The Bridge of D'Arnath, Book 3
The Soul Weaver begins four years after Karon takes Seri, Gerick, and Paulo out of Zhev'Na.
Paulo left Verdillon a day ahead of us. He had proposed shyly that if Tennice were to stake him to a few silver pieces, he could come up with a fair-sized string of horses from Valloreans desperate to sell their stock before it was confiscated by the Leiran army. Taking the horses to Montevial would not only be a benefit to our neighbors and an excellent ruse, but could make us a tidy profit as well. Though we lived modestly, Tennice's resources were not unlimited.
Gerick and I rode in Verdillon's old pony trap, a mode of travel slower than riding our own mounts, but more suited to our roles. I wore a widow's headcloth and an old-fashioned velvet gown that I'd dragged out of Tennice's attic. We found Gerick a rakish green cap to hide the color of his hair and outfitted him in threadbare finery suitable for an impoverished youth of gentle family looking to impress someone in the capital. Gerick and I laughed at ourselves when we donned our disguises, and enjoyed our first day on the road as if it were a holiday.
The town of Prydina, where we were to meet Paulo, had grown up at the meeting of the main north-south route through Valleor and the road that crossed the Cerran Brae, the range of low peaks and sharp ridges that defined the Vallorean border with Leire. Prydina boasted a sizable marketplace, an even larger illicit trade in untaxed Leiran goods, and a full complement of pickpockets, thieves, and beggars.
We took a room on the outskirts of town at a modest inn called The Fire Goat, a suitably respectable accommodation for an impoverished gentlewoman, her son, and his fencing master. Once the cart was unhitched and unloaded, Gerick and I sat down to supper in the inn's common room. Radele did not join us. He seemed uneasy with the press of people, saying he'd prefer to watch the horse, the cart, and the inn from outside.
Despite a long day's traveling from Verdillon, Gerick was not inclined to go upstairs once we'd finished eating. "We've not been anywhere in all these years," he said, leaning across the scrubbed pine table after the barmaid took away our plates. "Don't you want to hear some news of the world?"
He was right. Gerick and I rarely ventured beyond Verdillon's walls and never to a town of any size. Tennice often rode into Yurevan, always returning with much to say about the newest books at his favorite bookseller's or who was teaching philosophy at the University, but little of politics or gossip. Nothing like the news one could get in the common room of a crossroads inn.
I ordered us each a tankard of the local ale. As the daylight faded outside the smoke-grimed windows of The Fire Goat, a pot boy threw a fresh log on the smoky fire, poking and fussing until it was crackling. The dancing flames lit every kind of face: a ruddy, broad-faced man with a curling red beard, a solitary woman pinched and pale, with darting black eyes and bad teeth, a heavy-set man, careworn and gray who slumped over his supper at a table beside three noisy companions. Some eighteen or twenty people crowded the little room, and as the ale flowed from the landlord's barrel, the talk grew louder and less cautious.
From the sound of it, Evard had made little progress in his attempts to bring Iskeran under Leire's heel alongside Valleor and Kerotea. The Valloreans in the room, always distinguishable by their fair coloring and sober garb, smiled behind their hands at the stories of the Leiran king's setbacks. A threadbare merchant pronounced unsettling rumors from Montevial of spies and executions and an entire slum quarter of the city that had been burned by a mob. Other travelers nodded their heads, confirming that the capital city of Leire was an uncomfortable place these days.
A bony man, a tinker by trade, told a harrowing and unlikely story of getting caught in a bog and being rescued by a pack of wild dogs. The fantastic tale left the company hungry for more stories.
"Come, let's each offer a tale or a song," said the pale woman with bad teeth. "The company will buy a tankard for the one as tells the best."
A Vallorean tax-clerk, one of the poorly-paid local functionaries reviled as traitorous tools of the cruel Leiran governor, volunteered for the competition. He redeemed his unsavory profession for the evening with an hilarious tale of two Leiran tax-collectors being chased all over northern Valleor by an outlaw named "Red Eye." The pale woman had the landlord refill the man's mug, not waiting for the voting at the end of the evening.
One raw-boned farmer, his unshaven face pitted with pock-marks, kept the company in high hilarity with his tale of a Leiran merchant who had been left naked in a tree with two wolves tied to its bole while his entire stock of cloth and leather was divided among the starving populace of a Vallorean village. The company roared with delight.
Gerick listened intently to every word. While the barmaid passed another round and the listeners shouted raucously for the next story, he murmured half to himself, "Why didn't the villagers kill the merchant? It was stupid to let him go. He'll bring back soldiers to kill them all." He might have been speaking of strategy in a game of draughts.
"Perhaps they didn't think the cloth was worth a man's life," I said, "even a stupid man's."
"He'll come back and kill them. That one"—he pointed to the farmer who had told the tale¾"that one will lead the soldiers back to the village. Then they'll all be dead."
His conviction sent a shiver racing up my back. Sometimes Gerick seemed like a quiet, reserved boy of sixteen, and sometimes… I was relieved when the talk turned back to weather, crops, and the experiences of two hunters who had gotten themselves lost in the mountains over the winter, surviving by holing up in a bandit cave.
When pressed to contribute my own traveler's tale to the evening's entertainment, I told the story of my father pretending to fall ill when he'd taken Tomas and me on a ride into the wild hills near Comigor. Papa had wanted to see us find our own way back home safely while he was there to protect us. It made a good story, but short and simple enough I could suppress my Leiran accent and keep us unremarked.
The warmth of the smoky room, the long day, and the week's hectic preparations soon laid their tally on my eyelids. But each time I proposed retiring, Gerick would say, "Not yet. The fellow in the corner is going to sing again," or "I want to hear more of the tinker's stories of Vanesta." After several rounds of this, and his failure to look me in the eye as he made his excuse, I began to suspect the reason for his reluctance.
I laid a hand on his arm. "If the nightmares come, I'll be right there. No one will hear you."
He flushed and kept his eyes on the company. "Everyone in Prydina will hear me. And my watchdog will come running to make sure I've not fouled my bed…or Dar'Nethi honor…or whatever it is he's expecting me to corrupt."
"Maybe you won't dream tonight." No use trying to reconcile him to Radele's attentions.
"Please, just one more tale. Then we'll go up." The skin around Gerick's eyes was taut and smudged. When had he last slept more than two hours at a stretch? If I could just convince him to talk to me about the things that were really important…
The hour grew late. The grizzled innkeeper propped his massive chin on his hand, and the pot-boy snoozed in the corner, allowing half the lamps to go out untended. A tired serving maid lugged yet another round of ale to the table of four men. Two were itinerant farriers looking for work among the travelers. The third was the scrawny tinker who apparently arranged to have humorous adventures wherever he went, and the fourth was the heavy-set, gray-bearded man who'd been drinking steadily all evening and saying very little. When the bearded man reached for another tankard, the tinker laid a hand on his hairy arm. "You're single-minded in your cups this night, friend. We've all shared our travels until our tongues are parched and our heads empty. I think it's your turn to tell us a tale."
"You don't want to hear no tale of mine."
"And why not?"
"It's not the tale as comfortable folks like to hear."
The few stragglers scattered about the room urged him on. "Tell it, goodman. The company must judge the tale. Naught's comfortable about stories of outlaws, nor naked merchants, nor tax collectors."
"Come, friend," said the tinker, "if you gift us with an uncomfortable tale, why then we'll buy another round to smooth our spirits and tell yet another to finish the night."
When the bearded man began, the words fell from his tongue reluctantly, as if it was only their ponderous weight that caused them to be spoken at all. His voice was a rumbling bass, speaking the soft slurring dialect of northern Valleor, a rugged land of rocky green hills, cold blue lakes, and bitter, hungry winters…
"I run sheep near Lach Vristal. I started twenty year ago with a breeding pair earned as my indenture price. My full twelve year I worked from dark freezing morning to dark freezing midnight for to earn my freedom and my sheep. When my debt was paid, I found me a lay and built a hold for the sheep and me.
"I got me a wife from Vristal town, and in five springs I had two sons and a daughter living, and only one babe buried. My eldest Hugh come a fine sheepman and works shoulder to shoulder with me. My daughter took all of us in hand since she was ten when her mam died of lung fever, and she's never missed a day's cooking nor spinning nor churning.
"My Tom, though, is a wild boy, born with only one hand. His mam spoilt him young. He spends his days running the hills and playing his whistle what he made from tonguegrass. Oh, he'll help as he will with shearing and herding, but his heart tain't in his work, only in his music and the hills. I told him that when he come to manhood, he'd see how he'd have to work twicet as hard as a whole man just to feed himself.
" ‘Twas on one night just gone Tom come late to the hold, and the moon was in his eyes. ‘Pap,' he said, ‘I've seen a road that goes no place you've ever been.'
" ‘There's a deal of roads I've never been,' says I, ‘but not inside three days' walking. If a sheep can find its way there, I've been on it.'
" ‘No, Pap. This road goes into a new land. The sky is purple and black and filled with lightning, and the stars are green, but the land is not. It's a broken place, Pap, and I've got to go there so to see what it may be.'
"I beat my boy, then, for I thought he'd been at the drink in Vristal town, and no matter what you've seen me put down this night, we don't favor hard drink in my hold. But when I beat him, Tom didn't say naught, nor argue, nor cry out as he might on another day, but only looked at me quiet with the moon in his eyes.
"The next night Tom come home late again. ‘Pap,' he says, ‘I'll take you to the road. The one-eyed man says I belong in that land and not here, but I want you to see it before I go. Mayhap you'll believe me and not think me unfit to be your son.'
" ‘Have you gone and tangled yourself with a jongler?' I said. ‘Jonglers are thieves and gamblers and liars.'
" ‘He's no jongler, Pap. He's a bent man, no taller than your waist, but a beard down to his belt. He's got only one eye what's purple in the center of it, and a growed-together flap of skin where the other eye should be.'
" ‘You've been at the drink again, Tom,' says I. ‘I've got to beat it out of you.'
" ‘I understand, Pap,' was all he said, and he took his beating so like a man, I lost the heart to strike him and dropped the cane after only five strokes.
" ‘You'll go out no more these nights,' I said. ‘You'll work till you drop, so's you can't go drinkin'.'
" ‘Got to go, Pap. Got to see what's down that road where the sky's purple and black.'
"I tied him to his bed with double knots at his arms and his legs, but he was gone at sunrise, the ropes wound neat and laid on his mat. His brother and I followed his tracks till we found his things: his spare shirt, his knife, all but his whistle that he'd made for himself. They was all laid neat in a pile on a flat rock, and no footprint led away from that place. That was eighteen day ago. We've found naught of him since then. I've come here looking for jonglers, especially a one-eyed man what's bent and no taller than my waist. I'm afeared for my Tom, as I think he's been taken to evil purpose. He'd not been in the drink. I see it now. Some jongler put these tales in his head, for my Tom's a good boy, as is only come seventeen. And that's my tale, so if you have a need, pour ale atop it, as that's what I intend to do."
The silence was deep. Only the pop and hiss of the hearth fire convinced me I hadn't suddenly lost all hearing. The story itself carried little weight with me. To lose a son young, whether to disease or drink or to the ever-present Leirans who snatched boys to serve in the army was common among the poor of the Four Realms. And to blame the child's fate on fairies or monsters was the usual practice. But I felt the father's grief vividly. Until those years in Zhev'Na when I had watched the Lords stealing Gerick's soul, I had thought seeing one's newborn infant dead at birth the most grievous of sorrows. But far worse was losing a child nearing adulthood, seeing life's fullest promise dashed so bitterly.
In selfish relief, I reached for Gerick's hand that lay on the scuffed table. His fingers were stone cold. I glanced up quickly. His skin was chalky, his eyes huge and dark. "Gerick, what is it?"
"Nothing," he whispered, pulling his hand from mine and averting his eyes. "Nothing. It's just a story."
Though the old man was a mesmerizing storyteller, the tale of a drunken sheepherder's son paled in comparison with his own strange adventures. "I think the boy ran away," I said. "There was violence between him and his father. Perhaps this tale is the man's way to explain it. What do you think?"
Gerick shrugged, color rushing back into his cheeks. "I suppose I'd run away if I was beaten like that or tied to my bed. Can we go up now?"
I laid down a coin for the landlord, and we climbed the stairs, leaving the laggards draining their mugs and mumbling about getting home before the sun came up.
Sleep would not come. The rope bed and its straw-filled pallet seemed to develop a new lump or sag wherever I settled. I drifted in and out of dreams and worries and plans that seemed important, yet were indistinguishable by morning. Every time my eyes flicked open, I saw Gerick sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall, wide awake. His elbows were propped on his drawn up knees, his hands clasped and pressed to his mouth.
When I woke from my last fitful nap just after sunrise, Gerick was not in the room. I gathered up our last pack and hurried downstairs to find him. The Fire Goat's common room was bustling with every sort of person, from tradesmen to officials with ruffled silk doublets and gold neck chains.
"Two for Vanesta. Anyone here bound for Vanesta?"
"Party of six for Fensbridge, looking for a strong swordsman."
The shouts came from every corner of the room. Concern about the bandits who plagued the mountain roads prompted travelers journeying any distance to join with other groups for mutual protection. Evard's soldiers were off fighting the war in Iskeran or hunting down those who failed to pay their taxes and tributes to support the interminable conflict. None were left to keep the roads safe from highwaymen, and the number of highwaymen increased every day that men got more desperate to feed themselves and their families. Local officials like Graeme Rowan were outmanned, their territories too large to patrol in a year of trying.
"Two women for Yurevan. To accompany a family or larger mixed party. No ruffians. No peasants."
I pushed through the smoky, crowded room toward the door, fending off a disheveled man who smelled of wine and leered broadly at me, saying he'd take me wherever I wanted to go. I pulled my widow's cap down lower and escaped into the yard, searching for Gerick.
The muddy yard was packed with horses, wagons, baggage, and even more people, generally of poorer aspect than those inside. A familiar lanky form moved down a string of eight or ten horses, offering each a private word along with a handful of grain from a canvas bag slung over his shoulder. I would have sworn each beast looked more cheerful after Paulo had stroked its neck and whispered in its ear. One of the string was Gerick's gray gelding, Jasyr, and another was my chestnut mare, Kelty, brought along not to sell, but to be available if Gerick and I should choose to ride.
Across the yard by the fence, Radele was helping a young woman load several heavy boxes into a wagon. He shared a laugh with the young woman, then tugged his soft-brimmed hat down low over his face and slouched against our cart. The rugged little pony was harnessed and ready. I waved to get Radele's attention. He saluted and tipped his head toward a far corner next to the stable, where Gerick was engaged in earnest conversation with the despondent storyteller from the night before. My fists and stomach unclenched.
As I hurried across the courtyard through the people tying baggage onto carts and ponies and bawling mules, a burly drover leaped onto a heavily laden wagon, whistled loudly, and yelled, "Moving out for Montevial! We wait for nobody."
Radele gave me a hand into the pony trap, then swung gracefully into his saddle, nudged his mount forward, and accosted the drover. Gesturing toward my cart, he dropped a few coins into the drover's hand as I had instructed. The drover signaled me to take up the position just behind the lead wagons, and then, with a loud bellow, he headed his own wagon out the gates.
Gerick's seat was still empty. But Radele rode directly across the path of the wagon next to me, causing the driver to pull up sharply and curse when he couldn't squeeze in ahead of me. The young Dar'Nethi gave me a grin and a flourish of his hat. I reciprocated.
Just as I thought I might have to forfeit Radele's advantage and relinquish my desirable place near the head of the caravan, Gerick sprinted across the yard and leaped into the seat beside me. "Sorry," he said, as I snapped the reins, and we rolled through the gates of the innyard.
Once we were past the town walls, most of the sizable party stretched out behind us on the road. "So," I said, keeping my eyes on the road, "has he news of his one-eyed jongler?"
Gerick shifted beside me on the thinly padded seat. "No. I just— I just wanted to tell him I hope he finds his son. I said that I knew someone who'd been stolen away like his boy and had come home again, so that he shouldn't give up looking."
"Any price he has to pay is worth it."
But when I turned to smile at Gerick, his thoughts were very far away, and when I asked what troubled him so about the man's story, he averted his eyes and sat up straight. "Nothing." The set of his face told me not to bother asking more.
Copyright © Carol Berg, 2022
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