Behind us, Raven’s Ridge was a speck on the horizon. The morning sun hid behind the western mountains. It had rained before we left, making the road muddy. I was thankful it stopped. We had a long way to go, and I hated wearing armor in the rain. Sebastian had spent the night packing the cart and sealing the crates while I recovered – not that I recovered. Emile sat next to him on the bench while I trudged alongside the oxcart.
Normally, I was excited at the outset of a long trip, but I felt the tingle of anxiety trace between my shoulders. Emile was with us, so we had to be ready to defend her – or at least look like we were. I was still a wreck from my fight with Erland. My head was swimming and I could barely lift my arms, let alone a sword. I’d rather travel in poor clothing and with my valuables hidden, but with Erland loose, I couldn’t afford that luxury. At least he had been chased into the mountains, giving us a head start.
Sebastian looked like a different man next to Emile. Maybe it was the chainmail shirt he wore or the heavy crossbow at his feet. He sat rigid in on the bench, alert and ready, as anxious as I was. Emile was dressed from head to toe in animal skins and furs. Even though her clothing was luxurious, she seemed to vanish into the greys and browns of the road. Vanishing had been her father’s idea. I know he regretted being too hurt to travel.
I was staring at her, trying to see what Erland saw. Why did he put himself at risk when he could have snatched any woman off the road? I shrugged. Never had a solid understanding of sorcery. The only way it made sense was that the sword had asked for her; the implications didn’t sit well with me.
On the second day, we were on a well-traveled road. Barren farmland dotted with mudbrick homes met us on either side. People were poorer here. The gentle rolling hills and wooded creeks were peaceful under cloudy skies. Emile looked down at me from her seat on the oxcart. She took a breath as if to speak, then looked away.
“What is it?” I asked.
She turned back, her eyes hidden by raven-dark hair. “I want to learn to fight.”
“Fight who?” My face was stone. “And how?”
“Whoever,” she said. “I hated being helpless.”
“Anyone who’d try to hurt you will be much bigger than you,” I said.
“What you’re asking is really difficult.” I didn’t want this for her. “Being as small as you are, you’ll have to suffer a lot to become effective.”
She sighed, deeply. “What do I have to do?”
I stayed silent for a few moments, thinking about what she needed. It had been a while since I formally trained, but I’d had good teachers. The kind of men who guarded caravans were serious people. “Fighters don’t sit; they walk. Grab a hammer and a shield from the back and walk with me.”
“That’s all?” Emile was suspicious.
“By the time we stop for the day, you’ll hate me.”
The grey sky gave way to a blood-red sun before we caught up to the caravan we were following. Riders with long spears followed the wagon train. Emile walked beside me, silent and somber. The road was wearing on her. It was hard not to tell her to smile. I couldn’t see her face, but I think she was crying. Carrying the heavy shield and hammer, mile after mile, must have been miserable. They weren’t sized for her, and made her look like the child she was. If she wanted to fight, she needed a strong grip and comfort with something heavy in her hands. This was the best way to learn.
“Go ahead and put the weapons back in the cart and stretch your arms out. Once carrying them is easy, I’ll show you what to do with them,” I said.
She nodded to me. There was a twinkle of hate in her eye. I hoped she’d adapt and learn, or quit, before it consumed her. I wanted to tell her I know the feeling, but if she’s like me, that’d just piss her off.
We were still two hundred feet back when three of the horsemen turned to meet us. They wore uniform green cloaks over leather armor. Each carried a sturdy wooden shield with a beautifully painted wolf. Sebastian stopped the oxen so gently I didn’t see him move. The first of the riders stopped with his shield turned our way in a gesture of peace.
“I’m Piers of the Southern Wolves. This caravan is under our protection. Will you be traveling on?” he asked.
“Winoc. If it’s all the same to you, we’d like to join the caravan. We’re heading to Laon Peninsula for the market.” I handed him a few silver coins – the standard fee. Better to show you know the deal than give the guard a chance to think of a higher price.
He rubbed the coins together and took his horse to the side of the road. “Welcome to the train.” We fell in line behind the last cart.
Soon after we joined, the caravan master called for camp. We had come to a large wooded creek, too wet and rocky for farming. Fire pits and flattened earth were scattered through the trees by previous travelers. Sebastian drove the oxen deeper into the forest and released them from their yoke to rest. Emile had taken to feeding them and poured their oats on the ground. It was the first time I had seen her smile since all this began. The oxen bumped their sides against her in affection. She rubbed their necks while they ate.
Most of the thirty wagons formed a circle in the trees. Some of the travelers tended to their animals outside the circle. Inside, a few of the travelers started cooking fires and shared their ale. Sebastian walked up holding a sack of carrots and potatoes. “I’m going to donate this to the pot so we can eat.”
“Fine by me.” I turned to Emile. “Want a glass of wine?”
“Please,” she said.
I walked with her to the far side of the circle where a tall, beautiful woman was pouring wine from a clay jar. She smiled when we walked up. Her high cheekbones and slightly pointed ears made me wonder if she was entirely human. I dropped a few copper coins in her bowl and let her pour us each a drink.
Emile swirled the wine and sipped. It was a deep purple, almost blue. Typical for grapes grown far to the east. It knew it wasn’t my favorite. Too strong. Too sweet. She seemed to like it though. Her shoulders relaxed a little. Good. I figured she needed a drink.
She raised her cup to me in a toast. “I’m going to learn to fight, I promise.” I didn’t doubt her.
Nearby, a fiddler walked out of a tent holding his instrument. His mournful song lifted my spirits; sad music always helped on a dreary day. Emile walked towards the player to listen. I followed her.
A halfling had set up a table next to the player as if he were at market. He had the dark hair and golden-brown skin typical of the far southeast – same as the two men throwing knives into a tree behind him. His tunic was embroidered beautifully. He wore a red cape and a tricorn hat to match. “Hello friends. I’m Alvaro.” His had a light Segovian accent. “See anything you like?” The table was covered with oddities. Crystals, bones, the skulls of small animals, polished onyx and jasper, intricately carved pipes and wands, and even some herbs of the healing variety.
“What is all this?” asked Emile. She picked up a necklace with a small circle of jade.
“Magical talismans from around the world. Witches’ herbs. Enchanted stones.” He took a drag from his pipe and held the smoke in. I had seen magic before. This wasn’t it. The tarot sitting on the crate behind him was probably more magical than anything on the table, even though it was worn down and bent from playing games.
“Let’s go,” I said. It was too late. She was already pulling out a piece of gold to pay for the bobble. The halfling took it from her and held it tight, feeling the coolness of the coin. Of course it was real.
“It’ll be beautiful on you,” said Alvaro as Emile walked away.
“Thanks,” I said. He smirked at me.
Emile had a strange look in her eyes as she walked back to the oxcart. She was holding the jade by its chain and staring at it, barely watching where she was going. “Something wrong with it?” I asked.
She shook her head. “It’s beautiful. What makes it glow?”
It looked like low-quality jade to me, hardly worth silver. Still, it transfixed her. The way she looked at it was making me nervous. People were staring. She looked like she had been hypnotized. Maybe she had. I covered her small hand with my own and pushed it down, hiding the jade from her eyes. She turned to me, smiling brightly.
“I don’t see the light,” I said.
“I do.” She cupped it in her hands and sat down inside her open tent. Sebastian must have set it up.
“Well, keep it to yourself. Let me think.” I walked around the oxcart and waved Sebastian over. “Seb, I think I know why Erland tried to take her.”
“Why is that?” He looked concerned.
“She just bought some jade off that halfling. I think it’s actually magical, unlike his other crap, but only she can see it.”
“He needed a magical person to trade souls with the sword?” Seb asked.
“That’s what it looks like.”
Someone stomped through the leaves behind me. I spun to face him. The halfling was standing there, listening. The top of his head was barely above my waist, though his bare feet were bigger than mine and three times as hairy. Behind him, his goons waited with curved swords on their belts. The halfling turned a knife in his fingers. “Your witch ripped me off.”
“Whoa, calm down, friend. She paid gold for it, fair and square.” I took a step back and let my hand find the hilt of my sword.
“Using magic to take advantage of people is shit. I demand compensation,” he said.
I raised my voice loud enough to turn heads. “I thought everything you sold was enchanted.”
Emile hid behind us. I was glad she wasn’t bold enough to pick up a shield. “I’m sorry. I thought…”
I held up a hand to quiet her. “Maybe we can settle this another way.”
“Ten gold coins,” he said. “Or give back the jade.”
“You don’t even know what it does,” I said. “But I could pay you forty empire silvers to make it fair.”
“Empire silvers aren’t real silver, idiot,” he said.
I smiled inside. “Really? Wait,” I looked at Seb. “Who did we get the empire silvers from?”
He shrugged at me, dumbly. Seb knew when to play dumb. He was sitting on the oxcart with his crossbow in reach. That made me feel better.
“Hang on, let me think.” I looked at the sky for inspiration. My mouth hung open slightly, for effect.
“I’m not fucking around,” said Alvaro with contempt.
“Let me play you for it,” I said.
His eyes flashed with greed. He bit his cheek, trying hide a smile. “What do you have in mind?”
I reached into the cart and grabbed the chessboard. “Checkers?” A halfling favorite.
He sat down on a stump and stretched his fingers. Other traders and a few guards closed in to watch. Frantically, I dug through the back of the wagon as if hunting for something. When the crowd started to fidget and the sky darkened, I gave up and walked back, holding Seb’s chess set. “I can’t find my checkers. Is chess okay?”
He was tapping his foot. “Fine. Fine.”
We sat down and played. On my fourth turn, I advanced my queen. He smiled at the common error. I had already given him the center and let him take my pawn with his bishop. I sighed deeply and made another play out of faux anger and moved up my knight. He had no choice but to move the his bishop again, giving me the center. I couldn’t help grinning as I took control of the board. The look on his face was priceless. I had his king in twelve turns.
There was some scattered laughter as I stood up and took a bow. The other merchants could appreciate a good strategy. Alvaro walked off without a word, flushed with anger.
I returned to my tent and finished my wine. It was hard to relax, and I didn’t expect to get much sleep. Alvaro was staring at me from across the circle, I could feel it. Halflings could see in the dark. One more guy I’d have to be careful around.
Thanks for following Winoc’s story. I hope you’re enjoying it. Leave a comment and let me know what you think, and about what other sword and sorcery stories you’re reading.