The road along the lake shore narrowed as it approached a break in hills that separated Rayen lake from the sea. Chance strolled along, looked about him so as to know this region. several people previously described it to him as wild.
There were no farmsteads near the river that flowed from the lake. Indeed, no one lived here permanently. Chance did not note any sign of activity; the land was as it is when undisturbed.
His purpose for walking instead of gliding was to find how this place could add to the defense of Linnet. Other than by boat, this road was the only approach from the north.
The angle of the shoreline bent in at the top of the lake. As he rounded a corner, following the road round an inlet, he paused to consider the full route of this trail.
Starting from Brad, an army must come down this road to the river, ford that and then make its winding way down the lake to reach Linnet.
Looking at the hills here, Chance saw they were steep along the shoreline but not everywhere. Harder rock was not as eroded and formed bluffs. More rounded parts were thick with woods.
Snipers could find any number of protected spots there and be able to shoot targets on the road easily. A handful of bowmen could slow any passing army but not stop them.
The trees were in autumn colors, and he admired the haphazard beauty of the land and near lake side. Chance did not think Rixt would be able to find enough level ground for farms along this.
He continued a short distance farther and then stopped. The area beyond required study. Ahead, he could see a wide, scoured, lumpy plain: the lake waters on one side and then channels where the river to the sea began.
He edged closer to the first of the channels to see better. The river was not a single head water; it seemed to start from many small breaks along the lake shore.
He lifted so that he was floating in the air about two measures of a man high. From there, he saw a row of channels cutting the plain before joining up again at a cleft in the hills downstream.
The road went down along the channels and climbed a side of what he imagined was a water chute. The flow in these streams was gentle, but he assumed that was different where they were squeezed. Rock on either side of the cut farther down was bare, layered and funneled the flow.
Chance drifted back to the ground and walked over to a section of bare rock that stuck up and forced a channel to flow round it. Nearer now, he immediately sensed the uplift was not entirely natural; it was much like the footings that he discovered set across the marsh at Linnet.
He looked for more and was excited as he began to make out a sequence of stone surfaces that rose above the water runs.
The possibility of a bridge suggested this would be a good place to set out a fortification. Behind him were rough hills; down the river there was little that appeared other than a narrow valley.
The river off the lake would force anyone heading for Linnet to go downriver to where he assumed there was at least one ford.
Chance lifted again and glided across the cascades noting the placement of what he was now calling footings. A bridge could most definitely be built across the river using them.
He imagined such and then examined the far side. As he neared, he envisioned an open field once thickets and woods were cleared.
A bridge would make the trip to and from Brad easy for wagons; a blockhouse would slow an army which must pass near it on the road. He returned and then walked along a channel a short way down toward where they joined.
Something in his mind resonated with this location. He could not say what he would build or where exactly. It was sure in his mind that he would live here along the river valley somewhere. No place before drew him as strongly as this one did.
His mood was optimistic, and he continued toward Brad in good spirits. Very soon he began to see signs of farming and wood management.
Trees were more widely spaced the farther he went. He did not come on any settlements at first but did as he approached Brad. One came into view, and he walked slower by it.
It was a village, on a mound and surrounded by a wooden palisade. Gardens were laid out beyond it, toward Brad, and he saw a few people working in an orchard.
As he was standing there and plainly interested in the activity, a man noticed and approached. Chance waited and saw the man slow then touch his hood in respect.
Chance was unsure how to speak with him and recalled Rixt's descriptions of when commoners are in the presence of a mage.
When Chance said nothing, the other spoke politely: "Good day, mage. Have you seen any of the Dui? Beware that the raiders do not catch you out alone."
Remembering his time in taverns, he recalled how common men introduced themselves to each other. They spoke their called name, added whose son they were and where they were from.
He tried a response that was similar to the ones he recalled hearing, adding his father's name: "A peaceful day to you and this homestead, Good Farmer. I am Chance, Durk's son, of Linnet. There will be no raids - at least this year."
The farmer was skeptical, and his face plainly showed his doubt. A much older man now came out a small gate in the palisade and made his way toward them.
He used a cane and his left leg seemed weaker than the right from the way he walked. His chin was thrust out under hollow cheeks, a mouth deeply lined.
A little winded, he stopped by the other two and caught his breath a moment. With a respectful nod of his head, Chance greeted the older man and repeated there would be no raids this year.
The senior cocked his head to the side, staring at Chance as if to be sure this was not a joke. He apparently decided it was not and smiled saying: "Chance Durkson, you have given us a gift of great value with this news."
Chance answered saying he was now a neighbor and between them and Dui. He nodded in the direction he just came and added that the land along the river and below it was Linnet.
It was being settled and part of his demesne. His claim, he explained, was based on him taking and holding it. That caused the elder to frown a moment but then shrug his shoulders.
He said the land that way was always too dangerous to live in. If the High Mage wished to have it, only the Dui would contest that. When he finished, he stood looking closely at Chance.
That was an acceptance that Chance welcomed. He did not want to begin his residency of Linnet in instant conflict with all his neighbors. He wished them well again and walked on.
He did not pass another farming village, and certainly not an isolated farm, until he was almost at Brad. The first impression anyone would have of Brad was its age.
Homesteads outside the city's gates were made from stone picked out from ruins. Though some were new, most buildings had the appearance of wear. The wall round the city was the same.
Chance's experiences of cities were almost entirely of Kehdy. There were no ancient cities anywhere in the swath of what was known as Kehdy Green. It was open land, well managed and completely settled with precisely laid out towns.
Brad was not at all like the cities Chance knew. He entered without challenge through the western gate, passing under the painted red arch, and joined the traffic of people at Day markets and craft shops along a winding main road.
Streets were not straight off the main road that ran from one gate across the city to the port; they angled away. As he walked along, Chance glanced down them and would have wandered, but he wanted to reach the Mark before evening.
The port was crowded as boats formerly used only for fishing were now working carrying cargo to Linnet. Chance did not pause and continued past, leaving the city through its northern gate.
* * *
Onne was not far from Brad by distance, but the road between the two climbed up through rising land. It necessarily zigzagged because of the steepness of the roadway. Chance continued to walk rather than glide; he wanted to see on the ground what he last saw from the air.
Chance abruptly noted he was the only one on the road. It should not be empty. He glanced at buildings along the way and saw most were bolted shut as if for night.
Why became clear when two men stepped out on to the road ahead, placing themselves to block the way. Chance summoned and raised Nimbus.
Hearing a noise behind him, he assumed others were coming out of hiding. He brought up Focus and slowed to let the spell unfold. His sense of his surroundings grew sharper; emotions faded, and his hearing became more selective.
A wide ranging Seeker spell went out from him: there were ten. They were Battle mages. Two before, two behind, three either side.
They were used to working together. One, ahead on the left, moved slightly, and that rippled among the others. His eyes fixed on the lead, Chance noted every tension of muscle and shift in stance.
The instant the other began, Chance sprang at him unleashing Explode which slammed the man off his feet. Sojo moves brought him against the other ahead; Chance parried a sword with his dagger and punched the man in the chest hard enough to kill him.
The first was struggling to rise; Chance leaped at him using Sojo to kick him in the face, smashing bone and flesh.
He then turned, lifted enough to rise up and come down on the first of the eight who were running at him. Chance bent his right leg just before dropping on to his target and kicked out as he hit. The man sank to the ground, broken and dying.
Chance closed on the remaining seven. He used Focus to cut down one after the other. He employed Sojo moves he was taught as a child by his brother Svern. He was soon splattered with blood in the killing but Focus ignored everything other than the next strike.
When Chance was standing alone among bodies, he turned to the last two. They were running towards Onne.
He summoned a bolt and shot it into the back of one of them. The man blew apart; the other ran the faster, but Chance's second bolt splattered him over the road.
All ten were dead; Chance was wet from his own sweat and his muscles ached. He went unsteadily to the side of the road and sat on a low wall. He was breathing deeply and pressing his feet into the ground trying to soak up Earth magic.
Slowly, his mind released its hold on him, and his sight and hearing returned to normal. He attempted to stand but sat back deciding to recover a little more before going on.
The road remained empty, except for bodies, and no sound came from buildings nearby. Chance assumed the fight was witnessed and thought it would be spoken about.
* * *
Finally, Chance felt he was ready to go on. He stood and tested himself. Then he began to walk up the road, stepping around bodies, in the direction of Onne. The way wound up the mount, and soon he was coming up to the south gate.
He entered without being questioned, no guard came forward, and went along to the inn where he stayed on his first visit. The day was in late afternoon, and the inn looked as it did before.
As he climbed the steps and entered, he was relieved to see the inn was not damaged because of its association with him. There were a number of people inside, drinking and talking, who did not note him at first.
He went to the bar where Xsel waited, looking him over, and asked if there was a private room available. He glanced at his coat and vest seeing drying blood smeared upon it.
Xsel looked at him silently a moment longer and then drew a cider. Handing it to Chance, he called to the kitchen for Ruby. Her welcoming smile faded as she took in his appearance. She spoke saying she would get a bath started then went back into the kitchen.
Moments later, her eldest daughter came out and put a bowl of stew on the bar by Chance. He ate and drank, still weary but feeling better now.
Xsel formally welcomed him back to the Mark then went back to his work. Conversation began again but much softer.
Chance drank a second cider after he finished the bowl of meaty stew and then went with Ruby when she came to say his bath was ready.
A tub in a room upstairs was steaming as he entered and Chance spoke his gratitude. Ruby placed a towel on a stand for when he was done and pointed out fresh trousers and shirt on the bed. She said they were Xsel's and would fit, if loosely. Chance went behind a screen and took off his clothes, handing them over to Ruby. She said blood needs washing out or it stains.
She left taking his soiled clothes with her, and Chance came from behind the screen to step into the tub. He lay back against its rim and closed his eyes. Relaxation came gradually; the hot water drew out the ache in his muscles. He remained soaking until the water began to cool then reluctantly got out and dried.
He dressed and went back down to the main floor. Xsel was alone; the inn emptied after Chance arrived. Xsel spoke up, inviting his only guest to sit at the bar: "If it pleases you, High Mage, come sit here so that I may gorge my curiosity."
Chance smiled at that and went to sit on a stool at the bar. Xsel now poured from a flask into a tiny cup. He said it is Ice Cider and some of the finest he tasted in a long time. Chance tried it and was reminded of the liquor the old woman's village gave Rixt.
After letting the drink etch its way down his throat, Chance asked how business was at the Mark. He explained he wanted to know if he was causing the inn to lose customers.
Xsel was thoughtful before answering then shrugged and said custom was off. He added that some men did come from the Enclosed quarter to have a word with him about harboring outlaws.
Chance asked how that turned out and was told that Xsel did not feel they had any say in the Mark. After a questioning look from Chance, he added that he may have been too forceful in his reply to them. It made no matter, Xsel stated, and they did not come again.
Xsel leaned on the bar, rested himself on his elbows, hands either side of his chin, and said: "I will hear about it but how is it you come all bloody. I do not think it was your blood on your new jacket. Someone else's?"
Chance related his trip from Linnet to the Mark, only passing generally over the fight on the road between Brad and Onne.
Xsel listened, and his face reacted at each part of the tale. Chance finished saying that now he was here but was undecided why. Xsel said life is like that. He added he was glad Chance was all right.
Ruby came down the stairs soon after and said his bed was ready. She also said his clothes were washed and drying. He would have them back by morning. He thanked her, and she only remarked she was happy to do this.
* * *
After she left, Chance looked about the inn. It was attractive, meaning clean and tidy. The porches in front were ideal for passing a hot afternoon; the hearth in the drinking room was wide and designed to give out warmth to those seated round it. Chance, from impulse, asked Xsel what he planned next for the inn.
Xsel set aside his thoughts over Chance's fight with Battle mages and glanced around the interior of his inn. He took Chance's question to be serious and answered in the same tone.
He first said outright that upkeep was always going to take most of his effort. No point, he added, of adding something and then having it fall apart from lack of maintenance.
Putting in a stable was an example of that; they talked long before borrowing, adding to their debt, to have it built.
Ruby came out of the kitchen during Xsel's rambling answer and listened quietly until he finished. She added: "The stable is working out well enough - mostly because we have income from storing neighbors' horses."
Chance smiled at her and asked what their next project was about. Ruby almost blushed but was enthusiastic saying they planned to add a post service for messengers. She went on to say that was in the future.
Xsel did not speak while she talked and now glanced at Chance. He was thinking the High Mage might finance such an expansion.
The subject turned to messengers and just how a post service was put in place. Xsel went to a bare portion of the wall behind the bar. He spread his arms saying that a cabinet would eventually be built here.
Chance knew little of messengers or how their work was done. Xsel explained that messages are usually grouped at a post service by where they were to go; a messenger bid on the job and then took the lot to wherever it was meant to end up. There, another distributed each and received pay from the one getting the message.
In answer to Chance's question of what was carried by messengers, he learned all manner of communication went via the guild. He ticked off simple how-are-you letters between friends to complicated agreements on trade.
Without a way to assure safe arrival of details of a contract, no merchant would commit his goods. Without a Bill of Credit, no supplier could be assured of payment. He said it all went via a loose guild of messengers.
Chance never wrote to anyone, not even to his family when he was in school. They contacted his teachers when they wished him home for some reason, but he never knew how that worked.
Certainly during most of his time on the road, he was not long enough in one place to receive messages. Like much that went on in the world, Chance felt no interest and so was unaware.
Now, he thought about messengers and then asked Xsel if they also carried information. Xsel was not sure what the question was about, but he guessed Chance wanted to know if messengers also sold what they knew of someplace or someone's doings.
He smiled at Chance and nodded: "Eyes, ears and feet - they carry paper and what they hear and see. There are many who wish to know about another - is he honest - or something like how is the wheat harvest this year in Onne..."
Chance understood the idea and concept. He played with a notion that appealed to him. With an open face, he asked how much did Xsel need to add a messenger posting service to the Mark.
Xsel calculated mentally and said an amount. Chance fished the necessary gold coins from his pocket, saying to contact Dette for more if needed. He pushed them across the bar to Xsel and said he wished to invest in the Mark.
Then he said he needed to rest; today drained him. He added more gold coins for this stay and then went upstairs to his room. The tub was gone, and fresh flowers were in a vase on the table.
The bed was well and thickly covered for a chilly autumn night, and Chance slipped into it after stripping. He sighed feeling the warmth from the foot of the bed where a warmer pan was set.
Before he slept, he cast wards around the room to warn him if anyone came near. He stirred once, hearing Xsel close the front shutters for the night.
He woke the next morning and lay in the warmth of the bed a while first. He felt much as he usually did, so he got out of bed. The room was cold.
He wrapped a blanket about himself and started a fire in the hearth. The noise he made informed staff he was awake, and in moments there was a knock on the door.
Chance dropped his warding spells and called to come in. A servant entered bringing his clothes; as the fire was already started, the man set down wood he brought beside the hearth and then left.
He dressed in his own clothes, well cleaned, and a second servant soon entered and placed tea out on the table. After a cup and a quiet start to the day, he was fully ready. He went out, used the toilet at the end of the hall then went downstairs to the inn's main room.
* * *
A man was standing at the bar with Xsel, and both were looking closely at the space on the back wall where a post board would be placed. With him were two apprentices who stood back and held various tools.
Chance came over to sit on a stool and listen. Xsel nodded his good morning to Chance who returned it. Ruby emerged from the kitchen and set down a breakfast on the bar in front of Chance. He was impressed: eggs, bacon, potatoes, fresh bread. She went back then returned with a mug of fresh milk which he eagerly welcomed.
He stayed at a farm once that ran cows and helped the mage living there with milking. The taste of warm-from-the-udder milk stayed with him long afterward.
As Chance ate, he watched as size and style were confirmed, and he guessed the two spoke of this before. The carpenter instructed the youths, who went behind the bar and carefully measured out dimensions before making any mark. The cabinet maker watched them closely but otherwise chatted with Xsel.
After eating, Chance took a cup of tea and went to sit on a porch. He raised and propped the big shutter for shade. He glanced at the clear sky; the day looked to be warm for the season.
He pulled a table out and then a chair. Tea, his magic book and a view of the square was the whole of his plan for the day.
This was a rare time when he could be idle; that was not possible at Linnet. Winter preparations were underway there, and a mage's help was constantly being called for.
Chance savored the slow pace of the Day market across the square and the passing of people going somewhere for some reason. He was looked at but always from well away.
People who may have been customers started towards the inn but seeing him turned away. Chance hoped having a messenger service would compensate Xsel for that.
A man came to the inn and halted, recognizing him. This one, however, continued inside, and Chance could see him join Xsel and the three carpenters at the bar.
With no one close by, Chance removed the amber and placed it on his opened magic book. He began to read spells in the library, but it appeared as if he was reading his book.
Especially, he was examining the spells he used to make a barrier against tribesmen. He wondered if any part of those could be used to strengthen walls. The morning passed with the addition of hammering from the inn which Chance paid no attention to.
People in the square were gossiping about Chance; all heard by now of his fight on the road the day before. They did not intrude on him and respectfully allowed him a wide space. Chance was reading spells and was hardly aware of time until a girl came from the kitchen with a lunch as the day reached its middle.
Chance did not move much; when the light began to come from the west, creeping away from him, he slid his chair and table into sunshine. He was content and on occasion would stand, stretch then sit down again to read more spells.
By sunset, the post cabinet was in place and the carpenters gone. Only the second arrival remained and now came out to where Chance sat. He stood politely on one side until he was noticed and then asked if he might speak with the High Mage a few moments, that he wished permission.
Chance waved his hand to indicate a place at his table, and the man brought out a chair from inside. He sat and faced Chance but did not speak.
First closing his book and replacing the amber in his pocket, Chance then looked at the man. He saw a person who must be around thirty years of age, dressed in a coat with embroidery which Chance assumed symbolized the messenger profession. This man's complexion was darker than Xsel's, and Chance was not able to identify what that meant.
As the other did not say anything, Chance invited him to speak. To begin, the man stated he was a messenger, his name was Skor and he wished to ask the mage if messengers might be permitted between Linnet and Brad.
Chance answered saying they were welcome. He leaned toward the man and grinned: "In fact, please report on me - on Linnet - as much as you wish - to anyone who has any interest."
Skor leaned away; this was not what he was expecting. Chance added to his confusion by pulling out gold coins and pushing them to Skor who just looked at them.
Chance explained the coins were to pay Skor to spy on him. That further puzzled the messenger who stated that he could not accept gold for spying. He was already well paid for doing that.
That answer amused Chance and he laughed. He said Skor could keep the gold and asked if, from time to time, the messenger might pass on what he thought of interest to Linnet.
He added that he hoped messengers would find the Mark of the Hand a convenient post and even better as an inn. He asked if there were other such places in Onne and was told only a few.
Messages went through a post in the Enclosed quarter, generally. It was the single one used by Schools mages. Skor remarked that yesterday changed that; most of the mages in the quarter were leaving.
The ten Chance killed were the entire military force allotted to Onne by the Guilds and Schools. Thus, mages no longer felt safe here.
Chance said he understood a guild such as Skor's needed to stay in the good graces of whoever ruled. However, he felt that while the reach of Schools' mages extended even to Onne, their grip was now much looser.
Skor agreed that Schools' law was weak this far from the nearest Hier compound. There was none such in Onne.
When asked where there was a Hier, Chance was told at South March. There was more than just a frontier Hier, there was a garrison of troops. Skor asked politely if Chance was aware of that.
Chance answered only a little; he was in a skirmish with a patrol from South March when he first stayed here. He did not know the mages he recently fought were stationed in Onne. Skor observed they would not be missed, not in the city anyway. They were a troublesome lot, arrogant, always throwing their weight around.
Now, Chance pointed to the coins already on the table saying those were to buy his membership in the club of men who already paid Skor. He pushed out a few more and said: "Now tell me about South March - only what you feel you are free to say."
Skor remained with Chance as evening came on and told all he could think of about South March's structure, population and activity.
Ruby came out toward the end of that saying it was becoming cool and asked if Chance would care to come inside. He stood, and he and Skor brought the table and chairs back into the main room. Xsel lowered the big shutter and bolted it on the inside afterward.
Chance and Skor sat together, and talk was easy between them. Mage and messenger seemed to get along. Xsel brought them both an evening meal and cider to wash it down with.
During dessert, Chance did his part by telling Skor how things were on Linnet. He did not say much about his barrier but did confirm that he thought it would hold. There would be no raids this year.
Skor remarked that was valuable information and left soon after hearing it. By himself now, Chance thought over his conversation with the messenger then stood and picked up plates.
He carried them to the kitchen then went around to the bar. He sat on his usual stool and asked Xsel if he might have a thimble of Ice Cider.
Xsel poured one for Chance, then after hesitating only a moment, one for himself. They toasted and then sipped quietly. Xsel and Chance admired the workmanship of the post cabinet. There were touches, here and there, which the proud owner of the Mark pointed out.
Asking when will messages be put in it, Chance heard that Xsel already received some. The innkeeper opened a door in the cabinet with a separate key to one section.
Inside was a stack of scrolls. He said there were others due later this evening and was plainly very pleased. Having Chance in his inn was working out well, so far.
Chance said he wanted to do some exercises and said good night to Xsel, who wished him a pleasant rest. Going outside to the back by the stables, Chance stood in the open space where a month or so ago Vind assembled Linnet's shiny, new army.
He began Sojo postures; it took out the stiffness of sitting much of the day. His mind did not need to concentrate so instead wandered through the spells he read earlier.
It was dark when Chance finished; he went back into the inn and through the main room. It now contained a few customers who only glanced at him. He went up the stairs to his room.
As before, the bed was inviting. He noticed fresh wood in the cleaned-out hearth and cast wards before climbing into bed. He was asleep soon after and slept through the night without interruption.
* * *
The morning of his third day in Onne began with sounds which Chance associated with everyday city life. At breakfast, he asked where he might have a sword made. Xsel was surprised and almost asked why did Chance want one.
Instead he thought a moment before suggesting a man who lived in the hills northeast of Onne. Xsel gave him instructions on how to find the smithy, and Chance left soon after.
He walked out of Onne and was pleased that no one challenged him. He would be at some point, however, so needed to replace his sword that was broken at Nessum's palace.
The traffic did give way when he approached but only enough for him to pass on easily. Nor did people look at the ground when he passed. They stared at him and whispered among themselves. Chance was thinking about a sword so gave it no notice at all.
Following the directions from Xsel, Chance left the road shortly after Onne and entered the hill country where he found charcoal piles and villages dedicated to working ore. He entered the first place he came to and asked specifically where he could find Waun the Smith.
He was told the way but informed that the smith he asked for was not a member of their guild and was thought a maker of low quality, somewhat reliable swords. The swordsmith was clear: no Guild member wanted to do work for a man who was outlaw. Chance trusted Xsel and went onwards.
He eventually found where a single smithy was set up outside a village. This place was no more than three houses, four if you counted the charcoal sheds. He asked at the first and was pointed to the last of the buildings.
Continuing past openly curious folk in the other two houses, Chance went over to the smithy and knocked. No one answered, so he called out saying he wanted a sword made.
A man's voice answered: "Do not bust down my door - I am coming in just a moment."
The door was soon opened by a red-faced man, holding with tongs a glowing bar which he was shaping. He glowered at Chance and asked bluntly what he wanted.
In answer, Chance indicated the iron bar in the man's hand and said again that he wanted a sword made. He added that Xsel of the Mark of the Hand inn in Onne sent him here.
The man's expression became a smile hearing Xsel's name, and he stood aside to invite Chance in. Before stepping through the door, Chance asked if the smith was Waun and received a nod in answer.
Chance explained that he needed a sword to channel magic. He read recently of a spell that he thought sounded like just what he wanted. Waun's face showed curiosity so Chance pulled out the amber and Opal.
He set the first on a table and asked the library for a particular spell. Waun walked over to him after sticking the bar into a vat of water.
A spell appeared in the amber and after Chance said that was the one, a page materialized for them to read. Waun was too captivated to be afraid; he read the spell that Chance called up.
He finished, sat back and said it was complicated, adding he really did not understand it. Chance admitted he needed help with that and grinned.
He picked up the Opal and held it in front of the spell. Now the smith re-read the page. Waun was amazed at the Reading Opal but was seeing through it how an ore could enhance a spell and how forging would bind the ores into a sword.
After a time, he too understood how it worked five ores seeped in distinct magic into one powerful weapon. Waun stepped back, his eyes bright, imagining what he could do, the whole process forming in his mind.
Chance watched him and was pleased when Waun smiled at him while nodding. After thanking both Opal and the amber, Chance put them back in his pocket and went to stand beside Waun. He was eager to see a man skilled in his craft, an art about which he knew nothing except its use.
G. Wiley / NLStrabo - © Copyright - All rights reserved