We walked silently along the Autumn Road for far longer than I would have thought. The rain the night before softened the grounds and we walked silently through the woods.
The silence was a comfort though and we were more than used to it as wardens of the Northern Brake. It meant long hours moving as quietly as possible, becoming ghosts among the trees.
Finally, one of my companions couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“I still don’t get it,” Eric said.
“What’s not to get?”
“Why did you stop carrying your sword?”
“I don’t want to get into this again.”
But I could tell he wasn’t going to let it go.
“I told you, it’s too much work. All that sharpening. It’s far too boring,” I said smiling.
The young red-haired man glowered at me, “I don’t get why you won’t tell anyone.”
“Hush Eric,” Morgan said, putting her hand on his shoulder.
“I just don’t get it,” Eric said.
“Because,” Ben said, “ There’s no use trying to get Owen to speak when he doesn’t want to.”
“How about everyone just stops talking. The silence was nice.” I said.
“Why? It’s not like we’re on duty anymore,” Eric said. “We can be as loud as we want. And we can walk on the roads now. Beats slinking through the trees any day.”
Eric trailed off when he realized he had been talking too much.
“I really don’t get why you insist on carrying that infernal staff.”
I smiled knowing full well that’s really what was bothering Eric. He hated the staff. I ran my hand down the oiled rowan wood, pausing at the seven burned runes near the top.
“I’ve just found it more practical. You can’t use a sword to help you walk and they get in the way when you sit down. Why don’t you carry one?”
“Because I was not born defenseless like you.”
“Well, you should try this. Far better for walking.”
“That’s not funny.” Eric hissed.
“What’s the matter? The vicious Eric the Red afraid of a stick?”
“You darn well know I can’t touch that thing and I hate that nickname.”
“Don’t get mad at me,” I said, “Ben came up with it.”
Eric turned, the shock registering on his face.
Ben laughed, “Well it’s fitting sometimes.” running his hand through Eric’s hair.
“Still not funny,” Eric huffed, and sped ahead of us, his cloak billowing behind.
Ben followed after him.
“He talks too much sometimes,” I said.
“I know,” Morgan said. “But he means well, plus when he saw you set down the sword he knew it was over. He liked being a warden. We all did.”
“There was nothing I could do. They disbanded the order.”
“I know,” she said. “Eric does too. So does Ben. I think they’re just worried.”
“We all are. I don’t know who’s going to defend the Northern Brake.”
“That’s not what I meant.” she said, “being a warden made it easier for them.”
“Have you thought about what’s next?”
“I figure we head to Pembroke. There’s bound to be bodyguard work there.”
“From wardens to caravan guards,” Morgan said.
“Could be. What about Ben and Eric? Do you think someone will hire them too?”
“I’m sure they’ll be fine. As long as they behave themselves.”
Morgan pulled out a map.
“There are a few hamlets and towns before we get to Pembroke,” she said, “we need to stock up.”
“Be nice to find an Inn too.”
She smiled, “Getting tired of sleeping on the ground?”
Ben and Erick were getting farther ahead.
“We should probably catch up to them.”
The Autumn Road cut through most of the Rainwoods and it made for faster traveling.
We had good timing as the road would close in a couple months for winter, hence the road’s name. The Autumn Road continued south were a handful of small towns collected on the way to Pembroke. The road swung around Pembroke and Raventown and connected with the New Road. No one knew quite why it was called that, as it was older than most other paths, but it connected Pembroke with the rest of the Allied Kingdoms to the south and I suppose it was new at one point.
The road was getting wider as we got closer to the village. Some parts of it were no larger than a well-worn deer path but here we could walk four abreast easily.
Soon the road was bordered by farmland as well as the forest still to our right.
Another hour’s walk and we were coming upon Avonsdale. The town has had a couple names in its history. For a while, it was known as Winter’s End as it was generally the first settlement one saw on the way back from the Winterlands, but after Avon, the Bard gained fame and was plucked for Ravengard’s Court, it was named after him.
We saw far more people in town than we were used to. Morgan and I had to keep Ben and Eric from wandering off.
“Morgan and I will gather supplies,” I said. “You have enough coin to get us a room for the night. Wait for us there and try not to get into any trouble.”
They both turned to walk away, but I grabbed Eric’s shoulder, “Keep your hood up. These are strange times and that hair yours is awfully memorable.”
Eric nodded and he jogged to catch up with Ben.
“They’ll be okay,” Morgan said.
“They’re too young to be on their own.”
“They’re barely only a year younger than us.”
“You worry too much.”
“I just don’t want any incidents. You remember when we found them.”
“Yes. I’m going to see about a packhorse. You’ll get the rations?”
I was walking down the street with bags filled with bacon, oats, and other essentials for the road.
There was a bit of a somber tone in town. It was lively as all town centers are but something was amiss. I couldn’t quite explain it. There were also a greater number of soldiers from Ravengard’s forces. Soldiers are always around in towns but this seemed excessive.
I was knocked out of my observations by a commotion ahead of me. A group of soldiers, all with Ravengard’s arms, a raven, were pushing a young man around.
It happens unfortunately, soldiers are rarely the most polite of folk. But as I got closer, I realized that it wasn’t just some unlucky passerby. It was Eric.
Eric was doing his best to keep his cool. Ben was running up the street with Morgan. If I let the two of them go off then we would be in trouble.
“Gentlemen,” I said, “what’s the problem?”
“Just showing our red-headed friend around town,” one of the soldiers said.
“Yeah,” another added. “We wanted to know if that was his real hair or if some poor bastard caught his hair on fire.”
“Well I’m sure he appreciates your concern,” I said, pulling Eric next to me.
“I don’t think we were done with him,” the largest soldier said.
“I think you are,” I said handing him a small purse, “have a drink on me.”
“Fine,” he huffed and they left.
“Why did give them our money?” Eric said. “We could have handled them.”
“And then what? Do you think we’d be welcome in Pembroke having taken out a group of soldiers? Plus they’d take you and Ben away. Think next time Eric.”
“Ben,” I said. “You take Eric and go wait in the Inn, and if you aren’t there when I get there, I’ll put both your heads through a wall.”
“We have the stuff,” Morgan said, “why don’t we just go with them?”
“I wanted to watch and make sure no one was following them. You never know who’s watching in these places.”
“You’re more clever than I give you credit for sometimes,” she said.
“I stumble upon a good idea now and again. Any luck with the horse?”
“None. Not without giving up every coin in our possession.”
“Good move,” I said winking at her.
“I just knew how badly you wanted to sleep indoors tonight.”
“You know me too well.”
“I really do. Should we catch up with them?”
“Probably for the best.”
Well, whatever moribund veil had fallen over the town did not find its way to the tavern. Alcohol and music tended to have that effect. I’ve spent far too much time wandering these small towns in the north and it’s always the same. A bit of wine and a few notes will make the dullest dance and the harshest smile. It was no different here.
He arranged for a room at the Bard & Quill. A rather poetic name to take advantage of the town’s literary fame. A little pretentious too, as no one wrote with quills anymore.
We took a corner table and sat down for what felt like the first time in months. The chair was hard but beat a wet log any day. And so we did what travelers do when they finally reach a stop, we ate and drank. Morgan filled cups from a flagon of Winterberry wine and there was fresh bread and hunks of cheese. The best part was the bowls of stew that had been cooking all day. For the first time in ages, my belly was full and warm. And from the looks of it, I wasn’t the only one.
“We need more wine,” Ben said.
“I’ll get it,” Morgan said. And she left and disappeared in a crowd of patrons. I continued eating and as far as I know Ben and Erick never stopped, except for Ben pausing to make Eric wipe his mouth as he tended to cover it in grease.
Ben noticed first that Morgan was gone longer than she should’ve been.
“Where’s Morgan,” he asked.
“I’m sure she’s fine.”
Suddenly both of them perked up, having heard something I didn’t.
“Let’s go,” Erick said and he and Ben left to find her.
I found them as part of pushing their way to a circle forming by the bar. Morgan was in the center along with the soldiers from earlier. The tavern was too loud for me to hear.
“What’s he saying?” I asked Eric.
“You don’t want to know,” he growled.
Both of them tensed up and moved toward the soldiers. I put my hands on the shoulders and whispered to them, “Morgan can handle herself.”
“But?” they said together.
“Trust me,” I said and led them back to the table to keep them from making things worse.
Morgan made her way to the table.
“Making new friends?,” I asked.
“Seems like it,” she said.
“How’d you get them to leave you alone?” Eric asked.
“Easy. I batted my eyes at him and got him to lean close,” she said.
“And?” Eric and Ben said together.
“Then I slipped a knife under his shirt and when he felt the blade against his skin his thoughts turned to self-preservation and didn’t leave room for anything else.”
“See, Eric, you don’t have to tear the throat out of everyone. You don’t need to cause a ruckus. Every fight you get in could be your last.”
“Still,” he said, “I’d love to take them on.”
“As would I Eric,” Morgan said, “but cross the King’s soldiers and we’ll have an army against us.”
Later, people started making their way out.
“Well now that things have calmed down, I’m going to go talk to the Innkeeper. Something feels strange about this town.”
There are few people better suited to gain knowledge of a town that the Innkeeper. They know everyone and everything and have spoken to most of the parties passing through town.
The Innkeeper was a larger man, with broad shoulders and a long black beard flecked with gray.
“Do you have a moment?”
“Of course,” he said, “things are dying down. Mary can handle it.”
We sat at a table near the counter.
“Don’t get many Wardens through here anymore,” he said.
“I never said I was a Warden.”
“Can’t miss it. Always alert. Different than soldiers. Quieter too.”
I fingered a coin, it was the easiest way with a businessman.
“Can I buy a moment of your time?”
“Save the coin.”
I tried to hide my shock. I spent my life dealing with dangerous creatures but nothing was more unnerving than a money man refusing a coin.
“I insist,” I said sliding the coin across the table.
“Keep it,” the man said, “a Warden saved me and my father once. Whatever you need you are among friends here.”
We were interrupted by the soldiers laughing.
“Well, mostly friends.”
“So the town?”
“You’ve noticed,” he said, “It’s been like that for a while.”
“And the soldiers?”
“The fain take them,” he spat.
He must have hated them, it was high crimes to curse when wearing the King’s sign.
“They aren’t welcome?” I asked.
“Worse than demon spawn, most of them.”
“Yes, they started showing up when there was that bandit problem earlier in the year and they never left.”
I took a sip letting the large man vent.
“And then the stories started.”
Well, that perked my interest, “What stories/”
“Just whispers. A daughter missing. A son suddenly gets forced into the Army.”
I kept drinking. I’ve found silence to be the best way to draw out information.
“The Fain are getting worse too.”
That didn’t surprise me. We were running into them more and more in the North Woods.
“Blasted creatures,” he said. “Be better off if they all vanished.
I didn’t want to point out that there were actually two different types of Fain, Tenefain, and Allafain. Most people only experienced Tenefain and those were the creatures of chaos, the creatures of twilight and the night. The ones that tended to attack people. Demons, werewolves and the like. Allafain more or less avoided people. There were creatures of the morning, though a fair bit of them only active at night. It gets confusing and the Fain get mad when you mix it up so it’s best left for them to explain.
“The soldiers don’t keep them away?”
“You don’t get it,” the Innkeeper said, ”they are the soldiers.”