THE ALTRAN BOW
Iod’s morning light pooled like molten lava in the streets of Kuon when the six Chosen and their Riders descended the staircase that led down from the palace.
Illiom glanced at the throng of people that swelled at the entry points to Coronation Square and questioned her own sanity. Did she really want to venture into that? The city’s population seemed to have tripled since her arrival.
Traders were opening the shutters and gates to stalls and removing coverings from displays. They unrolled signs and banners, unfurled pennants and gaudy streamers, until the whole square was emblazoned with the hues of festivity.
At the resounding blare of conch-shells, the Blades removed the barriers and the revellers flooded in like a tide. Soon every path was awash with the mill and jostle of humanity.
She looked dubiously at Tarmel who grinned at her concern.
“You will enjoy it,” he reassured her. “If nothing else, you may find something to spend some of those florins of yours on.”
Illiom found that stepping into the crowd was like stepping into a river of mud. The moment the moving mass of humanity had her, her mobility became limited. She ceased for a time to be a separate individual and became one with the mindless whole.
All that was left of her volition was the ability to slowly steer to one side or the other of the human swell, and gaze upon displays that were set like lures to capture the passers’ fancy and their coin.
More than she could ever imagine was on offer here. Items fashioned, grown or mined in every far-flung corner of the Common Weal, competed to dazzle the senses. Perfect aqua pearls from Tersalan lay strewn amongst indigo goblets from Hartamus; vibrant bolts of silk from Iol were stacked right next to the brightly patterned weavings of the Shakim.
Wide-eyed, Illiom showered Tarmel with questions whenever she saw anything unfamiliar or exotic. He answered as best he could, amused by her child-like rapture.
Even more captivating than the displays themselves were the people who manned the stalls, looking upon this river of potential customers with bright eagerness. Some of them looked so strange to Illiom that she could not help but stare.
One, a strong and muscular man, had skin as dark as treacle and eyes that shone like polished gold. Another who caught and held Illiom’s eye was a tall woman with bronze skin. Tarmel mentioned that she was an augur from Calestor. Her dress was a dazzle of vibrant hues and the turban upon her head added to her already imposing height.
A little further along they came upon a display of armour and weapons from Kroen that attracted a swarm of warriors. Illiom looked at Tarmel to see if he wanted to pause, but he shook his head disinterestedly.
Glancing at the stall in passing, Illiom noticed that none of the traders were from that land. She realised then that, so far, she had not seen a single Kroeni besides Azulya since arriving in Kuon. She was about to remark on this when her attention was captured by the most exquisite bow she had ever seen. It was mounted on a stand amidst an array of bows, quivers, knives, pelts, and finely crafted arrowheads of sharpened flint and bone.
“Ah, those are from Altra,” he said, as she veered a course towards the stall.
She remembered Tarmel’s tale of the bloodless vanquishing of the Kroeni army. Illiom looked up at the merchant who stood behind the display.
Pale, peaceful blue eyes gazed back at her. They belonged to an older woman whose weathered but kind face was framed by flowing, wheat-coloured hair.
Illiom studied the bow with longing, unable to resist comparing it to the crude weapon that had served her for the last ten years, now sitting unused in a corner of her room.
“Are all these from Altra?”
The woman answered with a bright smile.
Illiom nodded towards the bows.
“Which one is the best?”
“That depends on many things. I have two basic types of bows, this one is golden yew.” Her hand lightly brushed the bow that had caught Illiom’s eye. “The others are ghost ash. They both bend well, although the golden yew is more eager to regain its shape, so the arrow will fly faster. The ghost ash, however, will let you take your time in aiming and you will not tire as quickly, but the arrow will not travel as far.”
“Do you have a golden yew bow that would suit me?”
“Extend your arms,” the trader instructed.
The Altran woman studied her for a moment and then nodded.
“Your reach is greater than your height and you look quite strong. Here, try this.”
She took the bow down from the stand and secured a bowstring to one end. Next, bracing that end between her legs, she bent the bow until she was able to slip the string over the other end. Once strung, she handed it to Illiom.
The bow was as light as air, the string taut with longing. The wood was smooth, like silk, and it fitted her grip as if it had been made for her.
“Try drawing it just to feel its pull, but do not release it.”
Illiom did as instructed. It required much more effort than her old bow.
She drew it all the way till the back of her hand rested against her cheek, the bowstring close to her ear. It was then that she noticed a faint hum.
When she released it, the humming ceased. It returned when she drew it again.
The trader had come around the table to join her.
A few people in the crowd had also stopped to watch.
“Is it too strong for you?”
Illiom shook her head.
“I am not used to it, but I can still draw without too much effort. My old bow was easier.”
She stroked the length of the bow, then unstrung it.
The woman leaned towards Illiom.
“Did you hear it?” she asked softly.
Illiom looked up to see the woman smiling serenely.
“It is to be played like an instrument,” she said, her voice pitched for Illiom’s ears alone. “If you listen carefully you will learn its language, and benefit greatly from doing so.”
“How much is it?”
“Four of your florins,” she answered, her voice normal once more.
Tarmel’s protest was cut short by Illiom’s raised hand.
“I will take it,” she said firmly, turning to Tarmel who reluctantly paid the trader.
The woman gave her a small, knowing smile.
Illiom thanked her and, as she turned to leave, the woman caught her arm.
“I would gift you this.”
She turned and retrieved a slim fur quiver from her display. She proffered this to Illiom in a ceremonial manner, using both hands.
Illiom beamed, delighted and touched by the unexpected generosity.
As she reached for it she noticed the arrows protruding from within the quiver’s softness. Her fingers brushed against the woman’s hands.
“It is beautiful!” she sighed.
“Oh, it is so much more than that.”
With that cryptic remark, the woman turned to another customer who was tentatively holding up a bone knife.
Dazed by the interaction, clutching her new bow and quiver, Illiom followed Tarmel back into the human current.
“You are meant to haggle, Illiom,” he chided her. “If you do not, your florins will vanish as swiftly as gelts!”
“Yes, yes, but just look at this!”
Tarmel glanced at the bow and grudgingly acknowledged its beauty.
Illiom’s interest in the fair was waning. She revisited the Altran woman’s expressions, her gestures, and her words. She was consumed by the need to try out her new bow.
As though in a dream, she passed by precarious towers of ochre pots and dazzling Atuin silver jewellery. A little further on were pens of sheep, goats, poultry and pigs, and for a while their senses were filled with the smells that accompany such creatures.
They reached an area allocated to entertainment and food, rather than goods. A troupe of actors, surrounded by a squealing horde of children, performed parodies from well-known tales. Face painters, fire breathers, wrestlers and dancers, all vied for attention.
The smell of delicacies teased her and Illiom stopped to buy a cup of sweet spiced tea from a woman with a kindly, wrinkled face. She borrowed some gelts from Tarmel, for it was absurd to pay the poor woman with gold.
They had not gone far when an angry shout rose above the noise of the crowd ahead. A volley of unintelligible imprecations followed, the words becoming clearer as they neared the disturbance.
“Ye! Ye dare come here? Here! Damn ye all to Hel, ye an’ all of yer Iod-forsaken kind! Why don’t ye jus’ go back to that sewer ye call home an’ leave us alone!”
The crowd parted just long enough for Illiom to catch a glimpse of Azulya. Illiom’s heart leapt into her throat. A large man was bearing down on the Kroeni with the full brunt of his rage and she faced him with nothing more than the intensity of her eyes.
“Yer ugly lot have cost me a fortune on me last trip to Lodeh. Damn near cost me me life too!”
The man’s face was a rictus of hatred. Spittle flew from his mouth as he screamed at the Chosen. He moved closer still towards her, his hands bunching into fists.
“Treat us like vermin, ye Kroeni whore! I have a mind to give ye a taste…”
The string of foul-mouthed insults continued as the man bore down on Azulya with clear intent to do her harm.
Illiom started towards her fellow Chosen, but Tarmel’s hand gripped her arm, stopping her. She turned to protest but his focus was entirely on the drama ahead. He nodded in Azulya’s direction.
A pair of hands had descended on Azulya’s shoulders and she was moved effortlessly to one side as a warrior stepped between her and the aggressor. It took Illiom a few moments before she recognised Argolan, such was the transformation that had claimed the Shieldarm.
She stood as straight as a rod before the man’s fury, her right hand resting lightly on her sword’s pommel, her expression impassive.
The man tried to sidestep her, but she blocked his way, the palm of her hand hitting the middle of his chest with an audible thud. She drew her sword just enough for the blade to be visible, gleaming with blue malice.
“You will stop this.” Argolan spoke mildly into the tense silence that surrounded the pair. “You will turn around and go back to your business. You will do it now.”
With that last word she gave the man a push that sent him staggering backwards.
He recovered his balance and pressed forward again.
“Let me pass or I’ll hurt ye too,” he growled into Argolan’s face. He tried once more to push past the Shieldarm, but she blocked his path again.
“Do that one more time and you will need a healer,” she warned. Her eyes, like weapons, pierced through the man’s resolve.
He stared back in defiance, but his anger was already abating.
“Ye don’t understand,” he protested.
“You are right, I do not understand. Explain it to me.”
He looked at her dumbfounded for a moment, his eyes welling as he groped for the words to answer the Shieldarm.
“I jest got back from Kroen, las’ week. We was harassed everywhere we went. Insulted an’ threatened. We had goods stolen from us so many times I lost count. The las’ time, it was at the hands of the guards at the border. They demanded payment to let us out of their foul, Iod-forsaken lands.”
He spat on the ground. The space around them had widened, despite the pressure from the crowd.
“This is neither the place nor the time to seek justice. And this is not the person to do it with. Make your complaint to the office of Trade.”
The man laughed in Argolan’s face.
“I already have! Me, along with dozens of others, all with like stories of robbery an’ abuse. Did it the moment I got back. An’ what’s been done about it? Nothin’. So I figure I takes the law into me own hands an’ make someone pay!”
There were cries of support from the crowd.
Emboldened, the man began to work himself back into a frenzy but Argolan pushed her blade back into the scabbard as though the crisis had already been averted.
“If you take the law into your own hands you will only risk losing them,” she said mildly. “I do not recommend that course. This woman has done nothing to you. Furthermore, she is my charge and I will not let her come to harm. I have no desire to hurt you but if you persist, that is what will happen. Do you understand?”
The man glanced down at where Argolan’s hand still pressed against his chest, then looked up and nodded.
“If there are many of you, make a petition,” Argolan suggested. “Bypass the Trade Office if they do not heed you. Take it directly to the Queen. Let her decide the best way to put things aright. Who knows, she may even see fit to compensate you. Agreed?”
The man hesitated a moment longer then nodded again.
The crowd around them began moving, the space that had cleared for the confrontation vanishing as quickly as it had formed. Illiom pushed her way towards Azulya.
The Kroeni smiled when she saw her, but Illiom noted a dangerous sparkle in her eyes.
“What was that about?”
“It seems that the popularity of my kind has not improved much during my twenty year absence.”
Argolan’s attention was still on the people around them, her eyes darting from face to face as the crowd moved past. Tarmel, who had taken up a position opposite the Shieldarm, was doing likewise.
“Not the first time I have heard talk like that this season,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Azulya questioned curiously.
“Talk of traders being ill-treated in Lodeh. Twice this summer, in fact. I did not pay it much heed because, well, you know what traders are like, always complaining about something or other.”
Azulya looked thoughtful.
“I saw the look in that man’s eyes; he had truly been scarred by his experience. His claim was not exaggerated, it was no trifle that made him react the way he did.”
They let the human tide carry them aimlessly for a while.
“There is something else behind this,” Azulya mused. “Even Ollord in his insanity knows that trade with Albradan is vital to Kroen. After all, Kroen has absolutely no trade with Altra and, unless things have changed more than I know, precious little with Evárudas or Iol. It just makes no sense to jeopardise one’s primary trading partnership with inflammatory behaviour.”
Argolan studied Azulya attentively. The northern woman continued.
“I know that nothing ever happens in Kroen without the sanction of the king. By the way, is it still Ollord?”
When she received confirmation of this she continued.
“His control is absolute, and the penalties incurred by going against his will are brutal. If these attacks have become a pattern, there is only one explanation: the king and the ruling house have endorsed it.”
“There was a serious incident that took place in Lodeh at the end of Seedfall,” she began. “It had to do with a military exchange between our two realms, at Ollord’s instigation, if I recall truly. A select group of Riders and Blades from the Golden Ward travelled to Lodeh as guests of the ruling House of Lonen. Likewise, a contingent of Kroen’s most promising young warriors came here to Kuon as guests of the palace. It was a very awkward exchange. The Kroeni soldiers were ill at ease. On the surface, their behaviour was impeccable, but there was no warmth in any of the exchanges that I witnessed. But in Kroen things took a turn for the worse. There was a brawl in a tavern and three of our Blades were slain. Several Kroeni soldiers also lost their lives, some after the event by way of a very public execution. Those responsible for the deaths of our Blades were made an example of.”
“And you say that Ollord instigated the exchange?”
Before Argolan could respond, the others caught up with them.
A barrage of questions followed, but it was impossible for a dozen people to hold a conference in the midst of a jostling crowd, so they decided to seek a quieter venue. They reconvened at an inn on the outskirts of the fair.
Once Argolan had brought everyone up to date, she turned to Azulya.
“The suggestion for the exchange came directly from Lord Alveric, Ollord’s envoy here in Kuon. Alveric offered it as a way of improving relations between our two realms. The exchange took place in Taverom, the main border town between us and Kroen. I was there and I can say that it looked more like an exchange of hostages. None on our side were elated at the prospect of spending a half moon in Kroen, and the Kroeni themselves looked less than happy about their own predicament.”
Argolan pinched her bottom lip between thumb and finger and shook her head. “I never did understand the point of that exercise.”
Azulya’s brow furrowed but she said nothing.
“Forgive my intrusion.”
The voice belonged to an unshaven and dishevelled man who sat at the table alongside theirs. He cradled a pint of ale protectively in both hands. His face bore the signs of recent mishap: scabs over cheekbone and an eyebrow, a split lip and a black eye. He was seated with half a dozen men.
“I could not help but overhear your conversation. I myself have recently come back from Kroen,” he said, pointing to the bruises on his face.
“As you can see I speak from direct experience, and you can easily find scores of traders returning from Kroen with tales like mine.”
He took a slow and deliberate swig at his tankard before continuing.
“Never in all my years have I heard of more strife coming out of that land than in the last few moons. Just yesterday, Tatters came back from Rafatas with even more stories of Albradani traders beaten bloody in the streets of Lodeh. Before that, Coiler here returned with nothing more than the horse he rode, and deemed himself lucky to have got away with that!”
A big bald man across from him nodded gravely.
“Mark my words, soon only fools and desperate men will be trading with Kroen.”
He cast an uncertain eye at Azulya.
“How is it that we have not heard of this?” Wind asked.
Another man in the party looked at the Albino Rider and gave her a toothless smile.
“You’re Black Ward? Pardon me impertinence, but one might as well complain to the wind for all the good that would do, if you know what I mean. There is nothing the Ward can do about problems outside the Keep. How do ye say? Out of your jurisdiction, is it? But I knows for a fact that complaints have been piling high at the Trade Office.”
“When did all this start?” asked Tarmel.
“Just over a moon ago,” answered the man. “That’s when I heard of the first incident.”
There was a short silence. The man drained what was left in his tankard. He wiped away a line of froth left on his lip.
“It’s no mystery that traders have no love of going to Kroen, even though there’s plenty of coin to be made there. We’re never treated like we’re fully human, is why. For that reason alone, the pay to go there has always been good. But now...”
He shook his head. “I won’t be going back, no matter how good the coin gets.”
Angar caught a maid’s attention and bought the men a fresh round of ale.
The toothless man spoke again.
“I’d keep me eye on ‘er, if I were you. There ain’t many who’ll look kindly on a Kroeni walkin’ the streets of Kuon, wench or no.”
“We will keep that in mind,” she said, before turning away.
“What does it mean?” asked Grifor softly.
“Kroen mistreating our traders?” Malco grimaced. “Maybe they do not need our goods anymore? We should stop trading and see how long before they come back begging us.”
“No,” Azulya said. “There is more to all this.”
“Like what?” Grifor asked.
Azulya just shook her head.
They finished their meal, emptied their tankards, and left the inn to re-engage the fair’s hordes. Little besides the quality of light had changed in the square. If anything, the crowd had grown even denser and a dirty summer’s haze hung in the still air over the revellers. They were heading towards the square when Argolan stopped short.
“We must make our way back to the palace.”
She drew their attention to the black pennant now flying from the College tower behind them.
“The last Chosen has arrived.”