Ironwood: Annaria in Fall

By Sean Ryan All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Action

Chapter 6: Sarronen

The wagon creaked and bumped over the ancient cobbled streets, and Jacob lifted a hand to his brow against the angled rays of the afternoon sun. The great gates to Sarronen’s inner city were opened wide, just as they had been in Spring, when he rode here last.

There were a few differences. This time Jacob was not intimidated by the sight of the Clan nation’s stone buildings and sprawling population. This time, some of the looks he and his party received were friendly. And this time, there were men and scaffolding scattered across the great wall, repairing and improving it. It looked to be at least ten feet higher than before. There were men and women erecting a smaller, wooden wall outside, where the buildings outside the inner wall began to thin. However, one thing had not changed: he was expected.

“Hail Ironwood,” one of the gate guards called out, in the Sarronen dialect. “How is the road?”

“Clear and dry,” Jacob answered cheerfully, “just about perfect. What news in Sarronen?”

The guard shrugged, warm brown eyes almost lost in the wrinkles of his sun-colored face. “Some is good, some is bad. Clan-leaders were thrilled, at first, to not be under Innoken’s thumb. Now? It is not so sure. You should talk to the Prince; he is expecting you.”

The guard hesitated, then spoke again. “You do not have pearls in that wagon, do you? My wife has been hoping.”

“Of course!” Jacob answered happily. “There’s jewelry from as far as Maragon and the Free Cities. I have curios you can’t even buy in Travan.”

“That is nice, very nice,” the guard replied. “Illara will like that. Head on in. I will send word for the guest house to be prepared, but you should stop by the Great Tent.”

“Thank you,” Jacob replied, then noted the color of the pendant the guard wore. “May Akhor give you strength.”

“And your God also,” the fellow replied, pleased but uncertain.

Jacob smiled, and Thaddeus urged the horses forward. Sarronen was a large city, and it was still at least twenty minutes to the center. That was good, because he still wasn’t sure how to approach Prince Halvar.

He wasn’t the only one wondering, either. “So, Lord Jacob,” Daniel asked. “Do you really think Sorcerers are taking over all the clans? If so, what will happen to Ironwood?”

“I don’t know,” Jacob sighed. “But King Haldor keeps his eyes and ears open. He’s not the type to surrender unless he has no other option. I may have to convince him I’m an option.”

“Mother of Lazarus, Jacob!” Thaddeus replied, throwing up his hands. “You nearly died six months ago fighting one Sorcerer, with the help of another Sorcerer, poison, and the element of surprise. Now, based only on rumors from your Sarronen drinking buddy, you want to pick a fight with two Sorcerers and maybe the largest army in the continent? My friend, I say this with deepest respect: you’re crazy. If Sorcerers are nocking their bows against Ironwood, we need to get help or get out. And I really need off this wagon.”

Ceann eyed Thaddeus carefully before adding his own voice. “We don’t know anything, yet. Maybe there are no more Sorcerers. Or maybe Innoken was far more dangerous than most. Maybe if there are more, we can play them off each other, or at least stay out of the way. Lord Jacob, I’ve learned not to underestimate you, but maybe this is not a battle for you to join. Maybe we should keep our faces veiled.”

Jacob had never sailed to the Southern Continent, but it was said that negotiations with strangers there were done with veiled faces, and it was considered a great honor for a northerner to be allowed to treat with a Nabizian without a mask. Supposedly a few great families within the Free Cities had adopted the practice too. Miraka had gone the other way: for a merchant or leader, openness was considered proof of trustworthiness. The most successful had wore sleeveless togas for centuries. That was still true in much of Margon, though a lesser merchant who adopted the practice would be ridiculed for its pride. It was one of a few remainders of Mirakan disregard for body modesty. Its Lazarrian daughter nations had viewed the spiritual and the physical as being in opposition: curtailing lust preserved spiritual strength.

Since his encounters with Brother Francis, Jacob’s grasp of the spiritual had been shaken. On the one hand, he knew the Spirit Realm was very real. On the other hand, Lazarus had apparently lost some of his memory in coming to Torvah, and had gotten quite a bit wrong.

“You forget,” Daniel chimed back in, “Lord Jacob defeated Innoken because he committed to the impossible. He decided what was right, and then he made it happen. That’s what he’s gonna do now.”

Then there was that. Step up and God will have your back. Wasn’t that why Jacob had faced Innoken rather than run home? But surely God didn’t spend his eons bailing out idiots who jumped off of bridges in the expectation He’d catch them. How far could he push his luck?

“Ceann is right,” Jacob mused. “We don’t know enough yet to even worry through. Let’s hope that Prince Halvar has some good news.”

The Great Tent was an intimidating structure, even for those who had seen it before. As Autumn fell, the thousands of hides and furs that dressed its wooden structure were further adorned with bright cloth that covered the gaps left open in warmer weather. Once inside, Jacob was even more struck by the weight of the structure.

He and the other merchants of Ironwood did not have to wait long before they were called to the rear greeting room, where the thick curtains and crackling fire within the tent’s single stone hearth created a sense of privacy. King Haldor sat opposite the “door” in an ornate throne, with his son Halvar standing beside him. No shaman stood in Innoken’s place, leaving Jacob to wonder just how much of an aberration the Sorcerer’s presence had been.

Daniel appeared nearly as intimidated as last time, and he shuffled nervously from foot to foot. His teeth, however, were bared in what was supposed to be a smile: the false courage of youth. Thaddeus, oddly enough, was almost as nervous, judging by how carefully he studied his shoes. Ceann’s blue eyes narrowed, on the other hand, betraying the hint of a less pleasant emotion. He was not one to forgive and forget, it seemed. That might be useful to know.

Halvar stood stoic, with just the ghost of friendship on his face. He wore a warrior’s leather and a well-tailored tunic, but instead of a tan or red armband, he bore blue. The pendant hanging from his neck matched, with sapphire chips embedded in the lines of a feminine face. He had turned not only from Shakath, but Akhor as well. It was rare for a man to dedicate himself to the water goddess Atha, especially among warriors, but not unknown. She was a Kharshe goddess, after all, which meant she was a cunning fighter at need.

The king maintained a calm dignity, projecting a measured friendliness that was eerily familiar. Haldor had looked the same when he greeted Jacob the last time, even as he planned to burn Ironwood. Many things had changed in the past few months: it wasn’t clear Haldor was one of them. Yet he played his part well; his resonant voice was at once stern and comforting. “Welcome to Sarronen, Lord Jacob. We are most pleased to have you among us. We treasure the trust you show us, and hope this signals a new peace and prosperity between our peoples.”

Jacob bowed low, and spoke in his improving Kharshe. “We are glad to see you, your Highness. It is a joy to visit the the grandeur of Sarronen. We hope that you, like Ironwood, are fixed upon sharing a bright future. We have invested much in the hopes of forging new bonds between us.”

The edge of King Haldor’s smile quirked in amusement. “Those are the words of a merchant, Lord Ironwood. It is odd to hear them on the lips of a warrior. Fear not: if profit is your concern, I have no doubt you’ll find our clan more receptive than when you were here last. But this is not a hall of horse-traders! Be at ease, Lord Jacob. Share with us a drink, and news of the West.”

At his words, Halvar ducked outside of the meeting room for a moment, and returned followed by two young women laden with flagons of sweet mead. “Drink up, my friends,” Halvar urged, and raised a flagon of his own.

The men of Ironwood took their own flagons, and lifted them high, to meet together in a clash between them. Jacob called out the toast: “To good friends, and better allies.”

After all drank, and it was a hearty brew, the King spoke softly. “Well said, Lord Jacob. It is good to have you with us. Much has happened this year, and there is more to share. What news from the West?”

Jacob answered the king carefully, “There are good things: Ironwood is at peace, and the harvest has been good. However, there is rumor of unrest to the South: a new Prince has been chosen among the Karim, though he professes love and friendship for Margon.

“More personally, I intend to enjoy my visit here as much as possible, as it may be my last for some time. I’m to be married soon, in Pearl Bay, and this is my last season living outside of Margon. In my stead, Thaddeus and Ceann must handle the trade with Sarronen.”

“We will miss your visits,” Halvar replied thoughtfully, “though I dare say this news will serve your reputation well. There are many who cannot imagine a lord and merchant in the same skin. Forsaking the caravan will prove them right, to their great relief. But what of Athena? I hoped to see her with you.”

The Ironwood lord shook his head sadly. “She left Ironwood also, for Northspire. Some small-minded cretin spread rumors about her, and we think Athena had enough of it. The Lady Laranna offered a position as a bodyguard, and Athena sprang to accept.”

Halvar frowned in sympathy. “That is a bitter loss for Ironwood. I am sure you will miss her, though perhaps it is for the best. It is wise to part with your women before you get married, if you have any hope of peace in your house.”

Jacob’s jaw dropped, and then he laughed in surprise. “Athena and I were never together in that way. My father would have my hide, and probably send her into exile for good measure. We would never risk letting that happen.”

And yet, the long moment of silence whispered back, maybe it already had. Thaddeus looked pained, and Ceann and Daniel both turned away. There was nothing for it but to continue, and so Jacob did, with a forced smile barely covering the coal of anger in his heart. “But you are right, Halvar: Anna might not see it so, and I won’t have much time for the practice yard any longer.”

“Would it do you any good?” Halvar laughed, glad for a break in the tension. “Who can keep up with you?”

Jacob shrugged. “It turns out I can get out of shape as easily as anyone. Working forms is good and needed exercise. I shudder to think if Innoken had realized the same. For all his power, his swordsmanship was far from exceptional. But he wore me down and nearly defeated me because of it. That’s something I can help prevent in the future.”

“What exactly are your plans for fighting in the future, Lord Jacob?” King Haldor asked conversationally.

“I’ll do as little of it as honor allows,” Jacob answered earnestly. “But that brings me to a question of my own. I’ve just heard a disturbing word that the recent change of power in Karim was at the instigation of the Kharshe. Worse, I’m told it was the act of two Kharshe Sorcerers. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, your Highness?“

The king and prince of the Sarronen eyed one another grimly, before the king spoke. “In fact, we have heard the same. We hoped to delay this conversation for the morrow, and perhaps a more secure room, but so be it: this secret will not keep. Great Chieftain Dorgann of the Kharshe and Queen Kaelynn of the Caerdann have sent an ultimatum. The Prince and King of Sarronen are to step down, and submit our clan to theirs, according to the ancient rites. In return, we will be allowed to serve in the armies of the Kharshe, in whatever capacity the Chieftain judges us fit for. The new Horde will be at our gates in two weeks, to accept our surrender.”

“I see,” Jacob replied, closing his eyes as his fears rained down around him. “And what do you plan to do, your Highness?”

“That is the question, isn’t it? The walls of Sarronen could perhaps repel the Horde, but not a Sorcerer, and certainly not two. We have only met two men capable of giving a Sorcerer pause, and one is standing before me. What do you say, Lord Ironwood? Is there any reason we should not surrender our lives and armies to the Horde?”

“I don’t suppose Chieftain Dorgann feels any differently about Ironwood than Innoken did?” Thaddeus interjected.

“We regret that we do not know,” Halvar answered softly.

“Yes,” King Haldor answered heavily. “We do. In private, Innoken bragged that the gods had already divided Torvah among themselves, and that the marching of armies was just to finalize the claim. Shakath, Akhor, and Atha intended to unify the Clans into a new Kharshe nation that would rival the power of Khardum and the glory of ancient Miraka, from one mountain range to another. Shakath was defeated, but do you imagine Akhor and Atha have abandoned their vision? I cannot believe it. They only want the Sons of Kharshe united, first.”

Jacob’s heart sank. “Then I have no choice but to resist. But I don’t know how.”

“Nor can we risk a siege,” Haldor continued gently. “Even if you defeat both Sorcerers, I fear the Kharshe will still overrun us, once the walls are breached. If the army reaches our walls and the Sorcerers are still with them, we will surrender. With luck, perhaps you can evacuate most of Ironwood before the ax falls. Unless you can stop the Sorcerers first.”

“Father,” Halvar replied suddenly, “if we strike at them before they arrive, the Sorcerers will still allow Sarronen to surrender. They want a unified Kharshe. But they will kill both of us.”

Haldor smiled grimly, though the expression did not reach his haunted eyes. “If we surrender, thousands of our clansmen will fight and die for the glory of the Horde. It is only fitting that we risk our own lives for them. That is what it means to serve the clan. That said, we had better come up with a very good plan.”

The sun was bright in Sarronen’s market square, though the wind was cool, warning that the milder days of autumn were growing thin. Thaddeus didn’t mind. He tended to run a little warm, and today there was no steel mail to help the chill leech through his coat. It was a little harder to ignore the stench of the city, though. Ironwood was a small town, and with the help of his father’s strict regulations and the sewers that led to the Kattan River, cleaner than most.

Thaddeus wrinkled his nose reflexively as the combined scents of cattle, fowl, aged vegetables, day-old fish, and too-fresh fur reached him. Sarronen lacked some of the color and variety of a Margon bazaar, but made up for it in sheer volume. More importantly to his nose, sale of livestock in Ironwood and Talyk was prohibited within the inner city. No doubt Sarronenese thought indifference to the cornucopia of putrescence was a test of manliness.

His only solace was that, if the smells annoyed him, Ceann seemed positively sickened by them. The pale green in the man’s face clashed horribly against his ginger hair, making him look like nothing so much as a rotting carrot. It was difficult to remain civil with the man, after how he had treated Jacob and Athena both. Lately, he suspected the bastard was the reason Athena was gone to begin with. Last night, Ceann was ready to pee his pants when Jacob brought up the topic. Today, though, he was back to his smug self.

Thaddeus, of course, hid his feelings. He doubted Jacob would forgive him, otherwise, and it was important the caravan do well, so long as Annaria held together. And there wasn’t a damn thing a middle-aged guard could do about that last bit. The good news was that the tables he’d set up for Ironwood were doing better business than he could have imagined, and Daniel was having the time of his life.

“Do you want to see the ironwood pieces?” Daniel was asking a curious carpenter, with a bent posture and hard, cracked hands. “They make the local oak look like spruce. We use a secret process to cure the wood, to make it easier to handle. It’s easy to stain, and it never rots. You want to make a chair or a table fit for a king, this is what you need.”

“If the ironwood is so hard, won’t it splinter?” the carpenter asked, examining the staves and planks closely. The trees weren’t that uncommon between here and mountains, but they were slow growing and a devil to cut and cure. Wrongly treated, ironwood was near unworkable. Properly treated, the stuff was beautiful, and as tough as its namesake.

Daniel lifted a short spear from the wagon, and handed it to the man. “See the edges, near the iron? Perfectly round, perfectly smooth. Now, do you see the holding post over there? Take a good hard swing at it.”

Thaddeus winced to see a good weapon so abused, but kept his silence. Ceann was busy trying to sell jewelry to a finely robed middle-aged lady, and didn’t intervene.

The carpenter complied with a grunt. Then he examined the pole and gave a low whistle. He also noted the finely carved bird that sat upon the table before the wagon - however tough the material was, one could clearly carve it, and elegantly. “Akhor’s twin rocks! I never saw such a thing. How much is it for the staves, you say?”

“Four silver a piece,” Daniel replied.

“Make it three, and I will buy a dozen,” the carpenter said, and started through the coins at his side. “There is an idea I must try.”

Daniel made a show of protest before conceding the price, and selling the man on a set of steel nails to match. The carpenter left with a grin, and a much lighter purse.

“Well done,” Thaddeus said. “You’ve a knack, no question. At this rate, the wagon will be empty by the day after next.”

“I listen and learn,” Daniel demurred. “I never thought you’d get so much silver for dried pears, though. I swear, though, it’s never been so easy, even for Jacob.”

“Jacob can talk the birds down from the trees,” the taller man chuckled, “but I take your point. I could get used to this.”

Ceann waved farewell to the beautifully clad woman he’d been serving, and came to join the conversation. The women appeared to be wearing twice the weight of jewelry she’d arrived with. “What is it you could get used to? Watching Daniel and me do all the work?”

Daniel looked confused. “Thaddeus just sold - ”

The sandy-haired merchant only placed a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Relax, Ceann’s just having some fun with us. He knows I’ve unloaded twice what he has today, especially in woods and metals. He’s smart, though, to switch to the jewelry: the pearls sell themselves.”

Ceann’s sour look let Thaddeus know he’d struck a nerve. Good. He’d never been the most ambitious man, and he knew he’d lost Sterik’s trust when he’d started drinking all those years ago, after he first found out about Lysa. He’d even showed up on Caravan Day stone drunk once. He’d been a hair’s-breadth from being tossed on his ear, and the Baron hadn’t been shy about saying so. Sterik had forgiven him, eventually, but he never forgot.

Thaddeus had known he was never going to be trusted with a wagon, and that was that. Until now, that is. Jacob saw something in him that he’d swore he lost, and that lit a fire in his gut. Suddenly, the idea of losing this chance to Ceann was intolerable. Not that he would ever admit it.

Ceann’s eyes darkened as he began to reply, “That’s because Thaddeus knows - greetings, my Lady, were you perhaps looking for something to adorn your lovely wrist?”

A beautiful woman with silky black hair and wide eyes had approached the tent, melting away Ceann’s retort. Perhaps that was for the best. Thaddeus turned back to Daniel, but he was already engaging with a local merchant, looking to stock up on silk before the opportunity was lost. Daniel was a little too eager to make the sale, but so was the clansmen, so it would turn out well enough.

Thaddeus too, was quickly engaged in selling wire and nails, then copper rods, and then western curios - he was almost surprised when the sun dipped below the stone skyline, and the crowd began to disperse.

“God above, Thaddeus, have you ever seen anything like this?” Daniel asked, when he finally had another moment.

Thaddeus shook his head in reply. His table was nearly cleared, and Daniel’s too. Ceann had more left, but gems and jewelry never sold out entirely. None of them had even had time to fully restock the table from the wagon, though it too was looking somewhat depleted. “No, never. We don’t even sell out like this in Talyk, and the people here have turned their noses up at us as long as I can remember. This is new.”

“It’s because of Jacob,” Daniel affirmed with youthful certainty. “After all, he just killed a god, so he’s practically one himself here.”

The sandy-haired veteran smiled. “I suppose, although it could have gone the other way. People don’t like having their gods killed, though. I think some of the locals really resent us.”

It was Daniel’s turn to shake his head, emphatically. “More love him. I’m just glad he’s on our side.”

Thaddeus grimaced. He was, though there was no guarantee his lucky streak would last. “I wonder how he’s doing with Halvar. Half of me is surprised he still wanted to set up the wagon at all today, and the other half is shocked he’s not out here with us.”

“He’s responsible,” Ceann cut in, having bid his most recent customer farewell. “He may have odd methods, but he always seems to put Ironwood first, and he’s relentless. He doesn’t give up a thing.”

Daniel grinned at the redhead in approval. “Damn right, he doesn’t. If you’d seen him in Haran, at the Summit - well, you just had to be there, Thaddeus. You couldn’t believe it, otherwise.”

Thaddeus rolled his eyes in mock disbelief, but the truth was, Daniel was right - he did have a hard time believing it. Jacob had grown up a lot in the past few months, but Thaddeus had known the boy half his life - he’d taught him how to drink, and how to take his lumps from the older guards like a man. Jacob was an earnest, moody, distracted teenager, even if he did have a good sense of humor. The person Daniel described was a stranger. But Jacob was also honest to a fault, and he had never denied for a moment Daniel and Athena’s stories about their time in Travan. “I believe you. It’s a little hard to picture, that’s all. And what can Jacob do about the Kharshe, in any case? If any of what we’re hearing about them is true, we’ll have to ask for western help. The people of Margon have long memories regarding the Kharshe, and the Shield Legion stands against this very possibility.”

Ceann shared that smug grin of his again. “You haven’t seen Jacob in action, not really. I don’t know what he can do about it, either, but I wouldn’t bet against him. Let’s just wait and see what he says.”

Daniel’s wide-eyed confidence wasn’t any less irritating. “You’ll see.”

“This is impossible,” Jacob lamented bitterly. “We don’t have the strength to meet Chieftain Dorgann in the field, and the King will surrender if he reaches the walls. I can’t force him to fight me alone like I could Innoken, either. Even if I could, I doubt I could kill him without a large enough crowd cheering me on. I need the faith of others to power my sword, and pierce his magic. So we can’t bring an army to him, we can’t meet him here, and I can’t face him alone. What in Lazarus’s name am I supposed to do?”

Halvar folded his arms, and leaned back in his wooden chair. His dark eyes were clouded, though they lacked the despair that echoed in Jacob’s voice. He swirled the goblet of wine his Kynzri had recently filled, and took a sip. There were some advantages to holding secret meetings in one’s own sitting room. His mansion was stone too, dating back to unknown owners from Tara, though it had been improved since. “The problems, Lord Jacob, are twofold: how do we separate Dorgann from his army, and how do we arrange a fight with him where you have an advantage. But if we can solve the first problem, I suspect we can solve the second.”

“True,” the westerner admitted, “but I doubt he will leave his army behind willingly. Are you suggesting we make the army leave him?”

“I’m not suggesting anything just yet,” Halvar cautioned, “though if you have any ideas, please share them. The easiest way to separate a man from his army is to arrange a truce, but I doubt Sarronen would forgive you for arranging a meeting under false pretense.”

Jacob nodded wearily. Hours of brainstorming had gotten him nowhere, and he and Halvar were back where they started, rehashing the facts. “A pity we can’t simply kidnap him.”

Halvar barked a laugh. “Kidnap a Sorcerer? You are tired, my friend. Or perhaps you’ve sampled too much of my wine? If we could break in, we might as well just poison him.”

Jacob shrugged, and took a sip of his own wine. It was a fine red, sweet and slightly nutty, with just a bit of a bite. “I won my last fight with poison - I might have to do just that, however much I would prefer to avoid it. Do we have anything strong enough?”

“Only the Kulls keep Two-Step on hand, and it would take at least a week for us to collect it. There are other toxins, nearly as strong, that might work. Night’s Edge is one of those. It’s safer to use, since it can’t be absorbed through the skin, but it takes more to kill.”

“Would it kill a Sorcerer?” Jacob wondered. “I suppose there’s only one way to know. But is assassination our only option? Dorgann won’t let me walk up to shake his hand with a poisoned dagger, and trying would be as suicidal as it would be dishonorable.”

Halvar lifted his hands. “Dorgann or his army must be dealt with, Jacob.”

Jacob raised a pair of fingers to his temple thoughtfully. “Maybe the army, then. They’ll have a full city with them, and a city must eat. If we can burn the food, they’ll have to turn around. At least, if we do it far enough from Sarronen that turning around is an option.”

The Prince of Sarronen raised an eyebrow. “That’s a thought. Cremation oils burn like the blazes of Hell, and more easily. But that’s suicide. In a camp the size of the Kharshe army’s, you could get in if you’re stealthy, but getting out is another story. Flames will bring the whole army down on you at once. Even supposing you can sabotage all the food, I don’t see how that separates the army from the Sorcerers.”

“It would buy us more time,” Jacob countered, “and I doubt any guards stationed around the camp could catch me. But we need a way to delay the flames going up. I can’t light them all at once, and once a guard sees a stockpile on fire, the game is up.”

“I think we can do something about that,” the clansman replied carefully. “A long, slow-burning wick would be hard to spot. You could be gone before the fires really begin.”

“The poisoned dagger would be a back-up,” the merchant added, “in case I ran into trouble. And who knows? Maybe I can defeat Dorgann entirely?”

Halvar shook his head. “That’s a gamble not even the Trickster would take, and he’s immortal. But I doubt we’ll come up with better. I’ll go with you.”

“Why?” Jacob asked with a shrug. “It won’t better my chances, and it lets you stay out of it. You can’t face a Sorcerer, so there’s no point risking your life in trying. If I lose, your people will still need you. But I have a chance to save Sarronen and Ironwood both. If Ironwood is destroyed or Sarronnen captured because I wouldn’t take the risk, how could I live with myself? This is what I have to do.”

Halvar laughed bitterly and raised his glass. “To crazy coin-counters.”

“I’ll drink to that,” Jacob answered, and downed the rest of his glass.

“Go ahead and take the rest of the steak, Daniel,” Jacob offered, leaning back against the wall, hands behind his head.

Daniel complied rapidly, while Thaddeus and Ceann attended to their own dwindling portions. The quiet should have been soothing, but it was not. The heat and crackle of the fire failed to work its magic, and the night air gelled with tension.

The easy topics were spent: today’s sales had exceeded Jacob’s hopes. Daniel had come into his own as a merchant: the boy was a natural. He would be an invaluable asset, should the route srvive. Thaddeus and Ceann were old hands, and had easily stepped into the management of the wagon. The figures in the scrolls were complete, the immense profit of the day neatly tallied, and all had been stored tightly away for tomorrow. Jacob sensed an unspoken dislike between the two men that had not been there in the Spring, but they were professionals, and wise enough to leave sleeping dogs lie. And Jacob was about to embark on a suicide mission. All was well. Everything was wrong.

“Halvar and I have come to a conclusion,” Jacob finally said. “I’m going to sneak into the war camp of the Kharshe. I’ll burn their supplies, and then escape back here. If Dorgann catches me, my sword and dagger will be poisoned. But I’m not going to seek him out.”

“Good to know,” Thaddeus responded slowly. “What could possibly go wrong with that?”

Jacob winced. “Let’s hear it, then.”

“You’ve never been a hunter, Jacob. Stealth takes practice, and you don’t have much of it. On the bright side, you look exactly like the people you’re going to be sneaking around - Oh wait, you don’t. And I don’t suppose you have any idea where their food is going to be - all in one pile in the back of the camp, surely, and it’ll burn easy. When you’re done, of course, they’ll let you walk right out through half a mile of war tents, and sachet on home alone?”

“Something like that,” Jacob replied evenly. “Except Halvar’s Kynzri will dress me up, and make up my face to look like an old man’s. I’ll only need to sneak by a scout or two to get in the camp, and hope I don’t have to kill them. Once inside, I just need to keep my eyes open. When I need to leave, they won’t be able to keep up with me. I’ll be fine. At least, it’s a risk worth taking.”

“And if you run into both Sorcerers at once?” Thaddeus pressed.

“I’ll pray.”

“You’re nuttier than a bag of chipmunks,” Thaddeus retorted. Ceann chuckled, but said nothing.

“You can do it, Jacob. I believe in you,” Daniel said.

Jacob laid a hand on the boy’s arm. He wished he had the same confidence, but he would do what had to be done, and hadn’t Brother Francis proved the power of belief? It would have to be enough. “Thank you, Daniel. But the truth is, I don’t have a choice. Some things have to be done. Letting Ironwood fall, and Sarronen too, when I could do something about it? I’m not going to have to live with that.”

“If you live at all,” Ceann murmured.

“Yes,” Jacob replied, “there is that. The Kharshe are still a ways out. I’ll join you tomorrow, and help you start filling up the wagon again. After that, wish me luck.”

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