shabby structures of nearby villages pass them by. Despite a cooler, drier climate than Ironwood, the population was denser. It was a marked change from the solitary road they walked further west.

Once, everything between Kyr (where Ironwood now stood) and Talyk had been cultivated farmland for the Mirakan Empire. Now Great Road looked out on forest and wild plains. It was remarkable how long the devastation inflicted by a mad warlord’s genocide could last. The Kharshe’s scorched-earth offensive had eventually burned itself out, leaving its people scattered and starving in the land they had won. The remains of the original Kharshe horde had splintered into what now composed the Clan Kingdoms. Over the decades, they also incorporated waves of Eastern nomadic immigrants, each sparking a new wave of conflict. In the present, the members of the Clan Kingdoms remained dangerous warriors, but had become less ruthless neighbors, more concerned with battling nature than the descendants of Miraka.

The Sarronens dated from a splinter of the first terrible Horde, left behind to take the town of Tara. Tara had been well enough defended to make storming the walls very unattractive, and yet too small to delay the main thrust of the invasion. A group of clans under the leadership of a chieftain named Sarron had been left with strict orders to destroy the walls and houses of Tara, and to kill all its inhabitants: man, woman, and child. They had failed to obey.

Sarron besieged Tara for three long months, razing most of the surrounding villages to the ground. Greatly outnumbered, the desperate Tarans executed a daring (and suicidal, for its participants) night raid to poison Sarron’s herds, leaving the Sarronens desperately short of food. The Kharshe were a semi-nomadic folk almost entirely dependent upon their herds, of which only a fraction a survived.

In return, the Sarronens were forced into a frontal assault in order to capture the food-stocks of Tara. At great cost, they managed to destroy the gate and take the city. Unfortunately for them, the Tarans were seed farmers: conquering them did not allow the Sarronens to replace their herds. Neither did they have the expertise to man Tara’s fields or rebuild its economy. They had doomed themselves and Tara both.

Sarron, in an accommodation rare among the early Kharshe, ordered that those who did not resist his occupation be left alive. Unfamiliar with the practice of slavery, he offered the residents a choice: accept adoption into the Clan and teach them their arts of agriculture, or die. Most chose the former. In this way, the walled town of Tara had become the capitol city of the newborn Sarronnen kingdom. Thankfully for the new city of Sarronen, Kharshe himself never got the opportunity to punish Sarron’s disobedience.

Therefore, Sarronen had been the first of the Clans to successfully adopt seed farming on a large scale. While still looked down upon for their barbaric ways and lack of learning among the Margonians and Travanians, their single city had flourished into a sizable kingdom, even if few of their towns had made it onto Margon maps. The capitol city, which the party now approached, was small compared to the cities of the West, but commanded a folk that was not to be underestimated. Trade had been very limited with the West, even after the road to Ironwood had been opened. However, the Sarronens had been, since that time, been relatively friendly towards the citizens of Ironwood.

Jacob shook his head, and turned his thoughts away from ancient history. Instead, he observed that clouds were gathering above after nearly a week’s absence, fluffy white and struck through with the oranges and pinks that hinted of sunset. Rain had been absent for most of the past week, and Jacob hoped that if it fell tonight, it would find him indoors. Still, it was hard to know what kind of welcome he could expect: the traditional hospitality or the slow execution of his worst fears. If the king of Sarronen was behind the theft of the shield of St. Thomas, he might find it convenient to simply get rid of their little party. It seemed unlikely, but Jacob was literally betting his life against it. After all, what else was he going to do, give up and go home?

Of course, Jacob, mused, he’d need a little more of a plan than that. “Brother Francis,” he asked, walking up beside the man, “Any thoughts on how Sarronen might go?”

The older man rubbed his short beard briefly, thinking. “I’m going to assume Thane is right, and the Shield passed this way. It may remain in Sarronen, and if so, we must look high and low. You and perhaps Ceann may have some luck sniffing out in court whether some noble in Sarronen bears ill wishes for Ironwood. If that noble happens to be the king, we probably will hear nothing. Unless he chooses to kill us, of course, which would be an act of war. You wisely sent Thaddeus back against that eventuality.

The other thing we can do is search as we did in the Crossroads village where we found Thane, checking among vendors and common rooms, and so forth, looking for witnesses, learning about local politics.

Who’s the most likely culprit? Will we find what we’re looking for? I don’t know, Jacob. The odds were better on the road, but I have to trust God in this.”

“I wish I could,” Jacob replied.

“Me too,” Athena added, joining the conversation. “He seems capable enough of telling me what to do, at least by proxy. But in my experience, he lacks in the pitching-in department.”

Brother Francis shrugged. “I have heard the complaint.”

“You too?” Jacob shook his head. “But you’ve been so helpful.”

“Don’t mind him,” Athena interjected. “He calls that ‘humor’. He uses the word a little differently than we do.”

“That", Jacob explained, “is because Athena knows I would never hold her lack of sophistication against her.”

The monk eyed the merchant with pity. “Yes, he really is in his own world. You know, they have places in Travan for people with that malady, especially those that become a danger to themselves or others. But he seems harmless enough, so I think we should let him be, for now.”

Jacob snorted. “With friends like these -”

Athena patted his arm and smoothly cut in, “It’s alright. We’re here for you.”

There was no hard line indicating the entrance into the city, at least the outer part of it. Instead, villages slowly blended together into continuous rows of shops, farms, mills, and ragged houses. The inner, older city was another matter. Just ahead stood the towering remains of the original city wall. Near the gates it stood some sixty feet tall, but lowered to less than a third of that height around most of the city. Likely keeping the full height in repair had been more trouble than it was worth. The west gate was a set of great wooden double doors fashioned from intricately carved planks of oak. They sat open, leaving a broad entrance. Several guards stood beside the gate, dressed in livery of leather and furs, each with different colors and devices illustrating the gods, not the men, that they served. Most wore red, though blue and brown were also prominent.

A thick-bearded man in red eyed Jacob cautiously as he approached. He spoke in the Sarronen dialect, “What is your name and business?”

Jacob replied confidently, “Jacob Ironwood, out of Ironwood. I have business in trade, but I also have some questions I would bring to court.”

The guard motioned him by. “I have instructions to send you through. I ask that you present yourself before King Haldor by nightfall. That’s straight ahead all the way to the Great Tent. Just announce yourself to the guard and await your invitation. Stables are available there. We’ll keep an eye out for you. Welcome to Sarronen.”

“Thank you. It is a pleasure to finally visit,” Jacob replied. At the guard’s curt nod, he kicked his horse into motion and headed toward the center of the city.

The party from Ironwood rode into the city’s center courtyard just before dusk. If the city was small by Margon standards, it was massive compared to Ironwood. Though its outskirts were on the shabby side, the city’s heart was magnificent. Many of the stone buildings there dated back to the Mirakan empire, four hundred years old or more. While that was not uncommon west of Pearl Bay, Jacob had seldom seen their like. In Travan, Talyk was rebuilt after Miraka’s fall. Even Pearl Bay, accessible to the east only through a narrow pass in a wall of mountains, had been razed by the Kharshe Horde. Yet within Sarronen’s core, there were high walls of colorful stone, fanciful turrets cut into stout towers, marble statues, and stately mansions. Their beauty was only complemented by the smaller wooden structures in their midst: they were the height of Sarronen craftsmanship. Supposedly there had been a large keep on a hill in the very center, but it had been thoroughly destroyed when the Tara was taken. However, its replacement was unlike anything Jacob had ever seen.

Before him, the broad, straight road ended directly at an enormous tent. It was exotic as it was primitive; Jacob found himself in awe. Over two hundred feet wide and dozens of feet tall, it appeared to be an intricate wooden lattice, with heavily dyed furs and hides stretched across the wood starting a few feet off of the ground. A deliberate anachronism, it might well be less practical than a stone structure of similar size, because of its vulnerability to the elements. Its walls were decorated with woven heraldry and a myriad of symbols he did not recognize. The Great Tent was not the only one of its kind in the city, just by far the largest. It was imitated in smaller scale throughout the richer section of the city. The dyed flagstones of the main road gave way to the red tile covering the huge open square marketplace. In some way he could not explain, it was humbling to find such architectural treasures here.

Not all the sights spread throughout the open-air marketplace in the beautifully tiled town square were as impressive. Jacob had no idea what economic specialty, if any, Tara had boasted under Miraka’s great empire, but Sarronen couldn’t possibly match it. Ironwood had less than half the people of Sarronen proper, and its marketplace was proportionally smaller. Yet it held curios from six cities, and dozens of types of tools, fruits, vegetables, ceramics, and more. Because it was Ironwood, it even held samples of custom hardwood furniture. Sarronen could not compare. However, there were some beautiful fabrics on display, and Jacob gravitated to those.

Ceann snorted. “God above, Jacob. It’s not like we’re actually going to buy or sell anything here. I’ve actually tried, twice. Neither time did I cover the cost of the trip. We’re expected in the Great Tent now: King’s orders. I’ve never personally upset a king before, but I don’t think now is a good time to start.”

Jacob laughed and placed his hand on Ceann’s shoulder, which only seemed to irritate the man. “Have it your way, but we’re coming back after. Did you pick up any Keerath when you were here last? They’re always looking for new spirits in Imbria.”

Ceann groaned internally. “They want an arm and a leg for it: we never could have covered caravan costs. I’ve never heard you to be interested in work at home. Why is it so distracting for you here? We’ve got important things to do.”

Jacob shrugged. “There’s nothing to learn in Ironwood.”

“When you get back, you can teach me all the things I apparently missed, then,” Ceann replied sourly.

“As you wish,” Jacob return blithely. “I’m guessing Athena could teach you more.”

Athena smiled and gave the red-headed guardsman a wink.

Ceann was less amused. “Jacob, whatever’s growing below your nose, sew that Demon-damned thing shut.”

Jacob coughed suspiciously, but then walked purposely in the direction of the large tent and its waiting guards.

The day was fading outside, but it was darker still within the huge tent. There were oil lamps everywhere, creating globes of light, but also multiplying the shadows. While lacking the magnificent stone walls and statues of Pearl Bay’s great council buildings, its inside too held an undeniable grandeur. The tent was divided by constructs of wood, canvas and fur into a dozen partitions. Each formed a new corridor, a twisting walkways, a private meeting room, or a great hall.

Displayed on the sides of tent were the dreams and memories of Sarronen. Gods were there, heroes, and battles. Even its more prominent rulers had a home there. Some of the murals were dyed into the main fabric of the wall, others hung on tapestries. Most of the latter were sewed onto the internal “walls” used to separate portions of the tent from one another. Each portion was dominated by a specific color: red, blue, brown, green, and so on, representing allegiance to a specific God. Jacob didn’t know most of their names. There were a few guards, posted at the entrances to the different divisions of the tents.

On the far side, visible down the main corridor, stood an aged and ornate throne. Surely it dated from the Mirakan Empire; it was sculpted of hardwood, then inlaid with silver, precious gems, and pearls. Seated there was a large man wearing an elegant silver crown, dressed in linens and furs. He was a figure at once both elegant and barbaric. At the moment, he was engaged in conversation with several other well-dressed men in different colors, his stern visage cowing them all. Behind him stood a tall and rangy warrior in his middle years, not a bodyguard but perhaps an adviser, wearing a red scarf. He leaned against a large and ornately carved spear with a wicked red-tipped steel head. A great black raven with a red tail perched on his shoulder. Jacob could never remember seeing one back home, but he had identified several such ravens on the road in the past week.

The king’s visitors, in their various colors, soon bowed and departed, but the silver-crowned ruler remained, speaking with the warrior carrying the spear.

Jacob waited as patiently as he could for the audience he was commanded to attend. His party seemed to be expected, and that was certainly odd. He peered intently, trying to read his host’s face, but the silver-crowned man was turned away from him, and deep in conversation with his adviser. This gave Jacob time to ruminate on all the ways this conversation could go wrong.

In Jacob’s head, the river of possibilities threatened to drown him: would the king welcome him, or was he just brought here to squirm? Would the solution be so easy as to ask for help and receive it from a friendly head of state? Or was this King the architect of everything that had happened? Perhaps the thieves had already passed through the city and found their way home, and the mission was already lost.

The very idea of conversing with King of a foreign land was suddenly terrifying. Jacob had never even spoken in front of a large group of people before. He had seen would-be heralds freeze, when confronted with a crowd. Would a king be easier to talk to, or more difficult? Jacob had far too much time to wonder if he was really up for this.

* * *

The tall, wiry shaman stood beside his king, watching. His coal-black eyes matched his hair, in contrast with the crimson of his sash, and the head of the red steel-tipped staff that he used to mark his status as priest of the Fire God. A raven sat on his shoulder, eying the flames in the oil lamps. Shakath had been an uncommon choice to follow when he was young, after its “Column of Fire” militia had been lost resisting Travan’s latest expansion against the Kulls. Sarronen’s king had proclaimed that peace was the road to prosperity, not pointless wars, and his people had acquiesced. But that had been almost a generation ago.

Today, Sarronen was as strong as ever, and Kullen was again murmuring that Travan was hungry for more land. The youth of Sarronnen numbered as the stars, and they were growing restless with past tales of Kharshe glory. They had forgotten the reality of battle, and clamored to correct the injustices of the past. Shakath waited for them: he would take their willing but ignorant spirits, and forge them into greatness. It fell to his priest Innoken to guide them, to see that the fire strengthened his people rather then consuming them. For Shakath represented power and passion, but handling fire required a warrior’s discipline, as well. The young sensed that too, and longed for what Innoken could give them. The flames required some sacrifice, but with discipline, it could be minimized.

Right now, his hard-planed face was grim as he examined the newcomers from within the Great Tent. Of course, Innoken’s face was often grim. His stony expression was confirmed in his words, “I don’t like it.”

Haldor, king of the Clan and City of Sarronen, northern heir to the dignity of Kharshe, remained deep in thought. Slightly shorter than Innoken, he was broad and well muscled, with the nearly black hair common to his people. Under the artfully designed silver crown he wore, his bright blue eyes hinted back to the inhabitants of Tara who had held the town before the Sarronens had seized it and renamed it as their own. His pleasant, open face hid a keen and ruthless mind. However, unlike Innoken, he also held no particular ill will towards these outsiders, or outsiders in particular. In a culture where the king was elected by the council of elders (generally after defeating his opposition through other means), Haldor had risen to his position through strength, charisma, and the iron will necessary to succeed at any cost. In practice, that meant he was generous, steadfast, loyal, and honest, unless he faced a serious threat. Then he struck without warning or mercy, and with deadly force.

One of those threats stood within this very tent. Deadly force might prove necessary, and yet prudence spoke against an overreaction. Haldor could be ruthless when necessary, but he was also patient, his actions carefully measured.

“What would you do, Innoken, if you were them? Our agents have returned victorious. The time of our greatest vulnerability is over. So long as we have the discipline to remain quiet now, our plans are going almost as well as we could have imagined.”

Innoken’s lips loosened incrementally. For him, that passed for a smile. “Fine. But why do we need to entertain this farce? We need nothing from them now, and so we have nothing to gain. Send them on their way, get rid of them, or just ignore them. It is unlikely that bringing them close will cost anything, but why take the risk?”

“Because it would be too suspicious to send our erstwhile friends from Ironwood away. Welcoming them into town and leaving them be costs almost nothing. If this search party suspects our plans, or fails to return in time, Ironwood will be alerted. They cannot win against us, but a town of thousands can inconvenience us if they know we are coming. It is foolhardy to advertise your intentions to an enemy, and I will not throw away the lives of even a few of our people without need. Far better for our enemies to die in utter surprise. But do not worry: I have not even told my son yet about our plans. The secret will hold.”

Innoken grimaced. “I despise false friendship, and our people have always been proud. The Ironwood men may not find themselves as welcome here as they expect. The Fire God has never taught respect for unenlightened. Still, Shakath agrees with you. I will defer to your wisdom in this, my king, and his.”

“Good. Now, there are a few details to arrange.”

After several long minutes, the crowned King of Sarronen finally motioned for Jacob and his friends to approach. He approached until the sovereign raised his hand, then stopped and bowed deeply. The king nodded in return, a measured gesture of respect for Ironwood. Then he spoke in crisp Mirakan, his strong, deep voice clear throughout the tent. “I am Haldor, by election and by pleasure of the Gods, King of the City and of the Clan of Sarronen. Beside me is Innoken, blooded warrior and High Priest of the Fire God, Shakath. Who stands before us?”

“I am Jacob, second son of Sterik, by God’s grace Lord Baron of Ironwood. At my side are Daniel Bowman, Ceann Bluethorn, and Arianna Black of the Ironwood Mercantile Company. We are also joined by a companion on the road, an itinerant monk known as Brother Francis. We left Ironwood on two purposes. In part, we left seeking an artifact stolen from my father. However, anticipating a journey of some length, we are also prepared to act as an envoy of the Ironwood Mercantile Company and the town of Ironwood. Fate has brought us into the territory of our respected friends of the great Kingdom of Sarronen, and so we wish to affirm our friendship, and perhaps find terms of mutual advantage that might have been overlooked in the past.”

It was difficult to tell whether the harsh expression on Innoken’s face was in response to his words, or part of a permanent mask. King Haldor’s voice, however, was courteous. “We welcome any improvement to our relationship with our friends from Ironwood, but you have stoked both my sympathy and my curiosity regarding this artifact. Do tell us what has happened.”

Jacob swallowed. “About a week ago, three thieves attacked a guard in Ironwood, stationed at our keep. They killed the man from surprise, and took the shield of St. Thomas. They were well-prepared; they stashed horses beyond Ironwood’s wall, and set false trails before entering the town. The shield is a beloved artifact of the town, and shrouded in superstitions. Obviously we don’t believe them, but we do believe in protecting our assets. So my father sent me out to follow the trail, and it led through Sarronen. You are a friendly kingdom with nothing to gain by stealing such an item, and yet someone in this area felt otherwise. We were hoping that if we offered a reward for its return, no questions asked, that you might be able to help us extend that offer to parties unwilling to deal with us directly.”

Haldor smiled sympathetically. “It would be our honor to do so. Simply let us know what prize we should advertise, and we will do so. We will also let it be known to the local merchants that you have come to deal with us, and have our blessing to engage in commerce. It is unfortunate, but our history with Travan has left some of our people suspicious of outsiders. However, my hope is that you will find no lack in our hospitality. You and your delegation may stay at our guest house for the next week while you conduct your business. After that time, if you have not found what you came for, I am certain you will wish to be on your way. In the meantime, welcome to the City of Sarronen.”

* * *

Jacob leaned his head back against the wall, and closed his eyes to hear the rain beat softly on the thatched roof above. The guest house was a sturdy stone structure dating back before the fall of the Mirakan empire. The thatch muffled the sound like a blanket, and even the light rattle of the shutters was southing to him. After a week on the road, broken only by a short stay in a barn, the accommodations seemed positively luxurious. There were two rooms, and separate beds for each guest. If Jacob had simply walked straight through the Black Cross without stopping, he never would have had the opportunity to enjoy it. He would have instead, in all likelihood, been heading home with the shield of St. Thomas.

The small noises of his friends passed through his ears: arguments over beds, the unpacking of bags, and gusts of wind that brought the rain against the shutters. His mind bid them on their way. Instead, the were only the questions: why did he not ride another hour or two into the darkness on the Great Highway? It had seemed reasonable to fear the thieves turning from the road in the dark, but Jacob had known they wouldn’t. What prize was ever won without risk?

Or was Ceann right? If he had split the party North and East at the Crossroads instead of playing merchant with Thane, he almost certainly would have found the Shield before Sarronen. Or maybe he could have pressed Thane harder sooner, given him a big bribe when they first met. Even now, why were they wasting time here? He didn’t have any better ideas, but he felt like every chance at gaining the Shield was slipping away. Maybe it was his fault. Definitely it was his responsibility.

Well, if it was his responsibility, he couldn’t quit now. The odds were long, but they weren’t done yet. When Jacob finally opened his eyes, he found the others eyes on him. His friends had been waiting for Jacob to speak. He obliged them. “So, what’s the plan?”

Ceann grunted sourly. “Pray King Haldor is not responsible, that Thane wasn’t lying that he knew anything at all, and that thieves and murderers will be willing to admit their deeds for money.”

Brother Francis frowned, then turned towards Jacob. “You have some thoughts. Let us hear them.”

“Well,” Jacob began slowly, “If the thieves are independent, our best options are to find them through their pride and greed. If there’s money or politics behind this short of the King, Haldor and the court are our best resources. If we were wrong and the murderers are just passing through, our options are worse, but maybe we’ll find another Thane to let us know.”

“And if it’s the King?” Daniel asked?

“Well,” Jacob added with forced cheer, “then our chances aren’t good of discovering it, and we’re not likely to survive if we do. So let’s hope against that possibility. The king hasn’t killed us yet, so that’s a good sign.”

Ceann pursed his lips. “We head out to the alehouses, taverns, and shops again, like in the Black Cross?”

”I think we do,” Jacob agreed.

Brother Francis shook his head. “We do, but I think you should not. Remember that you are an ambassador here. Ironwood’s reputation, and your family’s, require you spend some time at court. No doubt you will also want to make contact with the richer merchants. I would warn you that merchants are held in less esteem here than in Western countries.”

Ceann shrugged. “There’s not much we can do about that. We can’t pretend to be something we are not, and trade is Ironwood’s lifeblood.”

“So it is,” Jacob added. “In that case, I’ll need you with me tomorrow. We will be getting to know the local clan leaders, and their politics. We’ll also hit up the merchants, and see what they know - they may be more willing to share information if we can do business. That leaves you, Daniel, and Athena to try the common folk. That is, if you are willing, Brother Francis?”

Brother Francis smiled grimly. “Until the shield is recovered, I am at your service. However, as a monk, I’ll be best received alone.”

Athena put his hand on Daniel’s shoulder, “Then it’s you and me, kid. Time to learn how to drink.”

Ceann sighed. “It seems the plans are set.”

Jacob grinned, and removed his chain shirt. “So it does. Now, I don’t know about you, but I am getting tired. If I go to court in the morning without a good night’s sleep, they’ll think me five kinds of fool.”

“I always did say you should be yourself,” Athena replied cheerfully.

“Except I’m representing someone else,” Jacob pointed out. “I can’t afford to get thrown out of taverns, at the moment.”

“Unfortunate,” Athena replied easily, removing the cord that held her pony tail, and running her hands through her hair. “You’re really missing out. But I see your point. See you in the morning, then: I’ll be in the next room.”

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