BEYOND THE PALISADES
Saddled five in number, Valyncort’s company moved leisurely northward along the road from Urvolsk in the auspices of an ungelid dawn. Dew gleamed with the nascent light of the risen star as swallows spun toward cloudless azure skies from the boughs of diminutive trees which lined the surrounding fields. Save for a merchant caravan less than a league ahead, Valyncort’s company was the cobbled-lane’s only occupants, beyond which lay naught but a few scattered bowers, small plots of farmland, verdant hills and multicolored forests for miles in every direction. After some twenty minutes of silence, Siles began metrically rapping his left knuckles upon his saddle and struck up a tune, breaking the monotonous clipping of the pack-horses.
“There once was a road, twas big n’ wide, upon it, five queer folk did ride; before them all seemed glittering gold, none knowing what their fate did hold – on the way to Taalo. Twas said: that kingdom was a’ split in two, a gathering dark to there eschew; and into that scene a’ harrow n’ loss the riders rode, sayin’ damn the cost – on the way to Taalo.”
Valyncort, who rode beside the singer in the middle of the pack, let out a heavy sigh.
“I’m beginning to think you enjoy vexing me, Siles.”
“Not at all my lord. Ya don’t fancy a tune every now and then?”
“You’re always so severe, Valy,” Tessel chided from the back of the procession. She tilted to Siles with a sincere toothy smile. “Pay him no mind. I thought it was lovely.”
“Thank ye, miss.” Siles jerked his thumb behind him to the vanishing umber palisades of Urvolsk. “Been sitting in that gaol near the year entire. Weren’t much else to do but sing. Took a liking to it.”
“More so than the warden, I’d imagine.”
“Is it the heat, my lord?”
“That’s put you in so churlish a mood?”
Hulmarra glanced over her shoulder, her usual grim tone replaced by one of curiosity. “Tell me, locksmith, do you know ‘The Sharper’s Game?'”
“A, yes, that I do. A new one. Heard it at the pub some, what was it, two years back. Hows it go again?” He scratched his chin, silently mouthing words and patted his thigh like a drum. One two-three. One two-three. “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.”
The bowwoman nodded and murmured along, “Aye, that’s it.”
“Oh, gods below, Hulmarra. Not you too.”
“What? Its a good song. Don’t you lot have marching chanteys in the army?”
“Unfortunately. Don’t tell me you’re going to start singing too, Kosif?”
Kosif, who along with Tessel formed the rear of the cavalcade, and who alone had said nothing since their departure, looked up from a small leather-bound book clasped in one hand. “I am better at making instruments than playing them. I leave the commission of frivolity to its experts.”
After their discussion the troupe advanced further north with scant discourse to a crossroad accompanied by a battered signpost whittled to two arrows, which leftward read, “To Thekjaburg,” and rightward, “To Braffold.” There Silifrey slowed her mount and addressed her companions with sheepish curiosity. “I know you said before we departed the plan was to take the road to Thekjaburg, but, isn’t Braffold road the straighter route to Taalo?”
Kosif addressed the woman without taking his eyes from his book. “The straightest path is not always the optimal one.”
“You’re both right. If we were to take the western way,” Hulmarra gestured with a hide-bound hand to the alluded thoroughfare, which cut over a buckled meadow, distance-crowned by low, foreboding crags. “The terrain is more rugged, with no towns inbetween. Least none I know of. We’d have no place to resupply. We have stock enough, perhaps, to make it to Braffold before running dry, but that’s only if we ration our vittles, which I doubt any of you are keen to. We could hunt, of course, but game would be scare.”
“Ah. I see.”
“I’ve heard talk of giant snakes that dwell in the craglands,” Siles put in as he dabbed his brow with a bit of cloth he kept in his coat. “My mate Dal said he once heard of one over thirty paces from snout to tail.”
Valyncort loosed a “Pah!”
“Giant. I don’t know. But plenty of standard size. Some venomous. Most not.”
Tessel shivered at the pathfinder’s words, prompting a canny smile from the locksmith as he folded his rag and stuffed it in his coat pocket. Valyncort, with mounting impatience, rode to the fore, shifted in his saddle to face the rest of the company and raised his powerful voice in command.
“We take Thekjaburg road as planned. Come. We’re wasting time.”
As the riders pressed on, Siles made to pass Kosif, who as yet occupied the hind position, whereupon the latter averred.
“I don’t believe a word of it.”
“Your snake story.”
“I saw you smile, Mr. Rathdam. Like a child filching candy. No one told you a tale about giant snakes. You only said that to frighten the woman. And well you did. You probably don’t even have a friend named Dal.”
“Do I seem the type to do such a thing?”
“Well, I might say the same of you. The trick you did back at the forge. With the seax. Impressive. But still just a trick. At first I thought it might have been wire work, but it moved to you with too fluid a motion for that. Still, I’ll figure it. Only a matter of time.”
“There was no trick.”
“Come off it. Perhaps the others are superstitious enough to believe your theatrics evidence of sorcery, but I’m not so credulous. There’s no such thing as magic.”
“I did not say there was. I said only that I deployed no ruse.”
Siles waited. The artificer didn’t elaborate. Instead he produced a wrapped piece of charcoal and plied the stick to the page. Frustrated, the lockpick concluded the conversation with a mild shake of his head before sallying back to the middle of the queue. With formation resumed and attentions reprimed, the company hastened their pace. After several leagues down the road the intense heat prompted a succession of disrobment. Tessel removed her guady Skyn vestments, pulled her shawl over her delicate brow to shade her eyes and produced a small paper fan to assiduously ply against the mounting humidity. Valyncort unfastened his wolf-hide cloak, revealing his slashed-sleeve doublet, and folded it into one of his saddle bags on top of his aketon and brigandine. Siles removed his coat and muttered a curse to the god of weather and dabbed his slick skin with his kerchief. Hulmurra produced a woven straw hat to gird against the relentless rays and removed her overcoat and tied it about her slender waist. Only Kosif, well accustomed to the heat of the river forge, remained unperturbed by the swelter, and rode with his dark hood up and his head down, reading and writing all the while, glancing away only to bridle his straying beast back behind the others.
By midday the travelers descended to a small valley embowered with dying trees, whose crinkled beige leaves thickly canvassed the ground where grass grew sparse and xanthous, obscuring errant efts and water voles, which skittered to the damp darkness of their burrows as vultures cut wide arcs above the tatty, incongruous canopy. Through the center of the dell wound a brook too large for a grown man to leap and too small for a boat to ford, which bisected the road over which a mossy stone bridge extended. At the near end of the viaduct a grizzled man sat a campfire just off the thoroughfare and rose as Valyncort’s company drew near. As the riders dismounted, Valyncort studied the camper’s dress, which consisted of a dark blue aketon, emblazoned with a stag crowned with stars, one for each of the provinces of Austr, all unified under the Urvolsk Concord some two hundred years past. The man appeared to be an officer of the Consulate.
“G’day, sir. What do you roast?”
“Pork,” the gambesoned man responded gruffly. “You lot of a mind to cross?”
Valyncort nodded. “We’re on our way to Thekjaburg.”
“Aight.” The officer scratched his stubbly chin. “But you’ll be paying the toll first.”
Valyncort’s brows rose and he folded his arms across his breast. “What toll would that be?”
“Didden ye hear?”
“I’d not ask if I had.”
“Came down from the consulate of late. Ten gelt per head.”
“Ten? A hefty sum for such a paltry crossing.”
“Bridges need to be maintained some-ways.”
As the men conversed Kosif scanned the scenery, fixating on the half foliage-obscured campfire and the spit which had been raised above it, beyond which grew tangled brush through which a wide trail had been carved.
“Let me just retrieve my purse.”
Valyncort walked back to his companions, brows knit in thought.
“Did I hear him right? Ten gelt per crosser?” Hulmarra demanded with considerable ire.
“That’s right. Said it was a recent Consulate decree.”
“Pft. We should blockade the road and demand as much to let ’em piss on home, see how they like it.”
He smirked at the thought, then lowered his voice. “It is curious I’ve heard nothing of this tax.”
“That is odd,” Tessel assented with a bob of her shimmering golden head.
“Perhaps you’re presuming too much my lord.”
“How so Siles?”
“Well. Is tax law something you and our dear Proconsul spend much time discussing?”
“No, but its still peculiar I’d heard no mention of it during my stay at The Hall nor from any of the criers. Something queer is going on. Something crooked.”
“Like what?” Siles pressed in disbelief.
“That, I can answer,” Kosif replied dispassionately. He stood shorn of his peculiar gauntlets, his hood down, a leather-gloved hand taunt upon the reigns of his pack horse, his carnelian-violet gaze roving over the shaded foliage as he spoke. “There’s four legs of pork roasting. Too much for one man to consume in one sitting. Particularly in this inclement weather. The guard is not what he appears.”
“What do you mean?” Tessel asked, scrunching her face in confusion.
“I mean this supposed bagman has friends nearby. Observe. The foliage is bent where they made a path.”
“Cut away some too.” Hulmarra added. “Wasn’t deer.”
“Four portions of pork suggests four men.” Valyncort concluded direly.
“Quite. We can scarcely suppose they all left to relieve themselves simultaneously. Which means they’re either foraging or hiding. But why forage as a meal is being prepared? This suggests the latter. A Consulate-approved collector would have no reason to hide his companions. Same as you, I’ve heard nothing of such a policy from my friends at the Consulate. Nor from any of the criers or pamphleteers. Why would they not announce it? The answer. There is no such policy. The implication. This man is not a Consulate collector.”
“There a problem?” The guard called, discerning the peculiar looks being flung about from the murmuring assembly.
“In a way. Some here thinking we should take another way on account of the levy,” Siles called back with put-on-crossness. After a scoff of “G’luck with that” from the guard, Siles turned back to his familiars and dropped the guise. “What’re we to do then? We can’t take the horses through the stream. Not hereabouts anyways.”
“I shall ask the man to prove his station.”
“Oh, Valy, I don’t like this,” Tessel mewled softly. “If he’s a charlatan he might get violent.”
“Perhaps,” he replied as he rustled in his saddle bag and withdrew his coin purse and a stout quadrangular piece of boiled leather ornamented with an intricate engraving of a stern owl with folded wings, clutching a dagger and a bundle of wheat in its talons.
“Its the surest path to clarification,” Kosif declared evenly. Siles and Hulmarra quickly agreed and after a wordless exchange, Valyncort returned to the ponte levyer, with Siles and Kosif in tow. The soldier produced a jangling bag of coins and held it up to the gambesoned obstructor, whose eyes shimmered with anticipation. As the sentry reached out to seize the bag, Valyncort drew it back.
“Before we conclude our affairs, I had a question I wished to ask of you.”
“What garrison are you from?”
Valyncort raised his owl-emblazoned ailette and brandished it before the man, whose eyes went momentarily wide.
“You’re a watcher.”
“Captain Esser Meyrin Valyncort, at your service.” The man did not respond to the name, prompting a flicker of annoyance to dance across the watcher’s face before he continued. “You see, sir, the Urvolsk garrison is where I was trained; its hospital has been my home for many years. From that familiarity I can say with confidence you were not dispatched therefrom. So from which garrison do you hail?”
“The,” the man paused unsteadily, trailing off, subtly working his jaw, blinking rapidly. “The garrison at Thekjaburg.”
Valyncort’s eyes narrowed slightly. “There is no garrison at Thekjaburg.”
The levyer went rigid. His eyes flicked right to Kosif, then left to Siles. Both visages intent and critical.
“That’s a look I’ve seen before,” Siles chimed. “Had it myself when they put the shackles on.”
“I know you’re thinking of doing something untoward,” Valyncort put in sternly. “I would advise against it. Instead, tell me the nature of this game you’re playing.”
“I may be playing, Watcher, but not alone.” Soon as the words left the imposter’s mouth, he whistled. Loud, clear and piercingly. Whereafter, two men jumped from the thrushes to either side of the company, flanking them. One held a sickle. The other, a feather staff. The false tollman grinned barbarously. “Shoulda just given me the coin.”
“Its all yours,” Valyncort replied, hurling his coin-purse at the man’s head. The pouch struck the imposter in the temple with a jangling thud and tore a groan of agony from the brigand who reeled backwards, pawing at his belt for his weathered baselard. Valyncort rushed forth and kicked the stunned man onto the bridge, as he did, the two armed footpads leapt into the fray as the horses bucked and whinnied and Hulmarra and Tessel hurried to restrain them.
The sickle-wielder advanced cautiously from the right toward Kosif, as the bulky balding staff-wielder ran from the left at Siles, who gave a yelp and ducked a heavy horizontal blow. As the swipe whistled past his skull, Siles cocked his head and loosed a taunt. “If one is what one eats, you must be keen on molasses.” The larger man scowled and, in the same moment, pushed up swiftly on a flat protrusion in the upper handle of his staff whereafter there came a suppressed shearing as three raw metal spikes sprouted from the end of the heavy pole. With a grunt of exertion the large man, without advancing, reversed the direction of his swipe and brought the studded truncheon into the safecracker’s shoulder. The leftward barb burrowed into flesh. Siles spasmed with pain as his shirt went red, stumbling backward, as he did, his assailant pulled the pronged pole free and spun, connecting the opposite, unadorned end of the staff with the lockpick’s gut.
As Siles was brought low, and Valyncort nimbly drew his brand to bout with the man on the bridge, Kosif faced the third ambusher some seven feet away, whose fearsome black billhook was raised level with the metallurgist’s throat. As the brigand advanced, Kosif removed his hands from his robes, his arms bearing thick-plated obsidian-colored gauntlets. He then assumed a curious posture, his right foot forward, his right hand held before him, palms toward his foe, his fingers spread, slightly curled, as if in preparation of a grapple, his left arm tucked behind his back.
“I would garner neither pleasure nor grief in spilling your overheated blood.”
“That’s outta my hands.”
“Like your sickle.” As he spoke, Kosif extended his right hand. The curved blade shook in the brigand’s grasp and spun free of his clutches, arcing to Kosif’s right palm. The marauder’s chapped mouth parted with astonishment; his limber leering posture dissipating to petrified rigidity.
Kosif tilted the blade in his hand, catching a stray beam of light from the forest canopy, then transferred it to his left hand, placing his right hand behind his back in the same motion, where it spun up from his palm, levitating as if in the midst of a invisible and sky-defiant stream.
“No weapon forged is as potent as the properties which subtend it.”
“On your knees. Or your skull shall be my sheath.”
The man assented to the command and raised his hands in entreaty. “Mercy.” Was all he managed to whimper.
Catching the unusual display from the corner of his eye, the staff-wielding caitiff turned from where he stood over a beaten and bloody Siles. “What in Marta’s name-” The next instant he crumpled to the ground, a cruel black sickle buried in his left leg. “Oh gods! Beron, help me!”
“Beron, is it?” Valyncort quipped as he effortlessly fended a wild strike from the highwayman. Having fixed the whole of his attention upon the watcher, the brigand had failed to apprehend the curious events occuring behind him. Not even his companion’s anguished cry tore him from the increasingly one-sided duel.
The imposter leapt forward like a feral beast, eyes wild with panic, and brought his unusually heavy baselard in a wide arc toward his foe’s clavicle. Much to the brigand’s surprise, Valyncort stepped blithely into the blow, dropped the point of his hand-and-a-half and caught the hilt of his opponent’s blade with his crossbar at an angle incongruous to grip. Fluidly, Valyncort twisted forte, foible and body to the right, drove the pretender’s brand from its owner’s grasp and sent it clattering to the heel-worn cobblestones of the bridge. The pretender loosed a rattling gasp of horror. Without hesitation, Valyncort half-reversed his motion and slammed his weapon, pommel-first, into his unarmed foes’ gut, pulled back, and brought the flat of his blade against the man’s brow in the same area striken by the coin-purse. Groaning, the pretender fell to one knee, clutching his gut with one hand, his bruised and bloody brow with the other.
“I yield. I yield.” The man threw his hands out in fearful supplication. Valyncort lowered his brand and retrieved his enemy’s heavy shortsword from off the ground. He froze as he counted. “One. Two. Beron makes three. There’s one more!” Valyncort called to his companions, without taking his gaze from the disarmed man on the bridge.
Rustling of greenery preceded a high thin sound. Something flew from the trees. The next instant, Kosif’s body jerked.
“Behind you!” Tessel screamed to Hulmarra, who had retrieved her bow and quiver. The pathfinder whirled, arrow notched, string drawn, spying a incongruous shade and let her arrow fly. A howl let out of the foliage whereafter a portly man donned in furs tumbled to the ground at the treeline, clutching his shoulder, a crossbow clattering from his hand.
Birds spun up from the treetops and a cool breeze blew in from the south.
All eyes turned to Kosif.
He looked down to behold a metal quarrel jutting from his black robed chest.
“Blow for blow, you bastard.” The staff wielder growled from where he crouched upon the ground, holding his wounded leg.
Kosif seized the armament buried in his chest with his right hand, pulled it free and tossed it coldly at the staff wielder’s feet. The tip was bloodless.
“By paltry force you buckle. For by paltry force were you made. How can a minnow harm a pike?”
“Some augural conjuration. Eldritch he is.” The former owner of the billhook exclaimed despairingly.
The staff wielder shook his head, his gaze shifting from the quarrel at his feet to the man who had extracted it. “Its not possible.”
Kosif began striding toward the downed man and removed a rope hanging from his saddle bag as he passed. The highwayman scuttled backwards like a malformed crab. Kicking dust and soiling his fraying jacket.
“Foolish is the man who’d trade blood for mint. As its the surest way to loose both.”
“Clemency! I beg you!”
The man sobbed, closed his eyes and prepared for the end. Kosif shook his head and tossed the coil of rope to Silifrey.
“Tie him, girl.”
The woman stood shock-still, staring at the man with her mouth agape.
Broken from her spell, the woman rushed behind the man as Hulmarra trained her bow upon him.
“Don’t even think of running. You’d not make it to the treeline.”
In short order Valyncort’s company subdued the injured imitators and bound them to the young trees beside their camp and tended to Siles’ injuries. As Tessel wrapped the safecracker’s shoulder with her shawl, the watcher turned to Kosif with an expression of amused curiosity.
“Gave quite a show.”
“As did you.”
“How did you deflect that bolt?”
Kosif smiled lightly, ensured his back was to the imposters, and pulled his collar down, revealing coriaceous chitin armor. “Nearly hard as Torian steel, yet considerably more flexile.”
“Fortunate he didn’t aim any higher. And speaking of aim.” Siles turned to Hulmarra who sat a stump at the smouldering spit, hewing the brigand’s roasted pork. “That was a damn fine shot. Disarming him like ya did.”
Hulmarra shook her head.
“I was aiming for his head.”