By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

New Opportunities

Jacob did his very best to disguise the frustration he felt at the smug merchant in front of him, and from his nominal ally behind. Considering the prices he’d seen for parchment just down the road, this was ridiculous. He supposed he could walk away, but he wanted merchants to start thinking of Ironwood as a partner. At least he wasn’t losing money. “Fine, I will take five silver coins for the lot. Ceann, I think we’re done for the main square warehouses. Let’s take the bags back to the guest house.”

This was the sixth large warehouse they had visited this morning, with next to nothing to show for it. Ceann wasn’t above sharing his opinion out loud. “I told you this would happed,” the broad man commented, in far too pleased a voice.

The luxuries and curiosities Jacob brought with him from home had not served him nearly as well as he hoped. True, some of the better pieces he had already left with Thane, but most of it wasn’t going to sell here at any price. Packing a small number of a broad range of goods had proven a poor decision. The western artwork, jewelry, and even tools had failed to impress: the men here were too biased against foreign wares. As he had from Thane, Jacob sensed by far the most interest in raw materials, which were far too heavy to carry with him, and generally unprofitable to carry in wagons. Even for what they would buy, they didn’t want to trade in coin. They refused to talk about what they might buy if Jacob had brought it, either, and wouldn’t speculate on a price until they could see what they were trading for. It was, in fact, exactly as Ceann had said, except the merchants were even more stubborn than Jacob would have believed. They turned their noses up at better goods than could be bought a block down at twice the price. His adviser didn’t have to look so smug about it.

“On the bright side,” the older man added, “we’ll be able to get on with what we’re actually supposed to be doing, not gambling for pocket change.”

Jacob snorted in exasperation, “The merchants have to know something useful, but I didn’t expect them to be quite so hostile. I hoped I could warm them up with a little money, but that idea floated like a leaky lead rowboat. But of course I was trying to get information. What did you think I was doing?”

“Failing. I will grant you they were more stand-offish even than I remember. Maybe they’ve had bad experiences with foreigners in the past.”

Jacob had no response. It was time to was reconsider the plan. He had intended to spend days, if necessary, negotiating prospects for future trade, and establishing relationships he could make use of. The city was more than big enough to hide three men who had gone to ground, especially from a small party with only a week to find them. But if he could get some locals on his side, he might find some real answers. Unfortunately, Ceann was right too: using trade as a lure was a waste of time. Persisting would only make him look more desperate.

Their next best bet was to flex his identity as the Baron’s son, and try to meet some clan leaders. Ceann had mentioned that the important men of Sarronen came daily to the Great Tent to petition their king. It was there that disputes were resolved, reports were given, and where the administrative tasks of the realm were carried out. The rich and powerful attended the king to get news of the events affecting the nation: raids, border disputes, and diplomatic reports. It was also where public projects like roads, sewers, and temples were planned. Hopefully Jacob would be more welcome there, and maybe he could convince someone there to help Ironwood. Ceann wasn’t exactly confident in that plan, either, but he was short on better ideas. So Jacob nodded, and followed the older man in silence.

Jacob was still considering his rather unattractive options when he and Ceann were formally announced at the entrance to the Great Tent. The courtesy ended there: except for a few passing glances, the pair from Ironwood were ignored.

In small groups through the tent were well-dressed men, speaking to each other, or waiting in line on the far end of the tent to see the king. More, in various rooms, wore ornate medallions, presumably signifying offices Jacob didn’t understand. There were a smaller number of men entering and leaving the tent, alone or with friends, some receiving their own introductions before walking by. He and Ceann would have to make the first move.

With no idea where to start, Jacob walked up to one of the officials in a small room to the right. By his dress, the clansman was a warrior, and his colors marked him as a servant of the Fire God. He wore tightly braided hair, an elegant fur vest decorated with red feathers, an oversized long sword strapped to his back, and a bored expression.

“Hello,” Jacob offered. Perhaps it was the nervousness he tried to bury, but his Kharshe came out halting and accented even to his own ears. “I am Jacob of Ironwood. Forgive me, but I am new here. What goes on in this part of the tent?”

The clansman replied with a slow, mocking smile. “I am Joram. Greetings. Westerner. For most of my days we have been spared your kind in this tent. A pity your playing at barter outside failed so quickly, but it might be for the best. My cousin outside was beginning to tire of laughing at you. Still, maybe you have learned a little faster than your friends that real men do not obsess over tiny scraps of metal. However, like a child, you brought in your little bag of toys.”

“And my sword,” Jacob added, irritation overcoming his nervousness.

The Sarronen warrior sneered. “That short, limp, thing hanging from your waist? That is what you Westerners call a sword?” Some Sarronens had adopted longer, broader, weapons than were used in the west, as they were more effective against Travan’s heavily armored infantry. However, most Sarronnen warriors still preferred shield and longsword for individual contests. Jacob’s shorter weapon might be an excuse for his contempt, but it was a poor one.

Jacob continued conversationally, “I have found a lighter weapon to be quite effective, although in Ironwood, we have little regard for those who spend too long admiring their own blades.”

The Sarronen warrior-priest snarled. “An ill-equipped money-grubber cannot even do that. Or do you propose some other way to show you are actually a man?”

Jacob shook his head, “Not here under the king’s peace.”

“For which you coin counters are no doubt grateful,” the Sarronen snorted. “Lucky for you, I don’t fight children.” Still, Joram withdrew. It seemed there were limits to the direct provocation the king would tolerate of his guests. From what Jacob had heard, Clan hospitality was nearly sacred. Jacob had not hoped to command any great honor here, but such blatant unearned hostility was beyond strange.

“He may be loyal to his own sword, but I doubt his mother was so picky,” Ceann muttered.

Jacob laughed despite himself, though he lifted a hand to his face to hide his reaction. When he removed it, he saw a new pair of strangers approaching from another room in the test. The first was a stylishly dressed young man a little older and taller than himself, wearing fine furs and a broad sword. His long hair was gathered in a warrior’s tail, and the silver medallion he wore was fashioned to depict the double mountain that represented the God of Stone. He smiled in greeting, though his dark brown eyes were guarded. Beside him walked a pretty woman, also near Jacob’s age. She was perhaps slightly above average height for a woman, with intelligent pale blue eyes, fair skin, and a prominent nose. Her raven-dark wavy hair was lifted and gathered by hidden pins to frame her thin face. The blue dress she wore was nearly as dark as her eyes; it did not appear to be of Clan make, though perhaps the silver circlet she wore around her neck was.

“Jacob of Ironwood, we welcome you,” the man spoke. “My name is Halvar, prince of Sarronen, favored of the Stonebeard clan, and servant of Ahkor. This is the Lady Laranna, daughter of the Earl Johran of Northspire in the Empire of Travan. She is our guest here, and wished to meet you.”

Jacob answered with a shallow bow of respect, then smiled warmly. “Prince Halvar, Lady Laranna, it is our honor and pleasure to meet you. At my side is Ceann Bluethorn, officer of the Ironwood Mercantile Company. Lady, perhaps you have heard of our misadventures, but what brings your gracefulness to these hills?”

Laranna’s eyes twinkled. “Luck brought me here, though I fear it left grace behind. I was traveling to meet my father in Talyk, when I was kidnapped by masked men from Kullen. A few days later, they passed close to Sarronen territory and a patrol led by this kind prince discovered my captivity, and demanded my freedom. The Kulls resisted, and there was a brief battle, but the prince had the greater numbers, and routed them. Unwilling to risk my safety by crossing back through Kull territory, he brought me here.”

Halvar glanced to the girl by his side as he spoke. “The Lady is too kind, but she has the right of it. Returning her here was simply the safest idea under the circumstances. We chose not to imperil her by attempting to smuggle her through the land of her kidnappers. While we are technically at peace, tempers between our peoples sometimes run hot, and it is better not to provoke further conflict. However, before Spring’s end, as you know, there is the Great Summit. It should be safe to bring her to her people then. In the meantime, we allow the Lady what freedom and entertainment we can.”

Jacob bowed again, graciously. “And so, to our great fortune, you came to meet us.”

Laranna’s cheeks dimpled in a hesitant smile, and she lowered her eyes. “Should you see it so. I must confess, though, that I could use the company. Prince Halvar has been generous, but he is a man of many duties. In the absence of my library and my people, I have begun to feel quite useless. At least there is the Spring Tournament this afternoon.”

Jacob’s eyes glowed. “What is this? You have piqued my interest, my Lady.”

Halvar answered smoothly, “Twice per year, the people of Sarronen gather to contest with the sword, spear, and bow. Leading up to that, there are also challenges of horsemanship, and in other arts befitting a warrior, but the first three are the most prestigious. The tent is quieter than usual today, because many of the nobles are preparing to compete this afternoon. The archery and horsemanship contests are complete, but the main events are only about to start. I would be happy to show you to the stadium area, if you wish to watch.”

Jacob grinned devilishly. “Are foreigners allowed to compete?” He didn’t even have to look to know that Ceann was shaking his head.

Halvar pursed his lips uncomfortably. “There is no rule forbidding it, but our sports can be difficult. If there of those among your party particularly skilled with the sword, they will be allowed. But be warned that our warriors have been fighting since they could walk, and only our best compete. Even then, injuries have been known to occur.”

Ceann agreed emphatically. “It’s not really a good idea, Jacob. It’s not what we’re here for.”

Jacob’s eyes lit up. “Perfect. With your permission, I will enter myself.”

Halvar shrugged indifferently. “As you will. Meet me at the stadium at the fifth bell. I will let it be known that you are coming. My Lady, if you would walk with me so I can make arrangements?”

Laranna demurred. “Of course, my Prince. But might I also attend the tournament?”

The prince shook his head, but smiled. “As long as you do not take up your own sword. After all, I am responsible for your safety here. I will find an escort for you. Farewell, Ironwood.”

Jacob bid the man goodbye, then returned to searching the tent for friendly faces. So far, the endeavor did not look promising. Ceann’s angry stare left Jacob no illusions that he could be counted in that category, either.

Athena stood with her hands behind her back, quietly watching Daniel’s efforts. They stood in the warm and dusty marketplace, perusing its wares. The flagstone-covered square was filled with woods and with grains, with livestock and vegetables, and with all the staples of society. Before her, there were bowls, spoons, forks, cutting boards, little wooden boxes and children’s toys. Daniel was imitating Jacob’s interrogation efforts as best as he could, with poor results. She was following some of it, but her command of Kharshe was not strong enough to participate.

Daniel pushed down his nervousness and added, “Yes, and uh, how much are those things? Right over there?”

Before him, a tall merchant with a rounded beard and smug brown eyes gave him a knowing look. “For you, let’s say 5 silver karacks. Though I would prefer if you had vegetable, chickens, or anything more real.”

It was an exorbitant price for the knick-knacks, and of course Daniel had very little Sarronen currency to begin with. “They’re not really worth that. Maybe two.”

The clansman laughed, “Then be on your way, if you’re not interested.” He turned his back on Daniel and waited for a real customer to arrive.

Athena sidled up beside Daniel, who stood staring nonplussed and alone. “I’m sorry, Daniel, bit best let it go. It’s time for that drink, I think. Up ahead there’s a place. The Stone… table?”

There was in fact, a public establishment ahead, good sized, with a sign out front. It was an older building, constructed of stone. Daniel didn’t usually have the coin for alehouses, though he hoped more time with the Ironwood Guard might change that. In the meantime, he was more than happy to enjoy the use of Jacob’s purse.

Daniel raised his hand against the sun to make out the lettering. “The Stone Griffin, actually. Alright, I’m coming.”

The front door of the “Griffin” was propped open, and so the pair walked directly into the shade. The stone building was cool compared to the noon sun, and a draft crossed between the windows and the door. There were several tables, each with their own pair of benches. Three of the tables were occupied, with men of various ages. To the side, there was a great cabinet, very old, of fine hardwood, presumably carrying the casks to fill the mugs of visitors. Behind it stood a broad man with a scraggly beard and a friendly smile.

He nodded to the newcomers, and asked conversationally in his own language, “I don’t suppose you’d come in here without karacks?”

Daniel returned in the local dialect, “No, we’ve some.” Athena nodded, and stood quietly behind Daniel, trying to make out the words.

“Then be welcome into my home,” the proprietor responded. “You may call me Tanak. How goes the day’s business, young fellow?”

“Pleased to meet you, Tanak. It’s been mixed,” Daniel admitted. “Some friendly, some aloof. Except the sweet vendors, most have been very preoccupied. You’re a pleasant exception.”

“To almost every rule,” the man responded with pride. “But don’t judge them harshly. The tournament begins today, and people are looking forward to a holiday. Only those selling food and drink, like myself, will work. For us, tournaments are the best days of the year, the days that pay for our own children to eat and wear good clothes. Though must of us will be selling in the stadium until near the end of the day. But the celebrations afterward, ah! Those will be a sight to see.”

“Ah,” nodded Daniel. “I hadn’t realized. Any favorites?”

“Aye,” yelled a young man from the table behind him, just a couple years older than himself. “Halvar’s going to come into his own this year, in the sword.”

“He’ll do well enough,” his friend nodded, “but Serren is going to take the tournament again. He’s always been good, but starting last year, he’s clean unbeatable, sword and spear.”

Tanak grinned, “Everyone’s got an opinion, but I’ll wager Jarak over there is right. Serren first, Halvar in the top few for the sword. There’s a couple brothers in the Fireheart clan that each won a few years back, and they’ll do well enough. I don’t follow the spear, but the brothers of the Fleetfoot clan are like to take the bow again. For the rest, it will be interesting. But I forget my manners. What’ll you be drinking? And do you want in on the house stew? It’s lamb today.”

Daniel nodded. “Something light, a mead if you have it. And I’ll try the stew. Athena?”

“Stew sounds fantastic,” Athena remarked. “And dark ale too. Do you have enough, Daniel?”

“I’ve got it,” he replied, and opened his purse. The proprietor neatly took his karacks and bid the pair sit. Daniel had managed to sell a couple items this morning as well as buy, so he had a bit of local currency, rough-minted silver disks with the likeness of Sarronen’s great tent.

Athena took a bench in the table next to the pair who had called out their tournament favorites, and spoke in halting Kharshe to the latter, the one that had been called Jarak. “You in tournament?”

Jarak replied with all the smoothness his adolescent pride could muster, “You noticed, honey? Yeah, I’ll be fighting with the spear. My friends say I’m the master. I don’t know about that, but I’d be glad to give you a demonstration.”

Athena nodded appreciatively, “I sure you will handle well. Can foreigners fight?”

Jarak glanced over to Daniel and noted his lack of response. “Are you two together? No offense, but this might be a bit rough for your friend.”

Athena shook her head, “He could might surprise. Is good man. But no, am alone. Also, was asking for me.”

Jarak glanced over at Daniel, who nodded with a knowing smile. “Athena may not know the language very well, but she can hold her own with sword or spear. I’m a little better with the bow, though Athena has a strong enough draw.”

Tanak at that moment came over with stew and ale, and the Daniel paused to thank him and try it out. It was different, but surprisingly good. He and Athena continued their good natured conversation over lunch until Jarak came around to asking what the pair where doing in Sarronen.

“Well,” Daniel replied, “we’re with the Ironwood Mercantile Company, but we’re here looking for a shield that was stolen. It’s of some value to us, so we’re looking for three men, possibly dangerous men, who might be carrying it through town. There’s a reward for any information, though we’d need to find our friends before we confronted them directly. You haven’t seen three men passing through on horses with a shield, have you? Midday yesterday, maybe in a hurry?”

Jarak and his friend glanced at each other before he answered, “No, nothing unusual. No thieves of any kind here, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Daniel shrugged. “Well, had to ask. Unfortunately, if we’re going to find it, we’ll have to get moving soon. But if we need a break, where’s this tournament?”

Jarak grinned. “City commons. Go three streets past the Great Tent, and take a right. It’s just a couple minutes down from there. Maybe I’ll see you there?”

“Maybe so,” Daniel replied. “Good luck in your contest!”

Athena stood and stretched for a moment, earning an appreciative gaze from the men across the table. Then Daniel came to his own feet, and they both headed out the door. As soon as they passed the entrance, though, Athena pulled Daniel to the side and raised a finger to her lips.

Daniel could just make out the voices of the two men they had been talking to, inside the alehouse. “Wonder if they could have been talking about… “

“… see him at the tournament. Don’t want to cross that one, pure trouble. None of my business, though, not for any money…”

Daniel waited a couple more moments, then met Athena’s questioning eyes, and answered her quietly. “They think it’s one of the men in the tournament. Must be one of the good ones: they’re afraid to cross him.”

“Then that’s where we’re going,” Athena added grimly. “Only one question, though.”

“What’s that?”

Athena raised an eyebrow. “Whether to enter or just watch. Come on.”

Innoken waited alone within his stone cottage, gazing into the pleasantly crackling fire emanating from the hearth. When he was younger, he still felt a vague guilt for living in one of the Tara-style stone buildings, but that had long passed. He was a servant of a spirit of fire, and a stone hearth provided the best home for that fire. He never felt more at peace than when he watched the flames dance, and nothing better cleared his head. Shakash could stoke him to rage, or devour enemies in his flames, but always after was the cleansing, comforting warmth. He kept his hearth tended at all times, even through the height of summer.

Yet now, as he meditated on the sizzle and crackle of pine dampened by last night’s rain, he was called to attention by a deep, commanding voice: one as familiar as the flames. “Greetings, Innoken. We have some work to do.”

Innoken continued to face the fire, as his master preferred. “My Lord.”

The voice continued. “I take it the visitors from Ironwood are being thorough in their search?”

Innoken licked his lips. “Yes, my Lord, as far as I can tell. I’m having them followed, but I haven’t heard back from all my men yet. The men of Ironwood have been persistent. They know the Shield was taken here, and that’s more than I expected.”

“They are capable, for Westerners. You should also know the monk of the non-existent God is a Returned soul. He is not dangerous to us by himself, but he may be sensitive to Thomas’s shield. Further, the Shield is more aware of its surroundings than I had anticipated. We cannot take the risk that it will find those who seek it. You must act.”

The priest continued to watch heat of the coals, the destruction of the stacked wood before him, as he considered his response. “As you will. What do you ask?”

“The Shield is well-guarded for now, so do not let caution turn to haste. However, as soon as you may, see that is is removed from Sarronen. Do not attempt to destroy it! The penalty for violating the Compact is severe. Instead, bury it, somewhere it can be retrieved at need, if our alliances should change. In the meantime, keep your guests occupied and distracted.”

Innoken frowned. “It will be done. Withdrawing Serren from the tournament would draw draw too much attention, but I can send the other two out of the city while he fights. Thankfully, Prince Halvar seems to be entertaining our unwelcome guests. I think we should encourage that, for he is charismatic, and unaware of our plans. That should make it easier for him to be friendly with them, and he cannot reveal what he does not know.

I should also mention that their leader, Jacob, is entering the tournament of the sword. I do not want to discourage this, but I also don’t want him spending time with Serren. My champion is capable, but hot-headed. He will not be able to hide his animosity for Ironwood.”

A thread of irritation entered the deep voice. “You may wish to see that this Jacob loses quickly. The sooner he leaves the tournament, the sooner he will be on his way. However, leaving our guests’ hospitality in Halvar’s hands is wise. Let the men of Ironwood leave thinking that Sarronen has offered all reasonable help. They will not know our intent until the day their homes burn.”

Innoken’s expression could charitably be called a smile. “Of course, my Lord.”

The voice spoke firmly once more, before fading into silence. “Good, but do not underestimate them, especially the monk. You have done well, Innoken, but be careful not to stumble so close to our goal. We will speak again soon.”

The shaman of the fire God bowed, suppressing a shiver of anticipation. Innoken had been waiting long decades for the era of Sarronen’s greatness to arrive, and the time was almost here! However, his will was iron, and impatience only led to mistakes. He could manage a little longer, if he must. He turned away from the fire, staring into the empty room.

Ancient stone walls stood high above the hills, rising in a circle from great hills in the densest part of the city. They were hundreds of years old, but were kept in excellent repair. A great arch provided entrance into the enormous arena within, where thousands could be seated On the stone benches that rose like broad stairs away from the center. Many Mirakan cities had held such circuses, and used them to display dramas, contests, and public festivities. Sarronen had adopted this one with relish. In the middle, in a broad field, a handful of dueling circles were set up. Wooden benches and weapon stands were set up near the edge of the field: most were occupied with warriors in motley armor.

Athena glanced over at Daniel, who was clearly chewing on a thought. He had done well this morning in the marketplace, especially for a sixteen year old boy. He couldn’t quite hide his awkwardness, but he made a good show of it. “Lazarus’s toes, Daniel, just let it out. I’ve heard holding in your thoughts makes your head all bulgy.”

“That would explain a lot. But have you decided - are you going to compete in the tournament?”

She shrugged. “Much as I’d like to, I can’t. It’s not what we’re here for, and the tournament runs for days if you keep winning. Jacob’s not going to be too happy if I spend the time fighting when we could be digging into where the Shield went. Also, the men we’re looking for here will probably be easier to find from the stands. Do you remember their faces? It was pretty dark.”

Daniel looked down at his feet. “I remember.”

Athena let the topic lie, allowing her eyes to wander the grand stadium. There were people everywhere: men, women and children. Many brought biscuits and sweets as well as water and wine. The stadium was divided into multiple areas, with the stone benches in each section painted in vivid colors barely visible through the crowd. Most sections of the audience were tightly packed, with strangers pressed nearly into each other’s laps. There was some orange-brown seating remaining. “Daniel, know what any of these colors mean?”

The boy shook his head. “No. Jacob might know: he had tutors for a long time. I learned most of my Kharshe from my older cousin, who was Caerdann. He never talked about his old religion.”

“Any objections to joining me in the empty section, then?”

“None. It’s not roped off or anything. Besides - is that Brother Francis?”

Athena turned and saw not only Brother Francis, but also Ceann and two others she didn’t recognize: a man and a woman. Both were near her own age. The man was tall and handsome, and wore a light but elegant leather tunic in the fashion of the locals, with a brown-gray device on his sleeve. The woman was a little shorter than herself; she was skinny, overdressed, and her face was dominated by her prominent nose. In her defense, it was a strong face, with clever eyes, but she seemed far too serious, and full of herself. Athena supposed some might find her pretty, if they liked the type. “Hey Ceann,” she asked, “Who’s the new girlfriend?”

Ceann shook his head, but smiled anyway. The woman behind him looked annoyed, and the unrecognized man both surprised and amused. “Athena, this is the Lady Laranna of Northspire, like us a guest of Sarronen. Laranna, this is Athena of the Ironwood Mercantile Company. What she lacks in tact, she makes up in heart. She’s also the equal of most men with the sword or bow. Behind her is Daniel Bowman, of the Ironwood Town Guard. Beside Laranna, meet Halvar son of Haldor, Prince of Sarronen and heir to the Stonebeard Clan.”

Laranna stuck out her well-manicured hand, and Athena politely shook it. No tact? She was just being friendly. It was no fault of hers if she didn’t recognize a prince she had never met. Athena replied as warmly as she could, “Pleased to meet you both. Laranna, what brings you here? To Sarronen, I mean. And the tournament. Do you have an interest in swordsmanship?”

The noblewoman responded with a gentle, but rueful laugh. “No, I came to Sarronen quite by accident, I’m afraid. As I told your Lord Jacob earlier today, I was returning to Talyk to meet my father, when I was separated from my escort and kidnapped. Not long after, one of Prince Halvar’s patrols came by, and rescued me. I was lucky.”

She paused for moment, and shuddered slightly. “After that, Halvar took me here to keep me safe. He’s been honorable and sympathetic, and treated me far better than I deserve. Which means there’s been very little useful for me to do. He’ll will be competing in the tournament tomorrow, so I asked if I might attend. I also thought I might like to meet the other guests in town. I haven’t had the pleasure of knowing anyone from Ironwood.”

“The Lady is too kind,” Halvar murmured, pleased to listen for now.

Athena grimaced with unwilling sympathy. “That’s hard, but I’m glad you’re ok. I bet you miss home almost as much as your father misses you. Although I’ve heard the weather in Northspire is something awful.”

Laranna lowered her eyes. “Yes, I’m sure he’s worried, especially now. Travan’s Great Summit is in a couple weeks’ time, and representatives from every nearby country will attend. There’s always tension between Travan and Kullen, and I hate to think that my absence might stir it into something more dangerous.”

Athena whistled softly, and Ceann smiled sympathetically. “We’re all hoping that won’t happen. Erik, the heir to the Ironwood Barony, will also be attending the Summit this year, though we do not hold a seat in the Council. Our interest in the east is more indirect: Ironwood trades with Travan, but we also trade with the Kulls, at least indirectly. They buy more from us than the Sarronens do, anyway. But I don’t think we had realized things were this bad. There have been tensions on the Travan border for a long time.”

It was Laranna’s turn to grimace. “Sadly true, but we have kept it under wraps for decades. It’s hard for me to take such things for granted.”

Brother Francis chose that moment to speak. “As well that you do not, Lady Northspire. There have been provocations enough on both side. Northspire’s efforts have made no small contribution to the peace over the years. We are in your debt.”

Laranna blushed, the red vivid on her pale face. “Thank you, but you give us too much credit, good monk.”

Athena cleared her throat. “So, uh, where’s Lord Jacob?”

Laranna sent her a quizzical look. “Well, he’s joined the tournament.”

Athena’s jaw dropped. “He what? That bastard!”

Halvar laughed out loud.

Laranna absently watched the field below. Though the stadium had seemed crowded before, it was now well and truly packed, including the so-called Stranger’s section, which was dedicated to the lesser Gods. The size of the sections dedicated to each God changed yearly, depending on the showing each had received the year before. The red section was devoted to followers of Shakath, the Fire God, and they seemed to be the most numerous. But followers of the stone God and even the water Goddess were nearly as well represented. Halvar was competing as a champion for the Stone God, though his father had converted to service of the Fire God in recent years.

It seemed she had waited for hours since first meeting up with the party from Ironwood, though at Ceann’s grumbling approval, Athena had rushed down to the field to join the competition. Laranna didn’t miss the broad woman’s comments, though she felt a pang of guilt at the thought. No doubt the woman meant well, but Athena was an overeager sort, more comfortable around men than women, and likely to drag along the conversation like an overly large puppy. Ceann and Daniel had been agreeable enough, but they had not said much. Brother Francis, however, was a delight.

“It looks as if they’re finally ready to start,” she noted out loud to the monk.

“Yes,” he agreed. “They did take their time in the dedication, but they’re picking out pairs for the first five circles now. It looks like Jacob is in one of them. I had not expected that.”

“Oh?” Laranna craned her neck to make out the tall, dark-haired fellow below. He was limbering up with a wooden sword and practice shield. He was a very handsome man, which meant he would probably turn out to be as muscled between the ears as her former suitors had been. Still, he seemed pleasant enough, and he gave her someone to root for. Sarronen thus far had proved deadly dull. She had been allowed access to few books here, and no scholarly debate, unless you counted shamans arguing about whose God could defeat whose. “You seem displeased.”

“That would be unfair of me, but it will make it harder on Jacob. This is a single-elimination tournament, and they usually let the least-tested warriors in the early rounds. The better warriors typically join in later, higher in the bracket. This allows the public a warm-up of sorts, watching the lesser-skilled fighters weed each other out first. It also means the favorites have fewer matches, and will suffer less from fatigue. I thought they might extend Jacob the courtesy of letting him join a couple rounds in.”

Laranna squinted at the distant figures. “Perhaps it is a kindness? This at least gives Jacob a better chance of winning a few matches before leaving.”

Brother Francis’s face was unreadable. From down below, a trumpet began to sound. “Look: it begins.

Down below, Jacob saluted with his wooden sword, and approached his opponent carefully. Distracted by his thoughts, he hadn’t caught the name, but the man was tall and broad, larger in either dimension than Jacob, and perhaps a few years older. Jacob kept his eyes on the man’s center, reading his motions in the shift of his weight. He had been relentlessly practicing the techniques Francis had shared, but he had mostly absorbed the new moves into his existing style. He feinted to the left, allowing himself to become just slightly off-balance, gambling that his opponent would be unready to capitalize, and would make a more serious mistake. The man’s overreaction was slight, but it was enough to allow Jacob to push him back with a vicious backhand swing. The dance had begun.

“There,” Francis pointed. “You see, Jacob’s opponent is a veteran. I would wager, if it were my style to wager, that he had survived a good two-thirds of the tournament last season.”

Halvar eyed the older man with surprise and a glimmer of new respect. “You would win that wager,” he said. “You have a good eye, monk.”

Laranna quirked an eyebrow. “I thought you said the early tournament was for the neophytes.”

Daniel frowned. “You think someone set Jacob up to lose early?”

Brother Francis noted Halvar’s lips twitching slightly. The prince had probably arranged Jacob’s opponent himself. The monk met Halvar’s eyes, and his own smile was mischievous. “Yes. But that person has miscalculated.”

Halvar frowned. “You expect Jacob will win? See him dance around! I’ll grant he’s quick, but he’s barely putting any heft in his swings. What is more, it looks as if he’s picked a child’s practice sword. He’ll tire himself, light sword or no, but that toothpick won’t even tickle when it hits armor.”

“Watch, young prince.”

There! Jacob almost lowered his sword after the last swing connected against his enemy’s thigh. Surely that would count as a hit? But the other man kept coming, with no change of expression on his face. In fact, Jacob was surprised enough to receive a solid whack on his own arm, one that would be considered disabling in the Ironwood practice yard. It would certainly leave a bruise under his armor. His opponent still didn’t slow. Obviously, they played rough in this tournament. No wonder they used those big club-like weapons. He might actually have to batter the man in front of him down: so much for finesse.

Halvar grunted. “It seems Jacob can swing a sword after all. I heard him connect from here.”

Francis nodded. “In Ironwood, swings and thrusts are always pulled. It’s considered very rude to deliberately leave bruises.”

Halvar raised an eyebrow. “How can a man learn to fight like that? We have rules to prevent serious injury and death. Spear fighting, unfortunately, must be judged. However, when striking armored flesh with a practice sword, we use full force.”

The monk shrugged. “The vast majority of fighting can be taught without full force. As for the rest, Jacob is learning fast enough. His opponent is starting to limp, and he’s still picking up the pace.”

Laranna hissed at a particularly hard stroke that Jacob’s opponent seemed to shrug off. “Halvar tried to warn Jacob off, earlier today in the Great Tent. Is it true that people are injured in this contest?”

The Sarronen prince nodded. “Oh, yes. You’ll see a few people today unable to leave on their own legs, although a warrior is expected to yield before that point, and any fighter who is knocked to the ground has lost. Deaths and permanent disablements are rare, and usually only happen when a loser refuses to quit or fights with injuries. Any idiot who fights with a cracked bone deserves what he gets, and breaking bones is considered, as you said it - rude.

The tournament is single-elimination in part to prevent that, and we use wooden swords rather than steel. I’ll remind you, also, that we are not savages, and there are a number of rules for the protection of the participants. Still, it’s not unknown for middle-aged warriors to be rendered unable to fight after too many tournaments. Tremors, headaches, missing digits, bad backs, damaged knees, and weak elbows: those who compete too long are susceptible to all of these. It’s a young man’s game.”

Francis nodded. “That’s the cost of the method. A warrior who fights this way does become tougher than one who doesn’t, but only until he is disabled. It can also convince a warrior to take foolish chances against enemies with real weapons, but some consider that to be desirable. It will be a tricky line to walk for someone from Ironwood, especially if he or she is stubborn.”

Ceann winced. “I hope Athena will be alright. She is one who does not know when to give up.”

Jacob almost felt sorry for his opponent. When would he quit? Even the arbiter was starting to look nervous. The ragged fighter before him must know he was losing, but honor would not allow him to surrender. Was it because Jacob was a foreigner, or some other reason? Either way, it was time to end this. It was beginning to look like no amount of bruises constituted a reason to concede. Maybe if he swept the man’s leg, he could down him without injury. He looked forward to seeing someone else fight, to see what Sarronen’s idea of appropriate force was. For now, he had no chance to focus on one of the other fighting circles. You were never so far ahead in a fight, that a lack of concentration couldn’t lose it.

Jacob ended with one of Francis’s moves, thrusting forward with his shield to put his opponent off guard, then entangling his leg with the other man’s and executing a “hip throw”. His exhausted opponent went down, and Jacob laid the point of his sword on the man’s neck. “Yield,” he demanded.

The crowd erupted in favor of the foreign underdog.

* * *

When the applause ceased, Francis nodded in contentment. “It is done. A good clean victory.”

Halvar nodded in grudging respect. “Your man from Ironwood has ended the fight decisively, and in good time, despite an awkward start.”

“The next few fights will be faster and cleaner,” Brother Francis remarked with drawling confidence. “They will not put Jacob up against a champion so soon, and risk a more obvious embarrassment.”

Laranna grinned at the monk, sharing his vicarious triumph. “Well done, indeed. Jacob’s day is surely improving. I gather he is a better fighter than a merchant?”

Ceann laughed, shaking his head slowly. “So he is, but don’t let him hear it.”

Daniel felt compelled to speak up for the leader of the expedition. “You do him wrong. Yes, um, Lord Jacob is good with a sword, and he’s gotten even better lately. But he’s not just a blade, Laranna: he’s smart. We wouldn’t have found our way here without his cleverness. I wonder sometimes, Ceann, if you’re just jealous.”

Ceann laughed briefly, but the warmth did not reach his eyes. “I admire your loyalty, boy, but we’re all friends here.”

Laranna turned her eyes on Brother Francis, and noted the encouraging nod he gave Daniel. So the monk agreed with Daniel? Interesting. However, when the older man spoke, it was to change the subject, “I see Athena is next up. We should make sure she can hear us.”

Halvar stroked his chin thoughtfully. “Not many women fight below. Let us see how she does.”

Ceann nodded, and gave out out a loud whoop in support. There were also numerous catcalls from the blue section. Athena bowed gracefully in response, as if they were her due. Then her contest was begun. If the man she faced expected her to employ Jacob’s indirect style, he was swiftly disappointed. Showing none of Jacob’s early hesitation or misdirection, she opened with a crushing sword and shield combo that sent her opponent sprawling. Her vicious follow-up had the crowd on its feet, as she dominated the match. She wasn’t the only woman fighting with the sword today, but she was well on her way to becoming the most famous.

Laranna released her mirth in an ear-splitting grin. Yes, she had just met the men and woman from Ironwood, but it was always pleasant to cheer for a winner. “When Lord Jacob announced he was fighting in the tournament, I had some thought it an expression of frustration, or of vanity. But I would wager Jacob and Athena have just done more today for Ironwood’s reputation in Sarronen than anyone else in a dozen years.”

Brother Francis inclined his head to her, and spoke, “The day is young, but you may be correct, young Lady.”

The Sarronen Prince shook his head ruefully. “I fear even I have underestimated the coin-counters of Ironwood. As you say, monk, the tournament has just begun. Yet I expect both of your friends will be returning to fight tomorrow. I apologize if I have offended with my ignorance.”

Brother Francis shrugged. “A wise man never ceases to learn. It is not something to apologize for.”

Halvar nodded appreciatively, then turned back to watch the fighting. Before long, he began to narrate, sharing what he knew of each man and his chances. Francis responded gamely, countering with his own assessments, and the two fell into the lively discussion shared by fans of a sport. Laranna and Daniel listened with interest. Ceann folded his arms as he watched the swordplay below, shaking his head.

Jacob sat on one of the benches at the side of the stadium field, watching the last match of the day wind to a close. It was a good fight. Both men were good by Ironwood standards, and they were very motivated. Whoever won would come out battered, though at least he wouldn’t have to fight again today. For the loser, it would be worse.

The Ironwood gentleman had just completed his fourth match, and he was tired. The fights had gone well, but not flawlessly, and he had gained a few bruises. It didn’t help that Sarronens did not believe in brackets. In a proper single-elimination tournament, Jacob would have fought twice, at most. Instead, “tiers” of opponents which were introduced into the pool of combatants as the event went on. Then they seemingly just brought in pairs of fighters according to crowd interest. Being a foreign “celebrity” was not an advantage in that format. At least, after the first fight, he had found someone to explain to him the rules.

He had watched Athena fight, too, when he could. She had gotten off to a better start than he had, having had a chance to watch a few bouts first, but her last match had been rocky. Athena had fought another woman, and ironically enough, underestimated her. Athena had been the better fighter, but the better fighter doesn’t always win. In this case, Athena had decided to lean into a strike deliberately to set up a “killing” blow. Unfortunately, the clanswoman was stronger than Athena had expected, and the huntress had ended up off balance, absorbing not just that swing but a whole host of follow-ups. Luckily, Athena had been tough enough to eventually recover, and turn things back around. Jacob supposed that was one advantage of not ending at first blood: it reduced somewhat the element of luck.

In any case, the nobleman looked forward to joining her for a nice warm ale. Of course, that assumed she didn’t kill him for joining the tournament before telling her. However, her own wins would improve Athena’s mood, so his potential impending death was a bit of a toss-up. Back in the present, the last two combatants were slowing down. Jacob’s bet was on the one with the blue scarf: he was a little quicker, and looked a trifle less worn. There, he just got another good strike in. It looked to be almost over.

But what was this? The man with they gray emblem got in a lucky thrust, then followed it with another, and the man with the blue was down on his knee. The fighter with the gray followed up in a last burst of energy, and the fight was ended. Fate was fickle, it seemed. Much of the fighting had gone differently than he expected: it bore thinking on. He would have to learn all he could, if he intended to keep winning.

Jacob looked up from his reverie to find Prince Halvar standing before him, with Laranna at his side, in her immaculate blue dress. He was suddenly aware of being a tired and sweaty mess.

The Sarronen warrior spoke much more warmly than he had earlier this morning. “So, Ironwood. You’ve had a very good first day. I commend you, and I apologize for my doubts. Maybe even you and I will fight tomorrow? In the meantime, I’m planning to invite a few friends over for drinks tonight. Would you and Athena care to join me?”

Jacob stood and gave a small bow. “It would be my honor, my prince. And I will extend your invitation to Athena, as well. Laranna, will you be there?”

The lady shook her head. “No, I am tired, and I fear I have imposed enough on Halvar today. He was kind enough to escort me to the Stranger’s section this afternoon. We met the rest of your party, and made quite the pleasant day of it.”

“I am glad to hear it,” Jacob replied. “Though are you sure you met the right party?”

Laranna flashed her teeth at him, replying, “Yes, unless you know of another Travanian monk wandering around Sarronen, or another red-haired merchant in these parts. They seem to be good folk, and they asked if I could join them tomorrow. Of course, I was delighted to accept the invitation.” The raven-haired young noblewoman paused for a moment, then added pointedly, “Athena was there too, until we told her you joined the tournament.”

The Ironwood warrior winced slightly, running his hand through his dampened hair. “Yes, I imagine she wasn’t thrilled about that, but there was no way to tell her.”

“She did seem disappointed. Are you two together?” Laranna asked.

“No,” Jacob returned. “Just old friends. We grew up as a family, almost.”

“I see,” Laranna remarked. “She’s quite the character.”

Halvar’s mouth might have twitched at that. After a moment, he cleared his throat. “She is, indeed. Unfortunately, I have to get back home to prepare for the evening’s celebration, but I have many congratulations and condolences to offer old friends before I do. Jacob, I’ll see you and Athena in my home in two bells’ time. It’s four streets north of the Great Tent. You will recognize it by the emblem above my door, as it matches the one on my tunic. For now, you will have to excuse me. Farewell, and well fought, Ironwood!”

The sun had just fallen behind the mansions in the west of Sarronen, and the long shadows almost hid the filth on the ancient cobblestones. Athena and Jacob had left their horses in the stables by the guest house, but there were plenty of beasts contributing to the mess, and not enough people to clean it. It was the nature of cities, of course. This more than the surrounding stones reminded Jacob that Sarronen was not the den of horse-lords that many in Maragon assumed, but a thriving civilization that was not Margon, nor Travan, but not fully Kharshe either. Athena had walked silently beside him since they had left the guest house, no doubt still angry at him.

He supposed he would have to break the silence, and so he opened cautiously. “I saw you fighting today. You’ve gotten better recently. I wouldn’t be surprised to see you in the final rounds.”

Athena looked up at him briefly, and grunted in agreement.

Jacob continued. “I never got to ask: what made you decide to enter the contest?”

Athena’s eyes flashed. “I came to the stadium because Daniel and I overheard that the horse dung that murdered Timothy would likely be fighting in the tournament. I decided not to enter, though. It would be horribly irresponsible to leave Daniel to chase down three murderers all alone. But then my fearless leader showed me the error of my ways. He didn’t plan or ask for advice. He just jumped in and started swinging. So I thought, gee, I should be more like him.”

Jacob was caught between a laugh and a wince, but his sanity prevailed, and he settled for the latter. “I’m sorry for joining without talking it over. But there was no way to find everyone, and I was getting nowhere with the clan chiefs. They think Ironwood men are effete and greedy; can you imagine what they would say of real Margons? I had to show them another side of me, if I wanted anything from them. It couldn’t be helped.”

“Your sacrifice is noted. How terrible the burden of leadership must be,” Athena intoned ironically.

“Why complain? You got what you wanted in the end. Plus, you’ve been winning, and making it look good. Demonfire, Athena! The crowd was cheering louder for you than for me.”

Athena’s lips curled into a crooked smile. “Much louder, as I would expect. I’m much better looking.”

Jacob nodded agreeably. “Pretending to almost lose that last fight, too, that was a stroke of genius.”

She hit him, of course. Just a jab to the shoulder, though, which meant she had accepted his apology. Probably. Jacob continued, “The crowd did love it, though. And I guess Halvar was impressed, too, to invite you along. Thank you for coming, by the way.”

Athena shrugged. “Someone has to babysit you. I know you’re glad the Royals are warming up to you, but I don’t trust anyone here yet. I just wish Ceann could have come.”

Jacob paused before answering. “I know, but he wasn’t invited. Besides, he’s not been very happy with me since before we left Ironwood. It’s been getting a little better lately, but I still sense his disapproval.”

Athena’s eyes met his. “To be fair, he has his reasons. He’s deadly afraid the mission is going to fail, and he doesn’t think you’re taking it seriously enough. In the crossroads, you gambled everything on Thane being able to help you. And witness your ditching the plan and entering the tournament. Maybe it did make sense for someone to enter, but you’re supposed to be in charge, Lord Jacob.

He knows if you botch this, it’ll make him look bad too. As senior adviser, it’s his job to keep you on track, but he doesn’t think you’re listening. It doesn’t help how smug you get sometimes: he says you beat him with the sword, then laughed, and rubbed it in his face. Now you’re not only spending the day fighting, you’re taking his girl out partying, at least as he sees it. Alone.”

Jacob chuckled mirthlessly. “Of course, he imagines I don’t want to succeed as much as he does. Right. And what am I supposed to do: take a chaperon along, only to ditch him at the door? This isn’t Margon, or Ironwood, for that matter. It’s not improper here to take you with me. But - are you? His girl, I mean.”

Athena sighed. “I don’t know, exactly. He’s more mature than most of the men who come my way, and he’s not married. You wouldn’t believe how many married men think I’m open to being ‘something on the side’. Not me, Jacob! But I have to admit, I have been lonely. Playing the flirt isn’t as much fun as it used to be. So I might let him chase me for real, if he’s interested.”

The Baron’s son cleared his throat. “Sure. Good for you, then. I mean, if that’s what you want, you deserve better than to be alone.”

Athena raised her eyebrow. “That’s sweet and all, Jacob, but I wasn’t asking your permission.”

The gentleman raised his hands defensively. “Right, of course not. But you are my friend, and well - I just want you to be happy. Sometimes, that means being in your business. Sometimes, it means not knowing what to say, I think. Anyway, we’re almost there.”

“I know.”

Prince Halvar’s mansion was broad and lavish. The original stone of the Taran dwelling had been repaired, and dozens of grand tapestries hung within. A beautifully furnished great room near the front hall held the evening’s celebrants. The room would have felt cavernous, were it not for the presence of the more than two dozen souls enjoying it. Light came both from the roaring fire in the hearth, and from lamps in various bronze sconces throughout the room. Two men were playing music in the corner, one using some variant of a fiddle, and the other marking a beat on a set of drums. There were nearly as many women as men standing or lounging throughout the room, dressed in vividly colored dresses. This was clearly not a Margon party, for upon the great couches against the walls, men and women sat side by side. Some of the women were leaning against the men, and had hands on their shoulders and thighs! That was were the license ended, however: the behavior of the women was improper, but stopped short of lewdness. It gave a pointed context to Daniel’s recent adventures with Thane’s daughter.

Halvar himself came to the doorway to welcome his guests. “Jacob, Athena, well met! Come, have a seat: we’ve saved a spot for you. Arenna, would you kindly fetch them each flagons of wine?”

Jacob returned the greeting with genuine warmth. “Thank you, Halvar. Your home shows such excellent taste, that you must have a woman helping you, but I had not heard that you were married.”

Halvar smiled graciously. “Thank you. Arenna has been of great help. She is one of the Kynzri, a servant bonded to the Clan. My father has been pressuring me to choose a wife, but it is a difficult thing. I am loathe to disappoint so many women on a single day. In the meantime, I try to leave duty for the daytime, and take evenings for myself and for my friends.”

The prince gestured to his left, where stood a dark-haired man a few years older than Jacob, and near his own height. Fresh bruises and scrapes visible on the man’s arms and face. “Speaking of friends, you should meet Intarek.”

Jacob turned to shake the man’s hand, and found himself looking in the eyes of the man he had defeated in the first match of the day. He was unsure of what to say, and grateful when Intarek spoke first. “It is a pleasure to shake your hand, Jacob. I seem to remember you being taller.”

“Well,” Jacob replied carefully, “I try to make my inches count. It’s a pleasure to speak to you, also. You fought well.”

Intarek gave him a knowing eye. “Not nearly well enough, since you thrashed me completely. I admit, I was embarrassed to lose to a foreigner, at first. Yet my company has improved since then, and I need not feel ashamed any longer. My biggest regret is that I did not get more fights before that one. It is a long time until the Fall contest. Does everyone in Ironwood fight like you and Athena?”

Athena spoke up as she could in her slowly improving Kharshe. “Is not easy to be so good like this, but some in Ironwood do.”

Jacob agreed. “We are better than most in Ironwood’s training field. But my brother and the master of the field surpass us easily.”

Halvar smiled shrewdly. “That is good to know. Much better then for us to encounter each other in tournament than elsewhere.”

Jacob nodded enthusiastically. “Perish the thought!”

The prince continued. “But you both have been making quite a stir. I suspect you will do very well: we might even end up facing each other before the tournament ends.”

Jacob grinned. “If so, I apologize in advance.”

Halvar shook his head. “Don’t worry, no one is expecting you to hold your own against me. You need not be embarrassed to lose.”

“Is that why you are offering me drink?”

The Sarronen laughed. “You and I are drinking the same wine, but you may use that excuse with your companions, if you wish. In the meantime, I have friends to congratulate and console, and there are fine ladies dying to meet you, though Athena’s fans may even be more persistent. I will not be the one to keep you from them. Please, enjoy the evening. You are among friends.”

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