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A ride toward harsh wisdom

By Richard Bodenham All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

A Citizen of the world.

“Rilluex my friend, I must beg you not to frown so much, if only for the sake of us who must look on you.”

Rilluex Lacrossie, firstborn heir to Baron Feyzin Lacrossie, fourteenth of his line, felt the firm hand of his travelling companion Demlun le-Sasbil slap him heartily on the back. Turning to look at the affable, curly haired youth, who was rarely seen without a grin on his face, Rilluex offered the ghost of a smile.

That was all he could give, as while he and his four fellow pilgrims where entering the frontier town of Illpialle, the last civilized Hoilletan settlement before they entered the wild territory of Txarral, often referred to as the badlands, his mind was weighed down with doubts, the nature of which he could not understand. He could not say he felt afraid, rather that he was discerning an upcoming change of fortune, for good or for ill. He knew in his heart that he must prove himself to be valiant in the days to come. But something was telling him that valour alone would not be enough.

Franclerk Du-Bresse, third son of the count of Boug, looked back at Rilluex and Demlun as the company made their way through the town’s main gate.

“Demlun, you must stop trying to cheer up Rilluex, else you catch his melancholy mood!” Franclerk called back to the pair, high laughter in the voice of the tall, blonde young man, the longbow on his back bouncing to the rhythm of his horses’ steps.

“Have no fear of that, the only thing I’m likely to catch while I’m here is a rash from a serving wench!” came the laughing reply from Demlun, the twin blades on his hips shaking as he rocked in his saddle.

“To get a rash like that requires you to actually be able to get beyond five seconds of fumbling, without coming all in your breeches.” Came the Quip from Valette D’orzerge, Who had grown tired of Dumlun’s stupid antics after two weeks of riding and camping. Her family where known for their mastery of the great-sword, and she had no time for frivolity as it was her duty to carry on that reputation. Riding to the front of the group, she trotted on through the long tunnelled gateway, eager to finally get into town.

Rohais La-Harpenay rode to catch up with her, leaving the three men behind. The two women had become close in the course of the groups journey, and often found time to be alone together. Rohais was a castellan’s daughter, yet her skill with a mace made her a match for any highborn noble.

The group passed through the gateway and entered Illpialle, weaving their way past the carts and cattle that where funnelling in and out of the town. For a moment they stopped where they were, simply taking in the sight spread out before them.

Illpialle was, to put it lightly, definitely as “rough and ready looking” as their fathers had described it. Although it was still referred to as a town, Rilluex could swear it was as large as his home city of Lenquille. He could see hundreds of black brick rooftops stretch out before him, all of them on the downward slope to the banks of the Bur. Beyond that, he could see the mills and steelworks on the other side of the river. Smoke rose high over them, and seemed to rise up over the city, obscuring the sunlight.

They found themselves in what seemed to be the merchant’s quarter of the town, judging by the various stalls and booths that surrounded them. The smells that were hitting Rilluex’s nose where too numerous to count, but chief among them was mud, that seemed to cover every inch of the ground. The vast crowd around them seemed not to mind as they charged around, some carrying wares to sell, others haggling over the price of silks or meat. Gangs of children darted about the feet of the adults, laughing and giggling as they kicked a ball around in the mud. Scattered among this milieu of people Rilluex could see men he deduced were guards, wearing black tunics over ringmail and carrying spears, with round iron helms upon their heads.

They found Hitching posts to tie up their horses and stepped down into the street, Demlun noticeably grimacing as the mud made contact with his pointed steel boots. Franclerk, who had appointed himself the leader of their group, turned around to face them, pulling out a sheet of paper from his cloak. His voice was authoritative, as it always was when he bossed them about.

“Alright, we’ll only be staying here two nights before we head out into the badlands, so we need to stock up on our rations and supplies. I need a whole new quiver of arrows from the fletcher, so I’ll head over to get them myself. Demlun, I want you to pick up some food and fresh water.”

Demlun let out a disappointed groan. “Do I have to? I doubt there’s barely anything edible on these bloody stalls!”

Franclerk was unmoved “when where out past any aid, you’ll be glad of something to eat. Valette, I’d like you to shop around. Find anything else we might need, and make sure you don’t get ripped off.”

Valette rolled her dark eyes, brushing her black hair out of her face. “If you say so” she replied disinterestedly, and turned away towards the crowd.

Rohais opened her mouth as if to say something, but Franclerk, sensing her intent, cut her off. “Yes Rohais, you can go with her. Make sure you two don’t wander off too far now.”

Rohais smiled, and ran after Valette. Catching up with her, she grabbed on to Valette’s hand. Valette turned to her, and stroked Rohais’s Copper-brown hair, smiling. The pair walked away arm in arm, disappearing into the crowd.

“Rilluex, Find the Finchtail inn, down near the river. We have rooms there, so make sure they know where here. Once you get there, just rest a while and we’ll come find you.”

Rilluex merely nodded in reply, and walked away leaving Demlun and Franclerk behind. He instantly found himself sucked in to the crowd, pushing and pulling his way past the swirling throngs of people rushing around him. A little girl ran into his leg, and fell down crying. Her mother rushed to pick her up, and stole away before Rilluex could offer an apology. His right hand clung to his coin purse, the stories of Illpialle’s pickpockets fresh in his mind.

He made his way into a narrow side street, away from the main rush, and started down towards the river. It seemed all of Illpialle’s streets were caked in mud, and he was glad he had not worn his finest boots. As he headed further away from the merchants quarter, he found the houses around him becoming increasingly shabbier and less well kept. He also noticed that the few people he did see around him were dressed rather raggedly, their pale faces turning away from him as he passed. Clearly, the wealth of Illpialle was not shared in this part of town. Rilluex remembered the quarrels he had had with his father about the wages paid to those who worked in their fields, pleading the case that a man should earn enough money to one day retire, while still supporting his family. Evidently those who ruled over Illpialle thought much the same as his father did, that being as long as they aren’t completely starved to death, then whatever their being paid is enough.

His thoughts were interrupted by a sudden sensation, which made him stop in his tracks. He had the feeling of being intently watched, but yet he did not feel any malice in it. He spun around, but the street was now empty of people, so obviously his stalker was hidden somewhere.

Then out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement on one of the rooftops above him. It seemed that a grey shape darted away from sight, one that resembled a man.

“Hey you! Stay where you are!” Rilluex called out, running towards where the shape had been. But it was hopeless; whoever had been there was gone.

Rilluex wondered what this might mean. Was this just his imagination at work, or was someone really spying on him? He didn’t know of any enemies his family had this far in the north, so perhaps it was just a common thief. Yet Rilluex was sure that the answer could not be as straightforward as all that, and that this was not the last he would know of this. Taking a moment to gather himself, he carried on down the road.

Later that night, he found himself nursing a mug of lukewarm ale in the common room of the Finchtail inn. He had found the place in the wealthier part of the town, surrounded by the townhouses of wealthy mill owners. It was a fine stone building, three stories high with flowers hanging from the balcony. Franclerk had clearly spared no expense, which meant Rilleux would soon be pestered for what money he owed him. Still, warm beds were not to be sniffed at, especially before they headed into Txarral.

The common room was about half full, the chatter of conversation filling the air. At the bar Rilluex could see Demlun talking to serving girl, who was leaning on the bar with her hands on her chins as she listened, enraptured by Demlun’s boasts about what deeds he would do while in the wild territory, promising bear skins for her on his return. In the corner, Rilleux could see Valette and Rohais in a booth on their own, sharing a mug together. Valette had her right arm draped over Rohais, who was leaning back into her embrace.

Franclerk was sitting opposite him at their middle table, talking about archery or something of the like; Rilluex was only hearing enough to nod at the appropriate points. His own mind was consumed by what had happened that afternoon, and what it might mean. He wished that they could just get to the badlands already, to have this pilgrimage done with; so that they could all go home.

Franclerk excused himself to use the privy, leaving Rilluex alone with his thoughts. The crowd around him started to feel suffocating to him now, and the ale was bitter in his mouth. From the bar he could hear the loud laughter of the serving girl now perched on Demlun’s lap, piercing his ears with its pitch.

Then he felt a gloved hand on his shoulder, and turned his head back. Standing over him was a man who wore a grey hood, under which you could see bright green eyes, and a smiling face. He was a thin and tall man, and his touch on Rilluex’s shoulder was light. There seemed to be a strange kindness in him, as if he was unaware that the man on who he rested his hand was a stranger.

“Friend, if you may permit me, I would like to sit a while with you, and enjoy your company” Said the grey hooded man.

Without thinking, Rilluex replied “of course”.

The stranger took his hand of Rilluex’s shoulder, and moved to the other side of the table, sitting down were Franclerk had been sitting. Rilluex didn’t mind, he knew that Franclerk usually wandered off after going to the privy, and would not be back for a while.

The man pulled back his hood, Revealing short grey hair. He was much older than Rilluex, perhaps nearly forty. “If I may introduce myself, I am Papin, Mer Papin if it pleases you.” He said, still smiling as he held out his hand to Rilluex.

Rilluex took it, giving it a firm shake “I’m Rilluex Lacrossie, and honoured to meet you” he answered. He could not quite understand why, but he felt like all his doubts and insecurities where being driven away by this man’s presence. It was like he was an old Friend, come to have a pint with him.

“The honour is mine, and if I am not mistaken, I should call you my lord, if you are indeed Baron Feyzin’s son”

Rilluex was embarrassed. “No need, Rilluex will do.” The other man kept smiling, his green eyes seeming to shine in the low light of the room.

Mer Papin chuckled. “Rilluex shall certainly do well. Correct me if I am wrong, but I have a guess that you and your friends are here in Illpialle in order to stop off before you reach Txarral, as is the way of young pilgrims hoping to win honour and glory.“

“Am I wrong?” he asked, leaning over the table, speaking in a low and confidential tone.

“You are….. not wrong” Said Rilluex, his voice betraying his amazement. What sort of man was this, to be so perceptive and friendly?

“Many young warriors come to Illpialle, weapons in hand, songs in heart. But they find the Badlands so much harder than they imagine them to be, so cold and so barren. The Wild beasts are also fiercer than they imagine, and the roving tribes and bandits larger and bolder too. So many never come riding back, so many never see their homes again”

Mer Papin seemed to grow sadder as he spoke, which in turn made Rilluex feel sad. He wanted the smile to come back to his new friends face, as he already missed it.

“We’ll be fine” Rilluex said, trying to sound reassuring. “My Friends and I are all well trained, and Franclerk has a map”

Mer Papin still spoke sadly “All who die are well trained, and all have maps. They find these things to be of small use as the land changes before their eyes, and they cannot hold their weapons as hunger starves them of strength. Such grief is in my heart that they live no longer, when I could have saved them”

“What do you mean, you could have saved them?” Rilluex asked him.

“I know my way through those wild lands where your party is bound, and can sense the changes before they come. I have some skill in the old spells; ones such as the tribal sages perform. If I had only been able to offer my services as a guide, those that have died may yet live.”

Tears now welled in Mer Papin’s eyes, trickling down his cheeks. Choking back sobs, he continued “I am as good as a murderer, Heavens help me. That is why, my dear Rilluex, I beg of you to allow me to join you and your friends, so I may cleanse myself of my sins.”

Mer Papin took hold of Rilluex’s hand, holding it tight as his green eyes looked directly towards the younger man, wide and full of tears. Rilluex feared he would begin to cry himself, his bottom lip trembling.

“Of course you may!” Rilluex declared, shaking the older man’s hand. Franclerk and the others would agree to let Mer Papin come with them once they had heard his story, of that Rilluex had no doubt. In that moment, it seemed to Rilluex that a light had burst through the clouds of his thoughts, and this stranger was the sun itself.

Mer Papin wiped his eyes of tears, the smile returning to his face again. “Thank you my friend, you shall not regret this, I promise you with all my heart.”

“My friend, what makes a man so willing to aid strangers?” Rilluex asked him, hoping that he could learn something of kindness from such a gentle hearted soul.

To that, Mer Papin merely smiled. “ why, it is because I am a citizen of the world.”

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