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The magical thing was tucked in a leather pouch, inside a wooden box, inside a leather bag, which Garander then stuffed into a traveling pack, along with a change of clothing, a waterskin, and a parcel of bread. He had his knife on his belt, and a purse with six bits in copper and five in iron – the sum total of his savings. Preparations made, he sat down to breakfast with his mother and sisters.
“I wish I
was going,” Shella the Younger said, as she cut herself a slice of ham.
Garander made a noise.
“When you get back you’ll have to tell me what the ladies of the baron’s household are wearing,” she continued.
“Don’t get any fancy ideas,” their mother said, before Garander could respond. “We can’t afford silks and velvet.”
“I know, but are they cutting their sleeves full or tight? Are they wearing veils? Do their hats have brims, if they wear hats at all? Just because we’re out here on the edge of civilization doesn’t mean we can’t try
to look fashionable!”
mean we don’t need to worry about it,” her mother retorted. “Oh, I don’t suppose it will do any harm to know what’s in style; you can spend all winter sewing new clothes that will be out of fashion by spring.”
“Do styles change that fast?” Shella asked.
“Well... sometimes,” her mother replied. She glanced at her youngest. “You’re being quiet this morning, Ishta.”
Ishta pointedly said nothing, but glared at her brother.
“It wasn’t my
idea,” Garander protested.
,” Ishta said. “I found it.”
“I know!” Garander said. “I’ll give it back to you as soon as I can.”
“The baron may not allow that,” their mother remarked.
Garander glowered at her. “You aren’t helping,” he said.
“I’m just speaking the truth!”
“It’s still not helping.” He turned to Ishta. “I’m really sorry about this, but Father’s right – it’s too dangerous for a girl your age.”
“I don’t see why we need to take it to the baron at all,” Ishta said. “We should at least ask
“Father doesn’t think Rulura knows anything about any magic that isn’t witchcraft.”
“If he really wants to find magicians,” Shella the Younger said, “he should send you to Ethshar. They have dozens of magicians there. Probably hundreds.”
“Yes, but it’s fifty leagues to Ethshar. I’d be gone all winter.”
“You think that’s a bad
“Maybe not for me,” Garander said, “but you’d miss me. Especially when it came time to fetch in firewood.”
“There is that,” Shella conceded.
“It’s mine,” Ishta muttered. “I shouldn’t have shown it to you at all.”
Garander did not argue with that.
Ten minutes later they were done eating. While the women cleared the plates, Garander pulled on his good boots and slung his pack on his shoulder; then he gave both Shellas, mother and sister, hugs. A glance at Ishta made it clear that she would not welcome his embrace, so he merely waved to her, then marched out of the house and headed west.
Garander knew that a league was supposed to be an hour’s walk, which would make it a five-hour journey to Varag, but he was tall for his age and pushed hard, taking few rests, hoping to get there fast enough to have some hope of getting home that night.
He crossed his family’s farm quickly, and then dodged around the wheat fields that Felder the Ill-Tempered farmed – they had been harvested, but he did not want to be accused of trampling anything that might have been left lying out, so he followed the drainage ditch Felder had dug along one side. That took him to old Elkan’s place, and beyond that were three more neighbors whose names he was not quite sure of; he hurried across them all, not wanting to stop and talk. Fortunately, no one was close enough to his path for courtesy to require him to do more than wave in passing.
He reached the road in about an hour, and picked up the pace even more, hurrying through the village of Ezval. He turned right at the fork, onto the smaller of the two roads leading west, trotting past more farms.
When he finally glimpsed the Varag watchtower in the distance, he took a break. He sat down on a large rock by the roadside, took a long drink of water, and unwrapped the loaf of bread he had brought. He was not sure just what would happen when he tried to see the baron’s magicians, so he wanted to arrive reasonably rested, with a full belly.
The day was sunny and pleasantly cool, and Garander thought the gods of weather must be favorably disposed toward him – if they had noticed him at all, which they probably had not. A walk like this would have been far less pleasant in the rain, or in the sweltering heat that they had been through a month earlier. He tore off a chunk of bread and ate it, casually watching three men with scythes cutting hay a hundred yards away.
He had only been this far from home half a dozen times in his life, and this was the first time he had made the trip to Varag alone. No one had even mentioned that before he left, though; apparently his parents recognized that he was almost a grown man, and felt no need to remind him of his youth and inexperience. That gave him a warm feeling of pride. He knew he would be expected to take on more responsibility in coming seasons, perhaps clear some fields of his own to work. The woods where Ishta had found her mysterious toy might become his own farm.
He would inherit his parents’ land eventually, of course, but he was in no hurry to see that day. His sister Shella would marry one of the neighbors’ sons – probably that annoying Karn Kolar’s son, down by the ford, though Garander had no idea what she saw in him – and move to her husband’s farm, and start a family there.
Ishta, though – Ishta said she didn’t want to be a farmer. She had been asking their parents about arranging an apprenticeship, though she kept changing her mind about what sort of apprenticeship. Garander looked down at his open pack, at the bag holding her magical find; was there some way to make a living out of being insatiably curious? If so, Ishta certainly qualified.
Well, she was not quite eleven, and apprenticeships had to begin between one’s twelfth and thirteenth birthdays, so she had some time yet to decide what she wanted. Perhaps she would settle down and decide that farming was a good life after all.
Garander wrapped up the rest of the bread, took a last drink of water, then got to his feet, hefted his pack, and marched on toward Varag. A glance at the sun told him it was not yet midday; he had made good time thus far.
Perhaps half an hour later he arrived at the town gate. More of the structure was stone now than he remembered, presumably a result of the baron’s efforts to replace the original wood with stronger materials; the right-hand tower was now stone for its entire height, though the roof was still thatch, and two of the left-hand tower’s three stories were stone. The open gate itself was still wood, of course, as was the lintel above it, but a new catwalk now connected the upper floors of the towers on either side, and Garander guessed that the baron someday hoped to have a stone arch and rampart there.
He wondered why the baron was putting so much effort and expense into defenses; who did he expect to fight? The Northern Empire was gone, utterly destroyed, and the World was at peace. Did Lord Dakkar think the overlords of Ethshar were going to invade, to reclaim the northern lands they had let slip from their grasp?
Garander knew that many people, including his own mother, did think exactly that, but he found it very hard to believe. They really didn’t have anything to fight about. If the overlords had wanted to rule Sardiron, why had they let the barons go in the first place? And if they did
want to conquer the baronies, Garander suspected they would come with wizards and theurgists, not soldiers and siege machines. After all, it hadn’t been mortal men who destroyed the Northern Empire; it had been the gods themselves.
Besides, the Baron of Varag might be spending a fortune building walls and towers and arming his soldiers, but the guards at the gate stood by and watched as Garander strolled into the town without so much as asking his business. Those defenses weren’t keeping anyone out, and if the overlords of Ethshar really wanted to take the town, their soldiers could just walk in with swords under their coats.
On the other side of the gate Garander paused and looked around at the square. It wasn’t a market day, so there were no tents; the inn stood to one side, the smithy to the other, and half a dozen shops ahead. A plank-paved street led up the hill from the square to the baron’s house – not big enough to be called a palace, nor fortified enough to be called a castle, it was still the grandest building in town. Garander headed directly for it.
A bored-looking guardsman stood by the door, and Garander greeted him. “I am Garander Grondar’s son,” he said, “and I’ve come to see Lord Dakkar’s magicians, to see if they can identify a piece of magic.”
The guard perked up. “Magic?” he said. “What kind of magic?”
“I don’t know,” Garander said. “My sister found it on our farm, northeast of Ezval.”
“Well, what is it?”
“It’s... it’s an object, about this big.” He held out his hands to indicate the thing’s size. “It glows.”
“What else does it do?”
Garander blinked. “Nothing, so far as we know. We were hoping the magicians could tell us.”
“You have it with you?” The soldier held out a hand.
Garander hesitated. “No offense, sir, but I came to find a magician, not a soldier.”
He lowered his hand. “Let me see it, and I’ll fetch Azlia, Lord Dakkar’s court wizard.”
Reluctantly, Garander unslung his pack. He pulled out the leather bag, unwrapped the box and opened it, lifted out the inner pouch, and opened it to show the guardsman the thing inside. The soldier peered into the pouch, eyes wide.
glow,” he said. “Looks like sorcery.”
“You said you would fetch a wizard?”
“Right. Wait here.” Without waiting for Garander to reply, he turned, opened the door, and vanished inside, closing the door behind him.
Garander stood by the step, unsure what he should do. He was not particularly inclined to pack the magical object away again, since he hoped to be bringing it out for inspection soon, but he felt foolish standing there holding the pouch open. He lowered it and pulled the drawstring, but kept it in his hand as he closed the box and returned the box and the outer bag to his pack. Then he looked around.
There were a few townspeople in sight, going about their business; some of them glanced in his direction every so often, but no one stared or pointed or tried to get his attention. Garander shifted uncomfortably. He was not used to being around strangers.
Then the baron’s door swung open again, and the guard reappeared, beckoning. “This way,” he said.
Garander followed him into the house, and then stopped, stunned, to stare at his surroundings. He was in a large room, and he had never seen such opulence. The floor was not earth, nor wooden plank, but polished stone in black and white squares. The walls and ceiling were all smooth plaster painted gleaming white, without a single exposed beam anywhere, and no fewer than five large tapestries were on display, hanging on three of the four walls. Half a dozen gilt-edged tables of dark polished wood stood scattered about, and two of them held grand vases finished in bright enamel and mother-of-pearl. The sconces on the walls held gleaming copper-bottomed oil lamps with glass chimneys so clear as to be almost invisible, though of course at midday they were not lit.
“This way,” the guard repeated, and Garander followed him down a wood-paneled passage to a small sitting room where a woman sat waiting. She was small and slender, with long black hair – not quite his mother’s age, Garander thought. She wore a blue velvet gown embroidered with gold, and a brimless blue velvet cap that curled back to a sort of point. A silver dagger gleamed on her belt.
A pointed hat, a silver dagger... “You’re a wizard?” Garander asked.
“Azlia the Wizard,” she replied. “And you are...?”
“Garander Grondar’s son,” Garander said, with an awkward bow.
“Landin tells me you have something you want me to see?”
“Oh,” Garander said, embarrassed. He held out the pouch, and pulled it open.
Azlia leaned forward, reached into the pouch, and pulled out the object. Her eyes widened. “Northern sorcery,” she said. “Where did you find it?”
“My sister found it,” Garander said. “On our farm, near Ezval.”
“Were there any other talismans with it?” the wizard asked, turning the object over in her hands.
“No,” Garander said. “Ishta said it was under a pile of dead leaves.” He cleared his throat. “Did you say Northern sorcery?”
“I did,” Azlia replied, holding the thing up to catch the light from the room’s only window.
“But... the war’s been over for twenty years, and it looks almost new.”
She turned and smiled at him. “Oh, twenty years is nothing to a Northern sorcerer. We’ve found talismans a century old that look as if they were conjured up yesterday. In a pile of leaves, you said?”
“That’s what Ishta told me.”
“Then someone probably just dropped it there during the final retreat.” She looked down at the glowing thing in her hand. “I wonder what it’s for?”
“We were hoping you could tell us that,” Garander said.
Azlia shook her head. “Not I,” she said. “You need a sorcerer.” She looked past Garander to address the guard. “Landin, would you please go tell Sammel we need his services at his earliest convenience?”
The guard nodded, then turned and vanished, leaving Garander alone with the wizard. Garander looked around uneasily.
Azlia noticed. “Calm down,” she said. “I’m not going to turn you into a worm or anything.”
“No, of course not,” Garander said. “It’s just... I’m just a farmer. I’m not used to magic, or to places like this.” He gestured at their surroundings.
“I understand,” she said. “I suppose you’ve lived your entire life on your farm?”
“Yes, of course,” Garander said. “Where else would I go?”
She smiled wryly. “Wherever you want,” she said. “You know, during the war people moved around more, fleeing from the fighting, or following the troops. Now it seems everyone wants to stay on their own little piece of ground and never go anywhere.”
“Well, farmers can’t exactly wander around like tinkers or witches,” Garander said. “The land doesn’t go anywhere, so neither do we.”
“Well, if you’re satisfied with that, who am I to argue?” She smiled. “You walked here from Ezval?”
“Then please, sit down! You must be tired.”
Reluctantly, Garander took a seat two chairs away from the wizard.
“How old are you?” Azlia asked, looking up from Ishta’s find..
“Eighteen,” Garander said. He was unsure why the wizard wanted to know, but he didn’t dare refuse her.
“You said your sister found this thing?”
“How old is she?”
“Ah.” She nodded. “Is that why you’re here, and she isn’t? She’s too young to make the trip?”
“Yes. Father said he couldn’t spare both of us.”
“Who else is in your family?”
“Our mother, and our sister Shella.”
“Three children? No aunts, uncles, or grandparents?”
Garander shook his head. “Our parents came here after the war, and the rest of the family stayed in Ethshar.”
“Any magicians in the family?”
The question astonished Garander. “No!”
“You needn’t sound so shocked,” Azlia said with an amused smile. “Magicians are just people – we have families and friends like anyone else. I have four brothers, and my father’s a tanner; I didn’t spring full-grown from some spell.”
“Oh,” Garander said, trying to absorb this. He had never thought of magicians having families. It didn’t fit his mental image of a wizard. They sat silently for a few seconds while Garander considered the idea of witches and theurgists being people, with parents and siblings, and Azlia studied the glowing talisman. Then she looked up, and Garander realized he could hear approaching footsteps.
“That will be Sammel,” Azlia said. “He’s quite knowledgeable about Northern sorcery. Perhaps he’ll be able to tell you what this thing is for.”
“I hope so,” Garander said. By this point, though, what he really hoped for was that whatever was going to happen would happen quickly, so he could go home, away from this strange place and these strange people.
Sammel, Garander discovered, was stocky and white-haired, his face worn and wrinkled, and his left hand was missing two fingers. He was wearing a thigh-length leather vest over a dirty white tunic and well-worn black breeches. He marched into the room, Landin on his heels, then stopped dead and glared at Garander. He did not look friendly. “You’re the one who claims to have found a Northerner talisman?” he demanded.
“No,” Garander said. “My sister found it. I just brought it here.”
“Well, where is it?”
Garander pointed at Azlia, who held out the glowing object. Sammel strode over and snatched it from the wizard’s hand, then studied the talisman intently, holding it up to catch the sunlight just as Azlia had. The hostility in his expression faded, to be replaced with intent interest.
“It’s Northern, all right,” he said. “See these glyphs in the crystal? That’s Shaslan military cipher. This was a soldier’s equipment.”
Garander had no idea what a Shaslan military cipher might be, but apparently that was what those shifting shapes were. “What’s it for?” he asked.
Sammel frowned. “Don’t know,” he said. “Not standard issue. I’ve never seen one like this.”
“Is it dangerous?” Azlia asked.
“Sorcery is almost always dangerous,” Sammel said. “But I don’t think it’s a weapon, and I doubt it’s poisonous. I’ll check. Wait here.” Then he turned and marched out, taking the talisman with him.
Landin and Azlia stayed, though. Garander turned to them and asked, “How long will he be?”
Azlia turned up both palms, meaning she didn’t know. Landin said, “It depends. It could be quite some time, though – would you like something to eat while you wait?”
Garander glanced at Azlia before admitting, “I’d love something to eat.” It had been a long, hungry walk from the family farm, and his bread and water had had time to settle, leaving room for more.