The road out from Taraam was desolate. The first day of travel had passed in quiet, dreary boredom, and they’d slept in tents beneath the rain.
And today’s shaping up to be much the same.
Some of that was normal, Prudence knew. She hadn’t known much about the area before, but these last days Perrin had explained a great deal. He’d lived at Taraam a few years, after all, and knew the lay of the land well.
The region around Taraam, around the Underpass in particular, was rough land. Mostly unsettled, bordering on three different Middish kingdoms: Kirkworth to the west, Cardenbury to the south, and Copperwell to the north.
Natural barriers made it inconvenient for any of those kingdoms to assert the full force of their influence. More than that, the terrain was mostly rocky foothills dotted with small groves. Good fertile land was sparse, the farms were scattered and relatively rare.
The most valuable thing in the area was also the source of its danger: The Underpass. A passage through the Midland Mountains that did not close for winter, and was smooth and straight enough to allow wagon trains to traverse it. So long as those wagon trains were not waylaid by goblins or brigands.
And thus Taraam was born, Prudence thought. A valuable trade passage in rough land, far enough that none of the local polities can easily claim and hold it. But all of those polities can pay a yearly stipend to Taraam, and Taraam can keep the region safe.
Perrin said it had worked well for generations. Every so often the goblins of the Underpass would grow aggressive, and require a more in-depth excursion to press them back. Apparently Captain Olivenco had led one such expedition shortly after he took on the title of Captain, some years ago.
Those previous expeditions were nothing like this one, though, she thought. She glanced at Perrin and his brothers in arms. Connor Quickblade had taken a spot on the wagon with Lefty, his sword-arm still bound up in a sling. Perrin was mounted up, riding a little ahead of the wagon. Another of his brethren, a fellow named Holbrook that Perrin had called Hal, rode with him.
Prudence trailed behind the caravan, periodically looking over her shoulder. Mostly, she eyed the terrain ahead of them, keeping a wide view of their column, watching for any ambushes that might have slipped the notice of the other scouts. Somewhere up ahead Yorrin and Dylan were riding point.
Hills hemmed them in on both sides. With the sky overcast and visibility hurt by the steady rain, this could be a good ambush spot. But Prudence had seen no signs of life out here. According to Robin, he’d managed to round up virtually every bandit active in the region and fold them into his Songbirds. He’d kept them in line with promises of the plunder they’d find within Fort Taraam, and a future waylaying merchants without fear of reprisal from the Fort.
Perrin doesn’t trust him, Prudence mused. But he’s so nakedly slimy, it’s hard to imagine he’s hiding another, even slimier person beneath. I don’t see how it would benefit him, and I refuse to believe he does anything unless it benefits him.
They came around a bend in the road, and a sprawl of rocky flatland stretched out ahead of them. She saw the small mounted figures of Yorrin and Dylan, a few hundred feet ahead of the column. A long distance to the northwest, she saw a few wispy trails of smoke rising somewhere behind a hill topped by a dense thicket. Probably a farmstead, one of the rare locals.
Prudence spotted Perrin sidle up to the wagon and a few of the riders that stayed close to it. They exchanged a few words, then he peeled off from the rest of them. He rode his horse towards her at a brisk trot.
“Prudence,” he said. He smiled when he said her name, an expression that brightened his soft features. He’d shaved when they got to Fort Taraam, a look that worked well for him. His beard, such as it was, had been sparse and patchy.
“Perrin,” she replied. His smile only widened. His eyes, a sort of bluish-greenish hue, sparkled. “What is it?”
“We should be closing in on the Crossroads Inn,” he said. “Lefty agrees.”
“Already?” Prudence said. “Thought you said it would take two days out from Taraam, at this pace.”
Perrin nodded. “We’re still some distance off. Few hours, I bet. But close enough that we could be there much sooner, without the wagon.”
“That smoke up ahead?” Prudence asked, dipping her head towards it.
“Of course you already saw it,” Perrin said, chuckling. “Yeah. It’ll be good to have another night out of the rain.”
“Will they have room for all of us?” Prudence asked. “Seven Taraamites, and our own company’s seven as well.”
“Definitely,” Perrin said. “The Crossroads is big, as inns go. More than a dozen staff, the last time I was there. They keep a store of food and sundries to sell to travelers, too. Almost more a village than an inn.”
“Makes sense,” Prudence said. “Last stop before the Underpass.”
“Exactly,” Perrin said. He smirked. “You should be able to get that bath now.”
Prudence narrowed her eyes at the cheeky mercenary. She’d been desperate for a bath for the better part of their time on the road. Even considered it at Taraam, since they had a well. But they didn’t have much fuel to spare, and the mercenaries had enough work to do without taking time out to help haul water for Prudence. She hadn’t even asked.
But I mentioned it to Perrin, she thought. I didn’t think he realized why I mentioned it to him, innocent as he is. But maybe I misjudged him.
“Good,” she said, keeping her tone clipped and curt. She was pretty sure she noticed Perrin smirking again, but she ignored it.
A clap of thunder echoed out across the field. Prudence glanced up, and saw dark clouds rolling in from the east.
She gave the reins of her mount a quick shake, and it picked up speed to a canter.
“Come on,” she said. Perrin followed close behind. “Let’s hope we stay ahead of that.”
By the time they reached the Crossroads Inn, rain beat down on them like a waterfall. It had soaked through Prudence’s cloak, and she shivered involuntarily. The Cassaline road was well made, allowing most of the rain to run off into deep muddy channels on either side.
The sun was obscured by clouds, and light was waning, but even so Prudence could clearly see the Crossroads. As its name implied, it lay at an intersection of Cassaline trade roads. Prudence and her group approached from the east, and one artery continued further west into Kirkworth. Another branched south, towards Cardenbury, and the last split north towards Copperwell. That would be their path, come the morning. Beyond Copperwell lay Yerevan, and the northern kingdom of Rusk.
The main building at the Crossroads was a huge wooden structure that loomed some three stories high. It looked solidly constructed, and Prudence saw an orange light glowing through the windows. Nearby was a stable, another sprawling structure that Prudence judged could easily hold all their horses and many more besides. She saw a granary resting on staddle stones, and beyond that a cluster of smaller hovels.
Perrin was right. This looks more like a hamlet than an inn.
They approached together, the need for scouting behind them. As they pulled off the stone road and onto the well-worn dirt track—a mud track, now—Prudence saw some movement inside the stables. By the time they arrived, four youths had bounded out into the rain to meet them. None of them looked to be too far into their teens, but a fifth man came limping out behind them. He looked older, his face weathered and creased, his hair gray and receded.
“Hello,” Aleksandr said, nudging his horse forward. Yorrin stayed close by Aleksandr’s right side. Prudence hung back, but close enough to hear.
“Lookin’ to stay the night, my lord?” asked the older fellow.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. The man seemed to hesitate, likely trying to understand Aleksandr’s response.
“Yeah,” Yorrin clarified.
The man brightened. “How many steeds? Four and ten?”
He’s got a good head for numbers, Prudence noted. Nine of the steeds were being ridden, four pulling the wagon, and one trailing behind the wagon. She doubted most common folk living out here would be able to give an accurate count at a glance like that.
“Da,” Aleksandr said again. Then, “Yes. That is right. How much will it cost?”
“You can square up the payment inside, m’lord. But we’ll take ‘em for you now,” said the stablehand. “Them and the wagon both. Reckon you’ll be wantin’ out of the rain, yeah?”
“Da. But I will stay,” Aleksandr said. “Dascha, he is not… hm. Friendly. Is better if I—”
“I got it,” Dylan interjected. He dismounted, handing the reins of his horse to one of the stableboys. He reached out and placed a tentative hand on Dascha’s nose. “You’ll tolerate me, won’t you Dascha?”
The warhorse blew out a snort, and made as if to bite Dylan’s hands. Dylan didn’t flinch, and Dascha lipped him instead. Dylan reached up and gave the horse a scratch along the chin, eliciting a pleased rumble from the stallion. Prudence wasn’t surprised. Dylan seemed to be almost as good with horses as Aleksandr himself.
“You are sure?” Aleksandr said.
“Of course. You should go on in, make sure we all get squared up,” Dylan said.
Aleksandr dismounted. He hissed in pain as he came down onto his injured leg, but Prudence saw him suppress the reaction quickly. Yorrin slipped off his steed as well, and silently offered Aleksandr a shoulder to put some of his weight on. Aleksandr accepted it without comment.
He gave Dascha a level look. “Behave,” he advised, before turning back towards the wagon. Lefty was climbing down, likewise wincing as his injured leg touched the mud. Lefty nodded up to Connor, who still sat in the driver’s seat of the wagon.
“Make sure it’s stowed safe, yeah?” Taraam’s lieutenant said. Connor nodded, and Lefty turn to join Aleksandr.
Prudence saw Alaina come around from behind the wagon. Olivenco followed, walking under his own power. Behind them, Hal and Perrin were helping to bring in Edric, who was still suffering from a number of grievous wounds and clearly couldn’t get around on his own.
“Let’s get inside and out of the rain,” Alaina said.
“Da,” Aleksandr and Yorrin fell into step beside the priestess. Lefty sidled up alongside his Captain, offering Olivenco a shoulder to lean on if his strength faltered. Olivenco waved him off.
Borthul, Bear, and the last Taraamite—a fresh-faced young recruit named Matt, that the others typically just called “Boy”—gathered around the stablehands and began dismounting.
Prudence swung down off of her horse, and passed the reins to one of the stableboys. She flicked him a copper gir.
“Thank y’kindly, sir!” the boy said, grinning.
“Treat her well,” Prudence said, patting her horse’s flank affectionately. “She’s been through a lot.”
The stablehand’s eyes widened briefly. As Prudence turned away, she heard him muttering to one of his fellows. “Tor’! That one’s a girl!”
Prudence let the corners of her mouth quirk in amusement as she trudged to the inn.
A gust of warm air greeted Prudence as she stepped into the common room of the Crossroads. Smoke drifted up from a central hearth, but Prudence was pleased to see that it did not choke the common. Mainly because the ceiling was vaulted, rising high up to what was likely the full height of the building. She immediately realized the inn was split into two halves: the common room with its high ceiling, and the back rooms below two floors of private quarters.
The common room bustled with activity. Prudence saw more than a dozen other patrons, most of them gathered around a few tables that had been pushed together. Aleksandr and Lefty were conversing with a gray-haired woman as everyone filed in behind them. Discussing the cost of lodging, from the sound of it.
“Come on, Tilda,” Lefty said, grumbling. “How much trade you think you’d do, if Taraam stood empty? Cut us a deal here, woman.”
The innkeeper smiled. “You know I am, Emmett. But this is business, not a church. I’ve got costs.”
“It is fine,” Aleksandr cut in. “This price, is fair.”
“More than fair,” the innkeeper said.
“Da,” Aleksandr said. He reached into his belt purse. “I think I can—”
“I’ve got it,” Alaina said. She stepped forward, drawing a gold mina from her own purse. “This should cover us all with change to spare, I think. For all of it: Beds, food, and fodder for the animals.”
The innkeeper’s eyes widened at the coin. She licked her lips, then nodded. “Aye, should do just fine,” she said.
“Alaina…” Aleksandr said, clearly meaning to protest.
“After everything you’ve done for me,” she said. “It’s nothing.”
She had no idea her need to get to Yerevan with haste would lead to all this, Prudence realized. Blood and death and grievous injury. She doesn’t know the first thing about fighting, and she’s had to watch us all throw ourselves into danger time and again. Small wonder she wants to repay it, if only a little. Let her, Aleksandr.
The language barrier made it easy to underestimate his insight, but Aleksandr was no fool. Especially, Prudence had noticed, as it concerned people. He sighed, and dropped the matter.
Alaina offered up the coin. The innkeeper snatched it up immediately, and squinted at the sigils stamped into each side. They marked it as a Torathian mina, currency of the greatest kingdom in the Midlands. She bit the coin, then tucked it into her apron.
“Make yourselves comfortable, loves,” she said with a grin. “I’ll fetch your change, marm. Bowls of brown’ll be right out. And you’ll be wantin’ somewhat to drink, I reckon.”
In short order, they took seats near the hearth. A serving girl brought out bread trenchers filled with steaming pottage and mugs of warm beer. The pottage wasn’t bad—Prudence tasted barley, onions, and sage—but the beer wasn’t much to her liking. Still, most of the men guzzled it down with enthusiasm.
They weren’t nearly done with their meal before one of the other patrons made his way over. Prudence had noticed him early on.
The man was tall, with the dark olive skin of a southerner. Spatalian or Cassaline, something along those lines. His clothes were well-cut silks and linens, dyed in purple and blue. His moustache was precisely groomed, and his dark eyes roved across Prudence’s companions with shrewd consideration. He was unarmed, and Prudence noted a gold ring gleaming on one finger.
He looks like a prime mark, she thought to herself. Rich clothing and soft features. Probably why he’s got the guards.
He was flanked by two men who looked to share his trade, albeit with less visible success. Their clothes were nice, but even at a glance Prudence knew they were not nearly as expensive. One was as tall as the lead man, though thinner. The other was short and fat, his belly straining his tailored doublet as it spilled over his belt.
They weren’t guards, obviously. More likely merchants. But at the two tables they’d stood up from, Prudence noted ten other men. Every one of them was clad in gambeson and mail, with blades and bows and axes leaning against their chairs.
“Greetings!” pronounced the man in the lead. The one word confirmed Prudence’s guess: Spatalian or Cassaline, for a certainty. His accent bore some resemblance to Olivenco’s, but there were marked differences. Less musical, somehow. More enunciation, more crisp. Not from the same region of the south, at the very least.
Aleksandr rose from the table, eyeing the man with some wariness. “Hello…” he said, drawing out the word.
“Giancarlo Rossi, at your service, signore,” the man said. He bowed, flourishing with his hands as he did so.
“Aleksandr. Kerensky,” Aleksandr said.
“Ah, a Ruskan, from the sound of that name. I am not familiar with your family, I’m afraid. Not from Yerevan?”
“No,” Aleksandr said. “Considerably further north.”
Giancarlo nodded. “Si, of course. Rusk is vast. I have not gone much further than Yerevan, I’m afraid.”
A beat of silence, where Giancarlo no doubt expected Aleksandr to reply. Aleksandr was silent, studying this stranger. Giancarlo took the awkward pause in stride.
“May I introduce Elfisio and Aguapo,” he gestured in turn to the two men behind him. Elfisio was the skinny one, Aguapo the fat one. “Factors in my service.”
“Hello,” Aleksandr said. He still sounded stiff.
He’s expecting this fellow to want something from us. Because of course he will. Prudence couldn’t help but be impressed with Aleksandr.
“And your colleagues?” Giancarlo prompted.
Aleksandr glanced behind him. Olivenco, Lefty, Alaina, and Yorrin had all risen to their feet when the stranger began introducing himself. They each eyed Giancarlo, but none of them seemed eager to jump into the conversation.
It was Yorrin that broke the silence. Prudence smirked as the small man sauntered a few steps forward. His gambeson was sodden, filthy, and torn from battle. His boots were so caked in mud it sloughed onto the wooden floor with each step. He offered a grimy hand for Giancarlo to shake.
“Yorrin,” he said.
To his credit, Giancarlo shook Yorrin’s hand without the slightest bit of hesitation. “A pleasure!” he said.
“And this is Mother Alaina, a priestess of Torathia,” Aleksandr said.
Giancarlo flashed a grin at her.
“Just Alaina will do,” she said. She offered a hand to shake as well.
“The truth of that is plain to see,” Giancarlo said. He clasped Alaina’s hand with both of his. “I was just thinking… mother? Surely not! You are too young and beautiful for such an honorific.”
Lefty stepped up next, before Aleksandr could introduce him.
“Lefty,” he growled. “Of Taraam. And that’s the Captain, Olivenco.”
Olivenco had not stepped forward, still standing behind Aleksandr and Lefty. He nodded coolly to Giancarlo, but made no move to shake his hand.
Giancarlo’s eyes lit up. “Indeed?” he said. “In truth, I had hoped as much when I saw you enter. Your tabards, the tower on blue and gray, I know the heraldry well enough.”
Ah. And now we come to it, Prudence thought. Though what exactly they were coming to wasn’t yet clear to her.
Giancarlo continued: “I guessed that you were of Taraam, though I did not hope to dream that the Cutter of Camarr would be in your number. It is you, si?”
Giancarlo rattled off a sentence or two in Spatalian, or something like it.
Olivenco sighed. “Si,” he said after a long pause. “Though… Middish, please. My Cassaline was never pretty, señor, and I am sure by now it has gone completely to rust.”
“I see,” Giancarlo said. “Scusi, scusi. But… you are the Cutter of Camarr? Leader of Fort Taraam?”
“I am,” Olivenco said.
“Marvelous!” Giancarlo said. “We have been stuck here for some time, my friend. The Underpass, it is overrun, they say. Not safe. I have two full loads of goods intended for Nahash, and here they have sat for far too long.”
“If you are here, I trust it is because the danger is passed? The tunnel, it is safe once more?”
Olivenco stepped forward finally. There was no missing when Giancarlo finally saw the empty sleeve hanging at Olivenco’s right side.
“No,” he said. “It is not.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over them. Giancarlo seemed stunned, everything he’d planned to say forgotten.
“The Underpass is still overrun,” Aleksandr said finally. “The domovoy—the goblins—are more aggressive than ever. Taraam has suffered many losses. They will not make another attempt to clear the pass until they have recruited more men. I would not recommend taking that route, not unless you have an army at your back.”
“Not even then,” Yorrin muttered. “Not if you can avoid it.”
“I see,” Giancarlo finally said. “You have my sympathies, then. And I will continue to sit here, bleeding coins, until I figure out what market would be next-to-best for my wares.”
Cry us a river, Prudence thought. She doubted anyone in her group felt any more than she did for the merchant’s plight.
“Best of luck,” Olivenco said, his voice empty of sympathy. He turned his back to the Cassaline merchant and returned to his meal.
The interaction fizzled after that. Giancarlo had clearly been hoping for good news, and without any such news he soon returned to his table. Every so often he or one of his factors would surreptitiously glance their way. Prudence noticed each time they did it, but nothing came of it.
Before long, Borthul retired to his room to sleep. Alaina went with a few of the Taraamites to see Lordling and Olivenco settled into their respective rooms and change their dressings. The common room bled patrons over the next hour, until it was just Giancarlo’s group and Aleksandr’s.
Bear and Robin moved to another table and began throwing dice over a few handfuls of Torathian gir and Middish farthings. One of the the rough-looking mercenaries from Giancarlo’s table joined them soon enough.
Perrin sat with Prudence after the meal, sipping bitter beer and talking. He told her of his home in the Middish kingdom of Caedia. It was some distance away, along the western coast. Prudence had heard of it, of course. It was the largest kingdom west of the Midland Mountains. But she’d never seen it before.
“Your father fought in a war?” she asked. “That was with… Lorraine? Or am I misremembering?”
Perrin grinned. “No, you got it. An army crossed the channel from the Lorranette Isles and invaded southern Caedia. This was before I was born, mind you. Twenty, thirty years ago? Something like that.”
“And your father was conscripted? A yeoman, or—”
“A miller. Well-respected in his home village, but, well. When your lord calls his banners, you answer the call.”
Prudence nodded. She knew enough of Middish feudal practices, outside the theocracy of Torathia.
And even in Torathia, after a fashion. If the Church called for aid, every king that professes to follow the Faith would be expected to answer.
“Anyway, tales of the war were what drove me to Taraam, really,” Perrin said. “Not the battle, exactly. I mean, sure. I was a boy. Tales of epic battles, Caedian knights clashing with Loonie chevaliers, it all enchanted me of course.”
Perrin blushed a little. Prudence was fair certain he didn’t even realize it. Just a little extra color in his cheeks, at the admission of a childish dream. Prudence felt her own cheeks grow warmer in kind.
“But what really enchanted me was the brotherhood. The sense of fellowship, of honor and duty. Serving his lord, fighting a just war against invaders, protecting the common folk. It sounded right. And a damn sight more exciting than grinding wheat for a living.”
“And… is it?” Prudence asked.
The question gave Perrin pause. He took a sip of beer, and his nose wrinkled in a charming display of disgust at the taste of it. Finally, he nodded.
“I suppose it is. More exciting. More meaningful. But also…” he hesitated. Swallowed. “Father never spent much time dwelling on the horror of it all. The smell, the blood, the screaming. The pounding of your heart in your ears. The—” He caught himself.
Prudence reached out and rested her palm on top of Perrin’s hand. Perrin drained the rest of his beer in a long pull, and they sat in silence for a while.
“Do you miss home, much?” Prudence finally asked. “Your family, or your friends?”
Perrin considered the question. “Sometimes,” he said. “But father died before I left. My brother inherited the mill. We never saw eye-to-eye, much. Part of why I left. I was fifteen, and ready to make my own way.”
“No friends you left behind?”
“A few,” Perrin said, shrugging. “None that close, though.”
“No girls, I take it?” Prudence asked.
Perrin’s earlier blush deepened considerably. “Um,” he hesitated. “Not… not really. No.”
“Not really? Or no?”
“No,” Perrin said. “I never really—I mean—”
“It’s alright,” Prudence said. She smiled. “You’re… innocent?”
He swallowed. Looked over his shoulder, perhaps confirming that none of his brothers in arms were in earshot. Finally, he nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “Not many opportunities, at the Fort. Not unless you want a wh—I mean. Yeah. Not many opportunities.”
“I see,” Prudence said. She tried to stifle her smile, but she knew she was failing. It was the beer. Foul tasting, but it had gone to her head.
We couldn’t have come to this inn at a better time, she thought. This is right. Perfect, even.
Alaina came back down from above. She joined them at the table, exchanging a few quiet words with Aleksandr. Then she waved over one of the serving girls.
“Yes, marm?” the girl asked.
“A bath, please. The coin I gave your mistress should cover it.”
“Of course,” the girl said. “I’ll have the lads bring up a tub, and draw water for you.”
“Pardon,” Prudence said, raising a hand.
The serving girl glanced her way, and Prudence fished into her own purse. She held up a silver shekel. “Could you draw water enough for more than one?”
The girl nodded. “Yes, miss. Of course. Another bath?”
Prudence glanced at Perrin, a smile on her lips. “Two baths, please,” she said.
Perrin’s brow furrowed. He gave Prudence a curious look. “Uh. Two?”
Prudence met his gaze. In the corner of her eye, Prudence saw Alaina and the serving girl share a knowing smile.
“Two.” Prudence repeated. “I want you clean tonight. Unless… you disagree?”
Perrin stared at her with wide eyes, mouth slightly agape. After a moment, he closed his mouth and blinked a few times. “Right,” he said. He glanced at the serving girl. “Two.”