Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 1: The Eye of The Storm

Jacob stood with a circle of men, enjoying the richness of his brew, as the sights and sounds of the festival swirled around him. The Cerelia had been celebrated at the start of every Autumn for over a thousand years since before Mirakan times, in honor of the mythical goddess Ceria. Very few worshiped Ceria any more, but centuries of tradition were not to be denied, and every year her legacy transformed Ironwood into a place of merriment and laughter. Jacob was not immune to the magic.

True, he would have preferred to spend more time with close friends, but a Baron’s son must mingle, so he entertained a small group of Holders from the south of Ironwood, whose interests he struggled to remember. The Baron’s guard held less sway there, so many of the group were armed. Ah, yes: Holder Stonegin grew wheat and vegetables, while Holder Stennich and his sons jealously guarded their sheep and cattle against raids from rogue Kharshe clans. Stennich had a long history of complaints about the Baron’s lack of support; Jacob, with his newfound reputation as a martial prodigy, found himself increasingly the target of their pleas.

The Baron’s younger son took a swig of the dark ale, and nodded carefully. “Yes, Father has always been grateful for the courage of the farmers and ranchers who hold the lands southward. He is only concerned that we not antagonize the Karim by overreaching our borders. King Aerdil has long been among the most cordial of the Clan leaders towards us, and the most open to trade, but he also has an army at our doorstep.”

Stennich shook his head. “Sure, and that’s what he says too, every time I ask. But the thieves are stepping in my land, and stealing my goats and lambs at night. If he won’t put a stop to it, I gotta fight back somehow. It ain’t right they can take what’s mine, and I can’t take it back. The King, with his pretty words, barely gives ’em a pause. Used to be at least the numbers were small, but it’s got worse, and I can’t put up with much more before taking matters in my own hands. We ain’t heard about him in weeks, neither, since some kinda fight broke out down there. What we heard about is they have a new Prince, named Aelden. He don’t seem to worry none about past agreements. He don’t say much at all.”

That was all he needed. Every rumor of change had set Jacob on edge since he had learned about the Sorcerer taking part in Sarronen’s politics, but so far even his brother was convinced he was jumping at shadows. “We can’t start a war over two lambs and goat. I’ll talk to my father about getting a patrol down that way. A little show of force now might prevent the need for more later, and we could use some reports from that way before the next Spring caravan to Imbria. Is there anything else you can tell me about what’s going on with the Karim?”

Both holders shook their heads. Stennich replied, with some relief in his voice, “Well, I’d be right grateful if you’d do that. Let me know if you do, and I’ll make sure the wife has something hot for them when they come by. About the Karim? I can’t say what went on, but there was some kind of dustup a month back, over and done real fast. Might be nothing, might not, but some Karims as actually paid for my goats said there was blood spilled, and best not to ask any more. I can take a hint, Lord Jacob.”

“Of course, Holder Stennich”, Jacob responded. “I will pass that along. And now, I think, I need to congratulate my fiance, before the dance contests begin. She won’t forgive me if I miss that.”

“Of course, Lord Jacob, and luck to you. It’s good to have your ear, and word is, you’re a man of action. I’ll just leave it at that.”

“I’m grateful for your faith,” Jacob replied, clasping the man on the arm, “and I’ll do my utmost to deserve it.”

At that, Jacob slipped away, passing into the crowd. The dance was the last contest of the night, and with luck he would catch Anna before the Goddess’s Chosen were selected. In every direction, men and women were dressed in their autumn best. The leaves had begun to turn, and everywhere women wore woven crowns of leaves, vines, needles, and berries, wild with color to match their gowns.

Jacob skirted a group of women and children packed around a talented singer, whose voice moved easily from high register to low, liquid and compelling. Her competitors eyed her with grudging respect, each hoping to join the Chosen. He regretted he had no time to enjoy the array of paintings or embroidery, and it would be a shame not to hear the best of the poetry. However, he couldn’t risk missing his betrothed.

Off to the left, Daniel would be competing among the men who sang, with his own reedy tenor. Jacob would have to hear from Thaddeus how it went. To his shame, he couldn’t even recall if Thaddeus was brewing this year. He had never won, in that or with the fiddle, but he had gained a following, and usually Jacob was among them. Pity. He couldn’t even console himself with the notion that there was always another year. But up ahead, he saw what he’d been looking for.

Anna was beautiful. She wore a slender dress of flame-orange, that made glowing jewels of her brown eyes. Her chestnut hair was wreathed by a the most beautifully intricate crown of leaves he had ever seen, and her face was alight with laughter at some joke. She placed her hand on Liliana’s arm, and offered her a mug of cider. Liliana patted her swollen belly absently, and accepted graciously. They were surrounded by friends and well-wishers: beautiful young girls, wizened ladies with the confidence of age, and middle-aged mothers with poise and dignity. Jacob’s fiance must have been selected as one the Chosen for her Autumn Crown. She was gracious, complimenting the others on their efforts, thanking them, and wishing them well in other contests. In short, she was in her element.

Jacob stood outside the circle for only moment, capturing the memory, before he approached. “Congratulations, Anna. You look amazing! If it were anyone else, I would not believe it. And your creations are as lovely as ever, Liliana. They would certainly have chosen you too, if they could.”

Liliana was radiant, in a way only an expectant mother could be, and she twisted in her seat to include the young woman in her contentment. “I made out very well, thank you. I might mention how well you dress up yourself, but then, you know how badly I want Anna in the family. Pure selfishness, I am afraid.”

“If there is anything you lack, Liliana,” Anna added with a crooked smile, “it is selfishness. I doubt you scrape up a penny’s worth of it. Talent, on the other hand, you have in plenty. Every other girl here is green with envy; with your guidance, they didn’t stand a chance. Truly, I owe you this moment.”

Liliana shook her head, but a faint blush showed the compliment had landed. “You are too kind. I’m always happy to teach what I know, but you earned this. Never mind me, though, Anna. No doubt Jacob came here to sneak in a walk with you before the Parade. Do you plan to keep him waiting?”

Anna’s smoldering eyes settled directly on Jacob’s. “I would not dream of it. Shall we, my Lord husband-to-be?”

Jacob bowed briefly to Liliana, then took Anna’s hand, and turned toward a darker part of the commons, where they could talk. It had been months since Anna had been chosen for him, and still his coming marriage didn’t quite feel real. Despite an awkward start, Anna seemed genuinely interested in making this work, and she was finally settling in here in Ironwood. That felt important, though he couldn’t say why, since he would be following her back home soon, and permanently. It wasn’t that common for men to move in with their in-laws, but that was the contract his father had worked out. Jacob would work for the Whitesails until he could save enough to establish his own warehouse in Margon. Unfortunately, whenever he thought he’d learned to accept that, doubt wormed its way in.

Jacob was adventurous enough, but the prospect of handing himself into a strange family for the rest of his life was disturbing. True, Anna was giving up at least as much as he. Yes, she would see her family, and live in the city she loved, the way she loved living, and be provided for. She would run the household, and control the house’s finance and spending. However, she would have to bear him children, or at least try - whether she would find that wonderful or a nightmare in time, God only knew. How would she know whether he was a gentleman or a lout willing to beat his wife into submission?

Jacob had lost his mother young, but he knew some couples, like Laranna’s parents, loved and trusted one another implicitly. They were the team Thaddeus and Lisa pretended to be. The thought of them made Jacob both envious and hopeful.

“Can we stop here?” Anna asked lightly. “As interesting as it might be to wander off in the dark with you, it won’t do to miss the parade.”

“Of course, my Lady” Jacob replied, then placed his back against a tree, gazing out at the stars. It was a clear night, and the moon had waned to just a sliver. The sky was covered with pinpricks, surrounded by the milky glow behind. “I meant it, you know: you look wonderful tonight. You have a smile to make the heart leap. I take it you enjoyed the festival?”

Anna’s eyes glowed warm in the starlight, her dark hair and crown accenting her lovely silhouette. “Yes, it’s been charming. I’m starting to see why you like this little town. I could imagine us visiting, once in a while.”

Jacob’s forehead creased. “That would be nice.”

“I would die for a proper evening dress, though, after the festival,” Anna added thoughtfully. “Liliana did an excellent job helping me with this one, of course, but it was meant to be a bit rustic. Don’t get me wrong - there are a few competent tailors in Ironwood, if you like the style. But the best fabrics don’t come this way, and even if they did, fashion lags here by years. I could help you too. You look well enough in that green, but give me a week in Pearl Bay and enough gold for a competent tailor, and I’ll make you so handsome you won’t recognize yourself. Do you think we could sneak up there for a couple days? We should make an impression when we head home, and that will take a new wardrobe for both of us. This is just the kind of thing you need a talented wife for.”

Jacob shook his head slightly. “Anna, you know I have to take the caravan to Sarronen in a week. We start packing right after Cerelia, and this is the only chance to get the route settled before I’m gone. Even father says that no one else can properly make contact with Sarronen right now, after all that’s happened between us. This is a huge deal for Ironwood.”

Anna sighed lightly, swishing her dress with her hand, before finally meeting his eyes. “I suppose you must.”

“I would stay if I could, and I won’t be gone long,” Jacob reassured her. “Just a few weeks, since I’ll only be heading to Sarronen and back. We can go then, or at worst, a week before the Satyrnalia. Besides, I might be able to get hold of some Kharshe flax. No one else will be wearing that.”

Anna studied him carefully in the moonlight. “I know you’re nervous about leaving, Jacob. It took a while to find my feet here, but with Liliana’s help, I did. My brothers and I will be there for you, too. I can tell you about the politics, who you need to know - “

Jacob leaned forward, placed his arm around her, and kissed her. Anna stiffened for just an instant, then placed her hand on his chest, leaning into him and the kiss. When Jacob pulled back, Anna let out a brief, nervous laugh, and smoothed her dress.

“If you are going to interrupt me, there are worse ways to go about it,” she murmured.

“Sorry,” Jacob replied, reflexively.

Anna shook her head. “Come on, I see them lining up for the Parade.”

Later that night, Anna plopped down beside Liliana with a cup of wine, feet aching. The local cobbler hadn’t done a terrible job, but it would take another week to wear in her shoes properly. Liliana had helped with the festival dress, but crafting matching shoes was another matter. Of course, they still hurt.

In the square, Jacob continued with the dance while the fiddler played a lively tune. He was tireless, and his footwork was flawless. Of all the contest tonights, this one favored him the most. He cut a handsome figure.

“Had enough?” Liliana asked.

She looked tired, and no wonder: she had to be close to term. There were a few other ladies nearby in a similar state, chatting together further down the long table. The expectant mothers grew easier to identify as the night went on: they were sober. Anna left that behind shortly before she and Jacob started dancing, and maintained a pleasant giddiness since. It made for a fine night, but her eyes began to try, and her stomach was starting to turn.

“I think my feet have finally given out,” Anna replied. “I am a delicate flower, it seems, unlike Jacob, who prances about the yard in armor for hours on end. He does it well, though. It was the first thing I really knew about him.”

“He does,” Liliana acknowledged, swirling her cider and meeting Anna’s eyes curiously. “He’s a good man, you know. Since I’ve come to Ironwood, he’s always been.”

“I know,” Anna replied, nursing a frown. “Sweet, and honorable to a fault. Was Lord Erik like that? I haven’t seen much of him since I’ve been here.”

Liliana quirked an eyebrow. “I’m fond of both of them, of course, but they are different people. Erik is practical, and much needed. He travels often, and works late into the evenings. Even during festival, some minor Holder is apt to drag him away. Jacob may be an idealist, but he’s always put his friends first, and lately you.

“Don’t get me wrong - my husband’s devotion is sincere. It wasn’t easy to leave Marin, and to marry I man I had never met, but he’s been very good to me. I trust him. I might wish to see a little more of him, but I can bear that price to be his Baroness. He’ll make Ironwood prosper, and I’ll make it shine.

“Sorry, I’m rambling. You asked about Jacob. I expect him to be as loyal and faithful as my own husband, but you may find him more available.”

“It was easy for you, then, to give yourself to Lord Erik?” Anna found herself asking.

“Not at first,” Liliana answered with a wicked grin. “But I wasn’t made to be alone, and we learned to fit together well enough. I have no regrets. I’ve watched you and Jacob, and that part will be easy enough. You’ll see.”

Anna felt her cheeks heating - from the wine, of course, and turned to see her future husband as he danced down the line. He was handsome, she’d grant, and thrilled her body when he held her for a kiss. It was a pity he had to ruin the moment with an apology.

Liliana was right, though: he was a good man, who always did what he thought was right. He was polite, and kind to her, and even to strangers. He was clever and strong, but honest and thoughtful - perfectly content to bend to her will in most things. In short, he would be a perfect husband, if he didn’t bore her completely out of her skull.

Jacob frowned, closed his eyes, and rubbed them with his thumb and forefinger. The words of the scroll began to blur in his mind, and he rested his forehead in his palm. When he got home, he had felt a surge of energy and focus. For the first time in years, his father was pleased by his insights. He’d picked up a large bundle of patterned Sarronen linen from Thane on the way back this Spring, and after poring through text, predicted a receptive market in Maragon. The Summer Caravan west to the capitol city had proved him right, earning rare praise from the Baron. Unfortunately, since then, Jacob’s attention had seemed to scatter, as the time approached to leave Ironwood behind. Then there were disturbing rumors of conflict in Margon. How could Jacob possibly worry about Marin’s appetite for cheap tools when Sorcerers might be preparing to fracture the continent? But so far, Ironwood remained as quiet as ever, and the rumors were only that, not solid news.

“A moment, Jacob,” a deep voice called out from behind.

The young man startled, back straightening, and wrenched his mind to the present. Jacob was blessed with his own room in the keep, and he didn’t expect to be interrupted there. He’d set up a cedar desk inside, and a shelf with reams of papers and parchments. It was convenient for late evenings, when he forced himself through his father’s reports. The room was sparse, only for sleeping and working. That probably explained why he despised it.

“Of course, father,” Jacob replied, standing to meet the Baron’s eyes. “You wanted to talk?”

Lord Sterik clasped his hands, considering the few decorations, and the worn and faded mirror above the chest of clothes. “You need a woman’s touch in here, son. Or maybe not; how much are you planning to take with you, when you leave?”

Jacob shrugged. “My weapons, my armor, my clothes. The bed and desk can stay here. You’ll want them for guests, or for Erik’s children, when they get older.”

The Baron cleared his throat. “I hate to see you leave, Jacob. I don’t understand what happened to you in Travan, that made you fight like you do, but perhaps that’s unnecessary. You can only accept what God gives, whether you believe in him or not. But the maturity and discipline you’ve shown since is a vast improvement. You’ve grown up, and I’m proud of you for it. You should know that, before you go.”

Jacob exhaled slowly. “Thank you, father. It’s hard, you know. Giving myself to someone I barely know, and leaving everything I’ve ever cared about. Why didn’t you ask me before you decided? After all, you haven’t even remarried.”

For a moment, anger flashed through the elder Ironwood’s eyes, and his face hardened, but it quickly drained, leaving his usual carven composure. “I suppose you deserve an answer for that, now you’re a man. You do need a woman in your life, and Ironwood needs all the allies it can find in Margon.

“You know better than most how precarious our situation is, but there are things I haven’t shared even with you. You know that competition among merchants in Margon is vicious: being undercut or blacklisted can destroy families or even whole towns. But out west, unprotected rivals are eliminated by poison in wine, and daggers in alleyways. You might have heard this, but how can you understand it so far east? Tell me, Jacob, what happened to your uncle Jonah?”

The younger man leaned back against the wall, thinking. “He was traveling through Margon with his wife, when he caught a plague that took them both. I don’t remember much of him, actually. I was only five at the time, and he was always traveling.”

The Baron’s voice was cold and detached. “I did receive a letter from your aunt claiming Jonah died of the plague. She said that because of her grief, she was moving back with her parents. In truth, she poisoned your uncle after a deal with her family went south, and fled back to them. My cousin took revenge upon her, and was subsequently challenged to a duel that killed him and her father both. Tensions have died down since, but our family remains unwelcome in parts of Lycosa today. Life is dangerous, Jacob, which is why I encouraged you and Erik to learn the martial arts, including the sword and dagger, even if you still spend too much time with them.

“Of course, knives aren’t the only danger. Your Great Uncle Harold struggled for decades to make a living in Attica. He survived to a ripe old age, but died penniless, and his three daughters married low.

There are so many ways for our family to fail. Our good years are good, but we have come close to ruin more than once, when partners turned on us. We cannot let that happen, son. You know how many people depend upon us. Can you imagine Ironwood without the Ironwood Mercantile Company? The town would be lost to scavengers in months.

“Of course I cannot marry again. I did not choose your mother - I didn’t even like her until we married, though we came to love each other well.

“No, instead I begged my parents to make arrangements with the woman who eventually killed my brother. They refused, and chose your mother for me. Only once our parents died at sea was Jonah free to marry as he pleased, to his sorrow. If I had been allowed to choose my bride, Ironwood would be lost already. The heart is too strong to be ignored, and too unwise to be trusted, even for me. Not to mention, a woman would have to be desperate or foolish to marry a Baron with two adult sons to share his inheritance.

“Whatever your doubts about Anna, I have vetted her in a way you would be too biased to do. Her family is capable, and she can be trusted to keep your interests foremost. You cannot ask more than that. I would not send you away if I could avoid it, but we need alliances in the west to survive, and you’re wanted there. As frightened as I was that you weren’t ready, I had no choice. What you’ve shown in the past few months is a great reassurance. Your trade-work is improving, and Liliana tells me your fiance is settling in.”

Jacob shook his head, trying to rid himself of his father’s fears, but they settled within him instead. The Baron always made him feel so irresponsible, as if he refused to grow up. Had he been right? It was a disturbing thought, since analyzing trade routes was already becoming mind-numbingly tedious again. At least things were going better with Anna. Unfortunately, if Francis was right about more Sorcerers coming, that would dwarf his father’s concerns. Until then, the Baron had a point. “Thank you for telling me. I had no idea.”

Baron Ironwood risked a slow smile. “Trust is earned, but you are earning it. While I’m here, I also wanted to talk a bit about the caravan to Sarronen. Take Ceann with you; when you’re gone, he’ll be the most qualified to handle the route. He’s had a small wagon for years, and the leadership of Sarronen should recognize him from your time there. That should earn him some goodwill, and you’ve proven how important it is for us to establish friendships among the Clans.”

Jacob’s forehead creased. He and Ceann hadn’t parted on the best of terms. Moreover, if Athena felt more comfortable outside Ironwood than in it, Ceann might have had something to do with it. Unfortunately, Jacob didn’t have any better ideas, or none his father would accept. “As you wish. I’ll take Thaddeus and Daniel too, for similar reasons. The merchant Thane especially should be glad to deal with them, and Daniel has a surprisingly good eye for value. Thane is an ambitious man, but honest. If we want a stronger presence in Sarronen, he will be a valuable asset in establishing one.”

The Baron nodded approvingly. “Very good. I wouldn’t trust Thaddeus to manage the route himself, but he still may be useful, and I will keep an eye on Daniel. Talent is hard to find, and his father will be pleased. Anything else?”

“Yes,” Jacob added, then frowned. “The Southern Holders are concerned about recent rumors from Karim, of a change in leadership. It could be nothing, but it’s at least possible the new Prince is a Sorcerer. If he is, Ironwood can’t fight him without me, maybe not even with. I was lucky to defeat Innoken, even with Brother Francis’s support. Without, you’ll have to bargain, or surrender. That’s one reason I am afraid to leave Ironwood behind.”

“I’ll take that into consideration,” the Baron said. “I would dismiss such things entirely if I hadn’t seen you fight with my own eyes. Still, even the most frightening legends only talk about such creatures appearing once or twice in a thousand years, whatever your friend said. Still, if another does appear, I have to hope he’ll be more reasonable than Innoken.”

“Me too,” Jacob added ruefully. “I’m losing enough already, without worrying about leaving Ironwood vulnerable in my absence. You know I won’t fit in with Anna’s family like I do here, not for years. I wish Athena were here: I could really use a good friend about now. I couldn’t believe it when she left for Northspire, even if Thaddeus and I were her only true friends. Maybe she didn’t want to watch me leave, and beat me to the punch.”

“I’m sorry,” Lord Ironwood replied, “but her reasons are her own. Perhaps Anna can provide some consolation. That would be much healthier for you than a friendship with another woman.”

Jacob had his misgivings, but he nodded anyway. “I suppose.”

“Jacob, despite what I’ve told you, I expect you will thrive in Pearl Bay, and make friends quickly there. If I’ve pushed you hard, it’s so I could stand here and say that honestly. You’ll do fine, and remember: Pearl Bay is close enough for frequent visits. I’ll want to see you, and my grand-children, once you have them.”

Jacob actually laughed. “Of course, father. I promise.”

“Very well, then,” the Baron replied gruffly. “I’ll leave you to your work, then.”

It was good, talking to his father like this, like the man actually trusted him. But it was impossible to put his head back into his papers now. He decided it was time for a drink. Anna had other plans tonight, and his soul needed it.

Jacob would miss this, he thought, as he stepped through thick door into a large room buzzing with laughter and conversation. The Clever Swordsman wasn’t the largest tavern, or the most exclusive, but they made a mean lamb roast, and the the local brews were unmatched. Then, of course, there was the company.

“Hey Jacob,” Daniel called out, “glad you could finally make it. Have a seat!”

Jacob smiled broadly. “Good to see you: Daniel, Thaddeus.”

Thaddeus raised his mug in response, and Daniel offered a grin of his own. Jacob hadn’t seen much of them recently. Anna had taken most of his time, and his father’s employees and associates the rest. There was a price to being taken seriously.

“Anna hasn’t been keeping you too busy, has she?” Thaddeus asked with a wink.

“We’re getting along nicely enough,” Jacob replied with a ghost of a grin, “Thank you for asking. I take it Lysa’s still letting you out?”

“Of course,” Thaddeus replied loftily. “She trusts me implicitly, on account of my loving her so very much. I switched to cider for my last round, though, as it improves the odor of my breath.”

Jacob shook his head sadly. “Who are you, and what have you done with Thaddeus?”

At that moment, the serving girl came by, and with a friendly wink, placed a mug of his favorite ale on the table. You couldn’t beat the service at the Clever Swordsman, and Jena was the best. She would probably move on and get married soon enough, but she sure knew how to run a room. Any man who abused her would surely face the wrath of Ironwood’s entire town guard. Jacob smiled in thanks and tossed her a coin, which she pocketed deftly before taking an order at the next table over.

“You’re not the only one changing, Jacob,” Daniel opined, before downing the rest of his ale. “He’s been doing this the past two months, everywhere but at the Cerelia. Age is a terrible thing.”

“I don’t mind your jealousy, young man,” Thaddeus returned with a wink. “I’ll nod along with anything that will help you feel better about going home alone.”

“After all we’ve been together,” Daniel returned mockingly, “that hurts. Besides, did you see how Molly was looking at me, the one with the green eyes? She said I have a beautiful voice, at the Cerelia. I know she wants to hear more.”

Thaddeus answered with a full grin. “The boy’s growing up. You sang well, you know. Could come in useful.”

Daniel shrugged. “Maybe, though I wasn’t Chosen. I’ll be enjoying the single life a bit longer, though. Dad hasn’t said anything about hitching me up just yet.”

“Good,” Jacob replied. “I’ve got some plans of my own for you, if you’re interested. I told Father I wanted you for the caravan to Sarronen. I’d like to try making good use of Thane, and my guess is his daughter will be happy to see you.”

This time, Daniel broke out into a full blush, to Thaddeus’s clear amusement. “Um, ok,” Daniel replied awkwardly. “I’m not sure she’ll still be interested, though: that was months ago. Besides, it’s not a serious thing. Can you imagine my dad going for a match like that?”

“I can,” Jacob answered with a wicked grin. “He seemed intrigued by the idea, actually. As long as you, Thane, and Anginette are on board.”

Daniel groaned, and buried his head in his hands, causing Thaddeus to double in laughter. “I wish Athena were here to see that!”

There was an awkward pause after that, and Thaddeus winced. “Sorry about that. I miss her, though. I still don’t understand how she could leave us. It just didn’t make sense.”

Daniel cleared his throat carefully before speaking up. “I think Ceann might know something. My friend Jon heard him talking to his boys, the ones that follow him around all the time. Ceann said Athena just got some just deserts, and he was a little too happy about it.”

“Maybe,” Jacob said heavily. “He didn’t like her, but that doesn’t mean he could or would bully her into leaving. Athena isn’t afraid of much. I think she really wanted to leave, and he made some assumptions.”

Thaddeus sighed, tossed back the last of his cider, and slapped some coins down on the table. “I’m not buying what you’re selling, Jacob, but I’ll let it be. Much as I’d like to rip off some scabs and grind lye into the wounds, I do have to get back to Lysa. It was good seeing you, Jacob.”

“One moment,” Jacob added. “You’re coming with me to Sarronen too.”

Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. “Didn’t think to ask first?”

Jacob leaned back in his chair, brow furrowing. “You don’t have to, if you don’t want to, but you’re usually the first to volunteer for a caravan. Is something wrong, Thaddeus?”

Thaddeus’s smile returned, or at least the shadow of one. “I’m good, Jacob. Better than good, really. You sent me home this Spring before I got a chance to play hero with you two, but I did get to speak up to the Baron.

“Sure, he didn’t listen, but I was stubborn about it, and I got a lot of credit later when I turned out to be right. Most people think of me as part of the team that saved Ironwood, including Lysa and the kids. I like that. Look, Dav’s turning ten, and he wants me to teach him to fight, because I’m a hero now. Lysa hasn’t left to visit her ‘sister’ or her ‘cousin’ in years, and since spring she’s been smiling when I come through the door.

“So I’ve been spending more time at home, only coming here once or twice a week, and leaving early. Maybe that’ll pass soon, but I like it. I don’t want to mess with that, Jacob.”

Jacob took a swig of his ale, thinking. Thaddeus, the family man? He might talk a good game, but his home life was rocky at best, and everyone knew it. But Jacob had spent little time with him in past months; maybe his circumstances had changed. Jacob was sorely tempted to let his friend walk out the door. Unfortunately, he still needed the man. “Well, Thaddeus, it’s your call. But my father is still going to expect you to do caravans, and Sarronen is going to be the shortest. If you don’t go, it’ll just be Ceann and Daniel running it, once I’m gone. Heaven knows Ceann will flub that up, given the chance, and this is your chance to push for the next rank while I’m still around to put a good word in for you. You can tell Lysa that, if you decide to go.”

Thaddeus looked irritated, but raised a hand to acknowledge the point. “Fine, fine, I’ll think about it. She’s been asking for ages when I’ll get a real promotion, and you’ve got a point about Ceann. You have a real nasty habit of being right, you know that?”

“I’ll try not to let it go to my head,” Jacob replied, lifting his mug. His friend was on board.

Jacob slumped carefully into his bed, his legs, arms, and chest screaming for rest. The last three days had passed quickly. As busy as preparing for the caravan’s departure made him, he still needed to spend time in the training yard. This spring, when St. Thomas had changed him, it was supposed to be temporary, a burst of power to save his life. Innoken had infused his champion, Serren, with at least twice the speed and strength of a normal man, through a spiritual connection built upon the man’s loyalty. Jacob had been helpless as a babe against him.

In response, Jacob had called upon Heaven, raising the Shield of St. Thomas in defense. Through the relic, the saint granted him a matching strength and speed, allowing him to face and defeat Serren on equal terms. Heaven wasn’t permitted by its treaties to fight the Sorcerers of Vallaton. However, Serren wasn’t a Sorcerer, just a pawn in the game of power that could have ended with Ironwood destroyed. Luckily for Jacob, St. Thomas must have some sentiment for Ironwood or its people. He’d never explained.

The saint’s gifts were only supposed to last for moments. Instead, they became a part of the Ironwood warrior, stirring his soul and settling in his bones, remaining even when St. Thomas attempted to withdraw them. His body had become something different, something more. And yet, after months of his throwing every waking hour into one newfound responsibility or another, it had also grown badly out of shape.

Jacob was surprised to discover he was as vulnerable to lack of exercise as anyone else. His first session back had left him sore and winded, driving home painfully what he had lost. On the other hand, it also hinted at what he might be able to gain.

In the past few weeks, he had responded by doing long sprints in full armor. As he expected, the faster he ran, the more quickly he tired - but even more so than for a normal human, even if he tended to recover quickly, as well. Full-out sprints could reduce him to complete exhaustion in minutes, before he could perform all the exercises he needed. So he’d tried to build himself up slowly, to balance his abilities. However, before he rode east in the caravan, he needed to know what he could do. Today, he had pushed himself to the limit. When his legs turned to jelly and refused to run, he switched to the sword, exercising form after form, at speeds he’d never approached before.

He was beginning to think he had made a mistake. His arms, protesting severely, barely made it through pumping enough water to rinse off his sweat before he stumbled to his room to strip and collapse. He closed his eyes for just a moment, resting, hoping to recover before dinner.

It couldn’t have been more than a minute later when the merchant’s son was startled awake by loud knocking. “One second,” he called out, standing to pull on breeches and throw a shirt over his head. “Who is is it?”

It must be a servant, Jacob realized, when no one responded. Probably Enara: she was always so shy. He would have to remember to leave his door unlocked when he went to eat, so she could take care of his clothes. Still, he might as well open the door to make sure she was still there. He lifted the bolt, and cracked open the thick wooden door.

Inches away stood a beautiful young woman in a flame-red evening dress and intricately braided chestnut hair. She was holding a plate loaded with the leg of some game bird, bread, slices of apple, and a mix of fall vegetables. The food was a sight for sore eyes, but Anna was - something else.

“You look like hell,” she laughed. “May I come in?”

Jacob opened the door, and let her by. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you. You are a vision of loveliness, as always.”

Anna placed the plate down on his desk, then slid before the door, arms folded to her breasts. “I do hope you weren’t expecting anyone else. I thought I’d bring you something, since you slept through dinner.

“Erik said you worked yourself pretty hard today. I dare say he was right. I suppose I have to forgive you for standing me up on the last day before you run off again. I wore this dress just for you, you know.”

Jacob shook his head, but forced a smile. “I always did love you in red. It does something marvelous to your eyes. I’m sorry. I’ve been much busier than I intended to be, and you know I was looking forward to seeing you.”

He winced before continuing. “I had no idea I’d missed dinner. I’ll make it up to you, I promise. I’ll bring you back something beautiful from Sarronen, and we can leave early for Pearl Bay.”

Anna’s deep brown eyes danced as she closed the door, and leaned against it. “I’ll hold you to that, my future husband. So, what is it that you think you’ll have for me?”

Jacob clasped his hands together, and his shirt fell open, as he hadn’t time to tie it shut. “Sarronen has blue and crimson dyes I’ve never seen anywhere else. I’ll have a dress made for you that Pearl Bay will envy. We have silver in the vault, too, from the south: I’ll have some made into a locket, with a ruby inset. Consider it an engagement gift. There’s fabrics in Sarronen, too, that are unique in Annaria. If I can find the right tailor -”

“I take it back,” Anna cut in gently, raising a hand to his chest. “You don’t look so bad half-dressed, with your hair mussed. Rather the opposite.”

“Oh,” Jacob said, running his fingers along her arm.

“How long have we known each other, Jacob?” Anna asked conversationally, lowering a hand to slide the lock behind her into place.

Jacob swallowed. “Six months or so, if you don’t count - “

“I think,” Anna continued, “that we ought to get to know one another a little better.”

“Anna,” Jacob replied carefully, hands shaking, “I thought you wanted to wait.“

“I have no intention,” Anna responded, stepping forward and lowering her eyelashes, “of ruining my wedding or my honeymoon with a maternity dress, but I do think we should get to know one another - better. Sit.”

Jacob lowered himself onto his bed. “Then - “

Anna rolled her eyes. “Just kiss me, you handsome idiot.”

The morning came quickly, but Jacob met it with wide eyes. Every muscled ached, but the warm glow from the night before hadn’t yet faded. He felt - good. Anna left him breathless, after that kiss, and confused. With few exceptions, Jacob’s honor kept him rigidly in check around women, especially after his father had let Thela go.

Until that day in old Jedder’s hay barn, Thela had been a serving maiden in the keep. That was when the master-at-arms found them clinging to one another, minus a few clothes. The embarrassment had been bad enough, but Thela’s overnight disappearance from his life had hit him hard. They’d danced around one another for months, with shy smiles and friendly flirtation, until his sudden stolen kiss, and their headlong rush for a place to be alone. Then she was gone, and he wasn’t even allowed to say goodbye.

She was married now, to a butcher. They had a shop, three streets down from the Swordsman. Jacob had been by a couple times, but Thela wouldn’t even meet his eyes. He couldn’t think of her without a stab of guilt, even now. She’d lost her job and reputation: he’d only lost her. The mistake belonged to both of them, but she bore the brunt of it: he knew it wasn’t fair.

No one had been much interested in Jacob’s apologies, either. Athena’s sharp words had left him bleeding, though he protested he had never meant to ruin a girl’s life. Still, Athena would understand the situation, with all the trouble she’d won by eloping. Earning her good graces back hadn’t been easy. The guys in the practice yard were another matter: half of them cheered out loud for him when he showed up the next day, not that their teasing had been easy to bear.

The Baron’s son had built his walls high since then, a difficult and thankless task. That was what made Anna’s invitation so wonderful and strange. Unlike him, she knew exactly what she was looking for, and what she wasn’t. He fell straight into her brown eyes, letting his body act, accepting the guidance of her hands. He didn’t even have to feel guilty about it, though a part of him did anyway. A small part. He couldn’t possibly return home soon enough.

Jacob wrenched his thoughts to the present, and his eyes to the five great roofed wagons in the cobbled square before the keep. They were beautiful: sides meticulously painted in bright green, roofs and trims liberally coated in dark stain. They bore the pride and colors of Ironwood. Each could carry several tons, and was pulled by eight draft horses. They were filled near to bursting with anything Travan would buy: ironwood staves and slabs, precious metals, jewelry, silk, dyes, gems, pearls, curios, resins, and a dozen other goods. Beside the five was a smaller, canvas-covered wagon pulled by six horses, laden with the wares he and Ceann had chosen. That one, for the next few weeks, was his.

In wagons like these lay the wealth of Ironwood, the reason its merchant Baron spent so much on its Guard. Just one of the laden carts was worth several farms. A band of desperate peasants who captured a caravan could buy a small village, and some had tried. No fully escorted caravan had been taken in fifty years, but lone wagons had, and good men had died defending them. There were clans between Ironwood and Travan that could field dozens of prime-aged men and women skilled in the use of the bow, spear or ax. Win or lose, they could be a serious threat, if a lost harvest drove them to try. Almost two dozen men would leave with the wagons today, armed and armored against that possibility. There would be a bowman atop each of the wagons, shielded by sturdy wooden planks. Hopefully, none of that would be necessary, but fortune favored the prepared.

The sun still edged over the horizon, but men were gathering, loading last minute items, and tending to the animals. Jacob spotted his brother among the bustle, and moved stiffly to join him, calling out with a friendly wave. “Good morning, Erik.”

The Lord Baronet Erik Ironwood nodded in greeting. “A good morning, it is. We missed you at dinner last night. Feeling better, I hope?”

“Well enough,” Jacob replied, running a hand through his hair. “I was just exhausted. I’m so sorry. I wanted to join you, but I slept right through. I’m not quite sure how that happened.”

Erik smiled. “I thought that might be the case. You were frightening yesterday. Even after seeing you fight Innoken, what you put yourself through was a little awe-inspiring. But it’s also obvious how much that takes out of you. Forgive me, but it’s a comfort to see you’re still human.”

“I suppose I won’t complain, then,” Jacob shrugged uneasily, “though I’ll need every advantage I can get if another Innoken comes along. I had more luck, and help, than I deserved, and the fight was still too close.”

Erik shook his head, arms crossed before him. “If I learned anything from Brother Francis, those things are connected. You fought for all of us. That’s why he and Athena gave you all they could. That’s why you succeeded. I just wish I could have done more, myself.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see another Sorcerer, but if we do, don’t fight him alone. I like having my little brother around.”

Jacob chuckled. “I appreciate the thought, but being around won’t be an option. It’s off to Pearl Bay for me, remember?”

“I’m almost jealous,” Erik replied. “I’ve always wanted to see Balina, and I wager the Whitesails will send you there at least once a year. There’s not much point in caging you inside an office. Father is starting to see that, and I’m sure Anna’s family will too. I hope you like ships!

“At least in Pearl Bay, though, you’ll be only a few days from home. Promise you’ll visit, Jacob.”

“I will,” Jacob promised, “especially now that you’ll only be thrashing me in chess. But tell me, what are you doing here so early? I didn’t expect you until the sending off, and that’s not for hours yet.”

Erik squinted against the sun, not far above the horizon, and gestured toward a well-dressed man in a red tunic who was helping with the wagons. “That’s assuming I ever get the chance to sit a chessboard again. Time’s been very precious, lately. I trust Captain Jordan implicitly, but this is still my caravan; he’s only borrowing it. The ladies will be along in an hour or two, and I need to finish checking things over before then. You’ll understand soon if, you don’t already. Speaking of which, how does it feel to have your own wagon?”

“First and last, probably, but I’ll take it” the younger merchant replied. “I’ve dreamed of this for years, you know. It’s amazing to finally see the day. Even so, and even considering the rockiness with Sarronen, running a caravan wagon is the most normal thing in my life for a long time. I’m going to enjoy the hell out of it.”

Erik laughed, and clapped his brother on the back. “You deserve it, Jacob. Besides, I may not be the one leaving home, but you worry too much. This trip is going to be a breeze compared to your last one, and I know you and Anna will do beautifully in Pearl Bay. In a year or two, you won’t even remember what you were so concerned about. After all, you’re an Ironwood.”

That, of course, was why Jacob loved his brother so much. “How do you always know what I need to hear?”

Erik’s eyes twinkled in response. “Age, wisdom, superior intellect - take your pick. For now, I need to get to work, and you should too, unless you have more magical talents I’m not aware of.”

Jacob raised his empty hands. “No such luck. If I don’t get the chance to say so before we leave, God bless you and Liliana both, and any children you may have. By the way, why don’t you ask her to drop by and put her hand on the Shield of St. Thomas? I don’t think he’d begrudge smoothing things along for her. It couldn’t hurt to ask.”

Erik nodded thoughtfully. “I’ll do that. But now, since I’ve never been the lazy one in the family, it’s time to get back to work. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Until then,” the younger brother replied, returning his attention to, what was for now, his very own wagon.

The crowd was marvelous. Men and women surrounded the wagons and lined the cobbled road, standing along the edge of the square. In their church-day best, they were a forest of emeralds, crimsons, browns, and golds stretching far into the distance. Morning’s bite gave way to the sun’s kiss as mid-day approached, and the air was full of celebration. The Autumn Caravan to Travan would have a grand parade, once Lord Sterik arrived to set it off.

Jacob’s crew, long finished with preparations, watched lazily as Captain Jordan and his men triple-checked their own. Jordan’s route might be more practiced, but he and his men still had more than five times the packing to perform.

“I have a good feeling about this,” Ceann stated, moving to stand by the young nobleman. “I can hardly believe it, but you finally cracked Sarronen’s market. We’re going to make a lot of money, my friend.”

“Maybe you will,” Jacob replied. “In the first trip, most of our profit will go to paying off the wagon. I rather doubt we’ll sell everything we bring. We don’t have to, though, this time around. This route will pay for itself in coin, before long, but Sarronen’s friendship will be worth a lot more.”

“You’re confident they’ll welcome us? We thought they were friendly before you rode in this spring, too,” Thaddeus noted. The tall, sandy-haired man still regretted being sent home alone to warn Jacob’s father. He’d missed the fight, and the story, and the Baron hadn’t even responded to his warning.

“You didn’t see Halvar after Innoken went down,” Daniel cut in. “He thinks Jacob is Lazarus reborn. Well, he would if he believed in Lazarus. If Jacob is with us, we’ll do fine.”

Ceann frowned, green eyes darkening. “That won’t always be an option.”

“Don’t worry,” Jacob replied, patting Ceann on the shoulder. “Between you and Thaddeus, the route will be in good hands, once we break the ice. You’ll want to listen to Daniel, though, about anything woven; he has a good eye.”

Ceann crossed his arms, not looking terribly reassured, and nodded towards Thaddeus. “Lysa let you out again, then?”

The taller man shrugged. “I’ve been caravaning for years. I might not want to leave, but this opportunity is too good to pass on. There’s not much room to move up in the keep.”

“Maybe” Ceann replied grudgingly, arms still crossed. “I didn’t think you were too concerned about that.”

“I want to bring Lysa and the kids back something nice,” Thaddeus responded smoothly. “Seems like a good way to go about it. How about you, Jacob? Think you can find anything to meet Anna’s standards? Last time we talked, you seemed like you could use a little butter.”

“I’d better!” Jacob laughed. “I’ve already promised to, and I would hate to disappoint her. Some of the Sarronen fabrics last time were exquisite. It will be hard to better Pearl Bay, but they should do. I’ll need some jewelry to go with, of course. How about you, Daniel? What are you bringing?”

The younger man started, and even Ceann smiled. “Bringing? For what?”

“You didn’t get anything for Anginette?” Ceann asked. “Pity. Jacob was just telling me you had a head on your shoulders.”

“Do you think?” Daniel started, before trailing off into silence and shuffling feet.

“It’s up to you, my friend,” Jacob replied, “But the vendors are all out, and you still have a bit before the parade starts.”

Daniel murmured a quick thanks, and darted over to the side of the road, where girls were hawking silver charms among the still-gathering crowd.

“He’s a good kid,” Thaddeus said. “We’ll do well with him.”

Ceann grunted in what was probably agreement. Jacob had forgotten how prickly the man could be, though it wasn’t clear what was bothering him. The Baron was giving the route to the redhead, not Thaddeus, once Jacob was gone. Didn’t he want an experienced hand like Thaddeus with him?

“Looks like Daniel’s sand is running out,” Thaddeus added. “The Baron’s here, and your lovely lady, too.”

It was true. Illuminated within the rays of the rising sun was the Baron’s procession, with himself at the head, and his older son Erik only a step behind. Ironwood’s ladies followed, resplendent in long dresses of Ironwood’s deep green, hair raised and fixed in gold and chestnut braids, red and gold autumn crowns upon their heads. Liliana’s dress bulged with her obvious pregnancy, but her hair and skin nearly glowed along with her smile - by no means was she sitting out this Caravan Day! Guards followed on either side, each carrying large bags of sackcloth, with long swords upon their hips. A handful of Ironwood’s most important Lord and Lady Holders walked behind, reveling in their fortunes. Each had either sold goods or rented space within the Baron’s caravan. Two smaller wagons, alike to Jacob’s, would join the procession to the east, owned by Lord Holder Jones. He was theoretically a competitor to Baron Sterik, though he paid a fee to share the use of Ironwood’s Guard.

The crowd cheered as the Baron entered the square, approaching the podium. Anna and Liliana, meanwhile, walked eastward down the road with the guards, reaching into their bags for bright red balls of twine, and passing them into the eager hands of children. It went on for some time, the constant roar of the crowd, the street hawkers feverishly calling out, selling sweets, fruits, bread, and piping hot honeyed buns. Time might be growing short, but they would make more coin today even than during the feast of Satyrnalia, when the night was longest. Today was a day of prosperity, and the Baron stood silently at his podium, hands clasped, overseeing it all.

Daniel dashed back into the center of the square, breathing heavily, a small wrapped sack held protectively in his hands. He moved to line up behind Jacob and Thaddeus, while Ceann settled into the wagon’s driving seat. Thaddeus risked a quick grin of congratulation, but Jacob turned his eyes forward to the green-clad women who strode back to the podium. Each walked with slow grace and obvious joy, smiling and waving dark-gloved hands toward the festive men and women beyond. Boisterous cheers followed them. Drinking started early on Caravan Day.

Yet, when Liliana and Anna stopped to either side of the Baron’s podium, a hush immediately fell over the square. Lord Sterik Ironwood’s rolling voice carried throughout, fading only as it traveled up the main thoroughfare.

“Men and women of Ironwood,” his voice rang, “as has been done for sixty-eight years, we celebrate the triumph and toil of our people, and the courage of the men who seek their fortunes - our fortunes, down the long road. We pray that our journey is welcomed throughout the East, and that St. Thomas watches over all those who pass from our eyesight until they safely return. We pray that the wealth we share with the men and women in far lands is returned to us severalfold, serving the peace and mutual benefit of all. My God bless the brave men who leave us this day, the strong and steadfast women who await their return, and all who contributed their own talents and treasure to the glory of Ironwood. We thank you, God, for the prosperity you have given us, and humbly ask that your favor remain with those who love you.

“For Ironwood! Let the Caravans begin!”

Hands and voices rose high throughout the square, many with a flagon or a wineskin within. Men and women shared an embrace, or waved madly to the men lined beside the wagons in the square. Jacob caught Anna’s warm gaze, and she blew a kiss just for him. Hundreds of streams of bright red shot out across the street, then laid to rest on the cobblestone, as children threw forward their balls of twine. Slowly, the horses strained against their harnesses, and the wagon wheels began to roll, while cheer and laughter filled the air. This was Caravan Day.

“My Lord, there is a visitor to see you,” Markus announced from outside the office door, though it was Nathaniel’s turn to stand at guard there. Markus should have been stationed at the gate.

“Who is it?” Baron Ironwood replied mildly, shifting in his seat, but not lowering his pen. Tax collections always followed Caravan Day, and they were God’s own headache to review. It was necessary, every year, to reject some assessments, or his Holders concluded he wasn’t paying attention. On the other hand, he couldn’t scold too many without them thinking him a tyrant. It was a fine line, but power required the consent of the governed. “I have a lot to do today. My Holders are waiting on their assessments already.”

Markus replied uneasily, “My lord, it’s Duke Charlienne, from Timor, and, well…”

Odd that a Margon Duke would deign to come here. That must be why Markus was so nervous. Maybe something of what happened in Sarronen had finally made its way to the crown. “Very well,” Lord Sterik replied brusquely, “you might as well send him in.”

“My Lord, he’s waiting outside the gate with his retinue. He’s asking that you come to him. The man at the gate says he called himself a Sorcerer.”

A slight chill ran up Lord Ironwood’s spine. That rather changed things, didn’t it? He eased his chair back, and stood, taking a carefully measured breath. The Duke was a powerful man, whose gold and steel traveled to every length of the Western world. Physically, though, he was also quite the contrast to the burly militiamen of eastern Margon, whose swords had kept the Kharshe at bay since the fall of Miraka, and whose pickaxes supplied the west with iron. Charlienne was tall, wiry, and cultured, and by the account of Maragon’s Ladies, rather handsome. His dealings were subtle, and he did not scruple to stab rivals in the back. If the Duke was a Sorcerer, it was best not to be considered a rival, or to keep him waiting.

“Follow me, then, Markus. Do you know anything else of his arrival?” the Baron asked brusquely.

“Not much, my lord. I informed you as quickly as I could,” Markus replied nervously.

“As you should,” Lord Ironwood replied, buckling on a scabbard. “Still, you must have noticed something useful. The size of his retinue?”

“Yes, my Lord,” the guard replied. “He left near two dozen men outside the town. He has four men outside of the keep, servants and bodyguards. They’re dressed fine, and they’re well armed. He didn’t bring a wagon, so he’s not here to trade, my Lord.”

The Baron shook his head faintly as he paced down the hallway. No, the Duke would not come by himself for that. If the Sorcerers were revealing themselves, this was part of some power grab. The only question would be what kind. If the Duke wanted Ironwood badly enough, he could take it. If he was really a Sorcerer, he could probably do it alone. Of course, he might not be cut from the same cloth as Innoken. But until they met, who could tell? “No, Markus, I am afraid not.”

The guardsman continued to half-run nervously ahead, stopping only before the keep’s open double doors. Ahead and to the right was the Duke’s herald, holding his banner aloft. To the left was a military man with graying hair, most likely his Marshal. The Baron took comfort at the man’s apparent calm. Hopefully it meant the Sorcerer wasn’t here for violence. A tall, dark-haired man of middle years stood in the center, wearing a stylish red tunic and a neat black velvet hat. That would be Duke Charlienne. He smiled patiently as the Baron caught his eye.

“Welcome to Ironwood, my Lord Sorcerer,” Sterik offered, as warmly as he could manage. “I am Baron Sterik Ironwood. If we had known you were coming, we might have prepared a better reception, but we are honored by your presence. How may we be of service?”

Charlienne’s eyes crinkled with amusement. “You see, Marshal? There is some civilization to be found east of the Wall.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Baron. I’ve heard a great deal about you, and your son. Is he available?”

“My eldest, Erik, is with his wife. She’s expecting her first any day, and he’s been doting on her. I can call him here if you like. Would you and your Marshall like to step inside? I can have refreshments brought.”

Charlienne’s nodded, with the hint of a chuckle, and motioned toward the door with an open palm. “That would be most pleasant, I’m sure. Give my congratulations to your eldest. It seems only yesterday I welcomed my own firstborn to the world. And your younger son? How is he?”

The Baron held the door, as the Duke stepped inside, barely glancing at the accoutrements of the Great Hall. None of his retinue followed. “Well enough, I expect, though he’s absent at the moment. The eastern caravan left a week ago, and Jacob went with. He’s had some luck improving relations with Sarronen, and we’re trying to capitalize.”

Charlienne seated himself, and steepled his fingers, waiting. Markus brought up a bottle of wine, while the Baron eased himself across from the Sorcerer.

“A pity, as it would be better if he were nearer by. An opportunity has just appeared that you should hear about. How familiar are you with Marin?”

“It’s a fine town,” Sterik replied carefully, as Markus poured the glasses. “Much like Ironwood, but larger, with fewer forests, but some of the most productive farms in Margon. I’ve been there several times, and found it a fine place to visit. Count Johan is a good man.”

Charlienne nodded in agreement, then took a sip. “Ah - a fine Maragon vintage. Yes, Johan was a good man. Unfortunately, no longer, as he was lost to the violence of Count Dorman, along with nearly half the town. Disastrous. By the time I arrived, it was too late for him, I am afraid. Dorman is a Sorcerer, and the Compact forbids me from killing him. However, even a Sorcerer cannot survive alone, and so I was able to drive him into the mountains.”

Sterik took a half-step backward, noting the Marshall’s grimace. “Marin lost! I am sorry to hear it. There have been rumors of trouble in the West, but nothing like this.”

“An understatement, to be sure,” the Duke acknowledged with a bitter expression. “I was hardly pleased, myself. It’s not surprising you haven’t heard anything, this far east. It’s all happened so fast that the war has even outpaced the news of it. Still, this particular bit of fighting is almost settled. I expect Whitehill’s taken the crown by now.”

The Duke swirled his wine, and took another sip. He might have been discussing the weather. “It’s been an unpleasant business, I’m afraid, with much waste and little glory. However, my loss poses an opportunity for you. Margon needs Marin’s farms and logging, and with the recent fighting, replacing its skilled labor won’t be easy, much less its leadership. We could anoint some Earl’s son as the new Count, but I would much prefer a man tested and capable, who could bring his own resources to the task of rebuilding. I am not here to mince words: I want you, and all of Ironwood you can persuade to travel, Earl Marin.”

The Baron’s eyes widened. “An honor to be sure, but my family has lived in Ironwood for several generations! My people depend on me, and the town needs a familiar hand. We have established relations with the East, the South, and now even the barbarians. My Lord, I fail to understand. Ironwood is becoming indispensable to Margon, and my line has become synonymous to Ironwood.”

“Things do change,” Charlienne replied lazily. “Garet Whitehill, surely the new Sorcerer-King of Margon, has abandoned his claim over Ironwood, in exchange for a century of peace with Akhor, who currently speaks for the council of Vallaton. Akhor desires the land east of the mountains, and our King will acknowledge the claim. Your entire town will be allowed to relocate to Marin, should you act promptly. The Kharshe are more interested in Ironwood’s land than its people.”

Lord Ironwood’s jaw hung uncharacteristically slack for a long moment. “My Lord, I fear that many cannot travel west with me, at least not yet. As I mentioned earlier, my son has gone to treat with the Sarronen, and trade with Travan. What does Sarronen say of this?”

“That is unfortunate,” Duke Charlienne sniffed. “You see, Count Dorman will not dare to face me now, for fear of losing the few men who still support him. King Whitehill is attempting to speak with him, as Dorman will no longer hear sense from me.

“However, the king cannot and will not protect you here. If I leave Ironwood without you, Count Dorman will surely claim you, and lead you against me. That I cannot allow under any circumstances, and I must leave soon. Not to be gauche, but which do you prefer, Lord Sterik? Marin, or death?”

The Baron’s jaw slackened, uncharacteristically. This was impossible. Everything he knew - gone in a few moments’ conversation? “My son will return within two week’s time. I could not move the entire town before then, without abandoning nearly everything we own, including stores for the winter. Perhaps Jacob will have made some arrangement with the Kharshe - he has accomplished more impossible things. Will you consider waiting until then, you Grace?”

“I give you two weeks for your son to return, but Ironwood will not fall to Dorman,” the Duke replied, downing the rest of his glass. “Vallaton is aware of your son’s deeds, and I understand your desire not to abandon him. However, I advise you begin preparations now, if you value your people. I would prefer to have you and yours alive, but do not test me. Margon will not suffer rebellion.”

Lord Ironwood nodded, as if he could bring himself to agree. What other choice did he have?

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