Inherit the Wind
Disclaimer: No, I don't own Velgarth, Valdemar, nor anyone aside from the characters crafted for this story.
Soft footfalls marred the still air; it was rare for folk to venture into Grim Dale Forest, even this close to Shimmer, and Stormyr lay quiet, feigning sleep. They paused, then moved again; an opportunist, as suspected. No thief, though bandits were a daily problem here, and no murderer; the feet, clad in worn calfskin, lined with fur, moved around his body gingerly, as though he might awaken at any moment. He heard whomever it was picking through his tiny stores of food; a faint puff of dismay nearly made him smile, but he held his face slack. With a heavier tread, the stranger departed, leading away some sort of animal outside, apparently bedecked with a few bells, since they rang out softly in the forest air, though strangely muffled, and at last, the young man could sit up. He shook off the blankets, gazing at the door, then put thoughts of the stranger out of his mind and freed the fire from its banked coals...
"Boy!" Stormyr's eyes snapped to the caravan leader's call, and he clucked for his gelding to trot up to the large man, a salute bouncing in time with the paint's gait.
"Aye, sir?" Lead-Guard Yungan cursed under his breath as his own gelding fought to break the canter he was in. Kneeknocker always did enjoy making his rider's journey hell, for all that he was an excellant guard-horse, supposedly bought from the far-off Shin'a'in three years ago, when the caravan had risked a journey to the Anduras Faire. A journey they were making once more, this time with a new host of caravan guards, and enough spoils from the forest that filled most of Drammin Prefecture that they stood a good chance at making more than just a little profit. This would also be Stormyr's first time traveling so far, though he'd run the roads with the wagons and traders for nearly five years now...he eased Splash out of the way long enough for the other gelding to fight, then brought his horse back into line, offering Yungan a faint nod and wince of sympathy. The man himself grimaced, and forced the beast to settle; he didn't care to rough up his animals, but this one horse couldn't be dealt with otherwise. Not even horse-talking worked with him.
"Not a'tall, sir. Wha's on yer mind?"
"Need a runner ta scout ahead an' find us a place fer the night. Think you an' ol' Splashy here 're up ta it?" He only grinned in reponse, and nudged the paint into a faster trot, waving a hand at the older man.
"Be back n' haf a mark!" He called over his shoulder, settling in what he called his watching pose...and wondered why his mind had thought of that day. It hadn't been particularly special, even after the stranger had left. It was just...another day. Hell, he'd had opportunists all the time, lost travelers and the occasional hermit, even a few bandits from time to time. Why that one day had to keep popping up...He pushed it aside with a disgusted sniff, and let his eyes rove over the landscape around him, taking note of the change from the deep, dark forest. It was a bright morning out here on the Pewtergrass Plains, the silvered grasses that made up its name reflecting the sunlight, throwing his expectations of a morning nearly as dark as night entirely out the window. They'd camped on this road before, though, and since they were halfway to Quion, heading north on the Yekal Trade Road...there should be a large, well-traveled campsite at the crook up ahead, a nice, wide, stone-paved oval that faded into yellow and black sand at the bottom of the clear brook that curved like a friendly kitten around it, then darted off into the plains east of them. The first time he'd camped here, he'd marveled at the large swathes of flagstone and brickwork, curious about who would go to such trouble for a simple trade road. He'd said as much, and the mage who'd been hired to help protect the traders had laughed, made a gesture...and from the center of the oval, a blue glyph had appeared, rising merrily above the surface.
"This is the mark of a builder-mage, and from the Argent School in Bathe, if I'm not mistaken. Pity the school fell to ruin; their magery was among the finest, and nearly always for the good of the land, or the people." With that, Stor had been thrown headlong into a discussion about magic and mages, and when they'd left Ulei in Mekkam, he'd been sorry to see him go. He had been fifteen summers then, and that had been only his second journey with the traders. Now, at twenty, he was verging on taking leadership among the caravan scouts; he'd been under Yungan's wing for the last two years, and training to deal with bandits, other traders, the rare shepherd and hermit since then, learning strategy and tactics, and been in no few battles himself. A long scar curved down over one eye; it was white as the moon now, and lucky him, hadn't done more than cut into his eyelid, and his long black hair was tied back in a low tail, braided down his back, an old Guard hat pulled low over his eyes to shade them. He was dressed in simple brigadine armor and light chain over a loose tunic and trews, all of it cream and brown, the better to ease into the early summer heat. He was, as his fellows called him, a perfect match for the horse he'd picked, and he'd endured the laughing and jesting with an easy heart.
"Ho, the rider!" He turned in the saddle and grinned at Mikka; kid might as well have been his baby brother, they looked so alike.
"Ho, th' scout! Wha's th' matter, Mik?" The younger boy tossed his own shaggy black hair out of his eyes, and glanced up, bright blue eyes glittering. In that, they differed; Stor's were a soft green, shot through with silver.
"Nothin', but Yungan wants to know what the camp looks like. Says the traders is gettin' grouchy." Stor rolled his eyes and clucked Splash to move a little faster, topping the ridge at a trot, Mikka's flashy mare close behind. Pointing down at the familiar campsite, he raised his other hand up and loosed the neckerchief that acted as a balaclava during the windy, dusty days, and spun it over his head, the bright white fabric easy to see even from a distance. A brief flash meant no luck; a wave meant bandits. But twirling it like he was doing now, that meant that they'd found a good place, safe, with fresh water. At Yungan's returning flash, this from his gilded shield, both youngsters set off towards the campsite, tumbling out of their saddlepads to begin tearing up grass for fuel, collapsable buckets coming out of saddle-bags to be filled with the clear spring water. Night came quick enough still, and they had a long way yet to go, but there was no need to hurry; Anduras Faire lasted from now to fall, bringing traders from all over Velgarth. No, there was plenty of time to rest, now, and it had been nearly six moons since they'd had the luxury of song and dance; the Traders of Shimmer were long overdue.
Three weeks later, Stormyr was wondering just what he'd gotten himself into when he'd agreed to join up with the caravan guards. It hadn't been a surprise to him that they'd been attacked shortly after Quion; hell, they'd anticipated Naavar's bandits, just based on the reports. But the second attack had left wounds and one dead guard in its wake; none of the bandits had survived. The third had been less severe, but Mikka had taken the brunt of the force from the biggest of the bastard's sword swing, and was laid up with a broken arm and a nasty fever. The fourth had been the worse...Splash slipped, and as the paint regained his footing, he jarred his rider's broken left shoulder, causing Stormyr to choke, his eyes glazing over with agony again. There was no room in the wagons; Yungan lay dead behind them, buried in a hasty grave, while only Haun rode, and Kida and Olli were with Mikka. Thanks be to the goddess, though...this road, once they had passed into Jkatha, was manned with Road-Guards, and after making a report, Stormyr led them on, bolstered by the presence of the Guard and some serious painkilllers...which were wearing off, now that he thought about it.
He looped the reins around the small saddle horn in front of him, and reached back with his good arm, wincing as he stretched, and found the small bottle. Argonel, from the depths of the Grim Dale Forest, more potent, and yet, less deadly than the stuff these northerners used. He'd done the distilling himself, between long practices with bow and blade, and longer runs using the variety of horses and ponies their little band had kept. Speaking of horses...Kneeknocker was tethered to the back of the heaviest wagon, surprisingly docile now that he wasn't being ridden. No matter; Stormyr had every intention of selling him once they hit the faire. The traders were largely unscathed; a few bruises, some scratches, and their cargos a little beat up, but no real losses...for which Stor blessed his goddess again. There would be more to go around of their payment, since only the five of them remained, but it was blood-money, pure and simple...a fact that ground against his deep-set morals, but he needed to eat, and more importantly, he needed a Healer. An injury like his would be the death of his job, and probably the death of him, if he didn't get it set properly and cleaned out. The Road-Guard could only do so much...
"Oy, laddie." A veteran of the Guard rode up next to him, and he fought to keep his mind from getting too fuzzy from the drugs. "How's th' shoulder?"
"Hurts." He replied shortly, closing his eyes against another spasm. "How long till we make th' Faire?"
"Another two marks, iffen yer bloody traders'll hurry up. Iffen no, then we'll be there by supper." The older man was friendly enough, and seemed to understand that he was in too much pain to care much for conversation. His accent was rough, but clear enough to understand; not so surprising, since the trader-language had largely solidified over the years. It had become an unspoken agreement amongst both the Trader's and the Guard's Guilds throughout the smaller contingent of southern countries to use one language for the traveling caravans and their many destinations. Several nomadic tribes had followed suit, and now someone from as far away as Shimmer could travel easily to the very city of the Shin'a'in with little more than a horse, rations, and a job. He smiled slightly, thinking of the small village he'd grown to love so much...when another jarring stumble nearly made him bite through his lip. The Guard noticed, he thought absently through the roaring pain, and the older man's presence faded as he cantered back towards the traders. He could hear the hoarse yelling between two men, then the rumble of the wagon wheels increased as the trader chieftain coaxed a little more speed out of his stout draftmares. Just a little while longer...
He hissed a little as the Healer poked and prodded around the broken bone; he'd been lucky that it hadn't punctured his flesh. Soon enough, though, a deep warmth spread from where the old woman had pressed her palm, and he relaxed, allowing himself to be laid down on his right side. The lady's apprentice held him steady as her master finished setting the bone, and he opened one eye, smiling wryly.
"I hope I may be a better patient than most." His accent was still there, but less notable than it used to be; he'd practiced Jkathan for a long time on the roads, as well as Shin'a'in, Ruvanian, and even Rethwellen. The girl smiled faintly, and he heard a chuckle from the Healer.
"Aye, laddie, that you are. I've not seen a youngster as calm as you be in a few years."
"I have had a great deal of practice in the art."
"So I can see...Your friends are being treated as well, but you'll have to stay at least a fortnight. We want to make sure you're healed up properly afore you head back out on the road."
"Fair enough. I've no complaints, save that I do need to go pick up our payment and arrange an inn for the others. May I do that after my healing today?" The lady laughed outright, and he could almost see her nodding.
"Aye, as long as you be avoiding a horse." At that, he sighed ruefully.
"You do not need to remind me of that, lady-Healer." Two hours later, heavily drugged and his arm slung across his chest, followed by Mikka and Haun, Stormyr turned into the large tent their traders preferred, making for the Chieftain in the back. The large man roared a welcome, but his voice softened as he drew them into the private portion, the shade a cool breath against Stor's still-feverish face. He'd nearly forgotten Yungan's warning about how warm the western lands were compared to their native high plains and forest. B'mur shook each of their hands, careful of Stormyr's, and left a large, clinking bag when he drew away.
"Your fee, plus a reward for fighting so bravely on our behalf. I also took the liberty of corraling the incredibly stubborn monster of your late leader; your other beasts are in a separate paddock, safe. You require accomodations, yes?"
"Aye, that...My thanks, Chieftain."
"Tis nothing, lad. You did your jobs, even injured. Use my name at the Silver Bell; it's a newer inn, opened by them Valdemarens, and they know me well. They'll let you stay till you're all on your feet again." Stormyr felt the knot in his stomach that had been riding with him since the last attack melt away. He didn't know what a 'Valdemaren' was, but he was willing to bear anything in order to get off his feet and sleep.
Meh. More carp.