The trail they were following took a turn that brought them closer to the main valley-coast road. Vind advised that way was too dangerous.
Chance was uneasy about finding himself the leader of this small group, but he decided that anyone chasing him, or Dette, was still far enough behind them.
He told Vind he wanted to reach the city of Onne as soon as possible, so insisted they use the trade road. Vind disagreed but said it was Chance's choice to make. He urged Ido into a trot and rode ahead to scout the way.
There was more traffic the farther they went. Farmers were moving their harvest to storage and were taking surplus to market. Heavy, well-loaded wagons often slowed them as they neared the hills that marked the end of Laat Valley.
After maneuvering past one such, Chance was surprised to see Vind riding quickly towards them. He reported he saw a patrol ahead; it rode past without noticing him.
That news brought a frown to Chance's face as he hoped to avoid a confrontation. His worry was that he could fight off an attack but not protect Rixt and Dette at the same time.
He was about to question Vind more but was interrupted. The mentioned patrol now rode into view. They spotted the small wagon and came rapidly in their direction. Chance's first instinct was to dash into the woods. Ido acted in a way so that was not long an option.
Ido reared and then plunged at the oncoming patrol. Vind drew his sword and grinned his eagerness to fight. Chance summoned magic and ran after Ido.
As he readied Explode, Chance was surprised to see Ido charge into the riders, kicking and biting viciously. Vind's sword flashed on either side, cutting down men who never expected to be attacked. Chance was now nearer and let loose with a spell that knocked several men flying from their mounts.
Before he could hurl another, the patrol broke away from Vind and raced back down the road. Riderless horses galloped after them, and soon the road was just farm wagons again.
Chance's choice to come this way was wrong; he should have listened to Vind. He needed to do this better. Vind rode back to him with an expression that was carefully neutral.
Rixt and Dette remained on the wagon but put away their daggers. Neither one said anything when Chance and Vind came back to them. The two women looked at them with admiration for the valor just on display.
Dette was more critical, but she kept her opinion to herself. Chance was thinking over what just happened and was not pleased when Rixt spoke: "Last night, you asked Vind to be - what - your Rider? I think you should let him be that."
Chance took no comfort in the rebuke; however, he was learning that Rixt was correct quite frequently. He turned to Vind and apologized.
After an awkward silence, Dette spoke saying there was another route, one that was more hilly but safer. Chance looked over at Vind, a question on his face.
Vind was thoughtful then asked if she meant the one that snaked through the hills where metal smiths worked. She did and remarked on the extent of his scouting.
He smiled pleasantly at Chance and said that Dette's suggestion was a good one. He backed it. Chance laughed self-consciously and said then it was agreed.
Rixt made a gesture of throwing him a kiss and smiled at him affectionately. With a tug on the reins, she turned Tess, and the wagon moved off the road and on to a side trail.
* * *
The new way was indeed less smooth, the grades were steeper, and Tess sometimes had difficulty. Rixt and Dette walked to lessen the wagon's weight, and the old mare was able to go on.
Vind rode out still but came back more often. He reported each time, which was mostly to say where there were smiths' villages and ways around being seen by them.
Chance kept close to the wagon, sometimes using magic to get it up a rise or out of mud. By that evening when they made camp, they were only a short way from Onne.
Happily, the supplies from the woman's village kept them fed. The liquor was finished that evening, and they were eager for Onne.
Dette could not say one way or the other whether there were many Schools mages living in the city. She confessed she never noticed.
Vind did not press Chance and simply sat with them as the talk went round about Onne. Chance offered few ideas but was sure gold would come into it at some point. He spent much of the evening spelling ore and making coins.
Before sleeping that night, Chance walked along a stream that flowed close by their camp. He returned with handfuls of nuggets and placed them in a sack for later. The other three continued to marvel at this but were coming to accept it.
They were not long on their way the next day before the land changed. The forested hills gave over to cleared farmland. The slope was generally upward as the terrain appeared to rise to a mount in the distance. As they came closer, they could make out first a blur, then walls, finally distinct towers spaced out at gates.
* * *
Traffic was thick at midday when they approached the Green gate on the city's north side. They joined in the stream of wagons that made their way one by one past the guards there. Vind rode on one side of their wagon, and Chance walked on the other.
The guard who came their way did not know them and was ready to ask questions. He went to Vind, the man on horseback, and barely glanced at the one on foot.
With an appraising look at their wagon, the guard asked what was Vind's business in Onne. Chance looked over, wondering what Vind would answer and held his smile as he watched.
Vind's expression was cold as he looked down slowly at the guard. He did not speak at once as if affronted at being questioned. He held that until the guard was about to repeat himself.
Vind was blunt: "My business is mine alone. However, I have my women with me so shall tell you: I am a mercenary seeking to hire like men."
He was absolutely convincing; he was very much what he said. The guard grinned at him saying he was at the right place. As he waved them in, he added that there were many who found only poor work or none at all.
The man moved on to the next wagon, and Rixt drove under the gate's arch. Chance's first impression of the city was that it was old, very old. He walked along leading Tess by the bridle and looked about. It seemed poor, the kind where every small thing is a luxury.
Vind rode a little ahead now, his hand relaxed on his sword. Chance looked closely at what they passed. He was examining the public houses.
He went slowly by inn after inn because each did not meet his standard for clean, was loud from a rowdy crowd or did not have a stable. They soon came up to a cross street, and Chance glanced each way.
Down one side, he saw a building that was whitewashed and showed an inn's sign. He called to Vind and indicated the direction with his chin.
Vind turned Ido and led them along the lane and into a small square. A thin Day market row of stalls was arrayed on one side. In the middle was a fountain where several women stood talking.
On the far side of the square, a two-storey building shone in the sunlight. Its stone walls were old like every other wall they saw in Onne, but here the walls looked clean. Chance saw a small stable on one side behind the inn.
Vind rode round the fountain and stopped. The front of the inn featured a raised terrace with steps up the middle to a main door. On each side of the stair were porches with a single, large shutter, hinged at the top.
This day, both were raised, letting light and fresh air inside. They were propped up by poles from which a banner hung lazily. The sign above the door read: The Mark of the Hand.
Chance nodded to Vind and walked up the steps. Inside, he saw a well-kept inn with a few customers. The innkeeper was behind a bar, his back to the door, but hearing footsteps said: "Good day, welcome. One moment..."
Chance saw him wrestle a keg into position and hunt about for the tap. Once found, he put it on the bar and turned a smiling face to Chance. As he did, he looked beyond at Vind on Ido, the horse and wagon, and two women on the wagon, sitting patiently. Chance returned the smile saying he sought a stay.
He wanted at least three private rooms and good care of horses and wagon. The innkeeper was thoughtful a moment counting up the profit from such a guest.
He said the inn featured four rooms upstairs, and they were not occupied. His stable was not large, but there was more than sufficient space for two more horses and a wagon.
Before he could agree, Chance said he wished the women in his party to approve rooms and food. He asked if the innkeeper objected. The man looked at him curiously, folded his arms across his chest and said proudly he did not.
Chance left to go out and invite Rixt and Dette to come in. While there, he asked Vind to inspect the stable. Then he followed the two back into the inn and went with them to the bar.
A woman was beside the innkeeper now, and she took Rixt and Dette upstairs to the private rooms, showed them the toilet and then back downstairs to invite them into her kitchen.
Both Rixt and Dette soon emerged, thanking the woman, and said to Chance they would be pleased to stay at such an inn as this one, should Vind agree.
Chance smiled and said his thanks to the woman, who appeared to be the innkeeper's wife. The next moment, Vind came in. He was on his cushion and moved smoothly over to where Chance stood. He looked up and said the stable is as good as how he kept his own.
Vind grabbed the edge of the bar and pushed up with a crutch. He swung up and on to a stool. With an adjustment, he sat upright and asked if he could have a drink while discussions went on over truth and gold.
* * *
The innkeeper's face kept its public, pleasant look but with more effort on seeing Vind enter. He looked eye-to-eye with his odd guest and said: "Welcome. I have a new keg that is not proved. If you are willing, I will pour you the first cup."
With a grin, Vind said he could usually be persuaded to such adventure. The innkeeper tapped the keg, readied it and then drew off a measure. He filled a cup and handed it to Vind.
With a show of mock gentility, Vind sniffed it, touched his tongue to the top and then took a tiny sip. The innkeeper was amused and pulled a second cup handing this one to Chance.
He and Vind, drinking normally, pronounced the cider of good quality. The man drew one for himself to be sure of it and then asked about truth and gold.
Chance introduced himself: Chance from Kehdy, declared outlaw by Schools and Guild.
The innkeeper's face fell; he saw his good fortune vanish. Behind him, his wife leaned forward and asked about the gold part.
In frank answer, Chance said whatever they wanted for taking the risk. That interested her, and she started to speak. But her husband shushed her. He sipped from his cider then set it down on the bar, slowly, exactly.
With a worried face, he straightened and leaned slightly backwards so as not to threaten: "This inn is all we have. If it is not destroyed by your enemies, it will be destroyed by my neighbors for bringing trouble. Either way, the Guilds will deny me purchase. Schools will forbid custom. Mercy, High Mage. Please go elsewhere."
Vind continued to sip from his cider, but he kept an eye on the wife. She was churning, and he guessed she would enter soon enough. The innkeeper and Chance were at a stand off. It wanted solving but neither could find a way.
They were interrupted as a troop of horsemen rode into the square. People by the fountain were questioned and pointed to the inn. A tall man led the troop over and dismounted outside.
He came up the steps and entered with authority. Looking over at Dette, he said he was given a warrant for the lady. He held up a scroll and began to walk past Chance toward where Dette stood.
With an outstretched arm, Chance blocked him. He stepped out to stand right in front of the man and said: "The lady is under my protection - your warrant is invalid."
The man snorted and made to push Chance's arm away. That was unwise; Chance grabbed his forearm, twisted it and dragged the man back out into the square. He tossed him to the ground and tersely introduced himself.
The man was humiliated and now terrified as well. This mage was none other than the rogue, the outlaw, the Demon of Beerron. He looked for support from his men, but they were backing away from Chance.
After struggling to his feet, he ran to his horse. With no backward glance, he galloped out of the square after his men. Chance returned to the inn and went over to the bar.
Vind was still sitting on the stool but now held out his cup for more, enough with proofing. Chance looked at the innkeeper and began to pull gold coins from his pocket, setting them on the bar. He said for the innkeeper to estimate the risk he was taking and the price of that.
He lay out coins until the wife said stop. She elbowed her husband who only shrugged and swept the coins off the bar into his pocket. He refilled Vind's cup and his own.
* * *
Chance did not want another now, likely later, and said he would help Rixt and Dette unpack. He finished his first and went out with them. Two girls from the kitchen came out and helped carry everyone's belongings upstairs.
There were only a few people in the inn when they arrived, but those paid up now and slipped away. Soon, only Vind and the innkeeper were in the bar room as unloading started.
They watched the procession of goods go by and began a conversation. Vind spoke about hiring mercenaries, and the innkeeper about Schools mages and Guilds in Onne.
When all was in place, Rixt and Dette sat at a table with the innkeeper's wife while Chance joined Vind at the bar. A cup was filled and handed him. He drank deeply from it.
Both men regarded him with benign expressions, so he figured he acted correctly about the warrant. Vind spoke up: "Xsel and I - we've had an exchange of information. Most illuminating."
Chance's eyebrow went up, and he did his part: he asked what and how. Their talk went into what was needed for Chance to make a Hold on Linnet.
There was a great amount of detail, from groundsmen to roofers. Chance listened and let the man called Xsel and Vind describe and suggest. He would be paying for it; he knew his role in this.
The three women went out shortly after that and did not return for some time. Chance was beginning to wonder then saw them come back. Each was carrying a great sack; they obviously went out shopping. He hoped they bought trousers for him; his were wearing out.
Before the evening meal, a bath was set up and first the two women then the men bathed. All enjoyed feeling clean again.
At dinner, Dette and Rixt were sporting new dresses and Vind looked almost military in a new jacket. Chance was grateful for a shirt and trousers, but he still favored his old vest.
While they ate, he learned Xsel's wife was named Ruby and she was an excellent cook. Her meals were filling, tasty, and the bread was wheat. Xsel kept their tea fresh.
Chance noticed there was no one else at the inn and asked if Xsel was compensated for a decline in business. Before he could answer, Ruby did saying Chance was not to concern himself. Xsel shrugged and was not at all embarrassed.
Dinner talk was of Vind and Xsel's detailed discussion earlier. Chance remarked it sounded expensive, which was not a problem, but it sounded complex which was.
Chance admitted to few skills except magic, but he could use that on stone and timber. He blushed when he said well-set foundations are important for a strong hall.
Shyly, he confessed he enjoyed architecture. Mages were known to build their own Holds from the ground up; it was a dream of his to try such a feat. No one hearing him thought it any more odd than most things about him.
Ruby and Xsel listened in on the talking and quickly were becoming used to having a High Mage - a renegade, rogue, outlaw High Mage - as a very well-paying guest of the inn.
Both agreed between themselves that this was very dangerous; however, neither was willing to pass on so much gold.
At the table over after-dinner liquor, it was decided that Dette would handle matters to do with construction. Rixt would see to a steady supply of food. Vind was obvious to take over defense.
Chance said he was the useless one on practical things, except for gold. For this, he was assured, that was sufficient.
* * *
Word went out from the Mark that a rich, rogue mage wanted work done on the island of Linnet, and he was hiring men to defend that work. The rumor that came next sparked responses: a partial payment in gold for work contracted.
A small queue waited outside the door of the Mark when Xsel opened it the following morning. The men were asked what they were applying for.
Those for construction were surprised to be sent to the bar side where a young woman sat at a table. All of the contractors were unaccustomed to dealing with a female at this stage of negotiations. They thought, wrongly, that she would be easy.
She proved to know the business side of things well enough to know what she wanted and what it was worth. She backed up her word with gold deposits which erased all doubt about her.
In the room opposite, on the other side of reception and the kitchen, Rixt was sent those wanting grounds and crop work. She too was agreeing on contracts and expectations.
Those who applied were told she was a herbalist. Her longer-term interest was farming homesteads, but for now, it was on sustenance.
Rixt was selective in that she planned to live on Linnet so looked for specific things among the applicants. Young, married with small children and old parents, was top of an unwritten list.
Her view was if such a group was given, freehold, arable land, they would remain on or near Linnet. She sometimes allowed a person with strength but no skills figuring most farm work is simply physical. Anyone with knowledge of herbs and gardening was prized.
Vind was in the open space between the inn and the stable. When men came about mercenary work, they were put off at first when they were greeted by a man who was without use of his legs.
The man on the ground insisted on a preliminary round with wooden swords; he said it was to eliminate poseurs. That usually got a reaction.
After a few moments with Vind, the men were quick to change their minds about him. Legless he may be, but the Sitting Man knew the use of a sword from long practice.
Chance spent the day in the room he and Rixt shared. He made coins and read through the Opal various spells written out in the amber.
* * *
He passed most of the morning doing that, over and over, and stopped to rest. He was not tired, but instead felt he must finish and go out.
He wanted to explore this city, out of curiosity but more of wanting to know where he would likely be fighting. He expected more troops to come from the South Marsh garrison.
It was about two days away, according to Xsel, so some number of them should be arriving soon. Chance definitely did not want to fight on the steps of the Mark inn.
He stood to put away the amber but was halted when the Opal stirred. Its voice drifted up from the table where it lay: "Tomorrow. They come for you tomorrow, dear Chance. Wait for them here and you die here."
He did not answer; he knew she was just starting. She mocked him, saying: "Did you find any useful spells in the library? I doubt you did. "
Chance was annoyed and snapped back asking her to make her point. The Opal sighed as if he insulted her, then it laughed.
The amber remained inert and did not speak. After the Opal quieted, she said bluntly: "If you have the courage, go to them."
That made no sense to Chance, and he said as much to the Opal. She laughed again, and it was critical this time. The amber began now and rattled off a string of spells.
The Opal hissed at its ideas and then calmed: "Yesterday, you played the Demon of Beerron. You banished that bunch merely by telling them who you are. Those on their way expect to find a demon. Grant them their wish."
Chance was about to disregard the Opal but stopped. He considered how he could impress a troop of soldiers that he was a demon, one with terrible powers. Fear was a weapon.
The need to act rose so strongly in him that he left the room and went down the stairs. As he walked through the inn, he said to Xsel he was going out. He placed a handful of gold on the bar saying it was in case he did not return.
He crossed the square rapidly and went up the street to the main one. He turned there and approached the city gate.
Guards saw him coming and hastily marshaled into a row, pikes pointed toward him. He summoned and hurled Explode at them. They were knocked apart, senseless. He walked through their scattered bodies and out the gate.
Chance continued away from the city but was spoken to by the Opal. She asked why did he walk, why even run? She continued he was a High Mage; he should be gliding.
He replied that he liked to walk and run. The Opal flung a spell in his face: "You are stubborn. You had this gliding spell when you were in school."
Chance remembered it and why he did not use it: "It frightens the horses. I am struck by tree limbs. As well, when the ground rises, often I do not. No thank you."
The Opal retorted critically: "It takes strong will!"
The library interjected: "The spell Opal has given you likely was meant to be used with - um - complementary spells. By itself, it is unwieldy. Here are some others to help control it."
Chance read each, memorized them and then uttered Opal's gliding spell. He followed up with the new spells.
He rose half a man's height into the air above the road and leaned forward. He began to move. Blue lightning crackled about him. He felt the wind on his face; his robe billowed out behind him.
The countryside slid past more quickly. Outside a village, he came upon a team of horses and smoothly sailed by, well away from them.
Once he knew he could manage it, Chance enjoyed traveling this way. On a whimsy, he played at scattering flocks of blackbirds.
The faces of people he flew past plainly showed their wonder. Chance smiled at each and wished them a good day.
Enjoyable travel ended as he saw ahead of him a troop of riders. There appeared to be about one hundred of them. He loosed an illusion spell around himself that glowed like flame.
He was clearly visible to the oncoming men now. He rose higher in the air, encircled by fire, and attacked like a hawk.
Chance launched small Explode spells that were a type designed to be bright and loud. Where they landed, horses bucked and bolted.
He made a sweeping pass just over the heads of the front line of riders dropping sticky, entangling magic down on them. Men were caught as if netted; horses trying to stay upright stumbled in the ropiness.
Chance landed and instantly went into Sojo moves that brought him against a man. He drove in his dagger for a fatal stab and moved to the next.
Withdrawal was called, and the riders tried to break away. Chance was seemingly everywhere, and men dropped to the ground dead. Now retreat became a rout.
* * *
Chance did not chase them. He watched as they rode away then lifted and glided back to Onne. For the benefit of the citizens, he glided up to the city, over its walls and then above the streets back to the square before the Mark. He landed and walked calmly in saying sorry he was late for dinner.
A plate, kept warm for him, was brought from the kitchen, so he sat with his friends and ate. He said he was just now outside the city and saw soldiers. Vind paused and looked at him. Chance assured him they left.
Xsel came up with fresh tea. As he exchanged pots, he remarked that Chance appeared to have flown. That stopped conversation at the table, and all looked at him.
He kept eating and answered that he could and so did this time. He rarely used it, but it was handy when he was in a hurry. Xsel just looked at him, shook his head and walked away.
No one would let him continue until he told them what happened. All listened and at the end, Rixt and Dette could think of nothing to say.
Vind did and could not hold it back: "You went out, flew out, and attacked a company of horsemen? By yourself? Drove them away? That is a tale that calls for cider - Xsel, would you bring my dessert now? I am ready for it."
Xsel and Ruby were in a rapid conversation at the bar, but he looked up hearing Vind. He said it was coming and filled a jug as he and Ruby finished.
Both came to the table. A kitchen servant helped Ruby clear the table while Xsel set out cider. Vind did not wait but lifted his mug and drank. Chance looked up at the faces around him and thought of the night he told a story at the Slice Pass inn.
Chance was specific and explained his use of magic at each step. Rixt was the first to say that before this, she knew little what being a High Mage was about. However, she was learning. Dette found no words. Xsel observed that illusion is powerful.
Gradually, this about Chance was accepted too, and the evening became more like what they were used to having. They talked about Linnet and what was contracted to make it livable.
Dette described what would be ready for winter and what would be started come spring. Vind said he estimated, by the end of their first full day in Onne, culling applicants would take a few more days. He wanted no less than ten.
Chance thought soldiers would not come back soon, and he planned to pay a visit to the Schools mages in their quarter soon.
He added that an army was important and Dette could visit Linnet with contractors while Vind selected men. She agreed and thought that would be useful. She promised to meet with several about a day on the island.
* * *
Chance did not go to the Schools' quarter until a few days later. He thought of gliding but assumed they already knew he could do that. Thus, he walked and took his time.
The city was good-sized and overpopulated. Like the part he saw on entering, the portion of the city he walked through was poor.
That was not so as he approached the Schools' quarter. The wall was newer, and the buildings inside were in very good condition. There was a feeling of luxury and prosperity about it.
Chance was challenged at the gate and took off the portcullis, heaving it aside. That astonished, and people began to move quickly away from him.
He stood with his hand on his sword hilt and looked round. Inside this quarter, life was obviously much better than in Onne overall.
There was an imposing building near the gate which was heavily decorated with Schools' emblems. As Chance approached it, a line of mages stepped out and confronted him from the steps. He stopped a short distance from them but said nothing.
One of the men in line took one small step forward and shouted dramatically: "Begone rogue - away heretic! Justice for you is coming though you murder us all."
Chance remained silent but began to walk along the men, as if inspecting each in turn. One started to cast magic, but Chance stared at him and shook his head to say no.
The spell was let die, and Chance walked on. Their eyes followed him as he reached the end and stopped. He remained simply staring at them then, with contempt, turned and walked away.
His back was exposed to them, so he raised a half Nimbus. It would be thick enough to stop an arrow, or an unwise spell.
He went back through the quarter and at the gate apologized for wrecking it. He raised the portcullis and leaned it in place inside the gate's arch.
After that, he browsed at the stalls along the road back to the Mark. His reputation for gold assured him a welcome from any vendor. All were happy to send his purchases to the Mark. Chance ignored the Guilds' monopoly shops.
* * *
Over the days that followed, he continued to make coins and hand them to Dette who saw them distributed further. More days passed but eventually they were ready to move to Linnet.
Rixt and Dette worked hard on arranging all needed to move a number of people to the island and were fraying from it.
Chance kept himself to coins up until Vind finally came for him and invited him to come see what was cobbled together to make an army. The men stood at attention when Vind and Chance came round to the space outside the stable.
There were ten by Chance's count which he thought a lucky number. As he did with the Schools mages, he walked along in front of them. Unlike before, he paused at each man. and looked him up and down. He asked for a name and then asked questions. When done, he went to stand in front of them beside Vind, who watched that routine from the ground.
Chance spoke using magic, each man felt the mage was talking in his face. This was Chance's first experience of armed men who were to fight for, not against, him.
He told them to be at ease then stated: "It is my coin you have agreed to take. For that, I expect competency with weapons and discipline in behavior. We leave in a day or two - be ready to go with Rider Vind."
He then thanked Vind in front of his men and said he did better than well. Vind was modest; the men stood straighter.
The day agreed arrived and all assembled in the square. After goodbyes, Vind went first followed by his mercenaries. Rixt drove one wagon and Dette rode in a second.
Chance decided to leave Onne impressed. After thanking Xsel and Ruby, he lifted and drifted along above the group as it made its way along main streets to the south-most gate.
* * *
Leaving Onne, they turned down along a road that led to the lake and the port of Brad. Boats waited there to carry them over to Linnet. As the wagons wound down the road toward the lake, others joined them.
Much of the material was prepared outside Onne for reasons of space. Thus, it was a long convoy, and the roadside was lined with people watching it all go by. Groups cheered when a loaded wagon passed that they put together.
Brad too was celebratory. Its small harbor was crowded with lake boats ready to ferry cargo to Linnet. Chance was pulled between sensations of excitement and worry, joy and caution.
He looked forward to going to Linnet and glided overhead all the way to Brad port, which pleased the folks on the ground and added to the merriment attending so much new business.
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