Needle Ash – Chapter 13, “In the Shadows” part 1

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Chapter 13: In the Shadows

The way down was easy going, though slow, for the path took many switchbacks from the pass, descending into a rolling rocky highland. A few scattered farmhouses stood watch over the empty wastes, manned by free men and women and their children, who took little notice of the travelers except to wave from their work. Plots of wheat and barley were ripening in the new sun, fed by the previous night’s brief rain. The road was muddy as it wandered the hills, and the horses would occasionally do a stumble-step over a drifting wagon rut.

Many streams fed the land, and water for the horses and the skins was plentiful, cool, and pure. In the late afternoon Sharona and Michael reached another village, this one larger and more sprawling than Erithice, with the name of Suppero. It had a small, stone chapel standing at its center, with a large graveyard stretching north from its rear doors. A statue of Artifia, standing in stark contrast to the simple wood buildings around it, stood guard on the threshold of the cemetary. As Michael and Sharona slowly rode by, the espied a strange looking man tending the graves.

His skin was a sallow grey, quite different from the pale olives of the rest of the village, and his eyes were a slight yellow that caught the sun brightly. These things alone pegged him as some member of the Orc tribes from the drylands and the far east. His face, however, was very human indeed, if a bit flat.

“Greetings,” Michael said. “Are you the caretaker?”

“Aye,” said the man, who was using a hoe to break up weeds around a tall headstone. “Name is Buto. Me and my family tend to the needs of the stone. Are you the new cleric?” He nodded to Sharona.

“No,” Sharona said.

The man shrugged. “We been without one a while. Just figured.”

“Do you keep tabs on things around here, being the caretaker?” Michael said. He took a coin from his pocket and flashed it in the sun.

Buto shrugged again.

“Do you know of Sir Angelico has returned to his manor from the war?”

“Yar, he did,” Buto said.

Michael flipped the coin to Buto, and smiled to Sharona. “Our luck is turning around.”

“But he left a day past,” Buto added.

“I told you there’s no such thing as luck,” Sharona said.

Michael sighed. “Do you know where he went?”

“To Calasora, I expect. The big wedding, you know.”

Michael turned quietly to Sharona. “Julia. He would set the wedding quickly, now that he is king.” He spoke loudly again to Buto. “Thank you for your assistance. When we are in Calasora, I will do you the favor of inquiring about your cleric.”

“I’ll be fine either way. We just miss the good sermons. Lots of folks here didn’t learn to read, so the best we do is me reading to them, and I ain’t much of a reader either.”

“I see,” Michael said. “Is there any homely lodging about?”

“Yar. My house.” Buto pointed out of the graveyard and toward a large house near the church. “Came with the job, but we have lots of room. Stable is empty, but you can get some hay from anyone down the way.”

“Thank you,” Michael said. “We’ll return shortly, if we need..”

Without regard, Buto set back to weeding, humming a strange tune in raspy voice.

Sharona followed Michael a short ways from the graveyard.

“What is on your mind?” she said.

“We could stay at the Travisto Manor tonight, I am sure, and I know their hospitality would be very great, but…”

“You fear they may think you dead?”

“Or worse, an outlaw,” Michael said. “Angelico is loyal to me, but his family is loyal first to the crown. They would not give me an opportunity to tell a story before setting their men-at-arms upon us.”

“We could handle them.”

“I prefer not to,” Michael said. “I want nobody to be hurt on my account. Let’s stay with the half-orc and press for Calasora as soon as possible.”

“I thought you intended to press charity here? I’m sure you have plenty of money still to pay our way until Angelico returns.”

Michael grumbled. “I know I said that, but Julia will be wedding Johan soon. I would not have her take that vow without knowing what Johan has done.”

Sharona sighed. “I will follow you.”

Michael nodded, and they turned back to the farmhouse.

 

Buto had a homely wife that did not appear to share his unique heritage, along with three children that definitely did. The two daughters and a son possessed the same ashy-grey skin of their father, along with eyes of a light, almost yellow brown shade. Sharona remarked to the side that they looked more like orcs than did their father, but that could have been the result of their heavy-faced and very portly mother.

Buto, who was as easy-going at home as at his work, had Sharona and Michael eat with them for supper, where they could see that the children were, in fact, quite like any other children in behavior and mannerisms.

“Are you traveling to Calasora for the royal wedding?” asked the eldest child, a daughter still shy of maidenhood, while they were breaking a loaf of bread.

“We’ve only just heard,” Michael said. “We were on our way to Tantini. Have their been other travelers?”

“I think so, but they didn’t stay in the town. I heard he’s marrying a beautiful woman.”

Michael nodded. “I know of her. She is a beauty.”

Buto said quietly, “It’s the power that really brings those types together.”

“True enough.”

“I would love to go,” the girl said. “I heard they are doing a full state wedding, with parade and all.”

“So, how did a half-orc end up so far south and west?” Sharona asked flatly as she buttered a piece of bread. Michael stepped on her foot. “Watch your boot!”

“That’s a bit rude,” Buto’s wife said.

“It’s what I am,” Buto said. “Actually I’m a quarter orc at best. My father was the unsightly product of a union of a local woman with a travelling mercenary. The church raised me, for which I am grateful, and gave me this plot of land, which I have made good use of in the building of this house. Land around here ain’t much worth, and this is small, but it’s mine.”

“I thought the house was quite large,” Sharona said.

“Has to be large for the large family,” said the wife.

“Indeed,” Michael said. “And while that is in the works I am happy to enjoy its craftsmanship and hospitality.”

 

Michael and Sharona bade Buto and his family farewell before first light and traveled the entire day with only a brief rest. In mid-afternoon they passed through a small, very poor village on the western slopes of the highlands, little more than a collection of shacks amid the granite. The people there were grim and stocky, and gave only minimal greeting as they passed. Michael elected not to trade or stay there, and made Sharona push with haste down the rocky slopes to a wide evergreen woodland. Well into the night, they camped under the trees, but Sharona’s trick was mostly unnecessary, as the sky was clear and the weather pleasant.

“Why didn’t you want to stay in that town?” Sharona asked him as they heated up some tea over a fire (the non-magical sort).

“Appearances rarely deceive,” Michael said. “Good men tend to make good houses, for they intent to use them and pass them on. Poor houses are always a waypoint for brigands. They put no value into their homes, for they know they expect to abandon them.”

“Maybe they were just poor,” Sharona said. “I’ve met fine people in shacks.”

“The specific example doesn’t disprove the general rule,” Michael said. “You can look at it this way – we could have stayed there, and nothing would have happened, or we could have woken up with daggers in our backs. Here, we are almost assured we won’t wake up with daggers in our backs.”

“I suppose I see the wisdom in it, but I’m not sure I like the way you generalize people.”

“When you don’t have time to know them all, it becomes necessary,” Michael said. “Did you think that perhaps we did them a service?”

“How did we do them a service by avoiding them?”

“Look at us.”

“I can only look at you, Michael.”

Michael chuckled. “We’re dressed richly. One man and one woman. Easy pickings, I’d say.”

“We’re far from easy pickings,” Sharona said.

“Yes, but they don’t know that. They could have tried to have at us, and been killed; thus we did them a favor by avoiding them.”

“They could have attacked us while we were in the village. Why didn’t they?”

“They saw my sword, which was enough to make them weigh the risks. And why risk death when one can merely attack an armed man in his sleep? When it comes to fighting men, I’m a good judge.”

“But not in politics,” Sharona said with raised eyebrows.

Michael sighed. “No, not in that arena. But, we gained half a day skipping that little set of hovels. I want to get to Calasora quickly, catch up with Angelico, and perhaps halt this wedding.”

“Would you want to halt the wedding had your brother not turned against you?”

“Of course not,” Michael said. “They’re a fine match.”

“Alright,” Sharona said quietly.

*

They covered the distance to Calasora in three more nights, staying in what lodgings they could. Michael had begun to worry, however, over his coin. He had left Calasora laiden, but his chest was at unknown location – presumably wherever Guissali and Langelo took it following his seeming death. He still had gold in his purse, but he knew few people in the country were willing to exchange it for the less valuable silver aurals without a substantial hit to value. Nonetheless, their silver held up well enough, and they even found that they were following Angelico’s path, a mere two days behind him.

They gathered little news, staying away from gatherings and common rooms, for Michael knew that his face would be well known closer to the capitol (even without his beard, which he shaved at the bidding of Sharona). What they did find out was a bit of Johan’s official narrative – Michael had died in pursuit of assassins from Structania hoping to disrupt the peace. A funeral had apparently been held in Ferralla.

In the suburbs of Calasora, a number of roadblocks had been erected, where men-at-arms from various houses inspected wagons of supplies. Without an easy way around them, Michael chose one that had the most lackadaisical looking men and approached it.

“Just follow my lead,” Michael said to Sharona.

It turned out there was no lead to follow. The soldiers waved them through even as they stopped a farmer with a wagon full of cabbages.

“Why aren’t you stopping them?” the farmer said.

“They’re dignitaries, or can’t you tell?” said one of the soldiers.

Sharona caught Michael’s eye and flashed him a smile.

“Come on,” Michael said, kicking his horse into a trot. “I know of a few places we can stay, that ought not know who I am.”

The main city gate was open, staffed by a few milling soldiers on the top of the battlements. They passed through and Michael led Sharona through the narrow,  shady streets of Calasora. The city street was old and winding, the buildings made of stout wood with painted siding, with a mixture of shake and tile roofs. They were tall, sometimes three stories (or four, for the larger stone buildings), and loomed over the street beyond their foundations, the windows open to the breeze. Open sewers ran down alleyways and were piped under the paved road. Michael and Sharona passed by many fountains of marble and white stone, depicting gods and heroes of the county’s past. From these works of art people normally took their water freely, but all were ignored that afternoon.

In front of one such monument Michael had to suddenly stop, for there was a massive milling crowd. Having a high vantage point, he could see in the large street beyond a great group of soldiers pushing people aside, armed with cudgels and shields.

“What’s going on here?” Michael said aloud.

“Recession is coming through,” answered a woman from the ground below, dressed in an apron and house dress.

“Recession?”

“What’s wrong with you?” the woman said.

“The wedding, Michael,” Sharona said.

“You should listen to your wife,” the woman below said.

“Was Johan’s – the royal wedding – Was that today?” Michael said desperately.

“Of course.”

“Why… Why was it not at the citadel?”

“It was at the Old Temple,” the woman said, she was looking up at Michael with a face scrunched up in confusion. “Oh, here they come!”

The woman began pushing forward. Michael, almost absent-mindedly, began urging his horse forward, ignoring the complaints of those on foot being jostled around by the beast. As he inched past the fountain, he reached a vantage where he could partially see around a very large, stone building. A parade was moving up the street to great cheers, and flower petals were being thrown down. Rows of knights in full armor, their lances bearing banners of many colors, pranced their horses forward. Behind them was more horses, all white, pulling a large carriage. As the carriage rounded the building, Michael felt his breath catch.

“What is it” Sharona said, but as soon as she said it, she saw.

Johan was riding in the back of the carriage, but the woman beside him, wearing a flourid and rich dress, was not Julia, but Alanrae, queen of Ferralla.

 

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a sequel.

 

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