The Golden Maple was special. Don’t get me wrong. I was proud of my inn back in Raven’s Ridge, but this was different. It was beautiful in the way that only old things could be. The stone walls and floors were covered in rugs and tapestries from around the world. Pottery, canvas paintings, and religious icons of the old empire’s dead pagan gods crammed the shelves.
And it was warm. An underground boiler heated the floor. There were three fireplaces lit around the room, while a large brazier dominated the center of the hall. The heat made it popular with Chiktani and Akhetati sailors who weren’t used to our winter.
Seb and I guarded our table from the crowd while Alvaro and Yidir grabbed the drinks. It was only fair. I was buying. A week in Laon and I was already running low on stock. I had sold the pelts on the first day, and the steel tools were almost gone. There was an embarrassing amount of gold in my pocket. I couldn’t stand the thought of my friends paying their own way until I found a new investment.
A halfling woman played the guitar near the brazier. I leaned back and listened. It was interesting watching her. She sat with it between her legs as if it were a cello. Her quick fingers plucked beautiful tones as she moved through the positions. The long braid of her hair swung back and forth in time to the music.
Alvaro appeared with two huge bowls of food. I wish I saw how the halfling had ducked through the crowd carrying it all. He set the pigeon pie and couscous between us, eyes still fixated on the young musician. “I think I’m in love.”
Yidir handed us huge tankards of honey ale and grabbed the seat nearest the brazier. “Cheers,” said Seb as we clicked our cups and drank.
“So, I heard something interesting.” Alvaro turned back to us, suddenly serious. “One of my colleagues was asked to appraise some bottled spells a Northman had sold in Ripont. Master Roul probably made all of them, judging by their nature. The Northman had a couple spells that were so rare, I can’t believe Roul had parted with them willingly.”
“Who’s Master Roul?” asked Seb.
“He’s an alchemist, a famous one.” I said. “He used to make medicine for the king’s family. He only lives a few days from here.”
“He’s friendly?” asked Seb.
“Roul is famous for his perversions. If your king had the power to either exile or kill him, he would’ve. He thinks human bodily fluids are vital to his spells – especially those lethal to extract. They excommunicated him for a book he authored explaining some of their uses.” Yidir downed his ale. “I spent a year trying to catch him outside of his cottage.”
“We can’t sit and wait for Erland to open up one of those bottles on us,” said Seb. “By the way, this pie is amazing.”
“I know the way to Roul’s place,” I said. “I tried to purchase from him once. It wasn’t a great experience. Maybe we should pay him a visit, see how he’s doing.”
“Good idea.” Yidir grinned. “Emile can stay with my kids. I got them a room in the upper district. They’ll be fine for a few days. Just tell her to keep her head down.”
“Thank you, man,” I said.
It would take a week to get from Ripont to Laon with the caravan, but heading back would be much faster. The four of us purchased horses. We could easily cover twice as many miles in a day as we could with the oxcart. I packed enough supplies for a week, donned my breastplate, and polished my sword. The four of us met at the gates just after dawn.
The new leather boots and maroon cloak I had bought made me look more like a man with business than a bandit. Alvaro also knew how to dress. He wore a fine doublet with gold embroidery and his red tricorn hat. Between the two of us, I hoped we wouldn’t scare people.
I walked my horse up to the gate. It was open, but one of the guards stepped in my way. “Is there trouble, m’lord?”
“None at all.” I handed him my papers – an official scroll stamped by the magistrate authorizing the arrest of Erland the Northman. Justice didn’t come cheap. It cost five gold coins – enough that a regular plebeian couldn’t afford it. He looked it over. I wasn’t sure he could read. His eyes moved between us and our weapons.
The guard handed back the scroll and stepped aside. “Happy hunting.” Guess he could.
We traveled empty roads for days. Traders had long since taken their harvests to market and returned home. A few people tended livestock here and there, but otherwise the world was quiet. Spending a week in the Golden Maple had made me soft. I was road-weary by the second day, but kept it to myself. At least we made the most of our nights, playing cards and chess, or training with Yidir. His standing throws were impressive.
Seb and I shared a tent on the second night. It was getting cold to the point that I couldn’t sleep and wouldn’t be able to fight if I had to. I had a large sheepskin to put under our bedrolls. We crammed our backs up against one another and slept like babies. I think Alvaro and Yidir did the same. You’d be surprised how much body heat a halfling produces.
We were a few miles from Roul’s manor. Sparkling rays of the morning sun cut through the forest, making the bare, dew-covered branches shine. I crawled out of my tent, wrapped in furs, and found Alvaro making tea on the coals. We sat together in silence until Yidir and Seb joined us. I found myself worrying about Emile more and more. Maybe I got used to having her around.
Alvaro startled. “What the hell?”
I followed his gaze into the trees. There were crows all around us. They perched, nearly still and perfectly quiet. I picked up a rock and threw it into the branches of a nearby elm. I almost struck one, but it jumped to the side, barely flapping its wings. None of the others moved at all. I felt jittery, like I was being watched. “Strange.”
“Very.” Yidir stood up with his scimitar in hand. We followed his example.
Each of us faced a different direction. Seb jammed his foot in his crossbow’s stirrup and cranked it back to load a bolt. I held my saber. Alvaro stood a little behind me with a short bow.
Long minutes passed. Nothing came. Unspent adrenaline made me feel sick to my stomach. Seb and I shared a worried look. “Let’s pack up and get moving. The sooner the better,” I said.
“Look, the horses.” Sebastian walked to where we had tied them the night before. All four were lying on the ground. Their milky-white eyes hung open, staring into the sky.
Alvaro inched over and knelt by his animal. Its coat was solid black – beautiful for such an old nag. He placed his ear by its mouth and listened. “She’s breathing.” He rubbed her nose, but the animal was catatonic.
“Something’s trying to block us,” said Yidir. “I think this is just a warning.”
“So, we should leave,” said Alvaro.
“No,” Yidir smiled, “I don’t think so. This is encouraging. He knows we’re coming and he’s afraid.”
I didn’t share Yidir’s confidence. There was no reason to think either part of his assertion was true. Sometimes wizards do level curses. Other times, their power twists the world without them even knowing. I thought it was an aura, rather than an attack. Even so, I didn’t see myself being outdone and was as curious about what Erland had been up to as ever. “You heard the man,” I said. “Let’s go.”