Mordgorden had slowed his pace all morning. By latter afternoon, they were moving at the speed of a leisurely stroll. He had been unusually silent, and Jo was starting to wonder what he was thinking of.
In the past two weeks Jo had learned more on survival than she ever had by reading books at home. Rafting rivers, climbing in and out of rock gullies, killing snakes and eating them…she was forced to admit that there was nothing quite like hands on experience.
The king slowed drastically and groaned. “This is too much.”
“What’s wrong? You said we’d be out of here today.”
“No, I said, if you were listening, that you would be out of my property today.Not me.Corked Bottles, he’s here already.”Mord stopped so abruptly Jo bumped into him.Curious, she peeped around him at the misty trees beyond.
At first, she could see nothing unusual, until a glimmer of silver caught her eye. A large man covered in black and brown with his face hidden stood close to the trunk of a rotting tree.The eyes gleamed a little from within the hood.The sliver that Jo had seen was a large broach holding the throat of the cloak shut.It was exotic, even in Fher’den.The metal wasn’t silver; she had never seen anything like it.The pattern was twisting, strange and lovely carvings and inscriptions.
Mordgorden made some signals with his hands, and the man nodded, turning to look at Jo. She wanted to back away from that vague scrutiny, but remained still. “What’s going on, Mord?”
“We’ll stay here tonight, he’ll take ye the rest of the way.”
“My property ends here, I told you that. His begins.I don’t venture into his wilds unless I have good reason to, and he seldom comes to mine.We use traders signs, and leave each other be.But he’s a good and honest sort; you’ll be safer with him than me as guide.”
Jo wanted to stay with her eccentric friend, but didn’t doubt his word. She had learned that doing things rashly on her own was a grave ordeal.“What’s his name?”
“I don’t know if he has one.”
The stranger had come forward and was listening closely. He wasn’t as large as Thordvall, but he had feeling of being as tall.He was taller and broader than the king, and gave Jo a shrinking sensation.He wouldn’t have nearly as many things to discuss as Mord.She gave a timid smile in greeting.He only nodded.
Fish were set on to roast, and vegetables were found. Johanna was directed by Mord to a small spring of water, and she filled all their containers to bring back.She found the king signing busily with the stranger.From the way the faceless eyes turned to her, she knew they were discussing her.She didn’t mind, and knelt by the fire to mix up the flat bread Mord had taught her how to make.The black hooded man knelt nearby, and Mord checked the fish.
Jo found herself looking at the stranger’s thick, black gloved hand stirring the coals to burry some roots for cooking. The bones were thick and broad, and even on the fingers, the muscle and sinew lines were visible.It was plain this man could be dangerous.
The meal was eaten in silence, and they slept even before darkness fell.
Johanna woke up as the king shook her. “Jo, get up, we need to part now.”
The Kansan stumbled awake. “I wish you were coming, Mord.”
“I do as well, but there’s no help for it. I belong elsewhere.If anything, I can stop Dirkorin’s men going through Village South.”
They gave the parting embrace, and Jo nearly passed out from his tight grasp. “Good bye young one.”
“Good bye, King Mordgorden.”
Jo watched him disappear into the fog, and swallowed. The man touched her shoulder and gestured towards the new paths.She nodded, and, glad of the silence for once, followed him.
This new guide was stern in comparison to the hearty king, but Jo respected him and came to be fond of him in an unusual way. What he thought of the girl, no one could have guessed.
He did seem to know of her training in various skills, and began sparing with her at various times throughout the days. He would attack abruptly, forcing her to keep an eye on him.She tried to surprise him a few times herself.His abilities rivaled Stalker’s.Once, a careless maneuver caused her own sword to bounce off of his and cut her arm below the shoulder.He showed her how to dress it, and from his matter of fact attitude, Jo knew that he had used her own mistake as a lesson.
Jo fell into the habit of calling him “Sir”. He stopped suddenly, and drawing out his dagger, wrote in the ground:
No one knows my name, but I will not tax you with calling me ‘Sir’ forever.
Here, I am Crossman. I am from the remnant of the land of Crossthinia,
The islands that remain were once my home.
I know you must have many questions, so sit down, ask and I will answer as I think best,
Or not at all.
Jo looked at him closely as she crossed her legs. “Can you talk?”
It is best I do not. My voice alone would put many lives in jeopardy.
I speak only to those who have earned the trust of my life, and they are few.
“Why are you helping me? I must be a terrible lot of trouble.”
I have my own reasons for hating Dirkorin; I have seen his methods.
And I know what your king told me. Leading you is little trouble.
The shadows grew long, the mist turned gold and a forgotten warlord answered and taught from his own past.