Authors: Loren K. Jones
Tags: #Fantasy, #Dragons, #adventure, #traders
"Pair off," Darak commanded and Harner looked around. There were twenty-three boys in this group and he stepped toward one of them, but another boy paired with that individual. Even Jallav paired off with someone else. Within moments Harner was standing alone. That meant—
"Well, Harner, it looks like you and me," Warleader Kel'Norlan said with a hint of humor in his voice.
"Yes, Warleader," Harner replied, snapping to attention.
Darak nodded with satisfaction. "We'll go last. Wallan and Devero, take the circle." The boys did as he commanded and entered the dueling circle. "Begin!"
The boys attacked with the ferocity of their ancestors, striking and catching the rebounds in a lightning-fast exchange. Darak called the score, and when Devero struck Wallan the third time he shouted, "Done! Devero is the winner."
Two by two, the boys entered the circle and sparred, until all eleven pairs had finished. "Our turn, Harner," Darak said as he stepped into the circle.
Harner entered the circle and crouched at the ready. Darak said, "Anytime, Harner," and Harner attacked.
Darak blocked Harner's strikes easily, then struck him in the chest. "You can do better, Harner. Make it real." Harner redoubled his efforts, but Darak's weapon hit his armored chest twice more without an answering blow. "Done. Join the losers, Harner. You boys know the forfeit. Begin." The losing group resolutely began jogging around the training ground. There were worse punishments than being required to run in full armor, but not many.
When their twenty laps were done, Darak dismissed them and Harner slogged away to his father's house. He was exhausted and resentful. It wasn't fair that he always ended up facing whoever was leading their group. The rest of the boys were afraid of him. That's all it was. They knew he'd beat them easily.
* * *
The Warmaster watched his students as they practiced. His boys. It was hard not to think of them that way. He'd been Warmaster for nine years, and that meant that only one of the year groups he was teaching had started under Warmaster Kel'Pardlin. He smiled as he thought of the fourteen-year-olds, then frowned as another thought crossed his mind. He had two spares in that group: Harner and Jallav.
At least Jallav had a reason for staying back when he wasn't drafted. His father was sick, and Jallav, as the only son, was seeing to the needs of his family. That was an honorable thing to do, and no one thought less of him for doing it.
Harner was another story, and was keeping that story to himself. As far as Charvil or anyone else had been able to find out, he'd never even told his father why he hadn't volunteered to go. He had, however, gone to see Dorvina as soon as the expedition, including Barvil and Stavin, was gone. That was worrisome, but unless Shari asked him to intercede, he would stay out of it. A smile crossed his lips as another thought crossed his mind. Sahrena was formidable enough to keep the boy on his best behavior, no matter what her status. Harner had best keep his intentions and actions absolutely honorable, or she'd flay him alive.
ORNING WAS ANNOUNCED BY THE RINGING
of a bell somewhere in the distance. Stavin and Karvik were up in a flash and quickly dressed. Even so, they weren't the first to the privy, and had to join the line of warriors and traders on their way to take care of that most common of morning rituals.
Breakfast was next, and the warriors were delighted. Pork bacon, duck eggs scrambled in the bacon grease, and thick oat porridge with honey made a meal that no one could complain about.
No one dawdled over the meal, and the first six teamsters to finish eating jumped in to help the cook stow his gear. The trader walked over to where Barvil inspected his men.
"We'll be ready to roll in short order," he said as he looked over the warriors and nodded in satisfaction. "A fine pair of hands you have here, Barvil. Always true of your people."
Barvil nodded his acknowledgement of the compliment. "We're ready."
"Master Trader?" Stavin asked, stepping forward. "What happened to those men last night?"
The trader looked him straight in the eye and said, "Firth lost his head. His fool accomplice only lost his tongue."
Stavin nodded and stepped back, unconsciously seeking the protection of his peers.
Barvil snapped, "Mount up!" and the warriors immediately obeyed. Once everyone was mounted, Barvil gave his marching orders. "Dav, Kahn, I need your experience in the rear. I'll be in the front on the left side of the lead wagon. Stavin, I want you on the right of number three. Kar, left of number five. The rest of you spread out, opposite sides of the odd wagons, Kahn and Dav last. Pick up your wagons as they leave. Questions?" When no one spoke, he nodded and said, "We'll confer tonight," then rode off to fall in beside the trader and their cook in the lead wagon.
One by one the wagons rolled past, and one by one the valley warriors took their places.
* * *
Stavin's number three slot put him far enough back that his view was limited to the right side of the road. The wagon was too high for him to see over, and the teamster had simply sneered when he had tried to strike up a conversation. He scanned the countryside around them, but the forest blocked his view after just a few dragon-lengths. He was bored, dusty, and to make matters worse, it wasn't even halfway to mid day yet!
Mid day came at last and a man rode back along the line of wagons with bundles for everyone, but the wagons showed no sign of stopping. The man told him, "Bring the cloth back at supper. That's what we calls the even' meal in these parts." Then he rode on down the line. Stavin found that his bundle held a hunk of cheese, a piece of sausage, and half a loaf of bread. Sighing mightily, he ate slowly and drank water from his flask.
Stavin tried to amuse himself as he rode through the day. He'd been warned that boredom was the lot of a caravan guard, but he'd never really believed it. He tried playing mind games, but he'd never been very good at those. He talked to Tru, his horse, and she swiveled an ear to listen. She'd been his only companion, the only living being willing to listen to him, for a long time before he and Karvik had become friends.
The young warriors received their horses as barely weaned colts or fillies in the spring of their tenth year, when they ascended from Child to Youth and became full-time warrior students. He'd picked Tru, a golden-tan filly, and they had been trained in horsemanship together. He spent all but the three weeks he'd been sick tending her that first year, becoming her friend and leader.
Their second spring, the horses had been broken using the ancient gentling techniques of their forefathers. No one wanted to ride a horse with a broken spirit into battle. Tru had only bucked once when he first saddled her, and he'd kept his seat in spite of it. She really didn't seem to mind his slight weight on her back, and even when he added his old steel armor she'd carried him easily.
After all of the young warriors had gentled their horses, training outside the valley began. The entire year-group, under the watchful eye of the Warmaster and four additional veterans, made at least one long circuit around the outside of Kel'Kavin every moon during the summer. The route was never the same two moons in a row, but the main purpose of the rides was to get the young men and their mounts accustomed to riding in rough country together. The subtle communication between horse and rider, the shifting of weight or a lean in a direction, had to be learned through experience.
Tru had learned all of Stavin's signals, and he'd learned hers to the point that he could drop his reins and still remain in control. The fact that he had stayed small, and now wore armor that weighed less than half what his steel armor had, made the task even easier. If he stopped thinking about it, they truly became one.
Finally, as the sun was touching the distant hills, the lead wagon headed off the road into an open meadow. Barvil met him as he followed his wagon into the grass. "Tether your horse to the wagon, strip your saddle, then start hauling water. There's a stream along that line of trees. Take a rope, the trader says the water is low this time of year."
Stavin bowed his head and did as he was told. The stream was indeed low, and Stavin tied the rope to one bucket and tossed it down into the clear water. He used that bucket to fill the other and tossed it down again. Before he got it up the second time, Karvik was beside him with two more buckets.
"Fill one of mine and I'll take the first two back, then you can fill the second two," he said, grabbing the already full bucket and holding another out for Stavin to fill. He hurried off while Stavin filled the other two and then followed. They made three more trips each before Barvil told them that it was enough.
"That's good, now stand by to help Dav and Kahn." Barvil looked back up the road to where the last six wagons were still waiting to turn off into the meadow.
Davel and Kahndar finally rode in together with the last wagon. They and their horses were a uniform dust-grey except where they had tied bandanas around their faces.
Stavin and Karvik met them with buckets of water and took their horses while the next most junior pair started helping them with their armor. Barvil stood back and supervised as his young men followed the procedures that had been drilled into them since they had entered the academy at age five.
By the time Stavin and Karvik had seen to the seniors' horses, their own horses, their armor, and set up their tent, they had to haul four more buckets of water in order to wash themselves and prepare for the night. The field discipline of the valley warriors was new and exciting enough for the two that they remained in high spirits in spite of the hard work.
Barvil was inspecting the tents when a man walked over and stopped by his side. "Warrior, the Master Trader would like a word with you before we eat. This way, please," he said, gesturing back the way he had come with a slight bow.
Looking over at Kahndar, Barvil nodded sharply. "Take the men to eat, then set patrols. Same pairing as last night."
Kahndar snapped to attention and bowed his head. "Yes, Sir!" When Barvil was out of sight he turned to the junior members of the group. "You heard him. Let's eat. Stave and I had first watch last night, so Dav and Kar lead off tonight." He didn't wait for an answer. He just walked off, following his nose to the food.
Stavin followed along and was surprised to find more good stew, similar but slightly different from what they'd had the night before. The bread was also fresh, which puzzled him, so he questioned Kahndar while they ate.
"Kahn, how can they have stew and fresh bread ready so fast? We just barely arrived."
Kahndar gave him one of those
Pity the poor greenling
looks and pointed toward the lead wagon with his nose. "Lead wagon's also the cook's wagon. It has a stone hearth in it and they cook for most of the day. The wind was too strong to smell the bread today, but most days that's all you'll smell. They'll start a cauldron of stew tonight along with the remains of this stew and keep it hot all day till we stop. That's why this meat is so tender. There's another reason why the cook's wagon is the lead wagon: we eat less dust that way."
They had almost finished eating when Barvil and the trader joined them. Both men got their food and found places on the benches with the others. The trader took a few bites and then waved his spoon at Stavin.
"We're down the road, and my curiosity is getting hard to contain. Give us the tale of how you came by that fine golden armor, young warrior, and we'll all sleep better for knowing."
Stavin looked at Barvil and received a nod of permission. Looking back at the trader, he saw that every eye in the camp was on him. "High on the peaks that surround the Kel'Kavin valley there is a cave—" He told the whole story of his encounter with the dragon, only omitting why he had gone alone and the events that occurred after his return to Kavinston.
The trader was nodding by the time he finished. "Dragon scale armor shaped by dragon magic. That's a fine tale, young warrior, and the proof you wear is impressive. Have you had occasion to test it against good steel?"
"He has," Barvil answered, "and by my hand. That armor turned a steel point that would have pierced the finest plate in the old empire. The blades on his Dragon's Tongue also sheared cleanly through the oak haft of another Dragon's Tongue. The only thing he has to worry about is growing or gaining weight and becoming too big for it."
The trader sighed and patted his overly ample middle. "I was as skinny as you once, young warrior, though it was so long ago I can hardly remember it. My curiosity is satisfied, so I'll bid you all pleasant dreams and retire. Nights on the road are always short nights." With that he stood, bowed slightly, then walked away.
Barvil watched him go, then turned back to his men. "He's right about short nights on the road, so sack out early." He stood and waited until everyone was headed toward their tents before heading toward his own.
Stavin looked around for Karvik, but Kahndar shook his head. "Kar is with Dav. They already know your story, so they went out on their circuit as soon as they finished eating. We're last tonight, so to bed with you. I'll wake you when it's our turn."
Stavin crawled into the tent he shared with Karvik and lay down, but he was too excited to sleep. They were on the road and headed toward Evandia and the fabled city of Twin Bridges. He was still awake when Karvik returned from his circuit.
"Did anything happen, Kar?"
Karvik yawned mightily before he answered. "Not a thing."
"I can't wait till we get to the lower kingdom. Then we'll see some action."
"Yes, and then we can start making our own names and honor," Karvik agreed. "Not that you aren't doing fine already."
Stavin blushed in the darkness. "You'll do as well by the time we—"
"Go to sleep or you'll spend the whole night walking circuit," Barvil's voice interrupted from the next tent.
Stavin and Karvik exchanged wide-eyed stares in the dark, but didn't say anything else. It suddenly occurred to Stavin that
was the real reason that the most junior pair's tent was always set up next to the leader's tent. They lay back and quietly thought of their day, each making plans for the glorious future that awaited them. Soon the long day and hard work came back to softly drag them into deep sleep.