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Springtide Harvest

a novel by J.D. Mitchell

April 1

Chapter I—Rake’s Progress

 

Khul, the High City, seat of Fornbrad, sat astride the mirrored, azure waters of broad Tuskbay. Granite mansions soared into the night sky, pale towers of light under a waxing gibbous moon. Below, the stately abodes of merchants and artisans: foothills of opulence rising above the sprawling squalor of the common masses, whose tenements fell away to the sea. The shadowy quay, alive with the business of a hundred kingdoms during the day, was quiet.

Which suited Haskell just fine.

He fled the dockside tavern with a girl in tow, hurrying along a block of warehouses, their stone façades stained a ghostly blue by arcane light posts; their wrought iron tops bloomed into twisted fingers of metal: unliving boughs within which blue flame kindled from the air. Haskell brought the girl to a shallow alcove and pushed her gently inside. She was around his age—seventeen, maybe eighteen—but her head came only to his chest.

 

“Admit it,” he whispered, gazing down her bodice, “you're a nymph crawled from the sea to tempt me.” He stooped and brushed his lips along the slope of her neck.

 

She giggled, bit her lip, and looked at him with greedy eyes, feeling his hard stomach through a soft oxblood tunic. She laced her delicate fingers through his strong right hand—his knuckles bloodied against the face of a burly sailor in the tavern. Sailors did not like tall Southron folk, particularly those with designs on their women. Haskell was used to it. Two years dockside taught him there were no fair fights, only winners and losers; and he rarely lost.

Haskell was no scholar—he struggled with numbers and was fourteen before his tutor finally whipped letters into his poor student—but he could read the girl well enough. She had nursed her drink too much to frequent such excellent dockside establishments, and the weave of her dress was too fine. Not as fine as Haskell’s, but no commoner's rough-spun. No, the girl was a shopkeeper's daughter out for a bit of adventure.

 

He was happy to oblige.

 

“I . . . never—” she began.

Haskell drew her close and kissed her; he ran his hand through her long hair and held it tight, drew her head back and kissed her throat. She ran her fingers through his thick, unkempt hair, and her smooth cheek along his. She moaned, her breath hot in his ear, and ground her pelvis into his leather-clad thigh.

Her eagerness was an elixir to Haskell: a validation he could not otherwise obtain. He worked up her skirt; needed to touch her.

 

“Feckless scoundrel; I knew I would find you here,” a man said, his reedy voice dripping venom.

 

Haskell pulled his lips from the girl’s with a wet smack and looked over his shoulder. The girl gasped, pushed down her skirt, and huddled against him.

 

Master Slade, bent by age, wore a mantle of dignity over his fine robes and a look of utter contempt on his sagging face. The tidy rigging of the ships behind him glowed in the street lights like the corded webs of titanic spiders. “Imbecile. I told you to work out those invoices by moonrise. You cannot complete the simplest task.”

 

The girl ran.

 

Haskell reached for her, but the silver pommel of Slade’s cane rang off the stone wall before him. She dashed along the quayside and vanished around a corner.

 

“Damn it, master, she—”

 

“Was your true love? I suppose you left your coin purse in the tavern?”

 

Haskell clutched his dangling purse-strings, and grinned. “That vixen . . .” She was good. He could still taste her, would have paid anything to have her. If only he had gotten her name.

 

Slade’s cane hammered Haskell's jaw, sending him against the alcove’s smooth stone with a grunt and onto the rough, cobbled street.

 

The old man shook his cane in Haskell’s face. “You bring only shame on your family, and waste every opportunity—”

 

“Opportunistic thievery,” Haskell muttered while fingering his jaw. A molar felt loose. Maybe that was his imagination.

 

“What?”

 

“Usurers and moneylenders have nothing on you, master.”

 

Slade growled and looked skyward. “Gods know I tried where your father failed.”

 

“Father’s nothing. My grandfather—” Slade’s cane cracked against Haskell’s head.

 

“Your grandfather was a shiftless rake, like you; your father is twice—”

 

“Grandfather was a hero,” Haskell cried. “He broke the orcs; they wrote songs about him. Father’s a cowardly cheat. Like you.”

 

Slade raised his cane. “I will beat respect into you, boy, or kill you trying.”

 

Something splintered inside Haskell. Not his head or jaw—that pain evaporated. Something lower. Deeper. It released a creeping fire within that made him shake and taste iron. When he looked up, slowly, and glared into Slade's hateful eyes.

 

The fire only grew.

Haskell stole into a merchant’s cobbled yard and glanced around, breathing hard. He massaged his throbbing jaw. At least the shaking had stopped. He had done it without thinking: repaid Slade’s brutality tenfold, his body a puppet moved by strings of rage. The bastard was probably still alive. Probably. Part of Haskell did not care, either way; but the Guard would. They would be after him soon.

He crept to a shed abutting the back wall and gazed at a dark, second storey window. It was high, but he could reach it. He had before. The house belonged to a jumped-up trader who rose to prominence on the throats of better men and women. They would be asleep.

 

He clambered onto the shed, its mossy, slanted roof creaking under his weight. Reaching up, he blindly worked his stiletto between the windowsill and catch. He twisted the slim blade up and down, left and right, the window groaning as cold steel splintered old wood. A sharp crack echoed in the yard as the blade and latch broke.

 

The jolt caused his right heel to splinter the weather-softened roof, and he tipped backward. Flailing for balance, Haskell caught the frame with his fingertips, digging his nails into the carved stone to stay upright. He looked at his fractured dagger and swore. The latest fashion, the stiletto was an expensive gift from his sister. He dropped it on the roof.

 

Haskell hauled himself up, held his taut body in place with one forearm and pushed the window open with the other. He reached into the room and tumbled inside. His heel rattled the frame and arm knocked a side table, knocking a heavy wood carving onto the floor with a bang. He grimaced but remained still.

 

Nothing stirred in the house.

 

He pulled himself up by the edge of a large mahogany desk. Ledgers were neatly stacked on the desktop, one slim volume open for morning review. He rifled the desk drawers.

 

As he worked, Haskell took in the study: two wing-backed chairs faced the wide desk at a fastidious angle and the walls were lined with glass-fronted bookshelves; everything meticulously arranged to convey wealth and authority.

 

Only Haskell could not find the bloody wealth.

 

“Where is it?” he hissed while rattling the last locked drawer. It had to be inside. He growled and swept the stack of ledgers to the floor.

 

Haskell stalked to the wall, from which he took a long sword in a battered scabbard. He drew the weapon, pausing to admire its sharp, oiled blade in the pale moonlight. He ran his thumb over the crossguard, its metal worn away by his grandfather’s hand, and admired the protective runes inscribed along the base of the blade.

Haskell Son of Eskil, Son of Eskil Orc-breaker. A proud lineage.

 

He reversed the sword and worked its tip into the locked drawer.

 

“I don’t think grandfather would take kindly to you abusing his sword, Haskell; though he would approve of your motive,” his older sister chided from the doorway.

 

Haskell glanced up and frowned. Hilda’s dark braid trailed down the front of her fine silk nightgown. Her face was hard, but her eyes sparkled with amusement, like she was silently laughing at a private joke. They undercut, very slightly, the cold precision she inherited from their father. She gripped a long dagger in her right hand and looked more than ready to use it.

 

“Where’s the bastard keep his coin?” Haskell said.

 

“Our father keeps his coin in that very drawer; but I will not have you ruin such fine furniture.”

 

Hilda padded across the carpet and took Haskell’s chin in her left hand, turning his face to examine his bruised jaw in the moonlight. At six feet, Hilda was taller than most men; but her younger brother had surpassed her. She shook her head and pushed Haskell’s chin aside. “Four years of apprenticeship to a worthy shipwright, yet you persist in your disobedience. Or was this another backroom brawl?”

 

“Worthy? He’s a cheat and a liar. He teaches more about brutality than ships.”

Hilda sighed. “The world is harder than your master’s cane.”

“I know that.”

 

“You know nothing,” Hilda muttered. “Father—”

 

“Father’s a coward.”

 

Hilda shook her head and shuffled to the side of the room. “Father is sensible. You, however, bludgeon your way through life. The world will never match your naïve view of it.” She opened a bookcase’s glass door and ran a finger along the spines, removing a volume on noble houses. Hilda retrieved a small silver key hidden between its pages and tossed it to Haskell. “This is a mistake, and the last time I help you.”

 

Haskell caught the key and scowled. “It’s different for you: you’re the favourite. You play his games. I—” He kicked a piece of chalk on the floor, which skittered past the carving he had toppled with his graceless entry.

 

Fangs filled the oaken dragon's gaping jaws, its tongue curling up to lick its nose. Intricately carved knotted lines formed its scales, paint clinging to the recesses. Its raised surfaces were hard worn by the wind and waves of the briny sea.

 

Haskell had adored the sizable sculpture as a child, had run his little fingers over its details. He had imagined the prow it had adorned, and the fierce raiders crowding the deck of its longship. He would steal into his father’s office to take down his grandfather’s heavy sword and dream of life outside the city, winning renown fighting orcs and trolls.

 

He had begged to be told tales of how his grandfather had ceased raiding to fight invading orcs, of his grandfather’s many battles and adventures, his highs and lows; but Haskell’s father would not spoil his boy with worthless words and wasted affection. His family wanted to bury their past. They were merchants now, not brigands.

 

Haskell heard those very words in his father’s disdainful baritone.

 

He picked up the carving in both hands and set it on the open ledger, its weight crinkling the expensive paper.  He stooped and inserted the silver key into the locked drawer. It turned with a heavy, well-oiled click.

 

“You cannot stay in the city after this,” Hilda said. “What life will you make for yourself?”

 

Haskell lifted a sturdy leather pouch from the drawer. It was heavy with gold and silver, which softly clinked as it shifted inside. “I’ll go overland with one of the caravans to the borderlands. To Branthall. I’ll be out of father’s reach there, and sign on with the Questors Guild.”

 

“As a mercenary?” Hilda scoffed. “There is no glory left in the borderlands. The old wars are over and the Questors Guild is a relic for drunks and failures.”

 

Haskell rammed his grandfather’s sword into its scabbard. “Then I should fit right in.

I’ll make my fortune honestly, fighting Darkwood monsters like grandfather did.”

 

“You only know half his story,” Hilda said.

 

Haskell buckled on the sword and pouch. “Father wouldn’t tell me.”

“He fears you will become his father.”

 

Haskell put one leg through the open window and sat heavily on the sill.

 

“What will you do when you run out of coin?” Hilda asked.

 

Haskell slapped his thighs and flashed her a cheerful smile. “I’ll just keep the coin flowing.”

 

Hilda laughed despite herself. “You are a fool, Haskell.”

 

“Don’t let father miss me too much,” he replied with an impish grin, then slipped away.

 

“He will only miss his coin,” she replied.

Haskell jogged through deserted moonlit streets. He had to get through the gates before word of his theft and assault spread. With one hand on his new pouch and the other steadying his sword, he was sure of only two things: the road would be long, and there was no going back.

 

April 3

Chapter II—Mean Streets

 

Froba was hungry. Really hungry. She clutched her grumbling tummy through a tattered, two-seasons-too-small tunic; its left sleeve parted from the shoulder and a fraying hem that was dangerously short. She sat on the trampled earth near the entrance of a narrow alley, hugged her scabby knees, and gazed listlessly at the dusty, mud-caked, wattle-and-daub wall.

 

The afternoon was wearing on and Branthall’s shops were closing. She heard the people walking down cobbled Main Street on the other side of the alley, headed to the inn and Questors Guild outside Southgate—her territory. The ground was finally hardening, meaning scores of fighters, thieves, wizards, and mercenaries would soon campaign into the wilds. That required new arms and armour, mended gear, provisioning, and a host of other transactions: the business of war. More importantly, it meant new faces and easy marks.

 

Froba tossed a silver talent in the air and tucked it in her pouch.

 

It had been a good day with lots of traffic and plenty of drunks; folk were in high spirits with summer around the corner. Early planting had started and coin was flowing—right into her fingers. She needed adventurers like a shepherd needed sheep, and Ferd would be after her for his share of the wool. If she did not do enough fleecing, he would make her more than hungry.

 

Froba was startled by a chorus of youthful shouts from the south side of town, making her bump the back of her head against the wall. She leaped to her feet and ducked down an alley, slowly creeping toward the commotion. A bent old crone hurried in the other direction. Froba backed against a wall and peered around the corner: a narrow side street sloped sharply downhill, past cramped shacks with fenced yards in which pigs snuffled and scrawny chickens pecked.

 

Near the bottom, a gang of older youths was savagely kicking a smaller boy. He managed to scrabble away, leaving one of his attackers holding a shred of brown tunic, and scrambled up the slope, eyes wide and mouth agape in terror. The jeering youths sent rocks and shouts of “greenskin” and “mullorc” at him up the hill.

Froba knew them: a gang of toughs from the Tannery: the lowest, filthiest part of town. The boy she did not know, but he was not human, not entirely. He had a green tinge to his skin, a slightly piggish nose, and wide-set hazel eyes. A half-orc. He shot past Froba, who stepped out to face the gang.

“Hey, toads: this is my turf. Ye want Ferd to drown ye in yer piss pot?” Froba said.

The boys stopped but kept up their jeers and insults. The biggest stepped forward. “We ain’t scared o’ Ferd,” he sneered.

 

“Yeah? Why don’t ye come up here an’ say that?”

 

He took another step but hesitated.

 

“Yeah, thought so. Quit actin’ so tough an’ get back to it, or it'll be yer da’s who do the drownin’.”

 

“At least we got folks. Go squat in yer alley an’ cry yerself to sleep. Maybe Ferd’ll come tuck ye in!”

 

The other boys started to exaggeratedly blubber and rub their eyes.

 

Froba spat and crossed her arms while glaring down at them, but they had been a little too close to the mark.

 

“Watch yer back, ye sow,” the young tough said. He kicked a fat sow for emphasis, which hobbled away squealing, before tramping after his cackling mates.

 

Froba knew he was full of shit, but she could not afford to get lazy. They were all getting bigger and things did not stay the same for long in Branthall. If he won a spot topside she would be in trouble. She heard a wet sniffle behind her and turned to regard the half-orc crouched behind a nearby rain barrel.

 

Froba did not know why she had intervened. She never had before. Ferd did not like it when his irregulars mixed. He would more often pit them against one another, and gods help anyone who tried to get out or go straight. No one could hide in Branthall. Not for long.

 

This one, though, was not Ferd’s. He looked too soft. Like a lost pup.

 

She sighed. “Ye sure ye ain’t no half-goblin? Half-orcs are supposed to be big an’ tough. Yer all scrawny.”

 

“I dunno; shut up,” he said, wiping his nose and smearing blood across his cheek.

 

“Ye can always go back downhill if ye’d rather.”

 

“No!”

 

“I don’t know, maybe ye’ll grow into it. What’s yer name?”

 

“Orod.”

Froba jabbed her chest with a filthy thumb: “I saved yer life, so ye work fer me now. Got it?”

 

Orod nodded unhappily.

 

“Good; now, c’mon,” she said, brushing past him. She could use someone to watch her back. He looked like an awful wimp, but it would be nice to have someone around for a change. Besides, she had never had a friend.

 

 

Chapter III—Bodies in Motion

 

Haskell yawned and stretched his body, the sun on his face and a cool breeze at his back. He strolled over weathered cobbles laid by the slaves of a long dead empire; though its ghost lived on, perpetuated by the bones of its design. The wind tossed his hair and billowed the soft tunic against his body.

 

He was free and all his troubles far behind.

 

For two days, he and a caravan of walkers, riders, wagons, and carriages had journeyed south along the wide Salmon River, its banks swollen by winter melt and spring rain. They had passed many villages, though each day brought more woodland than civilization. Up to now, he and other travellers of means had stayed at roadside inns, enjoying comfortable rooms and passable board; though he had kept to himself, still being relatively close to the city. It was unlikely they would come for him, but a messenger could be sent.

 

A warrior in a suit of steel plate rode with a clatter up the line: Captain Nedir, leader of the expedition, looking absolutely regal. His brass-traced armour glowed in the afternoon light and a crimson cloak billowed from his shoulders. Haskell imagined himself in Nedir’s place, only leading a fighting company against fearsome Darkwood monsters. He laid a hand on the sturdy leather pouch at his waist, swollen with gold. Soon.

 

A youth slightly younger than Haskell cantered by astride a tall bay mare. He was dressed in a 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 with every bounce of his steed. The mare was huge—at least five feet from hoof to withers—but Haskell still rose to the boy’s shoulder, which offered him a glimpse of the youth’s smirk as he passed.

 

The fellow slowed 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, who wore the same colour and shared a resemblance about the nose and forehead, jangled past an old tinker bent over his worn handcart, its dangling wares rattling as it bumped over the rough road. Haskell chuckled, uncertain who was louder.

 

Haskell stepped off the highway and onto a rough and rutted dirt road. He meandered along the verge while chirping sparrows darted from tree to tree over the twitching ears of draft animals and flitted 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.

 

Haskell and the others were headed east to Branthall in the neighbouring Kingdom of Lanesford, where the traders would sell spices and luxuries from across the sea and goods manufactured in Khul. The farmers and shepherds would settle in Lanesford’s black earth plains and sweet grasslands, colloquially known as the Lane. Lands swept clear of plains barbarians and monsters from the forbidding Darkwood, both driven back during the Second Monstrous War, long before Haskell was born.

 

An errant grey draft mule, intent on a late morning snack of tender grass, veered toward him. The animal dragged its wagon out of the rutted track, the vehicle angling over precipitously as several hay bales and pieces of 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 gave up on 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 caravan continued on its way. Haskell, buoyed by 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 the 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. When they finally entered a clearing, a pair of high-spirited southern mercenaries, bored and seeking release, skipped up and down the line in their tartan trousers. They sang a jaunty tune in a throaty, impenetrable tongue, with 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 Siwarders a playful shove as the man 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 from atop his steed.

 

“Then who would guard your corpulent hide?” Haskell countered from behind.

 

The weary porters around them laughed.

 

“Do you know who I am?” the merchant spluttered, his reddening jowls jiggling with rage.

 

“Another flabby ass whinnying just to be heard. I think you need a smack like that mule yonder!” Haskell raised his palm and smiled broadly.

 

“You insolent . . . such . . . the impertinence!” The apoplectic merchant spurred his horse up the line while his porters made exaggerated brays and whinnies. Those ahead turned to gawk at the frothing man and commotion behind.

The merchant’s son, restraining laughter, cantered after his father.

The caravan wound its way deeper into the woods. Tired, sore, and hungry, Haskell shuffled around a bend preceded by his lengthening shadow. He stopped, as had those ahead, where the road ran through a mess of soupy ruts, a shallow stream, and up a rocky hill, its top awash in the red light of the westering sun.

 

None contested the halt.

 

Haskell shouldered off his pack, purchased from a town off the highway, along with a cloak and some camping gear, and chose a dry patch 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. With the woods pressing upon them, the company formed larger, more animated groups around fewer fires. All but the merchant, who screened himself with porters and his thin cook, who was rough-cutting vegetables into a large pot.

 

“Get that blasted canvas up, you toads—up, up!” the merchant shouted at two 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 shook his head as he moved further down the line.

 

Haskell shook his head and 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.

 

Flint was average height and above-average girth; but while some are overwhelmed by weight, Flint wore his like a well-fitted jacket. A brown tunic was stretched around his prodigious belly, over which he wore a grey wool cloak and forest green hood, the latter lowered to expose his balding head.

 

“A pleasure, Haskell, a pleasure. My companions went on to Fisherville and I’m lookin’ to take up with some others. I was considerin’ that merchant—the man clearly has an appetite—but he’s already got a cook. Besides, I suspect ye’ll make fer more pleasant company.”

 

“Gladly: sit, sit! I’d be happy for some company, especially 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 dropped a bulging sack with a clatter.

 

They built a fire with pine and elm from thickets below the hill and took their ease around a growing fire. Three other travellers joined them. Bror and Torg, the mercenaries who had gambolled their way up and down the line, were rough-looking characters; both wore leather jerkins sewn with nicked and dented latticed iron rings over stained and worn brown quilted gambesons. There was Corben, the teamster whose wagon Haskell had rescued at the junction, and his taciturn mule Donner, happily cropping grass nearby.

 

Flint, true to his promise, was cooking a thick pottage of cured beef and root vegetables from their pooled provisions, plus a “secret ingredient” he kept in a small pine box in his pouch like gold. The rich stew bubbled invitingly in a burnt orange ceramic pot, the aroma drawing envious glances from other groups in the darkening afternoon. Several yards away, the merchant castigated his cook over the quality of his meal, startling several birds into flight.

 

The five strangers sat quietly with the pot simmering between them. Haskell could not take the awkward silence. He drummed his fingers, took in the gloomy undergrowth, and chuckled. “My nursemaid used to frighten me with stories as a child,” he said, snatching a switch and parroting her in a shrill voice: “Them woodland goblins’ll come and ’et ye, boy, ’less ye mind yer manners!”

 

The others chuckled.

 

“Nah, no goblins up this way for a long time now,” Corben said and spat into the brush. Corben was an older man, creased and hard; every mile he had travelled was worn into his face, and his back and shoulders were stooped by work and the dust of every kingdom.

 

“So o’tlandr, beye settlin’n Branthall, then?” Bror, the shorter of the two mercenaries, rattled at Haskell. Bror’s skin was like leather: oiled, scarred, and weather-beaten from hard fighting and harder living, which only honed his sense of humour, manifesting as a permanent smirk and a mirthful shimmer in his eyes, reminding Haskell of his sister.

“. . . Yes,” Haskell nodded tentatively, uncertain precisely what Bror had said.

 

“Webe doin’th’same, Torg’an’me. Th’coin flow like water down thataway, theysay.” Bror jerked a thumb at Haskell and turned to his companion: “This’un be a’right giant’o’a’man, eh’Torg?”

 

Torg was six feet, silent, and imposing. He looked younger than Bror and had a touch of worldly sadness behind his neutral expression and watchful gaze, yet smiled readily, evident from the deep creases at the corners of his mouth and eyes.

 

Haskell chuckled nervously at Bror’s undecipherable chatter and turned to the teamster: “How far would you say it is to Branthall, Corben?”

 

Torg deadpanned something in his thick language, throwing Bror into a fit of laughter.

Flint looked up while stirring the pot but said nothing.

 

“Eighty, ninety miles—maybe seven days,” Corben grunted.

 

“Shame these rivers aren’t navigable. The Lakewood is a haven for brigands, I hear. But we have a couple ruffians of our own,” Haskell said, proffering his wineskin to Bror. “I could use stout companions like you when I sign on with the Questors Guild in Branthall.”

 

Flint snatched the skin and took a long pull. After a contemplative pause, he poured a dram of red wine into the stew.

 

“You could cook for us, Flint. It’d be nice to have some hot food in the wilderness,” Haskell said.

 

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’ll kick about town once I drop my steel, like as not,” Corben said. He passed the wineskin to Bror. “These clowns are from Siward—that’s clear; from where do you hail, lad? We don’t grow ’em as big as you up north.”

 

“My family are seafarers from far away. They settled in Khul after the war,” Haskell said.

 

Corben squinted at Haskell and took a swig from a metal flask. “And who’d they fight for?”

 

Haskell cleared his throat. Northerners, as much as sailors, had a dim view of Southron raiders, but Haskell had a special lineage. “My grandfather was Eskil: a privateer who fought from Fornbrad to Siward.”

Corben let out a dry cough, which Haskell realized was his laugh: “The Orc-breaker? I don’t believe it.”

Haskell held up his hand: “I swear it—this is his very sword.” He drew his blade and handed it to Corben, who eyed the sword suspiciously, but nodded after inspecting its runes and signs of wear from long, hard use. He returned it, though still looked doubtful.

“What of your folk, Corben?” Haskell said.

“From Northbridge, which bore the brunt o’ the barbarian advance from the Steppes. Nursed by my mother’s sister throughout that long siege, I was. That’s a long way back now.”

“Sixth generation cook,” Flint volunteered around a mouthful of hard bread. “My family’s served in the finest noble houses throughout the realm.”

Torg muttered something unintelligible, making Bror snigger.

“What did your kin do during the war?” Haskell asked the pair.

Bror cocked an eyebrow: “Who says tha’war bedone, lad?”

Torg handed Haskell a much lighter wineskin and nodded his thanks.

Haskell raised it: “Well, here’s to a safe journey, and fine new friends.” He swallowed a mouthful of sour wine and poured a stream onto the leafy ground. To placate fickle gods.

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