37th Year of Harold 4th
Left Belcamp-a-Llyr this morning with Father’s Journeyman, Alf. He’s taking a cartload of fabric woven for the Sisters of Saint Lucy to their convent in Trader’s Pass. Two apprentices, Lucas and James, are with us. I’m not sure why Father thinks they need a wizard along, but at least he’s going to pay me.
A couple potters are headed that way too, and a priestess with her manservant, going to Saint Lucy’s. It’s pretty early in the year to be travelling, but it’s been a mild winter so far.
2nd Man’s Day
A smith and a cobbler joined us today. Don’t know their given names yet. The older of the two potters is named Charlie. We had a pretty good game of cards going last night around the campfire, until Mother Alys butted in and told us to stop. We were only playing for drinks, but she still didn’t approve.
Three more joined the party at Woolsey this morning: A tinker named Gerald, his wife (mistress?) Charity, and a one-eyed peddler. They’ll all be going to Trader’s Gap. Tinker seems friendly enough; offered to fix anything we needed in exchange for traveling with the group. Peddler doesn’t say much, but he has a lute and played when we stopped to make a fire for the night. Charity looks to be part-elf—her skin is tan for an Easterner in winter. She dresses like an elf, too—mis-matched bright colors, and lots of gaudy beads and spangles. Her hair is red, but I think she dyes it. She’s about my age, I guess, and pretty. Why are all the pretty girls taken?
Made decent time today; got to the feet of the mountains. We should make it to the next inn tomorrow. Three days after that we’ll hit Trader’s Pass. It’s cold as the tits of an elf in brass breast cups, though. Really wish I’d said no when Father asked me to escort his men. But he did offer me money, and wizarding is nowhere near as profitable as I’d thought it would be. At least I’ll get to see Master Wulfric again.
I just wish Lucas the apprentice hadn’t pointed out that, with the new additions to the group, there are thirteen of us on the road together.
It’s snowing. We don’t see any lights from the inn yet, but we should be able to find it, since it’s right on the main road. Unless we passed it in the poor light . . . .
“Hey, Eddie, quit your scribbling and come here!”
“What is it, Alf?” I looked up from my journal to realize the wagons had stopped.
“We need your light!” called the journeyman weaver. “Here’s the inn, but there’s no lights, no smoke, nothing!”
I’d cast a tiny globe of magic light to write by. It hovered over my shoulder. Hopping off the wagon, I walked over to where Alf and several other merchants were staring at the dark shape of the inn.
“Is that the best you can do?” demanded the blacksmith, squinting at me through the dark. “I thought you were supposed to be some sort of wizard!”
“Wait,” I said, and rummaged into my satchel for more of the powder I used to cast lights. Once I had half a dozen green glowing balls floating around me, I could see the inn much better: a weathered gray wood building with its heavy front door facing the road. The door hung half-open on its hinges. No light or sound came from inside.
“It’s abandoned,” I said. “It looks closed.”
“That makes no sense,” said Alf. “I was here last autumn, and it may not have been busy—only five guests, as I recall—but the innkeeper and his wife and children gave no sign they were thinking of leaving. Spring and summer, they said place is packed with travelers.”
“Highwaymen,” Smith said with a scowl. “King doesn’t do a damned thing to see to the roads out here. We go in there, we’ll find the innkeeper and his entire family with their throats cut.”
‘Lovely thought,” I muttered.
“Well we can’t stand out here!” Al said. “The snow’s getting heavier, and I for one don’t want to freeze to death. Eddie, you and Smith and Gerald Tinker—you’re the biggest, why don’t you go in first?”
As the other men stood stamping their feet in the snow and hesitating, I went to the inn door and pulled it wide. I gestured, sending a few magic lights whizzing into the room.
“No one here!” I called.
When nothing leapt out of the darkness to eat my face, Smith and Tinker pushed past me to get in away from the wind.
“We should start a fire,” Tinker said.
“We should look for bodies,” Smith said.
“Actually,” said Alf, who was standing at my shoulder, “we should look the place over to make sure there’s no one hurt or sick here. Then we take the wagons around to the back—the stable’s on the lower level. Then we start a fire, once everyone’s out of the snow.”
“I’ll help you, Alf,” I said, following him into the inn.
3rd Beastday, continued
The innkeeper is missing. There was no one anywhere in the inn, either upstairs in the hall or below in the stables. The place is built into the side of the mountain, so that the main hall is ground-level in front, and the stables are open in the back. There is hay stored in the stables, as well as food and beer in the storeroom. There’s plenty of firewood stacked outside. Everything looks ready for the innkeeper to entertain guests—except that the tables and benches were tipped over in the hall, as if there were some kind of fight. I looked for blood, but couldn’t really see anything in the straw on the floor, especially not after all thirteen of us had trampled through it to get in out of the cold. Most of the others figure that the innkeeper went up to the Pass and just got stuck there by the weather.
It’s still snowing outside, fat wet clumps coming down so you can’t see a yard from your face. We’ve got a fire going, and all the doors and windows shuttered, so we’re warm and safe enough, but I keep wondering what happened to the innkeeper and his family. It seems an odd time of year to travel unless you have business to attend to, and their business is right here.
“Put that thing down, Eddie, and have a drink!” Alf slapped me on the shoulder. My traveling companions had brought up food and beer from the storeroom. A few of them were making some sort of stew over the fire in the center of the hall; the majority of the rest were drinking. Mother Alys was standing to one side, looking sour.
“You haven’t paid for any of that!” the priestess said.
“You see anyone here askin’ for money, Sister?” Gerald Tinker called out with a laugh. He had mugs in both hands.
“It’s Mother Alys,” she said primly.
“We’ll leave money when we go,” Alf reassured her. “Here, Eddie,” he said, pressing a mug into my hand. “I know you can drink, you live in a bar!”
“I rent a room over a bar,” I corrected.
“Same thing,” Alf said. “Come on, drink up!”
I took a pull at the beer; it was rather good, though not as good as that of my landlords back in the city. Thinking about them got me wondering again about the people who’d brewed this. “Am I the only person here worried about what happened to the innkeeper and his family?” I muttered to no one in particular as Alf went to get himself another cup.
“They probably went up the mountain, to the market or visit their kin or something,” suggested Lucas. “Then they saw it was about to snow and decided not to try and come back.”
I took another pull at my drink. “But the door was left open,” I said.
“The wind blew it open,” James suggested.
“Why didn’t they lock it, then? And what about the furniture?” I asked.
“Wind blew it too?” Lucas said.
“I seriously doubt it,” I said.
“Highway robbers, then,” Lucas suggested. “That’s what a couple of the other fellows are saying.”
“Then where are the bodies?” I asked. “I mean, if they were murdered.”
“Maybe they ate them?” joked James.
“Ew, that’s disgusting!” Lucas said, and punched his cousin in the arm. I stepped in to break up the fight just as Charity called “Supper’s ready!” from the fireside.
I’d hung back from the crowd, and was last in line for food. “Where did you find this bread?” I asked Charity as she scooped out some stew into a hollowed out half-loaf for me.
The young woman shrugged, rattling her necklaces. “Same place we found the dried meat and the turnips and onions,” she said. “Down in the storerooms. Don’t think it’s moldy or anything.”
“No, I’m not complaining!” I said. “It’s just dry—perfect for stew.” I was about to turn and find a spot to sit, when Charity caught my arm.
“Hey, big guy,” she said, pushing her unnaturally red hair over her shoulder, “you chosen a spot to sleep yet?”
“Uh . . . what?”
Charity batted her charcoal-rimmed eyes at me and smiled. “Want any company?”
“Ah . . . aren’t you and Tinker . . . .”
She shrugged, jingling her beads again. “He’s been paying me,” she said, “but maybe you can pay too?” She slid an arm around me. “Wouldn’t have to be much. You’re better-looking than Gerald anyway. Besides, we gingers ought to stick together . . . .”
My red hair came from my mother; hers looked like it came from a henna wash. Not that her hair color mattered; I was as inexperienced in sexual encounters as an orphan raised in a convent, and painfully shy to boot. I could feel my face getting hot as I mumbled “I have no money and won’t get paid until after this trip . . . .” and backed away with my food.
“What’s wrong, Eddie?” Alf asked when I sat down across from him. “Don’t tell me you tried to flirt with Tinker’s woman.”
“No, she was flirting with me,” I said, bending my head over my stew. “She won’t bother me anymore—I told her I’ve no money.”
“She’s a whore?” James asked excitedly, craning his neck to stare at the “fallen woman”.
“Shut up, James, and don’t be rude,” I said. I shot a quick glance in Charity’s direction. Mother Alys must have overheard our conversation, because she had gone to speak to the young woman. As Charity laughed out loud, I guessed that the priestess had probably offered to save her soul by giving her a place in the convent.
The fire died out in the night; we were freezing when we woke up. Tinker was awake before anyone else and had already gone out to check the road. He told us there are drifts over two feet high in some places. It’s still snowing. We aren’t going anywhere today, probably not for several days at least. We’re going to get the fire going again and figure out how long the food here’s likely to last.
Still no sign of the innkeeper or his family.
“So now what?” James asked as we breakfasted on warmed-over leftovers. “Are we trapped here?”
“I wouldn’t call it trapped,” said Alf. “Stuck, yes, but not trapped. There’s food and firewood stored here, we should be fine. For a while, anyway.”
“What happens if we run out of food before it stops snowing?” James continued. “Hey, Master Edward, can you make food with magic?”
Before I could even say anything, Lucas cuffed his cousin in the head. “No, dummy, magic doesn’t work like that. Don’t you even listen in Temple?”
“We could go hunting,” Alf said. “Few of the fellows brought bows. In fact, if the snow lets up a bit, I’d go out hunting just for something to do.”
“I brought some books,” I said. “We could read . . . .”
My friends gave me funny looks. I realized they probably didn’t read.
“Uh, I could read to you . . . .”
“No thanks,” said Alf. “No offense, Eddie, but we get plenty of that at Godsday chapel.”
“We could play cards,” James suggested.
“Mother Alys won’t like it,” Lucas said.
“She’s too busy preaching to the whore to notice . . .”
I grabbed James by the shoulder. “The woman’s name is Charity. And what she does for a living is no business of a snot-nosed kid like you.”
“Ooh, you fancy her?” James taunted.
“No,” I said, “I just don’t like hearing someone treat a person like a thing just because she’s poor.”
“Huh!” James snorted. “Look at how red Master Edward’s face is getting, Lucas. He must fancy her!”
“That’s enough,” said Alf. “James, stop backtalking or you won’t need firewood to keep warm because I’ll light your ass with my hand.”
As the two apprentices continued to bicker with Alf, and he threatened, ineffectively, to beat them, I turned to my books.
* * *
“So, they tell me you’re a wizard.”
I looked up from my book to see Charity standing beside me.
“Yes. Yes, I am. Finished my apprenticeship last summer,” I said.
Charity sat on the bench next to me. “So what does that mean? What can you do, besides make lights? I guess you can’t control the weather, or it wouldn’t be snowing like it is.”
I shook my head. “No, I’ve not studied weather-working. I specialize in what’s called Green Magic.”
“I work with herbs and plants, mostly. Healing stuff. Here . . . .” I reached into the faded wool satchel my mother had sent me off to my apprenticeship with, and pulled out a small clay jar. “This is a salve to heal dry skin in the winter. Try some.” I handed the jar to the young woman. “I’ve also got some treatments for coughs and colds.” I smiled shyly. “It’s probably not what people think of when they imagine magic, but you have to admit, it will come in useful in this weather.”
Charity rubbed some of the salve onto her hands. “Smells nice,” she said.
“Better than some things I make,” I agreed. Charity laughed. I smiled back. “I do more than just potion-making, though,” I said. “I can tell fortunes with cards . . . .”
“Oh, no,” said Charity, shaking her head. “Last thing I need to know is my future—looking back at my past, it won’t be worth seeing!”
“Don’t say that,” I said, taking Charity’s hand in mine. I found myself looking into her warm brown eyes, as she smiled with crooked teeth.
“Hey, sweetheart, I thought we had us an agreement!”
I started at the voice, and turned to see Gerald Tinker looking at Charity and me. His expression was somewhere between confused and hurt.
“Oh, I wasn’t trying to, um, hire her,” I stammered, letting go of Charity’s hand.
“Bye, Edward,” Charity said. As she walked away with Tinker, she gave me a half-smile over her shoulder.
As there was nothing better to do with our time, most of the party spent the afternoon drinking, much to the disgust of Mother Alys.
“This keg’s empty!” bellowed Smith. “Somebody bring up another !”
I was occupied with a house of cards I’d built floating in mid-air. “You two young ‘uns,” I said to James and Lucas. “Go get us some more beer!”
The apprentices returned from the stable/cellar struggling under the weight of a barrel which we quickly tapped and began draining.
I frowned at my mug. “This stuff is awfully sweet,” I said. “I don’t think it’s ready.”
“Don’t think it’s ready?” asked Alf. “What’s to be ready? It’s beer, ain’t it?”
“Yes, but it doesn’t taste like it’s been fermenting all that long,” I said.
“And how would you know?” asked one of the potters. “You some kinda Beer Wizard?”
James and Lucas laughed. “Eddie the Beer Wizard!” they giggled. I guessed they’d had more than they were used to.
“I rent a room over a tavern,” I said, shrugging. “I’ve learned a lot about beer since I’ve been there. It usually takes about two weeks for a beer to finish fermenting, and until then, it still has a lot of sweetness in it. Oh, AND it’ll give you a worse hangover.” Hangovers were something I was an expert on, unfortunately, along with overeating and stomachaches. Moderation had never been one of my strong points.
“I’m willing to take a chance on it,” said Alf, refilling his mug. “What else have we got to do?”
* * *
The next morning was cold, miserable, and punctuated by the sounds of the apprentices being sick.
“I warned you boys,” I said, trying to distance myself from them before I joined them. I wasn’t hung-over, exactly, but I wasn’t feeling particularly chipper. “Charity,” I called out to the woman, “could I melt some snow to boil water over the fire? I’d like to brew something up for the boys here.” Charity had somehow become the party’s cook, probably because she and Mother Alys were the only women there, and the priestess considered herself above such work.
“Of course,” Charity replied with a smile. “How big a pot do you need?”
The cold was bitter when I stepped out to gather some clean snow. At least we wouldn’t run out of water—as long as we had fuel to melt the snow. I looked around. Everything was white—the road, the ground, the sky, the inn building. The wind in the pines surrounding the inn made a noise like a stormy sea. I couldn’t tell if snow was still coming down, or if the wind was just blowing the flakes around. I was used to the big, wet, sticky flakes that fell in my hometown near the sea, but I’d spent enough time as an apprentice in the mountains to know that these tiny, dry ones were much colder. I was glad to get back inside.
“Does it look like stopping?” Charity asked me as I stood warming my hands.
“Can’t really tell,” I said. “Everything is white, and the snowflakes are blowing every direction. I think I could walk off the side of the mountain before I realized what I was doing.” I shrugged off my cloak. “And even if the snow has stopped falling, it’s not going to melt, that’s for sure. It’s freezing outside. We’re stuck.”
3rd God’s Day
Once I brewed up some tonic for the boys, they felt better. I shared it out with anyone who’d had too much beer last night, which was almost all of us. I think the name “Beer Wizard” is going to stick, though.
No sign of the innkeeper’s family returning, not that that’s a surprise. No one could travel in this. I’m still worried that they didn’t leave of their own will, though. James got bored, once he stopped puking, and climbed up into the loft where the innkeeper’s family slept. He said he was looking for extra blankets, but he found a lot of clothes up there in chests as well. At least, a lot of clothes to be left behind by working folk travelling in winter.
4th Earth Day
Still white all over outside. No travelling. Alf, Gerald Tinker, the peddler, and a few other of the hardier fellows went hunting. They tried to get me to go with, but, city boy that I am, I’ve never pulled a bowstring in my life. They brought back a deer, which made for a very good dinner, even though we had to wash it down with melted snow water—we’d drunk all the beer.
No change in weather. We all heard a pack of wolves howling outside the inn last night. They were probably digging up yesterday’s deer guts. The hunters went out again, but only came back with a few rabbits. Watery stew for dinner. The wolves must’ve scared the deer.
Snowed hard today. Alf, Gerald, Peddler, Smith, Potter, Cobbler, and the priestess’ servant Peter all went out hunting. No one caught anything, and worse, Gerald is lost. He got separated from Alf and hasn’t come back. Charity wanted us to go look for him, but there’s no chance of finding him in the dark. Hopefully he found shelter.
Still snowing. No sign of Gerald Tinker. No tracks to follow. Peddler and Smith went out hunting again, but no one else wants to . . . .
“You write in that thing a lot, don’t you?”
I set down my quill and looked up at Charity. “It’s something to do,” I said with a shrug.
The red-haired woman sat down on the bench next to me. “Why haven’t you gone out hunting any?” she asked.
“Same reason the apprentices haven’t, I expect. I’d be terrible at it.”
“You couldn’t use magic or something?”
I shrugged. “Never tried. And honestly, now that your, um, friend Gerald has gotten lost . . . I don’t think anyone much wants to go out.”
Charity stared across the hall at the fire. “Gerald’s dead, isn’t he,” she said, in the flat tone of someone who’d seen a great deal of suffering in a short lifetime.
“We don’t know that,” I began.
Charity shook her head. “It’s my luck,” she said. “Always bad. I was going to go over to the Plains with him, where nobody knew me. Start over. Heck, he wasn’t a bad fellow. Been hinting that maybe we should just stay together for good. I dunno, I was almost ready to take him up on it. I mean, who else would marry a whore? But it was too good to be true. He’s dead.”
I opened and closed my mouth a few times, wishing I could say something neither patronizing nor insensitive. Finally I settled on “I’m sorry. I hope he comes back.”
to be continued . . . .