Authors: Peter Kenson
The leader of those bandits was, at that precise moment, riding alongside the older boy’s mother. Jaks had been quite right about Manny’s horse, he reflected. It had been quite spirited and was obviously used to carrying more weight than just a lady. They had fixed that by filling two saddlebags with rocks and strapping them to the saddle. The problem of the riding dress had been resolved by Marta splitting the skirt from hem to crotch, front and back, and then sewing the pieces together to make two legs. Not perhaps a perfect solution but in the time available, it had made a passable riding dress.
The other events of the morning had passed quite smoothly. They had buried Manny with appropriate formality and he was pleased to note that the venomous little dagger was buried along with him, still clutched in fact, in Manny’s severed hand. Every man in the camp had given him their personal oath of allegiance. He had offered to take Feynor’s oath from his sick bed but had been refused. Despite Marta’s scolding, Feynor dressed and stood alongside the other men. When the time came, he was the first to step forward and kneel to give his oath.
Marta also had again offered her oath to him. He had thought about that for a long moment but there was a glint in her eye that seemed to say
“You asked for my advice. Now take it”
. So Marta had knelt and given him a solemn oath. The other women in the camp had seemed impressed by that but none had offered to follow suit and he had not pressed the point.
The issue of the slaves was still unresolved. He had called them all forward in front of the men and told them they were no longer slaves, that they were free to go or to stay as they chose. Any that chose to stay, he had said, would be entered into the books of the company as a servant and would be entitled to a share in the fortunes of the company. Not as large a share as one of the fighting men but, nevertheless, something. And all he had got back was a series of blank looks.
Not a flicker of expression from any of them. He didn’t know if they hadn’t understood him; the common tongue was, for the most part, not their native language, or if they just needed time for the concept of freedom to sink in. In the end he had dismissed them and given orders to the sentries that, if any of the former slaves left the camp that day, they were not to be hindered in any way.
“How many will still be there when we return”
, he wondered now.
He had not brought the whole company with them for fear of aggravating the situation in the village. There were two men on the supply wagon, a scout on point, Bern commanding an honour guard of a dozen men and Jaks, tagging along behind like a faithful puppy. He had left Feynor in charge of the camp with instructions to organise hunting parties to bring in whatever game could be found in the surrounding woods. Food was a priority that could not wait to be dealt with.
For the most part they had ridden in silence, Lady Falaise politely rebuffing any attempt at small talk on his part. But as they were climbing the final rise before descending to the village, he tried again.
“Jaks has told me somewhat of the history of your people, my lady, but I would be interested to know more.”
“Why would that concern you, my lord? You will forgive me I trust, if I say that, after today, I hope that we will never see each other again.”
“I am sorry you feel that way, my lady, but given the circumstances, it is quite understandable. However, I am not from these parts and know little of the politics and history of the region. If I am to lead this company as it should be led, as I want to lead it, then I need that information in order to survive.”
She turned her head to look at him directly for a minute. The she nodded and looked back at the trail ahead. “Under different circumstances, my lord, I might have been pleased to call you a friend. But events are what they are and we cannot change them.
“What is it that you wish to know?”
“Jaks said that you were not always a travelling folk. That once you were settled and had your own cities and towns.”
“Only one, my lord, Marmoros. The most beautiful city in the world. The city had its own marble quarry and so all the principle buildings in the city were constructed, or at least faced with marble. There were fountains and waterways throughout the city. There was a system of plumbing that took water, hot and cold, to every major household and to every street corner in the poorer parts of town. And the city itself sat in the Neverwinter valley, aptly named because it never was. There was a river running the length of the valley, the Savage River they called it. It flooded the lower plains every year to make the land exceptionally fertile. That was a cold river but the hills surrounding the valley were perforated with hot springs that kept the climate in the valley spring-like even when the valley itself was cut off from the outside world by snow drifts. The farmers in our community could grow two crops in every year.
“But Jaks was wrong in one respect. We have always had travelling in our blood. The Lyenar are a race of merchants. We sent caravans to trade with every city, town and village in this region and beyond. We prospered. Marmoros became fabulously rich and the world became jealous.”
“What happened?” he prompted.
“Treachery, my lord. We were betrayed from within. There was no easy way into the valley for wagons or horses. However, at the western end of the valley, the Savage River exits through a narrow gorge. Alongside the river, the earliest settlers had found, or maybe dug, nobody knows for certain, a narrow tunnel that allowed access on foot to the valley. It was about a hundred
long, cut through solid rock. Later generations extended this tunnel to allow horses and wagons to pass through and sealed either end of the tunnel with massive gates that were supposed to be impregnable.
“When the warlord Krantos came to the valley looking to steal our wealth, we closed the gates and sat there laughing at him, secure behind our fortifications. But one of the members of the High Council had ambitions to be king. He made a bargain with Krantos and showed him a secret pathway through the foothills. Krantos sent round a small band of elite warriors who attacked the gates from the inside, surprising and overpowering the guards. They opened the gates and the rest of Krantos’ army came pouring through.”
“And did Krantos keep his bargain?”
“What, that one? No chance. He killed the king, my husband’s grandfather, and every member of the High Council, including the one who had betrayed us. He forced all the families to leave the valley and killed anyone who resisted. We have never been back since. Never been allowed back.”
“And this Krantos still controls the valley?”
“Not Krantos, he’s long dead. It’s his grandson Kraxis who rules there now. From all reports he’s even worse than his grandfather. They’ve taken control of the town of High Falls, the only place where the Savage River can be forded west of the valley and they plunder, or in their terms, exact tolls on every trade caravan that passes through.”
“So your husband is now the King of the Lyenar?”
“He doesn’t use that title. No one has used that title since our people were expelled from the valley. He is just Lord Brantyen, leader of the Lyenar and head of the council. He is a very proud man and refuses to be known as the king-in-exile.”
“And all of your people are in this village over the hilltop?”
“Oh no, by no means. Without leaders, the people scattered in all directions after the exodus. Gradually, family groups banded together for security, met up with returning trading caravans and coalesced into larger groups. My Lord Brantyen’s group is the largest of these but there are two other major groups of families, villages as you call them. And there are many other families who still travel independently to trade across all the regions.”
Their discussion was interrupted by the sight of the scout on point suddenly appearing over the brow of the hill and galloping down towards them. Held raised his hand to signal the column to stop and waited for the scout to reach them. Bern trotted his horse up to join them and listen to the report.
“There’s something wrong in the village, milord. There were lots of people in view but none of them appeared to be working. They were just standing around in groups and looked as though they were arguing. They had lookouts posted on the outskirts of the village, which is unusual in itself. As soon as they saw me, they raised the alarm and there was absolute panic down there. The women started screaming and disappeared into tents and wagons with the children. The men grabbed weapons and headed towards the village approach like an angry mob.”
“What sort of weapons were they carrying?” Held asked.
“Anything and everything, milord. A lot of farm implements, pitchforks and the like. But I saw more than a few clubs and swords in amongst them and even a couple of fully strung longbows. That’s when I thought I’d better come back and report.”
Held looked across at Falaise. “I have no idea, my lord,” she shrugged. “They knew, of course, that this was the day we were due to return. They may have prepared for that but even so, I would not have expected a reaction such as your man has described. Perhaps if I could see for myself, maybe talk to them.”
He nodded in agreement. “Bern, bring the wagon and the men up but stop short of the top of the rise, out of sight of the villagers. And have the men stand ready.”
Held turned back to the scout. “Jerome isn’t it?”
“Well then, Jerome, you’d better show us the situation. Jaks, you come with us”, he added as an afterthought.
As soon as they crossed the ridge, they could see the truth of the report. A group of men, about fifty strong, stood blocking the path to the village. When they saw Held’s party they began to scream abuse and brandish their weapons. The village itself appeared largely deserted but he could just make out frightened faces peering from behind wagons and tent doors.
“Something has happened, my lord. I don’t know what it is but I fear the worst. I must go and talk to them.”
“Wait, my lady, please. I beg you. I am afraid for your safety if you ride down there alone.”
She rounded on him indignantly. “These are my people, Lord Held. They will not harm me.”
“They are an angry mob, my lady. And angry mobs do not make rational decisions. They have bows down there. One hot-headed bowman could bring you down before you get near enough to talk to them.”
“Then what do you suggest I do? Sitting here is doing nothing. I want to know what has happened to them.”
“I appreciate your frustration, my lady. But a rash move now might only inflame the situation and make matters worse,” he said.
“Look, you see that clump of gorse ahead on the right?” He indicated a bush about thirty paces in front.
“That is still out of bowshot of even their best archer. We will ride down there together, you and I, so that they can see you clearly. If they recognise you and stop waving those weapons about then I will allow you to ride on alone. Is that acceptable, my lady?”
“I think you are being over-protective, my lord. But, yes, I will agree to your conditions.”
“Thank you. Jaks, Jerome, you stay here.” He nudged his horse forward into a gentle walk as did Lady Falaise. As they neared the bush, he dropped back a pace to allow Falaise to take the lead. To his great relief, one of the swordsmen lowered his weapon and, pointing at them with his other arm, started talking excitedly to the other men. Gradually the shouts changed to cries of recognition and then died away entirely as they stood there, waiting to see what would happen next.
Falaise turned her horse to face him. “You see, my lord, you worry too much. But I thank you for your concern.”
“Then it appears I must say goodbye to you, my lady. The food and supplies will be unloaded at the top of the rise behind me. Your people can collect them whenever they are ready. Once more I apologise for the treatment you have received at the hands of this company and I wish you and your people well in the future.”
“Thank you, Lord Held and I wish you success in your leadership of the company.”
With that she wheeled the chestnut round and trotted down to the group of men who closed round her, all talking excitedly. He could not hear what was being said but suddenly she kicked the horse into a gallop and headed for the centre of the village.
Held rode slowly back to the top of the rise where Bern had joined the other two. “I don’t know what’s going on but I’m not taking the wagon any closer to the village. We’ll unload it here on this side of the ridge where they can see it. They can come and collect their supplies themselves.”
While the wagon was being unloaded, Held took the opportunity to study the village. It was not a permanent village in any way. There were no buildings as such anywhere in sight; only wagons and tents. These were sited on plots that spread out in an apparently haphazard fashion within quite a large radius surrounding the village centre. Some plots were quite small with only a single wagon on them while others had space for one or more tents as well. The largest plots contained several wagons and several tents. Obviously one of the larger family groups, he thought.
Most of the plots had a small patch of land under cultivation although the crops appeared to vary from one to the next. There were several paddocks containing either cattle or a mixed herd of goats and sheep and, in the distance, he could hear the unmistakable grunting of a small herd of pigs. The village, therefore, appeared to operate some sort of communal bartering or co-operative scheme to share out the food.
The centre of the village was the only place where any attempt had been made to draw up the wagons in any sort of organised way. A number of the larger wagons had been placed around the edge of an open area about a hundred paces across. The tents belonging to those wagons had been pitched on the outside of the square leaving the central space open.