Hungry, emaciated, delirious, the lone man waded across the river into the small village and the smouldering ruins of The Coach House. He felt a slap across his face and a charcoal smeared giant stood before him. He fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around their legs. “All gone,” he sobbed. “The gold… My friends… gone….” He was pushed back while several female villagers began to crowd around. “It’s Matrich,” called a boy. “One of the freebooters passed here weeks ago. The one with the barbaroi?”
Several villagers stared at the boy blank-faced. “You have a good memory, Dlinch,” nodded one of them, who then knelt down and placed his hand gently on Matrich’s shoulder. Matrich scrabbled away from the touch, as if surprised. He glared up at them. They were staring down at him like he was a trapped animal, like a bird which had accidentally flown into a room. “We must go back…” he murmured and raised himself to his knees once more. “We must go back!” he implored pointing west. “There’s gold, a great pile of it! We must go back!” The villagers looked at one another.
“What happened to Surd? Darcia? The barbaroi Iklentil?” asked the boy, Dlinch.
Matrich stared wildly as if something terrible stood before him, then garbled something unintelligibly. Seeing nobody respond, he scrabbled to his feet and grabbed Dlinch, then seeing Dlinch was a boy, he grabbed a nearby villager and shook them. “We must go back!” The black-smeared blacksmith yanked him back and Matrich fumbled for his sword, but it was gone. He spun around, confused and fell. The crowd took a step back warily. “Look out,” one warned. Matrich found his knife tucked in his belt — was that dried blood around the hilt? He became aware of his hands and arms black with soot and white with ash, he looked down at his own body covered in dirt, torn, ragged, his wet breeches in tatters, he wore only one shoe. Someone laughed. Alarmed, Matrich jerked the dagger before him, the crowd dispersing further. “We must go back. Can’t you see, there’s nothing left for you here!” cried Machus pointing at the inn. Dlinch glanced over his shoulder at the Coach House, the other stone buildings around the square. They were the same as they ever were.
“There’s blood on his blade if I am not mistaken,” said the blacksmith ominously. “He’s dangerous.” Several men arrived from the fields, and headed by the blacksmith, they herded him to the outskirts of the village. Against his desparate protests, they told him he was not welcome and if he came back they would kill him. The blacksmith removed an old bell from the Guardhouse and hung it from the corner of his shack. They were to gather if the madman Matrich returned, or for any other threat. For a few days, the villagers went about their business a little more nervously, until its retelling over warm beer made it less about the young man’s destress and more of the blacksmith’s courage.
Summer was waning, autumn beginning its long slow descent to winter. Nobody else came from the west way, only dry leaves on a cold wind. Nobody knew what happened to Matrich. He was never seen again in those parts. Perhaps he had died from starvation, or his ravings had attracted wolves or a bear? Or perhaps he had regained his senses and gone east, returned to Tapton or Bizapul or his home back in Urb? He was certainly not their concern, there was more to worry about. Talk in the town turned to darker days, darker thoughts, and what was rising in the west.
The old man’s eyes shone with an ageless fierceness. His tangled grey eyebrows, unkempt grey-white-yellow beard, bald head creased parchment-like and blotched with sunspots; a thick doublet of cured leather, much marked with cuts and permanent stains, over ring-laced leather shirt and worn trousers; and ever at his side a double-edged axe, the handle propped against the table upon which the group’s tankards lay, the axe-edge glinting sharply in the firelight.
“We’re seeking a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green,” said the old man. “Help us find it.”
A motley crew of self-serving adventurers, plunderers, mercenaries. Freebooters. They had rolled in earlier that day. Four of them, on foot. The old man, behind him a man literally armed to the hilt with assorted armour from the Imperial and Royal Guard, a short haired woman wrapped in a leather travel cape, and following them, at least a head taller, a warrior as big as a bear, a Rone-blood barbaroi by the looks of him. Apart from the considerable pack on his broad back, the barbaroi looked as if he was walking into an arena at Tarabiz wearing little but sandals and a mitra skirt of slatted leather strips, arms as broad as a grown man’s legs, ritually and combat scarred, black clan tattoos visible beneath his pack strap, shaved head but for a ponytail, thick angled beard down to his collar bones, heavy forehead and fearsome kohl painted eyes.
Sure, thought Dlinch, and where would he learn sword craft out here in Hope Valley, a week out of Double Tapton, nearly a month from Bizapul? The only people in the vicinity were woodfolk. Their greatest opponents were standing trees, and their greatest knife work was slicing cooked meat from a spit. Preter, the local drunk handiman and brewer was reportedly a military man once, but after a lifetime of drinking the old codger had forgotten what a sword looked like, most likely. Dlinch had practiced his own skills with what he had as much as possible, throwing a knife at a corner-post around the back, splintering it so badly that his mother had clouted him only yesterday. He was also proud of the fact he could walk around silently when he wanted, creeping up on the chickens and scaring them, and his sister, even over dry straw strewn floors.
But none of this mattered because these four hadn’t asked him one question, hadn’t noticed he was alive except to fetch more drink from the barrel. On this last round, Dlinch had thumped the side of the huge barrel which stood in the corner of the common room and it resounded hollow. It was a legacy from the old days when the Coach House had to cater for several score men at a time, tomorrow he’d have to help Preter empty a small keg or two into it. As he filled the tankards, a thought wormed its way into his consciousness: perhaps this party of freebooters might not have the coin to pay for their beer, or lodgings? He didn’t like the thought, it was like a white maggot-thought. He was brought up to trust people, he had no cause to think otherwise. However, this group seemed a little too rowdy. They weren’t entertaining his family, and the locals who had gathered on hearing they had arrived had got fed up with their raucous baffoonery and had left earlier than usual. No stories, no magic, just endless bickering and wisecracking between themselves even when Abery who played the gita better than father played… and this maggot-thought.
“Join us,” the old man had said.
But just as he began, the old man broke the spell. “Come, boy. I’ve noticed your eyes haven’t left us all night,” the old man nodded and spoke with the resonance of long live-in truth. “I can tell you were caught. You are one of us. A searcher.” The man-at-arms and barbaroi had grown quiet now, and for the first time since arriving they attended to him, albeit with barely more awareness than they would a table or pebble. Dlinch’s eyes glanced at each rapidly, like a mouse caught out in the open all of a sudden. He had caught each of their names — Surd, Matrich, Darcia, Iklental, even the name of the old man’s axe, Adril! — but none knew his name of course, before returning to the old man who shrugged. “Then again, perhaps you are too young?” said the old man and took another drink, drawing the others with him, returning immediately to joking amongst themselves. At that moment, Dlinch knew hen wouldn’t even be a memory for them.
Bearing down the stairs like a mountain storm, the old man shouting and swearing, glowering around the common room. Mother was up in a flash and planted herself before him in the middle of the room. “I’ll not be having any of that here! This is my place! The only hollering these wooden walls will hear will be mine!”
The old man man raised himself from his haunched stance, his fingers clenching and unclenching. He fixed Mother with his bright stare, alive with lightning.
When his eyes fell on his axe he smiled a humourless smile. “Breeding thieves here, are you?” he said, clearly addressing his mother and not Dlinch himself.
“You were so drunk last night, you must have forgotten to take it with you!” Mother said with an uncharacteristically uneasy tone. Dlinch couldn’t remember a time he had seen Mother like this. She was rattled.
The old man turned back to her. “To forget Adril would be to forget my own arm…” he growled. There was threat in his voice, and his manner. What could he possibly do? Attack his mother with his bare hands?
“I took it, yes –” and Mother turned to him suddenly, fear and anger mixed in a hot temper which Dlinch could feel like a hammer “– but it’s not what you think, Mother!”
“May God-between forgive you — because I won’t!” invoked Mother. “Return the axe and apologise to our guest — and pray he does not use the axe upon you!”
It took a little more than Mother’s jibing to relieve the tension. Clearly the axe was not for Dlinch himself — he could hardly lift it. He had snuck into their room and removed it from the old man’s side himself, straight out of his hands while he lay in his bed. Dlinch had wanted to prove his proficiency, light on his feet, that he could be a useful addition to their team, win back the old man’s favour. The old man had grunted a few times, relaxed visibly as soon as his hands tightened around the haft of his axe, and by the time his companions had come down to join him for breakfast, the confrontation had dissipated completely. And with it, any hope of joining them either, Mother had seen to that. There was no way that she would let Dlinch go with this band of argumentative freebooters, not with this dangerous old man as their leader who had come to a hair’s breadth of threatening her in her own house.
Dlinch sat in the corner while the freebooters ate their breakfast of bread, sausages, eggs, their last for some time, they said. Mother served them frostily, and it was clear she would be glad to see their backs. She couldn’t afford to turn them away. She was locked in servitude to the coin, something he had noticed a few times in his young life. Some people used coin with gratitude, others reluctantly, and others still in a way which was disrespectful, as if who they were paying didn’t exist. Dlinch’s attention began wandering. The bright beams of sunshine from the open windows and door, no wind, another hot day; he identified himself with the dust motes floating in the air. Each tiny dust mote, here for a moment, then gone. Non-existent.
They had already bustled their way out and had gone, fully paid, only a whispered shadow from the young woman, her passage appearing to brighten the doorway as she left. Mother was already into her regular morning chores beginning with clearing the dishes, ordering her daughter to clear out the slop and reset the room, and reminding Dlinch pointedly of the barrel refilling and to raise Preter from his slumber. Dlinch dutifully pushed himself out of his reverie, his chair, looking around the Coach House common room, its cold grey fireplace which was his job to clean, the worn and uneven floorboards, assorted tables and chairs he had helped repair over the years, the old barrel and scored bar worn smooth by so many elbows, behind it the pegs of tankards in lines. These four walls which promised to be his workplace for his adult life, his inheritance, both the physical building and his servitude to the coin. He sighed and looked at the main doorway, and then the open hallway to the kitchen and back yard where he’d find Preter nestled in his corner of the hayshack, the tasks ahead of him later that morning, the rest of the day, again tomorrow and the rest of his life. He turned back to the main door, bright with sunshine, always open now because of the summer. He seldom used it himself, it was mostly for guests, locals and rare visitors. And even when he did take it the door it was always to come in, carrying bags and things for others. He had to reframe it mentally, the doorway out, keenly bright in the early sunshine.
He walked over to the doorway, his body cut in two by the sunlight; his legs and waist in warm sunshine, his chest and head in shadow caste from the extended roof. He looked out over the dusty road. East to Hopeton at the mouth of the valley, then Tapton and the city of Bizapul and the Empire of Urb beyond; it would take him a whole season of walking and he still wouldn’t reach Tarabiz let alone the capital. And in the opposite direction, south, along the river to Castleton and the pass to Wetton, the mudflats and Tabletop Plateau with its Garsu mines. It was a dead road. Since they had redirected the garsu caravane, nothing passed this way these days apart from supplies like ironwork tools, cloth and foodstuffs, and the last-hope miscreants selling themselves to the mines, like the traveller who had slept in the commonroom floor. The five stone buildings, chandler’s, mill, blacksmith, abandoned Guard House, and the Coach House, the surrounding old wooden houses of the settlement, most of which had fallen into disrepair, the trees beyond. Nothing came this far west into the Reaches.
Across the river, wide and shallow enough to walk across, which is why the settlement had been built here so long ago, a fork with one track heading north, past a few outhouses, families he knew, which would snake its way to the hillsides separating Hope from Crow Valley; and west along the river, a track leading nowhere, to distant lands where the sun never shone. It was that winding road west that the travellers said they were taking. Beyond the Reaches, overgrown now. Only for settlers who drove their wagons in and out of the village for monthly supplies. The old man’s spell overlaid his senses and he imagined such a place far to the west: a grey finger of stone encircled by a lake of green.
It had been generations since Urb had pushed its frontier into this valley, the
“Behold!” called Matrich in awe, “the fearsome Forest Guardian!”
As was his style, Matrich had struck a fast pace well ahead of the party. In the open like this, he always wanted to be first. Surd and Iklentil began to unhitch their weapons warily. Darcia pushed past them and motioned for them to stop, shaking her head as she approached Matrich.
Matrich smiled widely at Darcia and stepped to the side flamboyantly drawing his sword and pointing at a strangely twisted tree trunk which he had previously shielded out of sight with his body. From the right angle, it resembled a person: rough legs grown from the ground, a somewhat warped face beneath a cowl and a waist-high protrusion at its side made it look like it was drawing a sword. “On guard!” said Matrich.
“You’re a child, Matrich.” Darcia shook her head once more, sighed and looked back the way they had come. It seemed longer than it was. Iklentil was still looking at the tree with a frown on his face. She motioned for him to follow her round so that he was facing the tree correctly and when he saw the shape, surprise lit his face. What goes for entertainment hereabout, Darcia thought.
This was the landmark that indicated they take the next trail off to the right. There were many trails off the main road west, settlers dotted all over the valley. They mooted whether they should stop off or not. Somewhere up this trail,
The group stood at the rock discussing whether they had time to stop off. Matrich and Darcia were in agreement about continuing. The days were shortening, and they needed to press on and cover as much distance as possible before the summer sun died away completely. Surd half-heartedly suggested that the druid might lend some insight into their journey, but Matrich was not interested in hearing another conflab, and certainly not one between grey-beards.
“On our way back, I’ll be happy to stop off at every opportunity. My legs will be tired of carrying so much gold we will be carrying!”
Darcia looked askance at Surd. Each of them had their reasons for going on this journey, and Matrich made a point of making clear why he was with them at every opportunity. It was like he needed to remind himself, especially at moments of duress of which there were many, such as when the insects clouded and bit “gold, gold, gold”, when there were three consecutive turns to the left or three to the right “maybe the gold is just around the next corner”, when the bedding — the same he had used every night — let a cold gust of air in, “I can feel the warmth of that gold, it is so close”. Matrich was not the easiest travelling companion.
Surd appeared to give in to the youthful exuberance of Matrich who was impatient to continue. Politically motivated no doubt, thought Darcia as she watched their exchange. Surd gave the impression that he listened, but for as long as she had known him, Surd got his way. He was an old dog, that Surd, and she knew all his ways. Realistically, there was little that an old man in the forest could offer them and Surd knew this. There were recluses dotted around the Seven Valleys, many with epithets like “Forest Guardian”, all choosing to shun the ways of the world and instead wisen like old nuts in obscurity. Surd was old but he was different. He had as much fire in him now as he did in his youth. Besides, he wasn’t one for potions. Mind over matter, he was fond of saying whenever Matrich complained of some physical hardship, mind over matter.
“This Forest Guardian is good enough for me,” said Matrich as he kicked the guardian-tree, and without further ceremony continued their journey along their road.