In the pre-dawn light, the group rose to find a group of merchants had arrived less than an hour before. The new arrivals were causing somewhat of a commotion which had awoken Turm, who in turn had roused Todson and had him wake the others. He went down to listen to what the merchant was saying to the owner of the place.
“T’was an organized band o the demons!” the caravan master was saying to the few men gathered around him. “They came up out of the night like fog rising from the ground. One minute there, the next gone.”
“What did they want?” asked one of the stablemen.
“Money, but that didn’t stop them from destroying old Brinley’s wagon and stealing his team of horses! They didn’t even disarm us, but the threat was there. They had bowmen in the woods; fired a couple ‘o arrows into my own wagon as proof!”
The gathered men gasped, another of them asked, “Alun, what became of Brinley?”
“He were heartbroken, his livelihood gone, stolen from him. Brinley turned back to Botkinburg to try and enlist Lord Botkin’s help.” Alun said.
Turm spoke up, “He traveled north alone?”
“Yes, there was no stopping him, his mind was set.”
“You should have stopped him, aren’t you the caravan’s master?”
The fellow puffed out his chest and slammed one fist against it, “I am! And who are you? A farmer, content to stay here in the safety of Hrueset? Don’t tell me my job and I’ll not tell you how to plant beets boy!”
Turm stood for a moment, the crowd of men, mostly locals who were aware of the knight’s station, went quiet. Turm raised a hand, “Pardon me, master, you see me now dressed in my nightclothes, I can understand your mistake in addressing me so. The fault is mine, but I need to correct your assumption. I am Sir Turm Calish, of late from on a direct commission from Empress Pryzmira herself.”
The master paused and asked, “Of what house?”
“Of the road, master.”
He waved his hand dismissively, “Of no house, you mean. Hardly a real knight at all…”
Alun got no further as Turm stepped forward and backhanded him across the face. “Master Alun, there is a clear hierarchy here, though it is on the outskirts of the civilized realm and I will not be dissmissed or mocked by the likes of you. Were you a knight I would demand satisfaction for you insult, due to your station I will settle for an apology. If none is forthcoming I will thrash you as an example to others to remember their station. A knight of the road I may be. Let me ask you, oh wise master, how many of the noble knights have you seen patrolling these roads of late? We both know the answer to that, do we not?”
The merchant, back against the wall remained silent, but nodded curtly.
“The knights I belong to aid merchants like you, usually for no more reward than to see civilization flourish. When you insult me, you insult my order, when what you should be doing is thanking me and my kind for protecting you and yours. I was not asking after old Brinley for idle gossip, nor was I asked why you let him travel alone through dangerous lands when you could have prevented it. I was asking so that I could better follow my calling, which is keeping you safe. I was asking to get a judge of the man before me, so that I could weigh your words more carefully and decide their worth before I put my life and the lives of my comrades at risk. Now, Master Alun, I believe you have something to say?”
Alun’s face turned red and he nodded, slowly, looking at the growing crowd, who were not giving him supportive glances. “I…forgive me Sir…Calish?” Turm nodded, “Please understand I have been through much trouble of late, with my caravan raided, my men attacked and fleeing for our lives as we travelled south. I am sure my state of mind was in great turmoil and…and as you said, I mistook your dress for that of a commoner and spoke out of turn.”
Turm leaned in close, his youthful face contrasting sharply with the older caravan masters. Both knew the master was insincere in his apology. Turm nodded, “Apology accepted. How long ago did you last see these demons?”
“It was elven days ago, but a day’s travel south of Botkinburg.”
“Eleven days? Have you seen any of them since?”
Alun hesitated, “No.”
“I believe you had ample time to recover from the demon’s raid. You should think before you speak, a less forgiving noble might have your tongue out or even your head off for your actions.” Turm turned and climbed the stairs back to his room, pausing to have a mumbled conversation with Spitz.
“Check his story, Spitz, bring Travis with you, he’s good at loosening tongues.” The dwarf nodded and continued down the last couple of steps into the common room.
Alun, turn his head and spit, shrugging off his embarrassment, “I’ve not seen enough knights of the road actually on the road this far north of Aenoch, we’re on our own here, at the mercy of the wild bands of men and brigands. When will the Emperess pay us heed for all the taxes we send south?”
The innkeeper made a shushing noise and said, “That kind of talk might work further north, but in the southlands where you are now, Master Alun, it is dangerous.”
The caravan master soon pulled up and moved his people to the other inn in town, The Dancing Goblin. Turm apologized to the innkeeper of the Resting Merchant for costing him the business, but Maddox waved off his concerns, “I’d rather have one of you under my roof than ten Aluns. Besides other merchants will be in today or tonight and I’ll still have a full house.”
An hour and a half later the group’s horses were ready to go and all of their gear was packed up as well. They were sitting down to a hearty breakfast when Spitz and Travis returned and joined the group at the largest table in the place.
“Well, Spitz? Travis? Anything we should be concerned about?”
The dwarf held up a hand to Travis, “After we eat, it’s not breakfast conversation.”
Travis nodded, “You would have to hear it firsthand…”
“After we eat or we’ll not get a bite before noon, Travis!” Spitz said.
“Very well.” Turm said with a frown. “Menlaus, will you be heading south today too? Off to make your fortune in Ascalon?” The young wizard had joined them in travelling to Hreuset from Malforten, but was going no further with the group.
“Yes, I will see what is there for me, perhaps the Empress needs some wizards.” Menlaus answered.
“Well you seen some combat, haven’t you?” Spitz said, “I’m sure she could use your skills somewhere. Better you than me, boy.”
“Yes.” Turm nodded, “Take care of yourself, the skirmishing that the armies have been through have chewed up and spit out plenty of people.”
“You two included.” Joru said, “And I worked in the healer’s ground, Menlaus, do be careful.”
“Did you treat many wizards?” Menlaus asked.
Joru shook her head, “No.”
“See? What could be safer? I’ll be at the rear of the fighting.”
The three of them who had worked for the Empress remained quiet, staring at the young man. “What?” he asked.
Turm looked away, Spitz laughed and Joru said quietly, “No one likes an enemy wizard, Menlaus. I didn’t treat many of them because they tend to be killed rather than captured and exchanged. It’s even worse if they were up against goblins or Ungern.”
“Really.” Turm said, “Look with some of your smallest magics you could enchant six or eight people and force them into a slumber. On the battlefield that is critical! Imagine three or four wizards working in concert. A entire wall could be forced to sleep and probably scaled before reinforcements would arrive!”
“I don’t know such a spell, though I’ve heard of it.”
“Your spell for climbing on the ceiling would be useful to scouts…or maybe they would send you in for a look around yourself.” Spitz said. “Your conjured missile could snipe troops from farther away than most long bows are accurate.” He shook his head, “Magic is too valuable to suffer a wizard to live.”
Menlaus nodded and turned back to his meal, eating less robustly than before, “Eisen, is it the same for you?”
“I work with magic, I understand how it works, almost innately. I think this is a gift given to me by the All-father. Using and understanding how such items work lets me study them and try and piece together what the All-father has given us. Hopefully I can contribute to making it less likely for us to fight at all.” Eisen said.
“And you ain’t half bad with that spear of yours either.” Spitz said.
They finished breakfast, recounting their battle exploits and laughing and boasting about who did the most in the combat. In the end Turm said, “We succeeded because of each of ours skills, with any of us missing we might not have beat Gritznak and drive his band of goblins off at all. Even you Kiint, though you didn’t fight, you led us right to the gnoll’s lair.”
The ranger nodded at the compliment.
“Enough!” Greta said in a loud voice, “Breakfast is done and I should have been on the road an hour ago.” She turned to Travis, “What did you learn of this ‘Master Alun’, Travis?”
“You’re not going to like it.” Spitz said with the shake of his head and a sigh.