THE GODLY VAGRANT
Laden with new equipment, the five travelers refilled their waterskins and left their routed waylayers bound and pleading to blazed boles at the bridge, forded the waterway and bivouacked on the edge of the dale. In the morning they trudged back along the road and by afternoon found themselves passing a dessicated field, occupied by a forsaken farmhouse. Valyncort shook his head, slowing his well-shorn steed from canter to trot. He looked east to where a dissolute door creaked on rusting hinges above which perched a murder of crows, their cruel, charcoal-beaked heads tilted in idle curiosity.
“When last I passed this house it was thick with children. Helping their mother churn milk. I still remember the taste. The yard was abuzz with the yammering of cockerels. Now it lies silent as a sepulchre.”
“A bad season, a bad harvest, perhaps. One is all it takes.” Siles remarked glumly as he observed the decrepit abode. “A common enough story.”
“I wonder what became of them.”
“Perhaps they moved to a bigger farm.” Tessel put in with a hopeful smile.
“Aye, and perhaps I’m blood to the queen of Tor.” Hulmarra scoffed, slowing her horse behind Valyncort.
Tessel pursed her lips. “Why must you say such things?”
“It takes education to be so addle-pated as to ignore the evidence of your eyes. Look at the field. Naught growing but weeds, and them only slight.”
“That doesn’t mean that’s why they left.”
“Your wits are flat as your chest.”
Siles laughed and slapped his thigh. Kosif leaned head to hand, massaged his temple and glared.
“You three squawk louder than the crows.”
“Got something against crows?”
“Rats with wings. Though I understand why you would like them, being, as they are, the familiars of pilfering knaves.”
“Who pissed in your vitri?”
Valyncort ignored the fracus and rode ahead, veering from the road to the backyard of the abandoned lot where a number of neatly arranged stones stood out from the low yellowed grass. Graves. Unnamed and four in number. Before each monument lay a flat pile of blackened vegetation, bound with a thin length of twine. Floral offerings. As the rider turned the corner of the deteriorating grange, the chattering avians scattered to the east in a whorl of oily plumes, cresting distant menhirs that encircled a diminutive stupa, scarcely more voluminous than a cottage and little taller than a tool-shed.
As the watcher surveyed the far structures, the quarreling of his confederates grew louder. Shrill words blended to a squamous mass of sound. Indecipherable in amarulence.
“Enough. All of you.”
The chatter subsided. All eyes turned to the watcher. His visage severe. He gestured toward the west where dark clouds roiled like monstrous snails.
“Storm’s coming. Shelter’s up ahead.”
Returning to a canter, the group watched the land swiftly ascend to a low, pine-crowned escarpment, where, due the impassibility of the topology, the road turned sharply to the left, and vanished westward amidst a cluster of rocky outcroppings. To the right of the trail, less than a hundred paces distant, lay the small stone-ringed shrine Valyncort had spotted from the farmhouse-yard. The building stood in disrepair, portions of the hemispherical roof and the trail-facing wall had long ago crumbled, leaving uneven and widening holes. The gaps were girded by several tarps affixed by means of ropes and weights and fluttered lightly with the breeze. Verdant grass and ground ivy grew densely about the structure, yet not a stray blade nor vine surmounted it.
The quint led their sumpters off the road, hitched them to adjacent smooth-barked trees and advanced toward the shrine. Valyncort, who had donned his aketon and brigandine to ward off the growing chill, took the lead, striding confidently, a hand on his pommel. As he made to pass the first standing stones he gave a grunt and fell face-first to the ground, his foot caught on a tripwire laid between the two massive orthostats that flanked him. A loud creak resounded. A grinding of metal on metal.
“A trap!” Siles gasped, throwing himself away from the stelae. Hulmarra crouched. Silifrey trembled. Kosif raised a brow.
Then the creaking came again. And again. And again. Tracking with the pressure or lack there of from Valyncort’s foot.
The wayfarers followed the sound to the top of the leftward lith, where rested a rusted weathervane in the shape of a haughty cockerel. The thin length of wire that had incurred the watcher’s imbalance wound about the battered grooves of the two nearby columns and had been secured to the base of the rooster-shaped ornament. Valyncort lifted his foot from the wire. The competing tensions having been alleviated, the weathervane ceased its sibilation.
Hulmarra looked from the lith-borne device to the wire and followed its curvature beyond the two closest standing stones. To the two second-closest stones, then third second-closest, then fourth and so on until the pillars and the barely visible wire wound between them disappeared about the circumscribed edifice. “Its an alarm system.”
“Could be this is a depot for those rogues at the bridge. Might be they weren’t the only members of their band.” Siles rattled off aloud.
Kosif put his arm out and helped the captain off the ground and withdrew the sickle he had seized from the highwayman at the dale. “If so, they’re certainly aware of us.”
Valyncort nodded as he stood and drew his brand quietly from its hip-bound sheath.
“Be on guard.”
Hulmarra shifted her posture with the confiscated feather-staff, from walking-stick to polearm, spacing her legs further apart, knees bent, hide-bound hands curling about the two evenly spaced grip-straps. Siles drew Beron’s brand and clutched it in a reverse grip, hunching, eyes darting over the darkening emerald landscape. Tessel unsheathed her ornate hip-bound seax and held it waveringly with two hands as might a nightmare-plagued child a candle. After a few steps, the linguist looked to Siles and awkwardly attempted to copy his stance, sliding her dagger to her right hand, thumb to pommel, hilt to wrist, extending it level with her chest.
Thus prepared, the coterie advanced in single file. Muscle taunt. Senses primed.
As they neared the facade a gale rustled the canvas screening the aperture in the wall adjacent the entrance. Tessel leapt back, face contorted with fright, blade tucked to chest as a pendant, a scream stifled in her gulping slender throat. Hulmarra shook her head and brushed past the woman and Valyncort and made to enter. He placed a firm hand on her shoulder.
“You can’t cover both corners at once. We go together.”
The pathfinder visaed the suggestion with a curt half-jounce of her head and back to back the pair charged through the tarp-palled portal.
Hearts as footfalls beat a rising thrum. All still, save for the rasping of the wind and the clattering of heels on aged stone.
Within the perforated cenotaph was a low-ceiled, circular chamber of unadorned stone, and against the elegantly tapestried wall opposite the doorway stood a statue of extraordinary craftsmanship, being of a scant-garbed and beautiful woman of realistic scale with a hole in her chest where the heart should be, her delicate hands extended in solicitous sorrow. Before the effigy lay a coarse linen rug, faded and frayed, dented from supplication. Beside the carpet rose a grey candelabra which bore residue of recent use. All else was bare.
“Empty.” Valyncort declared after surveying the interior to his satisfaction.
The other three members of the party entered. Kosif bent to the candelabra, examining the wicks. “Someone was here recently.”
“Not here now,” Siles said as he took a seat upon the thick linen floor covering. “Well, someone should bring the horses round.”
The others agreed and, after a short respite spent gulping from their nearly depleted waterskins and scrying the sanctum’s interior, headed out to retrieve the horses, leaving Hulmarra behind to prepare the structure for the coming storm. She sat with her back to the statue on the rug and began to light the recently spent candelabra, singing quietly all the while.
“Wits, like ya gold, to the wind they’ll blow, as leaves in the autumn, as flakes in the snow, when The Sharper comes, his smile in tow, to run his wicked game.”
A smooth, unfamiliar whistle sounded over the tune, following the metre of the woman’s verse. Given the peculiar acoustics of the chamber, she presumed it was Siles, whistling from beyond the structure, his voice carrying in from the aural gaps in the wall.
“Oh, ladies n’ lads, now what ‘ave ya done? Feeling so clever, n’ think’n ya’ve won, but cards on the table and ya debt is spun, when ya play The Sharper’s game.”
Rearward footsteps, light and near preceded a man-shaped shadow which tore the pathfinder from her revelry. She whipped about, nearly upsetting the tallow-holder, and beheld a lithe stranger with wild black hair bearing a tattered cloak which fell to his shins and a dark cloth bandage over his right eye. His skin was smooth as sheared-shale and pale as sun-burnished bone and his unconcealed eye gleamed gold-green above a dark ring suggestive of insomnolence. He smiled gently.
“Delightful.” The man’s visage and tone, though strange, was so open and amiable, and his dress so humble, the icy fear fled Hulmarra as swiftly as it had gripped her.
“We didn’t know anyone else was here. I-“
At that moment Valyncort stepped through the threshold and froze, hand going to the handle of his blade, the others returning and pausing behind him, their faces full of perplexity. The stranger held out his hands in congenial appeal. “You’ll have no need of that here, Watcher.”
“How did you know I was a watcher?”
“Your garb makes it plain, sir.”
“Yours does not. You are?”
“Erdn d’Arke. Custodian to this forlorn gardr of our lady of woe. And, I hope, for a time, your host.”
“You’re a prestr?”
Siles scratched his barbate chin and looked left and right. “Where in the pits of Tarkhoum did you come from?”
Erdn motioned to a wide tapestry behind the statue of the goddess. He pulled it aside and revealed a hidden stair that descended to a cellar.
“Unfortunately, a necessary precaution in these turbulent times.”
Valyncort relaxed and released the handle of his blade and stepped inside. “Forgive my rudeness. We were waylaid on the road but a day forgone and feared those same rogues had confederates here installed.”
“How dreadful. Yet, thankfully, you err.”
“You live here?”
“Aye. Marta provides. As she welcomes. What do they call you, Watcher?”
“Valyncort of Urvolsk.”
“Well, Valyncort of Urvolsk, I have one further question.”
“Would you care for tea?”
The man parted his cloak and unslung a metal carafe from about his neck and removed two delicate, well-polished ceramic vitris from mantle-screened pockets. He handed one to Hulmarra, the other to Valyncort and poured the vessels full of a chilled aromatic brew. The others introduced themselves and the prestr greeted each with a curt half bow and a bowl from one of his manifold pockets, his expression waxing to concern as he beheld Siles by candlelight.
“You are injured, sir.”
Siles flicked the tattered shoulder of his jacket, beneath which a bloodstained shawl was visible. “Ah, this? Token of them rogues a’ whom our friend jus’ spoke. Lanced me with that monstrous contraption.” Siles gestured to the feather-staff at Hulmarra’s feet. The prestr knelt beside the woman, observing the staff.
“I see I’m not the only one whose met with an errant blow.” Siles made a motion about his eye, mirroring the stranger’s patch.
“Were you a soldier, sir?” Tessel asked excitedly.
“Nay. I was conscripted. In Tor. Press-ganged to the Asherian Reach. I told them, as a Martaen, I could be of more use mending spirit or flesh than rending it, but their forces were depleted. They needed fresh bodies. So they pressed a blade to my hand and shortly thereafter an Asher pressed his blade to my eye.” All listened intently to the prestr’s tale, sympathy stark on their faces, save for Kosif whose attention diverted to the colorful tapestry which hung adjacent the statue.
“I’m sorry.” Tessel said quietly.
Erdn gave a dismissive wave. “You’ve no cause to be.” He then returned to Hulmarra’s staff. “May I see it?”
Hulmarra handed the prestr the weighty pole and he turned it with quizzical dexterity and extended and retracted its hidden metal quills. “Cunning design. It is said the devotees of Lanowick the Barrower favor such devices.”
“Who is this Lanowick?” Siles inquired, taking a seat on the cold stone floor and stretching out his weary legs, groaning slightly as his mangled shoulder bumped against the curving calcimined wall.
“An outlaw with a legion of like-minded outcasts under his command. It is said he makes his home in the old barrows to the west, hence his title. But such are only rumors. Are you on pilgrimage?”
“What makes you think that, prestr?” Kosif asked with confusion.
“I have heard that the Watchers were initially founded as a religious order and she bares the sign of our lady of woe.” Erdn gestured to the heart-shaped necklace that hung at Hulmarra’s bosom. The man sat on the prayer mat beside the woman and smiled. His expression kindly and curious.
“My brother gave it to me.” She reached to her chest and clasped the amulet. Her fingertips traced the gleaming contours of the battered ornament.
“A fine induction, prestr,” Valyncort remarked. “But an erroneous one. I disdain secrecy, but due my oath, I am afraid we cannot divulge our purpose. Suffice it to say we are headed north.”
“Ah. So its a matter of state then.”
“I did not say as much.”
“You didn’t have to. Well, well, I shan’t further pry. You’re welcome to spend the night. You all look as if you could use a good rest.”
“That we could. You have our thanks. And if you will accept it, my coin.” Valyncort fished into the purse strapped to his belt and extended a handful of gelt.
“By my vows, I couldn’t.”
Valyncort pressed the mintage to the man’s palm. “Then consider it a donation to this humble house of god.”
“That is most kind of you, sir. Thank you. And may Marta bless thee.”
After they had finished their drinks, the prestr dredged a number of blankets from the cellar and all settled into a peaceful slumber save for the host and Kosif, who poured over the codex by the flickering light of the candelabra.
“Your novel must be quite engrossing,” Erdn offered quietly.
“Its not fiction.”
“What is it?”
“An old history.”
“Might I take a half-gander?”
Kosif lowered the tome.
“I mean no offense, prestr, but you’d not be able to read it.”
“Its not written in Austrene?”
“Nay, but a more originary tongue.”
“Drat. Languages were never my forte. Are there pictures?”
“Aye. Take care not to crumple the pages.” Kosif extended the book to the prestr, who took it carefully and scanned the pages for several minutes before returning it to its owner. Some minutes later, the prestr laid down upon one of his thick blankets and closed his eyes as did Kosif thereafter, who dreamt of a strange form moving in a sea of clouds.
In the morning, Valyncort woke early and found his companions dossed on makeshift beds, save for the shrine-keeper and Tessel, who were nowhere to be seen. He stretched his sleep-stiff limbs and ambled out into the moist morning air. The jade-verdigris ground was dually soaked with the residue of the previous night’s deluge and the ardent rays of the ascendent sun. Crows stood upon the warm and unmantled sarsens around which colorful insects wove wild patterns in pursuit of pollen and prey.
“She’s around back.”
Valyncort whirled to the source of the voice. Erdn crouched upon the roof of the sanctuary, checking the heavy stones which held the tarpaulins taunt against the decaying shrine. The roof-bourne fixer pointed to the left where Tessel stood, half-obscured by one of the drying obelisks. Valyncort advance with a broad smile which dissipated as he beheld the woman’s sorrowful expression.
“What’s the matter?”
Tessel shook her head, auriferous locks bouncing. “Nothing.”
The woman turned upon a heel and made to stroll away whereupon Valyncort caught her gently about her arm and stayed her.
“Come now. Talk to me.”
“The bridge,” the woman paused, irked and ashamed. After a beat she looked away. “I can’t do anything right.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When those brutes attacked, I thought to restrain the horses. But after I put my hands on the reigns, after they hurt Siles, I froze. I was useless.”
“If not for your warning, Hulmarra would have taken a bolt to the back, which she’d not have weathered so well as our stony, hooded friend.”
“Perhaps. But perhaps if I’d been more active, he might have never got the chance to shoot Kosif.”
“That’s an absurd standard to hold yourself to.”
“Is it? Erdn maintains this entire sanctum by himself. I couldn’t even move a horse.”
“That is hardly the same thing.”
“Quite. Moving a horse is much simpler. I was so terrified. Just as I was at Vatn’sla, on Kosif’s bridge. Hulmarra said I lacked constitution. I had thought she was just being horrid. That it was merely her nature to scorn and mock. Now I see.”
“She was just being honest.”
As Valyncort opened his mouth in rebuff, Erdn’s jovial, self-assured voice drifted over the star-warmed and crow-thick air.
“One without fear is also without caution. One without caution is also without courage. For courage is but caution’s willful disregard.” The prestr leaned against the nearest menhir, wiping the residue of sky-shaved rock from work-worn hands with an old length of soft linen. “A crow does not disregard caution. A man does. Which here is master?” The birds cawed from their stony thrones.