It was a good plan, cunningly simple. It just didn’t go the way the planner had meant it to.
A caravan from Egorian arrived in the late afternoon at the heavily fortified caravanserai just outside the walls of Elidir. The merchants who had pooled their resources—and defenses—into the cavalcade of fifty mule-drawn wagons and forty pack animals intended to remain at the way station until the following midday so that they could pick over the best offerings of Elidir’s purveyors of precious goods. Those exquisitries would be added to the caravan’s panniers and coffers that already bulged with fine wares from half a dozen lands around the Inner Sea. Then at noon the next day, the caravan would move on, bound for the luxury markets of Kerse in Druma.
While the hauling and carrying beasts rested and the traders chaffered, safe within the caravanserai’s crenellated walls, half of the sixteen-strong complement of horse-archers were granted leave to visit the city’s taverns and brothels, while the half who had lost the coin toss stayed behind and remained vigilant.
Three of the liberty contingent went no farther than a raucous and crowded establishment just inside the city gates, where they called for a keg of strong ale. While they were waiting for the drink to be fetched, they bellied up to the board stretched along one wall and filled wooden plates with bread and meats spiced with the fiery local sauces. They looked around for seats and saw no empty tables, only one long trestle that had half its bench-seats unfilled.
A trio of travelers were already seated at the table, by their style of dress identifiable as a small-scale merchant and his assistants. The former good-naturedly waved the guards to take the empty places. A lean, saturnine figure seated at the head of the table, wearing a robe marked with obscure symbols, gave no indication that he was aware of any of them. His blade-like nose was buried in an antique libram bound in red leather and marked with strange devices, and he sipped something green from a tall, slim glass without removing his hooded eyes from the page.
The guards accepted the travelers’ invitation. They sat, and names and origins were politely exchanged, then the ale arrived and some time was spent washing away the throat-dust accumulated between Egorian and Elidir. The merchant then leaned forward and raised a finger as if to begin a conversation, but was forestalled by the man in wizard’s garb, who put down his book and directed a question to the guards.
“Your caravan leaves when?”
“Midday tomorrow,” the senior of the archers answered.
“Will it take on passengers?”
“We usually do. You’ll have to ask the head men at the caravanserai in the morning.”
The spellslinger nodded and, without thanking the guard, returned to his reading. A moment later, the first course of his meal was brought by the serving girl, and he addressed himself to the food without removing his gaze from the book.
Meanwhile, the leader of the trio of merchants, who said he was a pearlmonger from Merab across the Inner Sea, and now bound for Kerse, asked about road conditions ahead. Because the guards had accompanied similar caravans along this route, they were able to offer expert advice.
The self-described pearl merchant, a small and wiry fellow with a narrow brow and eyes that seldom settled in one position, said, “It is good that honest travelers share their intelligence. The roads are full of highwaymen and ditch-haunters, desperadoes all of them, who will slit a throat for a half-polished button.”
The senior man of the archers agreed that it was a sad world, yet not altogether so. “Were it not for bandits and brigands, I would still be pushing a plow and swallowing horse farts in the hill country below the Menadors, instead of seeing other lands and drinking good ale in amiable company.”
Hearing such an ably argued view, the pearlmonger declared himself forced to agree. He proposed a toast, and when the guards hoisted their wooden mugs, he insisted that they let him top up their ale with good arrack from the big black bottle he had been sharing with his assistants.
The caravan guards gladly accepted, and offered a toast of their own. It was soon decided that more of the strong-flavored arrack was needed, and the narrow-browed fellow raised an imperious finger to summon the serving maid. Events then settled into a repetitive pattern: more healths were drunk, songs were sung, anecdotes and spicy stories told, and lasting friendships boozily sworn. Somewhere early on in this process, the reader irritably snapped his book shut and left the tavern.
He also left, barely touched, a spiced apple dipped in plum sauce. The alleged pearlmonger scooped the desert toward him and devoured it with two quick bites. Soon after, he and his companions declared themselves spent. They retired to their rooms, while the archers continued to fill and empty their cups from the bottles of arrack the Merabite had kindly left behind.
As the first gray light of day glimmered over the mountains that separated Isger from Druma, the three guards rose, albeit unsteadily, to return to the caravanserai. They knew themselves to be well under the spell of strong drink, but that was nothing new. They could spend the morning sleeping off the effects of the carousal, while their employers chaffered with the merchants of Elidir. By the time the caravan set off again, the archers would be able to sit a saddle. And their ability to put a gray-fletched arrow into a hand-sized target at a hundred paces would be unimpaired.
“Never trust a knifeman.”
Halfway between the gate and the caravanserai, the first of the guards experienced a sudden shifting of his innards, as if a large and liquid weight had decided to fling itself from one side of him to the other. He stopped abruptly, and his face assumed an unusual aspect that paradoxically combined deep uncertainty with a dread conviction. He then walked with a rapid, spraddle-legged gait to a stand of low bushes beside the road, his fingers fumbling at the ties and points of his breeches.
The other two archers stopped to make rude noises and offer tactless comments at their companion’s expense. But after a moment, their smiles collapsed as their own faces assumed the same haunted expression they had been mocking. Now each of them hurried to find his own bush.
Some time later, three pale and groaning figures presented themselves at the caravanserai’s gates. Idrix, the captain of the archers, was called. He examined the men and declared them unfit for service.
“A belly flux,” he said, and ordered them to report to the caravanserai’s hospice, to be collected when the caravan returned on its way out of Druma. Their pay would be docked.
“I will go into the city,” he told his second in command, “and see what I can find in the way of replacements. I don’t want to go up into the mountains under strength.”
He was not happy about having to choose from what Elidir had to offer. It was common knowledge among fighting men of many nations that the Goblinblood Wars had robbed Isger of every warrior who knew which end of a sword to hold, and those who were left were either untested youths or haunted-eyed old veterans long since lost to drink. As he rode toward the city gate, the captain was thinking that he might be best advised to visit the slave market and see if there were any well set-up foreigners with military experience for sale.
Just outside the gate, he reined in as three men in leather and buckram came out. They paused to adjust their packs and touch the tips of their staffs together, as travelers often did for luck at the beginning of a journey. They were none of them large, but each had a hard and wiry look to him, and Idrix could see, even at a casual glance, at least eight daggers and throwing knives distributed about their persons.
“Gentlemen,” he said, “would you be Druma-bound, by any chance?”
The apparent leader of the trio, a low-browed fellow with restless eyes, looked up at him with suspicion. “What business is that of yours?” he said. “If you’re thinking we three are easy meat for a highwayman on a tall horse, here’s an opportunity to change your opinion.”
There was a vertical post set in the ground near the road outside the gate. Hedvend VI’s judges sometimes sentenced certain classes of malefactors to be bound there, exposed to the caprices of passersby until they thoroughly repented of their offenses or expired—whichever came first. The post was untenanted this morning, but within moments of the wiry man’s words, and after a brief flurry of motions, the wood was suddenly pierced by a half-dozen blades, their hilts aquiver from the impacts.
“Impressive,” said the guard captain.
The three travelers were already working their weapons free of the wood and returning them to scabbards and sheaths. “It means so much to us to have won your high regard,” said the low-browed one. He tucked away a short but wide-bladed throwing knife and turned to face the high country to the east.
“Wait,” said Idrix.
The other man turned an irritated gaze his way. “We have a long, uphill walk ahead of us and the sun is already above those peaks.”
“How would you to like to ride instead of walk?”
The knife-thrower’s look of suspicion only deepened.
“And be paid for it,” the captain added.
“We are busy men. If you have something to say, stop poncing about and say it.”
Idrix was not used to being talked to in such a manner, but he swallowed his irritation and told them he was three guards short of a full complement and wished to offer them employment.
The three looked at him with suspicion, then gave each other questioning glances. A brief negotiation followed, during which Idrix was driven far off from his offering price. Detailed terms of service were also haggled over, the leader of the three initially expressing horror at the thought that when the caravan laagered for the night, they would have to stand watch on the perimeter.
“Well,” said Idrix, pushing back his helmet and scratching his head, “where would you spend your nights when you’re on the road alone?”
“We make a fire,” said the smaller man, “then move out into the darkness and dig shallow trenches, where we lie under a layer of bushes and bracken. We watch in turns, and should any night-lurker creeps up to the fire, we silently leap up, our finely balanced knives in hand, and”—he made a whispery sound: whit, whit, whit—”soon he has gained a new and unsought knowledge of life’s capacity to play cruel tricks.”
Idrix contemplated making a comment, then decided not to. Instead he said, “Night sentry duty is a necessary part of your duties.”
The three regarded him without enthusiasm. Then the leader said, “Can we at least stand watch together? We are used to supporting each other.”
The guard captain found that a reasonable condition, and after a few more details were worked out, an agreement was struck and he led them back to the caravanserai to sign them onto the rolls. Within the fortified compound, the traders and their drivers were efficiently repacking wagons and saddlebags, preparing to set off at noon. Idrix and his three reluctant recruits wove their way through an organized chaos of stamping hooves, swearing men, tangles of harness, and side-stepping beasts to the spot where the merchants who had commissioned the whole enterprise stood in conversation with some persons from Elidir.
A half-dozen individuals were gathered around the caravan’s owners, seeking to purchase the right to join the cavalcade, it being the safest means of crossing the wild lands between Isger and Druma, where goblinoids of various sorts still occasionally ambushed travelers. As the archer captain and the three new guards came up, one of the passage-seekers, a sinewy, grim-featured specimen in an ankle-length robe marked with strange runes, turned his head and noticed the trio.
“You!” he said. “Do you know you spoiled my dinner and gave me indigestion that kept me up half the night? You and those damned archers!”
The low-browed one looked anywhere but at the wizard, saying, “You mistake me, sir, for another…”
“No, I don’t —” began the accuser, but then he broke off and his hooded gaze went from the three newcomers to the guard captain, whose brows were now knitting up a skein of suspicion.
“Aha!” the gaunt man said, “I’ve smoked it! You nobbled the guards so you could take their—”
As he’d been speaking, the pearlmonger’s face had been showing growing alarm, and his hand had been moving smoothly and slowly toward the haft of one of the knives strapped to his chest. The man in the figured robe saw the way things were going and moved his own hand in a particular motion that ended with the fingers configured in precise arrangements. He spoke two syllables.
The accused man’s hand now attained its goal, but when he sought to draw the throwing knife—and as his companions made similar attempts—they all found that the blades were fixed permanently in their scabbards.
A moment of silence and suspension occurred. Then the low-browed man said, in a whisper all could hear, “Run!”
Turn and run they did, the leader of the three knife men just missing having his collar caught by the guard captain. With admirable agility, they sped toward the caravanserai gate, dodging around—or under—mules and camels, leaping over bales and chests, weaving between startled drivers and merchants.