After the company finished a light breakfast of salted meats and hard bread brought from Urvolsk and readied their dobbins, they bid farewells to Erdn and rode out from the bare, weather-beaten shrine and the circumambient sarsens and rejoined the road. They passed west beyond the familiar pine-topped scarp and debarked a narrow channel of striated rock that wound a half-circle to the top of the departed, coniferous bluff. From the ledge, the spiny trees extended and multiplied to a high forest that cut the sky like a green-blue phalanx. Twenty minutes of plodding brought the sight of hewn and high-stacked softwood about which moved a bevvy of ax-armed loggers who offered curt waves upon spying the travelers before returning to their task. The northern side of the wood shrunk and declined to tangles of ferns and vines and high grasses and let out to a low-lying field, spotted with short sedge and the remains of ancient stone structures half-buried in bare swatches of sodden marl. Strewn among the peeking walls and foundations was a vast array of woven baskets and pottery, cracked and fading and slow-falling to the hungry earth. Gleaming with the last vestiges of the preceding night’s precipitation, the limestone soil and calciferous remnants lent to the whole of the region the appearance of one great and glistening skeletal mass, the illusion of a monstrous being, beached, flayed and fused to the mantle. Beyond the midden, scarcely visible over patchy knolls and a gathering fog, rose the palisades of Thekjaburg, the city’s colorful boar-head banner swaying gently with the wind. Between the clearing and the center of the osseous sprawl was a somber caravan in whose midst sat an awning-covered cart bearing three cages which bore three manacled captives. The procession consisted of a man and a woman who stood before a rugged carriage hitched to two fierce black steeds, behind which four riders were arrayed, two to each side of the carted cages, armed and armored and cruel of countenance. The dire-clad troupe held their ground and conversed as their mounts clomped impatiently. All members of Valyncort’s company recognized the dusky vestments of the caravan as belonging to the slavers of Allhadr, whose like in Austr were seldom seen. The five travelers turned to each other with aspects of concern. It seemed the somber outlanders had yet to noticed them.
“Allhadrene.” Siles scratched his chin. “What do you fancy brings westerfolk to Austr?”
“Could be they were sent for by the maire of Thekjaburg.” Hulmarra considered aloud.
“Could be. Or perhaps Taalo or Tor is selling ’em Ashers.”
Kosif shook his hooded head. “Unlikely. Those caged aren’t Ashers. And Taalo and Tor have nearly no contact with the hamlets hereabout.”
“There is only one way to find out for sure.” Valyncort declared.
“What’s that, my lord?”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“For once I agree with Tessel.” Hulmarra said, as Silifrey crossed her arms and pursed her lips.
“Allhadrene are not renowned for their hospitality, but they keep to the letter of the law. They’d not be able to maintain their accords with our provinces otherwise.”
Without further discourse, the five travelers trotted carefully down the wide graminaceous incline from the forest to the field and moved out across the flat and ruined ambit. The Allhadrene looked in the newcomer’s direction and did not hail them. As the company drew up to the penal convoy, a chill wind swept in from the north and the fog followed with it. Then came a dim, osteal jangling. As bells of porous wood or obdurate chalk or some like material. Valyncort looked about, but could see no accordant instruments from the Allhadrene or their steeds or carriage.
“Av yew bisnis weth us?” A rearward rider inquired with a look of mild curiosity toward Valyncort and his companions.
“Nay. Our business lies in Thekjaburg.” Valyncort replied courteously. As he pulled up beside the riders the forms of the prisoners became clear through the shifting pall. The first was a woman, scrawny and wrathful of eye, with braided brown hair and long-sleeved garments that hid intricate blue tattooes; the second, a hulking man with a scarred face and a dejected demeanor whose cracked hands and sun-faded clothing marked him a laborer; the third, a man of middling height, sallow-skinned with matted hair the hue of rusted iron, who wore a many-colored coat rolled at the sleeves and covered in small bells that jangled merrily with every gust of wind and at his waist was tied an elegant sword-belt without scabbard or blade. The source of the previous sibilance. The woman and the giant kept their eyes low. The many-colored man, however, turned to the new arrivals with an unwavering tranquil smile on his long angular face, his eyes opening indolently, the left iris, a pale blue, the right, a burnt umber.
“What were their crimes?” Tessel asked in the tongue of Allhadr.
The expression of the Allhadrene who had previously spoken shifted from guarded disinterest to surprise. The woman who stood before the carriage moved out toward the inriders. She was clad in the same dusky banded plate as her fellows and wore shoulder-length hair in a taunt and intricate braid and a short beige half-cape affixed by a brass brooch over her right shoulder.
“You speak our tongue well, girl.” Unlike the previous member of the entourage, the woman’s accent was slight, her Austrene annunciation fluid. “Were did you learn it?”
“From one of my tutors. He spent some years in Allhadr. Kortis was his name.”
“A name I have not heard. Well. You travel to town, so you should know the midden is dangerous on horseback. Doubly so in this invidious shroud.” The woman pointed sternly toward the far ramparts of Thekjaburg, now wholly concealed in the murk. “A false step means a broken bone. Here the ground is solid. So we wait for the pall to clear. I recommend you do the same.”
“Could we not take the wood around this sod?” Siles asked, jerking his thumb toward the conifers, slowly disappearing in the haze. “We saw some lumberers earlier, surely they’ll know a better way.”
“You could. Though its thick with beasts. Boar especially. The loggers have a camp. Won’t travel with the weather as it is. And if you go around the midden, would take at least two days more to reach town. There are no other ways.”
“We thank you for the advice.” Valyncort broke in, dismounting. “Since our camps are here stymied and the weather wends bitter, I’d say a fire is in order. If you’ve no objections?”
The dusk-colored riders looked expectantly to the woman. She said something in her mother-tongue and gestured to a flat portion of land but a dozen feet from the carts.
“What’d she say?” Siles inquired to Tessel with worry.
“Clear the dross and make a fire.” Without hesitation, two of the Allhadrene sentries did just that. The other guards remained at their posts beside the well-shackled prisoners. The two disembarked Allhadrene produced shovel and pick and swiftly cleared a patch of refuse and began to dig a shallow pit and border it with stones. As the men worked, Valyncort’s company dismounted and collected kindling consisting of dried grasses and discarded element-addled baskets, broken casks and unriven broughham siding and heaped all of it into the pit. The Allhadrene taskmaster produced a length of flint from a satchel at her belt and sparked a flame. Moments later, the disparate travelers of Austr and Allhadr sat about a roaring bonfire on flat stones or recovered debris unfit for burning.
The Allhadr woman introduced herself as Vespa Mallo, the two men to each side of her as Jaunce and Rhame, the other two sentries as Ullul and Yarl, and the man before the carriage, who wore a cloak identical to her own, as Vander Mallo, her brother. Valyncort’s company introduced themselves in turn as Vander produced a pipe and watched the mist roil with a wary eye.
“Are your friends not joining us?” Tessel asked, looking toward the three distant members of the caravan, who busied themselves tying their horses to the wagon.
“Always we keep two eyes to each passenger.”
“What for? Way them folk are chained, they’re not going anywhere.” Siles remarked with a touch of incredulity as he fuddled with the straps of his traveling pack.
“So you would think. But we once had a man, bound same as those you see, who, in a moment of solitude, slipped his bindings and vanished into the night. We do not know how. We take more care since then.”
“Did you ever find this man?”
The woman’s expression soured. She gazed into the crackling flames and shook her head.
Siles dipped into his bag, produced a bottle of wine, took a swig and passed it around the fire. All but Kosif accepted the offering.
“You don’t drink?” Vespa asked as the dark-cloaked man passed the bottle to Valyncort.
“Spirits dull the senses. Originary limits are hurdle enough.”
“Are you a Martaen? I have heard their vows forbid such indulgence.”
“I am not. But it is right what you hear.”
“We met one. A Martean that is. A gracious man.” Tessel said with fondness. “Not far back on the road. At the shrine beyond the woods. Surely you must have passed it.”
“I know the place of which you speak. But we had no cause to dally and saw no one in our passing.”
“He gave us tea. Let us spend the night.”
Rhame nodded. “Ver gracious. Wev fond ta locals, ow to say, guarded, but hospital.”
“Likely guarded because of-” Hulmarra gestured to the cages. “Afraid of being snatched.”
“A vain fear.” Vespa declared. “Our quarry are criminals. And them exclusively. Whether from our land or another. In this way we are not dissimilar to your Watchers.”
“Didn’t know that.”
“What do you know, Ms. Ambercrown?”
“Not much other than your reputation for-” again the woman gestured to the cages.
“A reputation Austr deserves as much, if not more, than us.”
“How so?” Tessel cut in.
“Austr gaols. That is what I mean.”
“We keep prisoners, not slaves.”
“Call them this, call them that. Prisoner. Inmate. They are chattel. The difference is merely that, unlike us, you do not put your chattel to use. Instead you keep them shuttered in the dark. You think this makes you better than us, girl?”
“It makes us more tolerant.” Tessel responded with rising indignation.
“Tolerance is a virtue to those without conviction.” Kosif uttered, his eyes to the stars.
“Whose side are you on?” Tessel pouted.
He glanced briefly from the astral domain. Carnelian-violet orbs flashing full with fire. When he did not reply, Vespa continued.
“Tell me. What is your method more tolerant of? You do not tolerate your prisoners to stretch their limbs, to labor as or with their fellows, to feel the sun on their skin. This is less tolerant. That is, it permits of less. But this is not so bad. Perhaps you have decided they deserve this fate. Perhaps they do. We do not tolerate slander or theft or rape or murder. But you respond with singular punishment. If a man robs, you put him in a box. If he rapes, you put him in a box. If he kills, you put him in a box. Allhadr respond in kind. Like for like. If a man robs, he is put to work producing the wealth he stole. If he rapes, he is treated as a catamite. If he kills, he is worked to expiration in a mine or galley. This the Allhadr considers just.”
“If you consider such actions wicked, and engage in them, how are you not wicked yourself?”
“Initiative and intent. Who strikes first and why? You do not seem to think of these things. But enough of this. My patience frays.” Vespa replied with a wave of her hand, as if shooing an errant insect.
Before Tessel, who had been roused to a fretful state, could respond, Jaunce leaned toward Valyncort and queried. “What thinks The Watcher?”
Valyncort pulled his wolf-hide cloak close about his body and turned Siles’ bottle upside down, no liquid there dispersing.
“I think we need more wine.”