Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 5: The Autumn Road

“The road seemed a lot shorter this time around,” Daniel commented, as the wagon approached a crossroads. The shadows were already running long, though the sun was still pleasantly warm on his armor.

“Are you crazy, Daniel?” Ceann laughed. “We chased the Shield of St. Thomas through here in less than a week. The wagon took almost twice as long.”

Daniel rolled his eyes. “It’s amazing how slowly time goes when you’re checking every bent leaf for hoofprints, Ceann. This was a stroll through the countryside.”

“Well, we’re here, anyway,” Ceann shrugged. “Are you ready, Jacob? It’s not often I drive a wagon right up to someone’s doorstep. I was hoping we’d catch him on the street again. For all we know, he’ll turn us away.”

“Oh, I think he’ll answer,” Jacob replied, raising a hand to his eyes. “Looks like he’s not out here today, though. So we’ll be knocking on doors.”

“Got your gift ready?” Thaddeus asked, tugging the reins to lead the horses off the main road, onto a dirt path .

“I wish I had more time to shop,” Daniel groused. “There must have been a million better things than the necklace and scarf I found.”

“I’d like to say it’s the thought that counts,” Thaddeus winked, “but you’re probably dead.”

Daniel mock-groaned. “I suppose you’d know.”

“Yes, Lysa nearly killed me twice,” Thaddeus replied drolly, “when I bought her a red scarf from Talyk. I’m thankful I can still walk.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Daniel replied.

“The dye on that scarf was horrible, left everything it touched bright scarlet. Lysa wore it all night before we figured that out. Not only did it ruin her new dress, it was a week before she could go out in public without looking like she’d been hanged. Good times.”

“Thanks,” Daniel chuckled. “That actually makes me feel better.”

“See,” Thaddeus said, “a little disaster cheers everyone up.”

“Actually,” Daniel said, “I was just thinking there’s no possible way I could mess up as badly as you do.”

“Your jealousy is forgiven” Thaddeus quipped, “After all, I’m beyond imitation.”

“Here it is, gentleman,” Jacob called out, pointing to the large farmhouse ahead. “Wait with the wagon for my signal. Ceann and I will walk ahead.”

“Don’t forget the bottle,” Ceann reminded him, gesturing to the carefully wrapped glass by the driver’s seat. “Oh, nevermind, I’ll grab it.”

Jacob only nodded, and walked ahead of the wagon. The brick house ahead was well-kept, and the outer fence showing a fresh coat of paint. Farmhands were feeding the animals, and the younger boys were watering the fall spices. They’d called out in excitement when the wagon pulled over in front of the yard, and ran inside the house, the older chasing the younger. Jacob couldn’t help but grin at the muffled exclamations from inside, mixed with friendly yapping. Three dogs were upon him within seconds of the door opening, jumping and snuffling and barking, their tails wagging happily. Jacob let them check his scent before reaching to scratch behind an ear. Of the humans, it was Hanna’s face that emerged first, though her two boys peeked out curiously from behind.

“Hello, Lord Jacob! What a pleasant surprise!”

Hanna chose to greet him in the guttural Sarronen dialect of the Kharshe language. She could speak a bit of Mirakan, but was less practiced at it than her husband, who occasionally dealt with Travanian merchants. She was a tall woman, slightly plump, with a strong but pleasant face. She was undeniably pretty, but her blond hair was beginning to gray with the stress of raising four children, especially in a house held to her exacting standards.

“Hello, my Lady Hanna,” Jacob replied in his own accented Kharshe. “It’s good to see you again. How’s the harvest?”

“Well enough,” Hanna said, patting one of the dogs on the head. “Atha’s been good to us, and the grain grew thick this summer. Let’s pray her favor holds. Do let me know if the dogs are bothering you. I like to them keep out back when we have visitors, and I didn’t expect you. Word is you found what you were looking for.”

Daniel made eye contact with the pets, and they charged him, near bowling him over. He laughed playfully, and ruffled their fur. One of the boys offered him a knotted rope, and he gave it a side-armed toss into the yard. The hounds barreled after it.

“We did,” Jacob confirmed, “Thank you for your help. Ironwood does not forget friendship, or ignore a good - what is the word? Opportunity.”

“That is well,” Hanna said with a twinkle in her eye. “Thane will be glad to hear it. He and Anginette are out today, and I don’t expect them until dark. However, Lord Jacob, we just butchered one of the pigs, and Yenna and I were about to prepare a pork shoulder. If you leave us some peace to work in, I promise it will be worth the time. Would you care to return in a few hours for dinner? No doubt you have business in the village.”

“We would be honored to,” Jacob replied gratefully. Daniel continued to tussle with the hounds, while Thaddeus looked on wistfully. His dignity, such as it was, wouldn’t let him join in.

“We look forward to a seat at your table,” Ceann added, “Our last dinner here was quite memorable. Should we see you at sundown?”

“A little after,” Hanna said. “My husband works long days, and he doesn’t know to expect you. He’ll want some time to prepare, so wait for a few stars to light the way. Good? Until then, gentlemen!”

After dismissing them with a brief but radiant smile, Hanna shut her door, presumably to get to work. Her two boys continued to watch from the window until the Ironwood merchants returned to their wagon, and urged the horses back towards the center of the village.

The night sky was cloudless when the Ironwood traders returned to Thane’s house. The firmament was decked with countless stars, resting among the glowing nebulae. The sight, as always, filled Jacob with a deep sense of peace. He might need that, tonight: he was about to ask Thane to place a great deal of trust in Ironwood. And yet, part of him watched carelessly, disconnected: this would be Ceann’s burden soon enough, and he’d be off in a far land, working to make a life and family with Anna.

As the horses plodded toward the trodden grass where Thane’s own wagons were stood, the large brick building came clearly into view. Its dining-room window was thrown upon to the night, and flickering light from its hearth fire was a beacon of cheer.

“It looks like they’re ready for us this time,” Daniel remarked, clutching a small cloth bag, tied closed with a red bow.

“So it seems,” Jacob agreed, as the front door to the building opened. A handful of figures spread into the night, led by a tall blond man with a hand held high.

“Ho Jacob,” he called out in accented Mirakan. “Welcome to the house of Thane Korruck! Was it pickled beets that brought you back? If so, you are in luck. Hanna has prepared a feast for you, my friends. Do you need help again, or is this a visit inspired by pleasure? In all cases, it is good to see you, young Lord of Ironwood.”

“Hello, Thane!” Jacob answered loudly in return, in the Sarronen dialect. “It has been too long. Friendship is enough reason to visit on our way to Sarronen, but maybe later we can talk business too.”

“It might be so,” Thane admitted, stroking his beard. “I see you have brought Ceann and Thaddeus with you, and Daniel. Do you think to gang up on me?”

“It’s only fair. Hanna’s beets can overcome the will of the strongest of men,” Thaddeus quipped smoothly. Jacob’s grin broadened: despite Thane’s boasting, he and his companions had left the crossroads raving about every one of Hannah’s dishes except those beets.

“It is so,” Thane agreed, inclining his head towards his wife.

Hanna shook her head at their mockery. “My Lords, we have beets and cabbage in plenty, though I mixed them with apples and autumnspice rather than pickle them. But why are you waiting outside? Come in, and join my table.”

Jacob paused only long enough to shake Thane’s hand before following him indoors, but Daniel looked in vain for Anginette. Her sister and brothers were outside, but not her. He stood crestfallen, watching the others enter. Ceann, noticing his expression, patted his back briefly. “Don’t give up just yet, boy. A woman needs to be reminded she’s in your thoughts. She hates to be the last to move on. Half a year is a long time, and she’ll need reassuring.”

“What if you’re wrong?” Daniel asked quietly.

“Then the next love of your life will get a great scarf,” Ceann said, “and you’ll have learned something. Now, get moving.”

Grumbling, Daniel kicked a pinecone to the side, and fell in line. Jacob only smiled. Ceann was good for something, apparently.

Once Hannah saw them in, and escorted them to their seats, Jacob removed the cover from a clear glass bottle of wine, and presented it to Thane. “In honor of the occasion, I thought you would appreciate a bottle of one of Margon’s finest whites, aged twenty years. There are five more outside.”

Thane’s jaw actually dropped at the sight the gift. The bottle alone was a costly keepsake, and proud showpiece. The wine itself was unobtainable for a Sarronen trader, at any price. “You humble me, son of Ironwood.”

Jacob shrugged. “Ironwood could use a partner, and a friend. We intend to make the relationship worth your while. Besides, you took a chance in helping us, and Ironwood might not be standing otherwise. This is only a gesture of our gratitude. Well, this and one more thing.”

Jacob carefully removed a small pouch from his side, and extracted from it a silver-plated medallion with three deep blue wavy lines, encrusted with blue semi-precious stones. It was attached to a silver chain, which pierced two small white pearls, each of which hung above either side of the medallion. “With your permission, Hannah, this is for you. When last I was here, I saw you were a devotee of Atha. I thought you mind appreciate it.”

“This is - this is too much,” Hanna protested, and looked to her husband. “I could never repay you.”

“These are gifts, freely given?” Thane asked carefully.

“Yes,” Jacob replied. “They are tokens of the friendship of Ironwood. If you turned us from your house this very moment, I would consider that you have already paid for them. But I do hope our mutual regard may last longer than that.”

Thane met the younger man’s eyes carefully, for long moments, before speaking. “Lord Jacob, did you offer this, knowing that two Kharshe Sorcerers may even now covet Sarronen? It is beyond the house of Korruck to help you against them.”

“What is this?” Jacob asked sharply, to the visible alarm of his companions. “I feared more Sorcerers might rise, but know of none. You have me at a disadvantage.”

Thane and his wife both sighed in what looked like relief, and Anginette, who now sat across from Ceann, slumped fractionally in her chair. “Then you look for allies in peace, not war. I will tell you what little I know.

“Maybe a month ago I heard that Karim had fallen in a nearly bloodless war, one that lasted days only, a week at most. The nation’s king had been killed, and a prince was chosen to rule in the name of a new alliance, one with the Kharshe and the Caerdann. The word in Sarronen is that only a Sorcerer could have done this. But there are accounts of not one, but two sorcerers: Queen Kaelyn of the Caerdann, and Chieftan Dorgann, of the Kharshe. None know their plans, but they have raised an army, and it’s been seen moving eastward.

“In the city, there is talk that without Innoken, the Sarronen will be absorbed by the new Kharshe alliance. Some regret that you have removed him, and my friends are uncertain whether you will make war with the new Sorcerers or treat with them.

“I am a humble man. In such events, I cannot be even a pawn. I will trade with you: none can ask me to defy one who defeated a god. But an alliance? My friend, surely you can see how dangerous that would be, at least until I know how matters stand between Ironwood and the Kharshe.”

“I understand,” Jacob murmured, before raising his voice again. “Then we will be businessmen today, and leave the future unsettled. Whatever the Kharshe are up to, I will get to the bottom of it, I swear. For Ironwood’s sake, of course. But I will also do everything I can to earn your friendship, and bring a wagon through in the Spring.”

“Jacob, how on Torvah can your promise that? In two months, you’ll be gone!” Ceann blurted out in frustration.

“This is true?” Thane asked, eyebrows rising in concern.

“I am promised to move to Pearl Bay with my betrothed,” Jacob replied between gritted teeth, “but Ironwood’s safety comes first. Father’s alliances with Pearl Bay merchants mean nothing if a new Kharshe alliance turns against us. Fight, flee, or make peace: we have to settle it. I have to settle it.”

“Well and good if they don’t mean Ironwood any harm, but if the Kharshe want to fight? There’s nothing we can do to stop them,” Thaddeus objected, “not even you.”

“Oh?” Jacob asked bitterly. “I can’t assume that. Besides, who else should treat with the Kharshe? It must be done. Perhaps Haldor can help.”

Maybe Thaddeus was right. Maybe two Sorcerers and the entire Kharshe Clan had too much power even to bargain with. Maybe after Innoken;s defeat, they wanted him dead. Maybe the right thing was to turn straight around and let his father know, and avoid risking any more lives. On the other hand, maybe Innoken had been crazy, and these Sorcerers wanted something else entirely. Then he could go back to leaving Ironwood in someone else’s hands, like he had half a year ago, like he was supposed to do in less than a month.

Hanna cleared her throat against the uncomfortable silence the followed. “Maybe you will try the beets? I promise, you have never had anything like them.”

To Daniel’s surprise, the beets were, in fact, very good. The pork was slow-roasted perfection; it must have been on the firepit for days. Daniel himself had three helpings, and Jacob had two. Good food helped melt away the earlier tensions, and the twenty-year old Lycosan vintage dissolved them. The men and women talked late into the night, to the tune of a crackling fire, while the boys Jaik and Ronal begged the visitors for stories of their adventures: Daniel and Thaddeus were glad to provide. Those Thaddeus hadn’t lived, he had already heard and refined twice over.

Eventually, though, the boys began to sag into the corners of the room, and Hanna sent them to bed. Yenna also retired early, because she had to milk the cows, which stubbornly refused to adjust their schedules at the behest of guests. Anginette had finished clearing the table, waving off offers to help, and then sat quietly on the floor by the hearth, listening to Jacob and her father talk.

She seemed almost resigned when Daniel slid up beside her, and worked up the courage to speak. “Anginette, you look beautiful tonight.”

The blond placed her hands on her knees, curling them up near her chest. “If you say so,” she replied distantly, keeping her eyes fixed on her father.

Hardly a promising start, but there was no use waiting for a better time. “I loved talking to you when I was here last. You did too. Why are you avoiding me?”

Blue eyes flashed. “I’m not avoiding you - I’m right here. Do you think I’m a afraid of you?”

“I brought you something,” Daniel tried, fishing at his side for the pouch he had brought for her.

Anginette took it reluctantly, unraveling the ribbon with careful fingers to reveal a brilliant sapphire blue scarf of some fine unidentified fur. “It’s lovely,” she admitted, “but I can’t accept it. What would you want of me in return?”

“Conversation, or just a look,” Daniel pleaded. “What have I done wrong?”

“Nothing,” the young woman sighed, and turned her head away. “You haven’t done anything.”

“Then talk to me,” Daniel said. “What could that hurt?”

“You’ve been gone for six months, Daniel. Do you expect me to wait breathlessly for the next time you bother to drop by?”

“No,” the tracker replied cautiously. “But if you do, it won’t be just every half year. I work for the Guard now, but Jacob wants me to be a trader. I’d come east a lot, especially to Sarronen. I don’t even have to live in Ironwood, really. But - that’s just a thought.”

Anginette placed a warm hand on his knee. Their touch spread fire, even through his trousers. “I like your thoughts, Daniel. But that’s too much to promise. I don’t even know you, and Dad warned me to stay away. I shouldn’t be talking to you now.”

“Why?” Daniel asked, suddenly cold.

“’A man who travels cannot be trusted’, he says. But there’s more - he won’t explain. Sorcerers out there are taking over whole countries, and maybe they will kill people in their way. You’ve seen them with your own eyes, and now you ride to them. Father is brave, but - “

She shrugged helplessly, and so Daniel finished her sentence, “You’re his daughter.”

“Yes,” Anginette whispered, still looking straight ahead.

“On the other hand,” Daniel pointed out, “you are his daughter.”

“Yes,” Anginette said, eyes crinkling and the corners of her mouth turning up despite herself. “I am.”

“You haven’t seen Jacob in action,” Daniel said, voice tightening. “When he fights, there’s nothing in Torvah like it. He’s so fast, your eyes can’t even follow. Not only that, he’s got some way of bending the whole world around him. I’ve never seen anyone make enemies into friends like him. Innoken had Sarronen completely under his thumb, but when he and Jacob fought, who was Prince Halvar and half of Sarronen’s soldiers cheering for? Jacob! Not just them, either, but all of Northspire, with the Lady Laranna at their head. If he wasn’t already betrothed, he could be its next Earl. Brother Francis even broke the rules of Heaven just for him, so he could win. If there’s anyone that can bring peace between Ironwood and the Kharshe, it’s Jacob. He’ll fix this. I’d bet my life on it.”

The tall blond’s breath caught as she listened, and she turned to Daniel despite herself. “It is too much to hope for. When lions fight, we do not sit close by to watch. Jacob is a good man, but I can’t share your faith. It’s too much.”

“You’re right,” Daniel admitted, with an hungry smile that belied his words. “It’s a dangerous world. Maybe we shouldn’t think too far ahead.”

“You make a point, coin-counter,” Anginette laughed, then fell into silence, lips slightly parted, and her mischievous eyes locked on his.

Jacob lifted his hand to block the bright midmorning sun. The breeze was cool against his skin, and the flame-and-golden leaves flurried from the great elms near the road. Thaddeus and the boys were playing with the dogs while Ceann pretended disinterest, and took a draught of mead. It was a well-deserved reward for unloading the wagon goods and restocking supplies. They were a bare two days by wagon to the city, but Thane was offering a better price for the newly cured ham than they could get there.

Hanna had outdone herself this morning with a smorgasbord of eggs, bacon, and breakfast cakes. It seemed the only appetite that could rival one of a fighting man was that of a farmer, and Thane and his wife ran quite the farm. They and their children both seemed inexhaustible. Yenna and the Hanna had been tending the animals and other chores for hours, while the boys spent most of the daylight in the fields. Only when Thane paused to count his purchases and help Ceann pack the supplies had Jaik and Ronal slipped away. Daniel, on the other hand, had been absent since breakfast, and it was nearly time to depart.

Jacob was just considering where to look for the boy, when Thane approached from the wagon. His steps were slow, as if he carried a weight. “Jacob, my friend, it is good to see you. It is a fine day, a very fine day. Perhaps we could enjoy a short walk before you go?”

Jacob clapped the farmer on the should and nodded. “It would be my pleasure. You drive a hard bargain, but your company makes up for the small profit you leave me.”

Thane shook his head, the ghost of a smile making its way to his face, as the pair walked toward the scraggly back field, the one ending in a thick band of trees on a rocky hill. His farm was spacious, and like most sensible men, he left a third fallow. “It was no bargain at all. If I had to depend on generosity like yours, I might give up on trading altogether, eh? Still, I should be able to trade away what you brought by Spring, so maybe you can tell Ceann to bring more of the same, if only to help draw attention, so I can sell more of Anginette’s herbs.”

Jacob nodded, hiding a grin with his hand. “I will tell him so.”

Erik was right: it would be hard to turn the wagon over to Ceann. An unfamiliar ache made its way into his chest, and a sense of disconnection hit him again, as if everything he’d made and done was drifting away, though it was Jacob who was moving.

Not yet, though. There was still a run to complete. He refused to think about the rest until he got to the city. Here, Thane was playing the role of the aggrieved merchant perfectly, but in truth he would make out handily. Trading with the Sarronen people, in the city and here, was long overdue. Thane was asking for a third more copper for the Spring, and an assortment of other goods Jacob had surprised him with. Not all of it would sell, but he expected enough would.

That brought Jacob back to Thane’s worn expression. Whatever weight he carried was still with him. “What troubles you?” the westerner asked.

“I do not know how to speak of this,” Thane said, “so I will ask bluntly, Lord Jacob: does your man Daniel have intentions towards my daughter?”

Where was Anginette? Jacob hadn’t seen her or Daniel since - right, of course. With luck, they were only kissing in corners. “He is interested, but they barely know one another. Ironwood has no objection to the match, but I will talk to him if you are concerned.”

“This is a difficult position,” Thane grumbled. “You are a good man, it seems, but dark clouds surround you.

“Sorcery is the most dangerous thing to walk the world since what you call the Fall. What if Khardum was a Sorcerer? What if we are living in a new Fall? I fear to trade with the west, if Sorcerers come to destroy it. Marrying my daughter into such a conflict is a thought to make a strong mean weep.

“And yet - if peace remains, you and Daniel could be the answers to my prayers. None in this flyspeck village are worthy of my daughters, nor do the pigs respect the pearls they are. Too, money is not made from trading near, but far, and that means through Ironwood. I am not one to let dreams slip from my hands because I fear to close my fingers!

“But the world is dangerous, and I am a father. I need time, my friend, to know if this match is safe.”

“Very well,” Jacob agreed soberly. “I will speak to him, and ask him to refrain until we know more. I pray you get your time. Save some for me, if you can.”

“Ha!” Thane chuckled. “Thank you. A family is the greatest treasure a man can have.”

“Thank you for your honesty, and for your hospitality,” Jacob replied. “I will think on your words. Maybe we will have more to say when I sort out these rumors. For now, it’s time to round up my men, and be on the road.”

Thane nodded approvingly. “Gods speed you, my friend.”

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