All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.

Springtide Harvest

a novel by Jeremy Mitchell

Chapter I--Bodies in Motion

    Young Haskell knew two things: the road would be long, and there was no going back. He yawned and stretched his athletic body. For three days he had journeyed south, strolling over weathered cobbles laid by the slaves of a long dead empire; though the civilization’s ghost lived on, its legend perpetuated by the bones of its design.
    A cool breeze tossed Haskell’s short hair and billowed the cotton of his soft oxblood tunic, its laces open to expose his broad, muscular chest. He caught the fleeting look of a washerwoman sitting on the back of a cart ahead and gave her a wink. The woman, barely twenty yet still his senior, blushed and looked away. Haskell smiled. 
    He resumed his easy gait, his left hand on the pommel of his grandfather’s longsword and rubbed at a fading bruise on his clean-shaven jaw--a memento from his master back in Khul, the High City; though Haskell had paid the old bastard back, and then some. His smile broadened. He took in the long train of travelers around him, bent by their lot as much as their heavy packs. These men and women would toil ceaselessly; no matter how many miles they trudged or loads they bore their labours would end in a short life and lingering death.
    Not for Haskell.
    He watched a warrior clad in a suit of steel plate ride up the line: Captain Nedir, leader of the expedition, looked regal, his armour aglow in the afternoon light, a crimson cloak billowing lightly from his shoulders. Nedir was the man Haskell wanted to be.
    Bound for the Kingdom of Lanesford, the caravan was going where Haskell wanted to be: in the borderlands, where action and adventure waited. The sovereign he would earn as a guard along the way would join the host of embossed gold and silver kings weighing down his sturdy leather pouch. The coins were his birthright, liberated from his father’s study before he had fled. 
    They, along with his grandfather’s sword, were Haskell’s pass to a new life, not the one forced on him by his family. His life. Haskell’s mind was not quick enough for serious study and politics bored him. No amount of beating and manipulation would change what he was. His favoured older sister, darling of the family, was ruthlessly sober and business minded. Haskell could never compete. He gritted his teeth and squeezed the hilt of his sword. 
    A youth a few years younger than Haskell cantered by astride a tall bay mare. He was dressed in a fine velvet tunic dyed a vibrant, and expensive, sapphire blue; his fitted, well-oiled boots shone in the morning sun and the fine gold chain about his shoulders clinked ostentatiously with every bounce of his steed. The mare was huge--at least five feet from hoof to withers--but Haskell, uncommonly tall, still rose to the boy’s shoulder, which offered him a glimpse of the youth’s smirk as he passed.
    Haskell watched the fellow slow to a trot beside a fat merchant bedecked in an embarrassment of gold, the metal jouncing and jostling conspicuously as he rode a black stallion. The gaudy pair jangled past an old tinker bent over his worn handcart, its dangling wares rattling noisily as it bumped over the rough road. Haskell chuckled, uncertain who was louder. 
    He did not envy the affluent pair their wealth or finery. He knew that, while visibly unencumbered, the prosperous pair each bore a load of expectation weightier than the packs hauled by the porters at their feet. Both were slaves lashed by the fear of being deprived of wealth and status. Unlike them, Haskell had willingly cast off his finery and traded responsibility for capricious freedom and a battered sword. 
    Haskell stepped off the highway and onto a rough and rutted eastern road, meandering along the verge while chirping sparrows darted from tree to tree over the twitching ears of draft animals and flitted daringly between the carts and wagons ahead. He glanced over his shoulder at the longer train of travellers and traders carrying on down the paved highway, destined for the kingdoms of Siward and Sheffield. 
    The people around Haskell, on the other hand, were bound for one place: Bordertown, Lanesford. The traders would sell iron and steel, spices and luxuries from across the Middle Sea, and goods manufactured in the city, while the farmers and shepherds would settle in Lanesford’s black earth plains and sweet grasslands--colloquially known as the Lane--swept clear of plains barbarians and marauding creatures from the forbidding Blackwood during the last great war; though there was still some fight left in humanity’s eternal enemies. Haskell meant to indulge them, to fight like his grandfather before him. That was the life he craved.
    An errant grey draft mule, intent on a late morning snack of tender grass, veered toward Haskell. The animal dragged its wagon out of the rutted track, the vehicle angling over precipitously as several pieces of its unsecured steel clanged to one side. The travellers beside the wagon cried out, some pointing, some drawing away, others lunging forward in a bravely misguided attempt to hold it upright. The desperate driver clung to his seat while lashing the recalcitrant mule. 
    “Ho there!” Haskell cried. He stepped forward and slapped the mule across its thick, hairy lips, its protruding front teeth scraping his hand. The animal let out an annoyed bray but ultimately gave up its snack. The teamster sighed with relief as his wagon juddered back into the furrowed road.
    A scattered cheer rose from those nearby, who showered Haskell with vigorous claps on the back. Disaster and a long delay averted, the people, wagons and carriages continued down the eastern road. Haskell, buoyant from the attention, perambulated along the roadside.
    The ragged train of travellers passed into the Lakewood, the air sharp with the scent of fallen pine needles and earthy rot of overwintered leaves. The dry twigs of sleeping shrubs scraped the sides of carts and pawed the arms and shins of those on foot for many miles. They entered a clearing, where a pair of high-spirited southern mercenaries, no doubt bored and seeking release, began to skip up and down the line in their plaid trousers. They sang a jaunty tune in a throaty, impenetrable tongue, spears over their shoulders and round wooden shields bumping their backs. Most laughed and egged them on with cheers and claps.
    Haskell gave one of the southerners a playful shove as he skipped past, the fellow twirling away with a grin and singing even louder as he carried up the line.
    “Buffoons. They should have stayed in their filthy hovels,” the fat merchant sneered once the skipping mercenaries had passed.
    “Then who would guard your corpulent hide?” Haskell countered from behind. The weary porters nearby began to laugh. Haskell hated preening, self-important merchants. Like his father.
    “How dare you!” the merchant spluttered, his reddening jowls jiggling with rage. “Do you know who I am?”
    “Another flabby ass from Khul, whinnying just to be heard. I think you need a smack like that mule yonder,” Haskell replied with a raised palm and broad smile.
    “You insolent . . . I never. Such . . . the impertinence!” The apoplectic merchant spurred his horse further up the line. Several porters made exaggerated brays and whinnies while those ahead turned to gawk at the frothing man.
    The merchant’s son, visibly restraining laughter, cantered after his father.
    More hours passed as the caravan moved deeper into the woods. Haskell ambled around a bend preceded by his lengthening shadow and stopped, as had those ahead. The road ran through a mess of soupy ruts and shallow stream then up a rocky hill, its top awash in the red light of the westering sun. Tired, sore and hungry, none contested the halt. Haskell shouldered off his pack and made his way to a dry patch of ground under an elm near the stream.
    The rest of the weary company unpacked their bedrolls, blankets and provisions, each setting up camp where they thought best. Until now, most had kept to themselves or those they already knew, but with their numbers diminished after the split at the highway, and with the woods pressing upon them, the company formed larger, more animated groups around fewer fires. All but the merchant, who screened himself with his porters and thin cook, who was haphazardly tossing vegetables into a large pot. 
    “Get that blasted canvas up, you toads--up, up!” the merchant shouted, his two blue liveried footmen struggling with ropes and a heavy wooden post. “Captain Nedir! Come eat in my tent tonight,” the merchant called. 
    Nedir held up his hands and politely declined as he moved down the road.
    Haskell shook his head and sat against his tree then tore at a tough piece of dried beef.
    “Yer a funny lad,” a plump man said, extending his hand down to Haskell. “M’name’s Flint, a cook by trade.”
    “Haskell,” he replied, giving Flint’s fleshy hand a firm shake.
    “A pleasure, Haskell, a pleasure. My companions carried on to Fisherville and I’m lookin’ to take up with some others. I was considerin’ that merchant, since the man clearly has an appetite, but he already has a cook and I suspect ye’ll make fer more pleasant company.”
    “I’m flattered, Flint. I would be glad to share a fire, particularly if you can turn my provisions into something a bit more enticing!” Haskell smiled and waved his salted beef.
    “Challenge accepted, young sir!” Flint said with a wink. He set down his heavy pack with a clatter of pots and pans.
    Together they built a fire with wood from the pine and elm thickets growing at the base of the hill. They soon found themselves taking their ease around a growing fire with three other travellers.
    Bror and Tor were the two mercenaries who had gambolled their way up and down the line earlier in the day. Their high spirits notwithstanding, they were rough characters clad in worn, iron studded leather armour. Then there was Corben, the teamster whose wagon Haskell had rescued at the junction, plus Corben’s taciturn mule Donner, happily cropping grass at the roadside.
    Flint began to demonstrate his prowess by cooking a thick pottage of cured beef and root vegetables from their pooled provisions, plus some of his own “secret ingredients”. The rich stew bubbled invitingly in a red-orange ceramic pot suspended over hot coals, the aroma drawing envious glances from other groups in the darkening afternoon. 
    Several yards away, the merchant began to castigate his cook over the quality of his meal--the man’s irate voice startling several birds into flight. 
    The five new companions sat in silence with the pot simmering between them. Haskell took in the gloomy undergrowth and smiled. “My nursemaid used to frighten me with stories as a child: ‘Them woodland goblins’ll come and ’et ye ’less ye mind yer manners, young man!’” he parroted shrilly, snatching up a switch and brandishing it for effect. 
    The others laughed.
    “Nah, no goblins up this way--not for a long time now,” Corben said then spit into the brush.
    “Soo’tlandr, beeye settlin’n B’rderto’n?” Bror, the shorter of the two mercenaries, rattled at Haskell.
     “. . . Yes,” Haskell nodded uncertainly.
    “Ach, weebe a’doin’ ta’same, toran’me. We heartell th’coin flow likewater down thataway,” he finished with a nod. Bror jerked a thumb at Haskell as he turned to his companion: “This’un be a’ritegiant o’a’man, ehTor?”
    Tor, who stood a solid six feet, was a silent and imposing figure. Despite his grim aspect, he smiled readily, evident from the deep creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes.
    “I’m headed for Bordertown. How far would you say it is, Corben?” Haskell asked.
    Tor deadpanned something in his thick language that threw Bror into a fit of laughter.
    Flint gave the bottom of the pot a stir and looked up but said nothing.
    “Eighty or ninety miles yet,” Corben grunted.
    “Mmm.” Haskell nodded. “It’ll be a dangerous journey. I’m told the Lakewood is a wild haven for brigands and monstrous creatures. It’s a good thing we have a couple ruffians of our own!” He gave Bror a playful jab with his stick. “Will you be staying in Bordertown? You seem a capable pair.”
    Tor chuckled to himself.
    “Ochaye, forsure. We’be stayin’on’a’time,” Bror said, wiping a tear from his eye.
    Haskell still could not make sense of the syllabic assault, though it did sound affirmative: “Well,” he began, proffering his wineskin, “I’m for the Questors Guild as soon as we reach town. I’m going to earn fast coin by fighting the creatures of the Blackwood south of the Lane. Maybe we can work together? I could use stout companions like yourselves.”
    Flint reached forward and snatched the skin. “I be plannin’ to stay on in Borderton, at least to start. Meybe find an inn or merchant lookin’ fer a good cook or hire on with a lumber camp fer a spell. I hear they pay good,” he said, taking a long pull. After a contemplative pause, he poured a dram of red wine into the stew.
    “Maybe you will come cook for us? It would be nice to have a warm fire and some good, hot food in the wilderness,” Haskell suggested.
    Flint frowned. “I think I’ll try m’luck at somethin’ a bit more usual, if ye take my meaning.” He passed the skin to the teamster beside him.
    “I’m like as not to kick about town a while once I drop my load o’ steel, maybe pick up a couple o’ jobs here an’ there before movin’ on,” Corben said as he passed the wineskin to Bror. “These two clowns are from Siward--that’s clear, but from where do you hail, lad? We don’t grow ’em as big as you up north.”
    “My people are seafaring raiders from down the South Coast, though my family settled in Khul after the Great War.”
    “A land o’ giants,” Corben laughed and took a long swig from a metal flask. “Did your raiders fight during the last war or just sit back and profit?”
    Haskell cleared his throat and tried to formulate a reply. “Some fought as privateers under Letter of Marque, my grandfather among them. That’s how we became established in the city. What about your folk?” he asked quickly.
    “Ah, my kin are from Northbridge, which bore the brunt o’ the orc advance through the Steppes. Nursed by my mother’s sister throughout that long siege, I was. I have vague memory o’ the celebrations when the villains finally broke, but that’s a long way back now,” Corben said.
    “I didn’t live through such dark times, being born during the long peace since,” Haskell said, “but I live for tales like The Siege of Northbridge and the stories of my grandfather. They set me on this path.”
    “I’m a sixth generation cook,” Flint volunteered around a mouthful of hard bread. “My family’s served in the finest noble houses throughout the realm!”
    Tor muttered something unintelligible.
    “Aye, then whatbe’yourclaim’t’fame?” Bror asked the cook from across the fire.
    “Uh . . . yes,” Haskell said to break the uncomfortable silence. “What did your kin do during the War, Bror?”
    Bror looked to Haskell with a cocked brow. “Whose ta’say thawar bedone?”
    Tor nodded grimly then handed Haskell a much lighter wineskin.
    “Hmm,” Haskell responded neutrally. He raised his skin: “Here’s to a safe journey and fine new friends--your health!” 
    Haskell took a mouthful of sour wine then poured a stream onto the leafy ground to placate the fickle gods.


Chapter II--Mercantile Interest


    Hambur was drunk. The corpulent merchant’s folding chair creaked distressingly as he leaned toward a decanter on a nearby trunk, prompting his servant Kerk to rush forward and pour more brandy. Hambur drained his glass and held it out for more. 
    “The ruffian,” he growled. “How dare he embarrass me in front of the company. Who the devil is he, Hiam?”
    The youth was reclining on a folding cot across from his father, his head resting on his palm. “I haven’t the slightest idea. Shall I enquire?”
    “And have the brute skewer you with his monstrous sword? Your mother would never forgive me.” Hambur dragged his servant down by the tunic, bathing the man in an alcoholic pong: “Go see Nedir’s man and ask about that thug.” Kerk nodded and rose only to be hauled back down. “And see about that stew-man of his. I’m tired of cook’s watery dreck--why should brigands have finer fare than me?”
    “Here, here,” Hiam cheered indifferently. Travel with his father was always an unbearable chore.
    Kerk beetled out of the tent.
    Hiam and Hambur lounged in silence for several long minutes, both staring at the red and gold patterns in the carpet between them. Hiam pulled over a trestle table then began to shuffle a tall deck of cards. The back of the deck depicted a serpentine black dragon constricting a broken tower beneath a star and crescent moon. Hiam laid a card on the creamy gold and silver tablecloth: an even-faced king upon a carved stone throne. The monarch gazed at something out of frame while holding a golden cup in his right hand. To his left lay a galley sailing over a calm expanse of ocean, on his right a sinuous blue serpent sprang from a tempestuous sea. The King of Cups, only upside-down. 
    Vindictiveness and volatility. 
    Hiam arched an eyebrow and threw his father a tentative glance.
    “The rabble lives because of the goods we provide. If we let them demean us the kingdoms will fall apart,” Hambur slurred, mostly to himself. “Order from hierarchy: remember that, Hiam.” He said to his son.
    “Yes, father, as you have said. Many times.” Hiam overturned a second card. 
    Purple mountains lay in the background, the largest distant peak circled by the silhouette of a black dragon. A river wound its way down from the peaks through a cluster of trees on the right hand then rushed through flat fields across the bottom. A tall castle on a hill lay in the middle ground. Over everything floated a hand gripping a wand of wood that sprouted new growth. 
    The Ace of Wands: opportunity, fire, action.
    “Gods, boy, does nothing animate you?”
    “Oh, the usual: comfort, diversion . . .” 
    On the third card an armoured knight, sword held high, charged across a green plain atop a white horse. The field was windswept, the trees in the background bent by the gale into which the warrior stormed. Inverted, the composition drew Hiam’s eye to a shadowy dragon plummeting toward the Knave of Swords.
    Impatience, rashness, blind ambition.
    “You’re hopeless, boy,” Hambur said before sipping more brandy.
    “Proudly so.” 
    The final card showed a queen gazing with sad longing at a gold coin in her lap. Her stone throne was intricately carved with lion, goat and dragon heads. The card’s key-hole arch frame was adorned with a well-trimmed arch of roses. Wild growth at her feet was being nibbled by a young hare. Blue mountains and autumnal boughs lay below her in the background. The Queen of Coins, reversed, emphasized the unkempt growth and dragon-headed armrests of her unyielding throne.
    Jealousy, greed and dereliction of duty.
    “An odd court,” Hiam muttered.
    Hambur slapped the top of his trunk. “Speak up, disobedient child!” 
    Hiam sighed and regarded his father. “You are particularly distempered this voyage.”
    “The caravan moves too slowly!”
    “The price of commerce, father. The town will be there when we arrive.”
    Hambur sniggered over his whiskey glass. “Parts of it will not be for long--I must get back to arrange things.”
    Hiam squinted at his father. “Your settlement in the Lane is task enough for one season. What other schemes are you laying?”
    The servant ducked through the tent flap. Hambur turned expectantly: “What’s the rogue’s name? Out with it, man!”
    “The register lists him as Haskell of Khul,” Kerk said.
    Hambur sat forward. “Who’s his father; what’s his trade?”
    “It did not list his sire, master. He is recorded only as a traveller retained as a guard.”
    “Bah!” Hambur waved, then turned back. “Bring my writing desk--and fetch me a pigeon!”
    “I will gladly bear a message back to the city, father,” Hiam said.
    “Nonsense. You will learn our profession in the place I see fit!”
    “The place to which mother has banished you,” Hiam breathed.
    “Quiet, boy!” Hambur snapped. Kerk set a polished wooden writing surface across his master’s ample lap. 
    Was Hiam the Knave of Swords, or some other player? Was his mother, who had sent them to the borderlands, the Queen of Coins, or did another formidable matriarch await them? The cards were always vague, but one thing was clear: trouble awaited them.
    Hambur removed a sheaf of parchment from inside the desk and took up his quill: “I’ll suss out the brigand’s dirty secrets.”
    Hiam reshuffled his deck. “Six more days . . .” he whispered.

Chapter III--Perilous Paths

    Three days later, the caravan ground to a halt in a broad Lakewood clearing. The still air was cold and full of fat white snowflakes that melted as soon as they hit the ground. Leafless trees rose above patchy, stunted grass and the tan husks of last year’s monkshood, ferns and milkweed. No one spoke, only gazed at the shadowy treeline from where the woman’s shriek had come.
    “Why have we stopped?” Hambur asked aloud. His black steed started as his master’s voice broke the heavy silence. Hambur looked about, searching for someone to harangue as he checked his mount. He saw the captain galloping down the line. “You there, Nedir! Why have we stopped?”
     Nedir threw the merchant a grim look as he and his armoured lieutenant eased their pace. “A handmaiden has been taken,” the lieutenant offered.
    Hambur kicked his horse after them. “You are putting us all in danger by stopping here. It could be a trap!” He scanned the silent treeline like it were about to sprout highwaymen.
    Nedir checked his horse and rounded on Hambur. “A handmaiden was snatched from the woods’ edge. Do you suggest we do nothing, forsaking duty and honour?”
    “She is merely a servant. I cannot be delayed!” Hambur insisted, though less forcibly.
    “Then I suggest you carry on alone,” Nedir said with quiet menace. “But should you vanish from the road, know that I will offer you the same regard you give to her.” 
    The captain wheeled his horse and spurred down the line.


* * *

    Haskell sprang off a fallen ash as he ran through the woods, landing in a crouch amid a cluster of dry weeds. Others were crashing through the underbrush behind him, making it difficult to hear anything else.
    “Damn it!” he hissed.
    Everyone had heard the scream: sharp, terrified and short. He had dashed into the woods without thinking, pursued the shadowy form of someone (or something) slipping through the trees; but he could not find them. Any horror could be lurking in the middle of the Lakewood. Was it a bandit or a creature from the old tales: a tall troll or hulking ogre out for an easy meal? He gripped the hilt of his sheathed sword. Perhaps he should wait for the others.
    Haskell stiffened as he heard a crash and muffled cry.
    He sprang forward, skirting clusters of leafless trees and vaulting a low evergreen as he tried to stay on course. Bounding up a leafy rise, he stopped short. At the bottom of a woody depression lay a girl; her dress ripped apart exposing smooth, pale skin, though her face and throat were swollen and bruised. A hulking form in dark, patched leather was pawing her exposed breasts as it mounted her. Another man stood by watching.
    “C’mon, Lurg, it’s my turn; them caravaners is nearby,” the lookout whispered, his gaze never leaving the girl’s soft curves.
    Haskell grew hot and his vision swam. Men? Men preying on their own kind while all manner of monsters still prowled the wilderness? Haskell did not realize he had drawn his sword, or that he had charged down the slope, his body animated by righteous indignation.
    The lookout turned dumbly as Haskell plunged his long blade through the man’s belly. The vagabond let out a feeble groan as Haskell yanked his sword free. Teeth gritted, Haskell turned on the other brigand, only to receive a face full of dirt. He roared and wiped dirt from his eyes while the one called Lurg scrabbled back, a long knife in one hand and notched axe in the other.
    Lurg was no man. Bald with warty, pale green skin, it had slits for a nose, large, widely spaced eyes and a broad mouth full of jagged teeth. It was shorter than Haskell but powerfully built. The creature had abandoned its trousers, its patched leather tunic failing to cover its wet, dangling member. Lurg grinned and licked its thin lips with a long, green tongue.
    “Orc!” Haskell growled. 
    The orcs had been broken long ago but some remained in human realms as mercenaries and thieves or within barbarian tribes on the eastern steppes. They left progeny in their wake like detritus for others to kick into the gutters of society.
    The orc’s knife lashed out, but Haskell came in fast, turning its dagger with his sword. This was Haskell’s kind of fight; the kind he had fought in Khul’s barrooms and alleys since he was a tall, angry fourteen-year-old. He kneed Lurg’s exposed genitals into its bony pelvis. The orc gasped and dropped its weapons, clutching its groin as it fell to its knees. Haskell stepped back and swept his sword its orc’s thick neck in one smooth motion, its head tumbling into the dirt with a look of surprise on its malevolent face. 
    Haskell looked at his long blade. Orc and human blood ran together indistinguishably on the oiled steel. He pulled a rag from his pouch and wiped his sword clean. He knelt beside the bleeding, violated girl, and did his best to pull her torn dress closed. Her face and throat were black and swollen but she would live. Whether that was a blessing or a curse, he could not say. Her life would not be easy after today. 
    Haskell’s attention was drawn by the crunch of leaves from behind. Captain Nedir stood at the edge of the depression, surveying the carnage below. The two nodded grimly to one another.


* * *

    Back in the clearing, Haskell strode beside his mounted captain with the caravan creeping through the woods behind them. He could not stop thinking about the maiden; what life she would lead after today. He thought about despoiled women back in Khul: outcasts forced to eke out a living on street corners with their illegitimate offspring hugging their knees. 
    He, like the rest of society, had not treated them kindly.
    “That was fine work,” Nedir said. “Not many could handle a man and orc alone. Where did you learn to fight?”
    Haskell shook his head, thankful for the distraction. “The streets of Khul can be rough, though you could say fighting is in my blood.”
    Nedir grinned. “You must be very skilled. Or lucky.”
    “Both, I like to think,” Haskell replied, studying Nedir’s impressive steel armour. It was scratched and mended from years of hard use, but polished and finely made.
    Nedir chuckled. “Young and foolhardy: a dangerous combination. I should have marked you as a would-be questor bound for the borderlands. There’s no shortage of young folk headed south to fight, even in these peaceable times. You could stay on with my company--there are still many dangers on the road, as you have seen.”
    “True, but not the kind I’m after. I want a company of my own. I want to be there when we slay the last goblin and clear the wilderness,” Haskell said.
    “You want it all in one go, do you? Be careful you don’t get more than you can handle, Haskell. You won’t catch Blackwood goblins with their pants down,” Nedir laughed, then frowned. “Apologies, I have become cynical. I feel badly for the girl.”
    Haskell politely ignored Nedir’s jest: “Did you fight in the Blackwood?”
    “Oh, yes, I did my time in that forest, and aptly named it is. You’re sure you won’t join me? We leave for the King’s Court at Shadowkeep the day after we reach Bordertown. Then its westward through the kingdoms. It’s a good life.”
    “No doubt, but I’ve dreamt of this since I was a boy: to fight like my grandfather--with this very sword!” Haskell rattled his blade. “I can’t turn aside now with Bordertown so close!”
    “Temper your expectations. It is not orcs, ogres and bugbears that dog my caravans these days, but vagabonds and Guild-traitors. How quickly we turn on ourselves once the old threats are gone. In that regard alone do I miss the old days: the common purpose, the belonging,” Nedir said.
    “I’m equal to the danger,” Haskell said casually.
    “Not everything is as black and white as you think--” Nedir began. He looked long at the tall, adventurous young man striding along beside him and smiled. “Have it your way. You will learn, as I did; though I wish you more luck than I had in the woods and fields of Lanesford.”


* * *

    Hambur rode along behind Haskell and Nedir. He did not hear their words or those of his son beside him; nor did he note the beautiful sunset or spring’s first flowers growing beside the road. Hambur saw only Haskell, the upstart who publicly mocked him, who thought he could saunter into Bordertown--Hambur’s town--to play the hero.
    Hambur fingered his gold chains with murder in his eyes.
    The insolent boy knew nothing at all.