A cloud of dust was growing larger on the horizon.
“We have company.” Keldrick nodded in the direction of the oncoming group of people on the road. They were still too far away to detect whether they were military or merchant in nature, Ronan mused, and with luck, they were not bandits.
Yet again, Ronan wished King Rhutgard had sent them through one of the southern Mantle Mountain passes instead of the Free Lands. Bandits and Free Riders ran the Free Lands regularly. But while the Mantle Mountains were clear of Ambsellon and Ormon, it was the Mourning Mountain passes on the Clemongard border that were growing more and more thick with enemy soldiers.
Ronan glanced at Keldrick. This would be a true test of Keldrick’s abilities. Ronan had quizzed him much in the manner of how he personally had been trained. How to fit in with commoners, how to serve noblemen…. Ronan had trained for weeks, however, where Keldrick had trained just the week since they’d left Fairview. He had learned quickly enough, thought Ronan, but he wasn’t happy about it. And now that they were past the Brace Fort in the Free Lands, who knew whom they might encounter….
“Behind me, then,” Ronan told Keldrick warily.
Keldrick’s blue eyes narrowed in understanding, though he slowed his horse.
From behind him, Ronan heard Keldrick say dryly, “If you ever tell anyone about this journey, you will rue the day you opened your mouth, I promise you, Ronan.”
Ronan hid a small smile. “Just remember you’re supposed to say when you open your mouth.”
Keldrick scoffed behind him. “Yes, my lord,” he intoned with disgust.
Finally, the party ahead of them rolled into view. A merchant and his train of wares. Ronan relaxed. A very well-to-do merchant, now that he studied the merchant a bit more. Three sturdy wagons, two full of wares and one full of travel gear for the merchant and his retinue. Two men rode a-horse next to the wagon, rented mercenaries by the look of them, thought Ronan. The merchant pulled the horses in and a small puff of dust arose around the wagon wheels as they rolled to a stop.
Ronan reined in his horse.
“My young friend! How goes your travels?” called the merchant.
“Well enough,” returned Ronan. “And you?”
“Much better now that we are closer to home. Tell me, youngster, where are you headed through the Free Lands without protection?”
“Corstarorden,” called Ronan. He and Keldrick had previously agreed upon any other destination but Clemongard, to keep their mission secret but also to find out as much information about the West as possible, should they meet people along the way.
The merchant’s face changed. He climbed down from the wagon. Ronan had no choice but to slide off his horse. He sensed that Keldrick was conflicted so he patted his horse and whispered, “Stay here.”
“Kayson Talvert, at your service.”
“Lord Galland, at yours,” replied Ronan.
Talvert grasped his outstretched arm. “My lord, I’m not sure what sends you to Corstarorden, but the entire West is talking war. I’ve a practiced eye and it looks to me as if you hail from the East, begging your pardon. If you’re traveling alone without protection, you’d be wise to turn around and return to wherever you came. I don’t know a lot about the East or politics and certainly not a thing about war, but I haven’t heard that the East was involved in any war. Best, my lord, if you and your man turn around while you can. There’s been trouble on the road of late.” Talvert turned his head back toward his mercenaries, who nodded shortly.
“What trouble do you mean?” asked Ronan.
“Why, just this morning, we came across an east-bound carriage who’d met a group of mercenaries. They managed to hide in time, they said, off in the grass, but they were lucky to have a mercenary traveling with them. Most folks do nowadays. He scouted ahead and found a band of mercenaries headed north to Corstarorden, wearing Corstarorden colors. Patrolling, they thought. We’ve had a right bit of trouble out here, out West just these last few months. You Easterners probably don’t know it yet. My lord, dressed as you are, they’ll spot an Easterner sure as I did, and they won’t be nice.”
Talvert’s expression was solemn.
“I thank you kindly for your warning. I have kin in Corstarorden. My mother sent me to stay with my aunt as she’s all alone now. We’ll be sure to look for trouble on the road,” Ronan told the merchant.
“Well, my lord, I can’t fault family values, but I’ll tell you this, if you really love your mum and your auntie, pack your auntie up and move her back East. Corstarorden is no place to be right now. All people talk of is war. Me, I stay, I make money no matter if it’s peace or war.”
Then he said, “In fact, have you boys ever been to the City?”
Ronan had to grasp for a moment to follow Talvert’s meaning. Then he realized that the merchant was referring to Pavilion City, where merchants and buyers from the entire land traveled year around to buy, trade, and sell goods of every type, from fine wines to exotic spices to livestock to art to cheese. It was said one could buy and sell anything in Pavilion City.
“No, we have not,” Ronan answered.
“Well,” Talvert said, “it’s a sight everyone should see once. But the two of you really must go. I insist.” And he pulled out a credit piece from a pocket and held it out.
What was the man playing at? They weren’t children to be spoiled, Ronan thought bemusedly.
“Thank you, my friend, for your kindness, but –”
“No. I insist. You remind me a bit of my son. And I wouldn’t let my son go about dressed in such clothes. Stop at Pavilion City, get clothes made for a man of the West. I have so many of these credits I can’t count them all. So this credit will dress you and your man over there appropriately and get you a good meal and anything else you need.
“Now, you boys take the next road south to the City, you can’t miss it. It will take you a little out of your way, but it’s better than the mercs or the military thinking you as Easterners.” And he pressed the gold credit into Ronan’s palm.
“My friend, you have been most generous. How can I repay you?” asked Ronan.
“Bosh,” and Talvert chortled. “I’ve got money enough. Take care of your auntie and take her out East. Methinks I need to visit the East one day, get past the Silver River. But I just don’t like those damn taxes of King Almeric’s….” He chuckled as he climbed up into the wagon.
Ronan smiled as he swung up into his saddle. “The East is a beautiful place. May good will follow you.”
“And good fortune follow you.”
Ronan waited until Talvert’s wagon train was out of earshot.
“Keldrick,” he said as he fingered the gold credit, “change of plans. We’re stopping at Pavilion City first.”
Yet again, Ronan struggled to keep from gawking. Easily the most inclusive market he had ever seen, Pavilion City disgraced even the very best of markets Ronan had visited. Overwhelming in size alone, silken pavilions in every color served to divide each vendor from the next. Miles of merchants stretched out in a magnificent tangle all about them. Scents and sights of every imaginable variety accosted them as they walked through.
He saw other first-time visitors staring about the market much as he and Keldrick were attempting not to. They were trying not to call attention to themselves, for if Talvert had recognized them as Easterners, anyone might recognize them, and anyone might recognize Keldrick for the son of the Eastern Shield. Though dusty as they both were from their ride through the meadows of the Free Lands, Ronan mused, it was unlikely. Keldrick’s golden curls were weighed down by dirt and bits of grass sprinkled in it from sleeping under the stars. How Kendrick would laugh at the sight of his twin.
But yet another marvel for Pavilion City – it was built on two natural hot springs. Ronan planned on taking advantage of those before they left tonight. Right now, they passed a stand of a number of natural oils, useful for bathing and health, called out the vendor. Grape seed oil, pomegranate seed oil, sandalwood and hickory oils….
Mounted tapestries of varying sizes were guarded carefully by a merchant. Another merchant tried to coax them to purchase fine linens, silks and damasks. They passed stalls selling books and parchments, spices, herbs, and teas, lotions, perfumes and incenses, jams and jellies, potions, powders, and medicines, even lumber of all sorts. Ronan smelled the unmistakable odor of livestock growing in the distance. But still they had not found a clothier.
Finally, a glassware merchant directed them to the north and also recommended that they try the cheese in that quarter.
“Gladly,” muttered Keldrick under his breath as soon as they were out of earshot. To his credit, he had directed his gaze downward for the most part out of respect to the role he was playing as Ronan’s supposed manservant, though at stalls with more odd and sundry items, such as pickled bear claws at one stand and torture devices at another, he couldn’t help but pause to scrutinize as they passed. “Bloody hell,” he’d whispered, trying not evince his disgust.
Finally, they arrived in what could only be described as the clothier’s district, for silks, satins, laces, velvets, calicos, cotton, and completed clothing of every sort stretched out before Ronan and Keldrick, all busily attended by customers and merchants. Ronan glanced back at Keldrick and sighed. Who knew this would take half the afternoon?
After being shouldered and pushed about for an hour, Ronan’s temper began to fray, but they found a woman selling an enormous assortment of finery, both Eastern and Western clothing. Some of it was far too foppish for Ronan’s taste, but he saw a few outfits that he liked.
A sharp slap to his wrist startled him. “No touching! That’s crushed velvet!”
Ronan blinked. The merchant had just slapped his wrist. He really was not in the mood. “Begging your pardon, Madam, but that,” and he gestured at the material he’d just fingered, “was not velvet.”
A combined snort and cough came from behind him. Keldrick was holding in a laugh. Now Ronan really was not in the mood.
A small woman with salt and pepper strands of hair falling out of her done-up bun glared at him. “Of course it wasn’t. That was satin. Keep your oily hands off the satin. That over there,” and she gestured impudently at the last outfit he had looked at, “is crushed velvet. You think I make a living with people fingering this clothing? Who buys satin with dirty fingerprints on it? Who buys ruined velvet? Now go on. Go to the cotton stand. You can’t afford any of this. Go!” And the little merchant waved her arms at Ronan to shoo him and Keldrick away.
Keldrick was seized with a sudden sneezing fit, which he turned around to hide.
Incensed, Ronan pulled out Talvert’s gold credit. “As it so happens, Madam, I can afford it.” He held it up before her so that it flashed in the light. With great satisfaction, he watched her face change. The little woman’s mouth dropped into an “O” and for a moment, she was speechless. Keldrick turned back around to observe this interaction.
“Oh, oh my. I’m so sorry, sir.” She reached for the credit.
Ronan stuffed the credit back in his vest and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Under normal circumstances, I would take my business elsewhere, but fortunately for you, I am in a rush and need clothing immediately, for both myself and my steward here. So. I need Western wear fit for my station of the very best quality and fashion. Have you that here, Madam, or shall I find another vendor of a more pleasant temperament? Did I mention I will be purchasing more than one outfit for myself and for him?”
The little merchant tried to conceal her irritation at his rudeness, since the promise of making money was more attractive to her than a retort. She settled for a glare and invited Ronan and Keldrick back behind the stall front.
Once she quizzed Ronan on what he wanted, she pulled out several outfits for him to choose from. Perhaps it was the Western style, but they were a bit too garish for Ronan.
The little merchant chewed on her lip thoughtfully. “Ah.” She dug around and pulled out two more ensembles and laid them out for Ronan. He liked them only marginally better, but her eyes narrowed and annoyed, she blew a sweaty strand of hair away her face.
Keldrick, behind him, cleared his throat. Ronan decided that was a signal to purchase the attire. Once the clothier found two Western outfits to Keldrick’s size, Ronan gave her Kayson Talvert’s name so that she could extract payment from him when he visited again. She had just made a month’s profit this afternoon.
“You didn’t have to be so harsh on her,” noted Keldrick.
“She didn’t have to slap my wrist,” returned Ronan.
Keldrick snickered. “When was the last time anyone did that?”
Ronan scoffed. “Never.”
They had purchased new boots in the style of the West and were now headed in the direction of the baths, but a familiar scent caught his awareness. And if he recognized it, Ronan knew Keldrick had.
Ronan cleared his throat to remind Keldrick of his role, for the distinct smell of horseflesh was in the air, and Keldrick loved nothing more than he loved horses. Ronan shot a look over his shoulder at Keldrick.
Keldrick glanced from side to side. Once he determined that they were not being overheard, he said lowly, “It would be a travesty, would it not, to go to Pavilion City, to the West, and not see the horses? Whatever types there are, we might infuse with our own stables, purchase for our own cavalry….”
Ronan admitted Keldrick had a point and so they found their way toward the whinnies and scent of horses.
Stables of horses squeezed together surprised Ronan and Keldrick. Ronan did not like what he saw. He stepped up to first row of stalls, where at least a dozen horses stood in straw that needed to be changed out.
A fly buzzed past and a greasy vendor observed their approach lazily.
Behind a hand, Keldrick told Ronan, “Ask him what sort of horses he has.”
“What sort of horses are these?”
The vendor turned and spit into the straw before he answered. “Gold chestnuts.”
Keldrick cleared his throat to indicate to Ronan that the vendor was full of shit, but Ronan did not need Keldrick to tell him that. These horses were coursers. Ronan was no equestrian as was Keldrick, but even he knew the difference between a gold chestnut and a courser.
“Mind if I have a look?” Ronan asked.
The vendor shrugged and with great effort, stood up to walk Ronan over to the first horse. Ronan reached out to check the stallion’s teeth, but the vendor immediately showed a sign of life by blocking Ronan’s arm. “What you doin’?”
“Just wondered how old he was,” Ronan commented.
“They’s all between six and eight years old,” the vendor snapped. “Is you lookin’ to buy?”
“I have an employer is extremely interested,” Ronan responded. King Rhutgard would want to know about the number of coursers for sale on the open market in the West, after all. As soon as they got to Clemongard, he would apprise him of what they had seen here.
The vendor’s attitude changed, just as the clothier’s had. “Well, I’m gettin’ more horses in next week, tell your employer that. I got the best selection of anyone here. Name’s Vincick.”
Ronan nodded and backed away. “I’ll be sure to tell him that.”
Once they left, Keldrick could barely contain himself. “Gold chestnuts! Did you see them! Those were coursers and destriers!”
“Yes, Kel, I know, now keep it together,” Ronan hissed. “We’re here at the baths and this is the last place we can talk about personal business.”
“The baths,” Keldrick repeated.
For the first time today, Ronan smiled. “Afraid of a bit of water, Kel? Plan to bathe with your clothes on, do you?”
Keldrick said nothing for a moment. Then he said, “Fine. Just so long as I get food and ale afterward.”
They walked into the only actual building they’d seen so far. Curls of steam rose from an enormous natural bath. Several people were already sitting inside, beads of sweat rolling down their faces. Ronan could not wait to immerse himself inside the water and soak all the dirt from the journey off himself.
Then Keldrick ruined it by whispering, “You do realize, don’t you, that all those horses we saw have already been bought? That’s why their heads all faced toward the backs of their stalls. Someone is just waiting to pick them up. That’s at least a four-dozen horse cavalry unit.”