Looking back at Chapter 2, we get hints at Max Chemael’s strange abilities and an obvious display of Varix’ apparent invulnerability. These are just the simplest form of introduction to the characters’ personalities and their individual powers… the beginning hints about what is to come for each of them.
The story now bounces back to Argand and Kosin as they continue their journey east towards Greystone City. While never expressly stated, the action in Chapter 3 (Along the Jury) occurs just a day or two after the fight with the brigands in the Pithwood. There are a number of events in this chapter that have hidden long-term meaning, and there are several minor character cameos that one might incorrectly assume are insignificant. The chapter opens, however, with an exchange intended to offer a few insights into the personalities of the two young men concerning the women (or rather, the lack of women) in their lives.
* * *
3 Along the Jury
Kosin couldn’t stop laughing, despite the chill rain and northerly breezes that had both him and Argand huddled under extra shirt layers and their waterproof caynspun rain-cloaks as they walked.
“No, Kosin! That’s not what I meant at all! It’s not that she wasn’t pretty…,” Argand said indignantly, embarrassment ringing in his voice. “She was, well, she was… acceptable… in terms of looks…”
Kosin erupted into another wave of laughter, shaking his head as they sloshed along the muddyJury Roadjust west ofHaverlinCity. Ten yards ahead off them a wide wooden wagon pulled by a team of old horses creaked and groaned its slow progress through the foggy, rainy haze.
“Acceptable? Acceptable????” Kosin laughed even harder. “Has there ever been a bigger indictment of one woman’s looks than calling her ‘acceptable’? You might as well just come right out and say ‘below average’!!”
“She wasn’t that bad!” Argand insisted, giving in a little to Kosin’s infectious giggle. “Okay, okay… maybe she was a little bad.”
Kosin nearly howled.
“But that’s not the point, Kose!” Argand insisted, stepping around a large, muddy puddle that might have threatened to pull his boots off. “When it comes down to it, I want to find someone strong, you know? Not a push over, not all demure and face paint with no inner spirit.”
Kosin took off his wet gloves and wiped his tearing eyes, still snickering. “Okay, okay, Argand. If you say so. So what are you looking for then, a Dramini warchief? You want a woman who can, and does, pretty much beat you up every day?”
Argand snorted. “Not exactly, Kose. Well, not at all. I dunno… I just think I will know her when I find her.”
Argand kept smiling after that exchange. It was the most they had laughed in a week or more. The frequency of trouble that they had endured since leaving theHighlandshad been wearing on them, with bandits and even a few encounters with Mindonites keeping them on edge. Their most recent encounter in the pithwood had been far too close of a call for either of their tastes.
But coming across Roca the lamp trader on his way back to the east from theHighlandshad been a boon. Although the wrinkled, white-haired old trader already had four guards on detail to keep him safe along his journey, he was quick to offer fifty weight of silver each – plus meals – to Argand and Kosin for their services. He had clearly been hearing rumors about how much more dangerous travel was getting in the western lands, and the sound of an empty wagon meant a trader with full money pouches; a surefire target for highwaymen.
So the last several days were relatively uneventful for the two old friends. The four original guards, middle-aged men that had probably worked on local patrols most of their lives, kept to themselves well ahead of the wagon while Argand and Kosin brought up the rear of the procession. Each night, the group of men slept in the bed of the wagon while two at a time stood watch along the edges of their camp.
On several occasions Argand had sensed the approach of groups of bandits while he was on watch, fluttering pulses of energy in his legs solidifying into life-like images in his mind, but each time the assailants had withdrawn instead of attacking. Also easing their jobs as trader’s escorts was the proximity of this stretch of theJury Roadto the Kirill river. As they walked, the road’s edge was sometimes only a few feet from the steep, tall banks of the muddy flow. While this sometimes madeRocanervous as he guided his horses, it meant that there would be no bandits sneaking up on them from that side.
“So what about you, Kose?” Argand asked. “Whatever happened between you and little Kalia Linon? For a while there I thought you were going to put our plans aside and settle down with her inJesserinCity- maybe open up a new outlet for your dad’s shop.”
“Nahhhh… it wasn’t meant to be,” Kosin answered, pulling his hood down even lower as the rain grew more intense. “You know I could never settle down in Jesserin. Kalia is a great girl, no doubt about it, but her future is all planned out in her mind. Take over her dads bakery, build out and expand, then take over the Land via baked goods! There was no way I could sign up for that.”
Argand pictured the buxom blonde girl that had lived just a few doors down from Kosin. On one of Argand’s father’s many visits to Jesserin City, which always included a stop by the Fletcher’s for a visit and a meal, Argand had met Kalia and her family. She was the daughter of the man known as perhaps the greatest baker in all of Greystone. And she had been smitten with Kosin for years.
“How did she take the news that you were leaving?” Argand asked. “That couldn’t have gone well.”
Kosin sighed. “I didn’t tell her.”
Argand’s eyebrows rose in shock.
“I couldn’t! You met her once, you know how she was.” His frown deepened. “I really should have just faced her, told her my plans, but in the end… I just left her a note.” There was a hint of pain in Kosin’s voice, the laughter gone.
He continued. “I told her to find someone else, someone who could share her dreams, and to take good care of herself. And left it on her desk at the back of the bakery. She probably pitched a royal fit, truth be told! But she will be better off for it.”
Argand watched as a train of a dozen or so large wagons rolled past them on their left, heading westward towards the mountains. If they had not been so close to Haverlin now,Rocadoubtless would have stopped the passing traders and asked them about road conditions ahead. But the road markers they had recently passed told them that they were close and would likely make it into the town before nightfall. That meant payment fromRoca, cold ale, hot food, and sleeping on a warm, dry bed for the first time in a great while. Argand grinned in anticipation. He had been unable to shake the chills of early Spring for the past few days.
“But if we succeed,” Kosin added, turning to look at Argand through the folds of their hoods, “if we actually succeed at going on Venture and surviving, and bring back the head of some wyvern or tamrof, and we become knights? She would come with me, I think. As much as she loves the bakery, loves her father… if I were Sir Kosin Fletcher, I’d bet she would give it all up to come with me.”
Another line of small carts passed them on the left, also heading west. Argand could hearRocacalling out to them to make way; they were crowding much too close for comfort on the narrow mud road.Roca’s wagon was dangerously close to the steep edge of the river bank.
“But I won’t do it,” Kosin finished. “I couldn’t do it. There was just something missing between us, you know? Something always seemed not quite right. Close… but not close enough. Does that make any sense?”
But Argand wasn’t listening. At that moment, a twenty foot long section of the river bank beneath the right side wheels ofRoca’s wagon gave way in a rush of sloppy wet mud.
“Roca!!!!” Argand yelled, running up to the rear of the wagon.
Roca quickly took stock of the situation, and screamed for his four guards to drop back to the rear and help push as he began frantically whipping and calling his horse team to pull.
The passing wagons had forced him too close to the edge, and in the blink of an eye the road had collapsed. The big wagon had stopped and was tipping, teetering above a fifteen foot drop into the cold and rushing waters of the Kirill.
The four older guards joined Argand and Kosin at the rear gate of the wagon and pushed for all their worth in the slippery mud. The oldest of the guards, Renald, had lined up closest to the collapsed river bank, and really wasn’t providing much lift at all as he fought to find purchase for his feet.
“Renald, get out of there!” Argand yelled through the sheets of rain. The wind began to pick up as well, driving into their faces as they strained against the wagon.
“No, I’m fine!” He yelled back.
“A weight of gold to each of you if you get ‘er clear!!” ScreamedRocain his dry, raspy voice. The men needed little extra motivation, though. All of their belongings, save swords and cloaks, were in their packs in the back of the wagon. Plus losingRoca’s wagon would mean earning no pay once they reached Haverlin.
With a rushing slurp, several more feet of ground broke away under their feet. Argand side stepped but kept his footing somehow, almost shin deep in the mud that now formed the very edge of the river bank. But with a yell, Renald lost his footing and slid down the slope into the waist deep mud being quickly washed away by the river.
Renald’s cries for help pierced the sounds of the downpour, the shrieking calls of Roca, and the grunts of the men. A crack of thunder split the afternoon air. Argand glanced down to his right at Renald as he thrashed and pulled against the liquid mud, but he had already sunk up to his armpits as he was slowly pulled out into the current of the deep river. Nightwings!, Argand thought. He’s wearing his mail shirt. He’s too heavy to escape the mud and water. Can he get it off in time?
The horses were pulling for all their worth asRocastood on his wagon seat to urge and whip them on. Argand, Kosin, and the three other guards lifted with all their strength, but the wagon was just too heavy and off balance. It began to slip down the slope.
Argand felt the earth beneath him begin to dissolve in the thundering downpour. More of the bank was giving way, and his lifting efforts were pushing him straight down. He was up to his knees in the slowly dissolving mud, and within seconds would be sucked down the bank into the bog like Renald. He couldn’t extract his feet, every motion pulling him deeper. Panic began to set in. He was also wearing a rather heavy mail shirt under his cloak.
“We’re losing her!!!” Kosin called out as the wagon shifted right again. The horses were growing tired. They were all nearly out of time.
“We need to bail out, boys!!” The guard next to Kosin, Opren, screamed against the wind and rain. Another massive peal of thunder rolled over them. “It’s too late!”
Suddenly the mud lurched downward, and Argand felt himself begin to fall with the weight of the wagon almost entirely on him. Straining to get free, he screamed NO!!! in his mind, digging within himself for more strength. No! I have to get sound footing!!
And suddenly there were the pulses.
He had almost forgotten them in the strain of the moment as the thunderstorm raged around them and the earth collapsed. The flow surged through his feet and legs and he could suddenly see everyone around him clearly despite the gale. The five soaking wet men giving their all at the rear of an old, empty wagon, the wrinkled old trader, terrified of losing his cask of gold, his wagon, and his team of horses to a mudslide, the slender but muscular man in the distant shadows wearing the silver, almost shimmering gauntlets, his black cloak flapping in the stormy gusts. And something else. Something that felt solid, strong, and was rising towards his feet from deep below the wet ground. He focused on the feeling, which was strangely familiar for some reason, and a heartbeat later he felt solid rock under his feet. Solid rock that was rising, slowly but inexorably upward.
Argand could feel the stone, and in his mind’s eye he could nearly see it in the mud below him; an impossibly broad shelf of solid rock, lifting them all as if a giant’s hand were buried deep in the earth with no other purpose but to shore up their steps. Soon the wagon began to rise as well, its back wheels suddenly having solid support.
The wagon lurched forward as the horses feet suddenly hit stone just an inch or two below the mud, and seconds laterRocahad the wagon safely on the far side of the road. Just as the guards and Kosin stepped out of the now shallow mud near the high river bank, Argand remembered and cried out.
The men spun to the rushing river but saw no sign of Renald. Then a hand broke the surface frantically some fifty or sixty feet off shore and even further downstream to their left. It quickly disappeared below the surface.
But Argand knew where he was. The pulses were still there, coursing through his legs in a torrent that nearly equaled the rain, and through them he could make out the faint image of Renald’s body floundering under the murky surf.
Argand did not hesitate. Before he could even consider what he was doing, he had discarded his soaked cloak and outer shirt, then yanked off his slate colored chain mail and tossed it to the ground. He turned to Kosin as he unclasped his sword belt, squinting at the shorter man through the pouring rain.
“I’m going to need your help again, Kosin,” Argand said simply. “I can get to him, but you are going to have to get us back out.”
Kosin’s brow furrowed, but he nodded once quickly as he took the offered sword and sword belt. Then Argand turned to face the Kirill.
“What? What’re you doing?” askedRocaas he approached, staring in disbelief at Argand. “You can’t save him, man! He’s gone… lost! It’s suicide to-“
Rocacut off abruptly, his jaw hanging slack, as Argand dove off of the bank with a powerful bound and quickly sank into the churning, rushing mire of mud and water.
* * *
“Rope!!!” yelled Kosin as he ran upstream, scanning the ground. Opren, who was the youngest ofRoca’s guards, sprinted over to the wagon. He had a large coil of spring rope in his hands in seconds which he tossed to Kosin.
Rocaand the other guards were staring out into the wind and rain-beaten river, but Kosin didn’t look. He knew that Argand was stroking for all of his worth towards Renald’s position. And he knew that he had to be ready to help them both.
Kosin finally found what he was looking for; a fallen tree branch, about five feet long and two inches thick at its widest. He tied one end of the rope to the fat end of the branch with amazing speed.
“Mate,” said Opren in his Falon accent, shaking his soaked head and squinting in the driving rain. “It’s too late. Renald’s gone, and your friend is already way too far out to reach.”
Kosin ignored him as he turned to just see Argand disappear beneath the opaque surface of the water quite a distance downstream. He took a few quick steps backward, then trotted toward the bank with the branch held back like a javelin. He planted his left foot and heaved the branch into the open air above the Kirill, high and arching, with the spring rope trailing behind it like a streamer as it rapidly uncoiled from its pile on the ground.
The branch hit the water point down and plunged below the surface.
“Grab the end!” Yelled Kosin as the rope fell limp along river and earth. He picked it up himself and got a firm grip with a coil wrapped around his wrist. Opren and the others, beardedFlintand short, stocky Eron, didn’t move.
Then the rope went taught, straining and leaping out of the water.
Opren’s eyes went wide, and he nearly dove onto the rope as the others followed. They pulled in unison, then began running westward along the muddy road, quickly bringing first Renald’s then Argand’s heads into view. Argand had his arms wrapped around Renald’s chest and held the spring rope and branch in clinched fists right in front of Renald’s face. Coughing and sputtering, the two mud-soaked men were hauled up the smooth, low cliff of the river bank.
Renald lay face down in the muck in the pouring rain, coughing and vomiting as Opren leaned onto his back, forcing the filthy water out of his lungs. Renald had managed to take off his cloak and boots, but he still wore his chain mail shirt. Argand seemed fine, however, if soaked and filthy. He knelt beside Renald and assisted Opren.Roca’s wrinkled face was as white as his hair.Flintand Eron were staring incredulously from Kosin to Argand to Renald and back again, speechless.
“I have good aim,” Kosin said, grinning at them all. “Thanks for the rope.”
Two hours later,Roca’s wagon rolled past a series of large family farms that marked the outskirts of Haverlin. The rain had finally subsided and the air seemed warmer, but it seemed to Argand that the chill in the air had grown stronger anyway. He hoped he wasn’t getting ill from all the wet weather.
Even though their journey withRocathe lamp trader was about to end, the conversation had not.
“I tell you, it’s just not natural, mates!!” Said Opren again, nearly yelling. “You felt it,Flint! You too, Eron! Stone doesn’t just grow up out of the ground like a burbin tree in summer! That wagon was a gonner, mates… there weren’t nothing there but mud! Then all of the sudden–”
“And I told you that Kosin and I didn’t feel anything odd, Opren!” Argand lied coolly. He had secretly told Kosin to play along, and given their history, Kosin was quick to agree with no questions asked. “We just finally shifted the wagon onto that firm rock area. The horses get all of the credit.”
The five healthy men walked along next to the open rear gate of the wagon, while Renald sat on the wooden slats of the wagon bed. He looked exhausted and still coughed uncontrollably, lungs having taken in far too much muddy water, and he had developed a fever. It was tremlung, a treatable but still very dangerous disease common to those who survived drowning. He would need medical attention, and soon.
“And then that throw, mates? Dropping that branch like a war-spear exactly where Argand’s hand could find it???” Opren continued, undeterred.
“No, no,” said Renald, taking a long drink from a water skin to help quiet his cough. “No, it was way more amazing than that, Opren, like I said it was. I couldn’t see anything! That muddy flow was pitch black at one inch under the surface! I was done for, given up, I tell ya,” then he stopped for another coughing fit.
“Sinking, drowned, done for!” Renald continued. “But there I was, still reachin’ for the surface, prayin’ for help. And then Argand’s arms were around me, holding me up as if I were naught more than a small child! Next thing I knew, we were being hauled up onto dry land. Incredible.”
“Like I said, the credit for the throw goes to Kosin,” Argand said. “The branch splashed in right near me, so all I had to do was grab it!”
“Look, I told you all,” Kosin said, shaking his head, “and Argand can attest to this, I have always had good aim! It was a lucky throw! Anyone might have made it!”
Opren threw up his hands in surrender. He had been talking non-stop about how the bedrock had risen out of the muddy earth, challenging them all to provide an explanation that didn’t include mass insanity. Flinthad been agreeing with him consistently, scratching his beard thoughtfully and looking confused, but didn’t talk about it with nearly the conviction of Opren.
Then Eron, the youngest of the four guards at around forty Summers, spoke up for the first time that afternoon.
“It’s just like in the stories, men,” he said quietly. “My old pa, Creator keep him, he used to tell me to pay attention to all the old Bard’s tales. Used to say, ‘those stories had to come from somewhere, son’. Told me that he had seen things, with his own eyes, in his youth in the Grey Shields. Strange things. Magic things. I never believed him. Nope. Not one bit.”
Then he raised his eyes to look first at Kosin, then at Argand. “Not until now.”
Renald nodded his head emphatically, coughing all the while. He was convinced that the Creator himself had intervened and saved him.
Argand and Kosin prepared to launch into more denials, butRocahalted his horses at that moment and jumped down from the wagon seat. They were at the west gate of the walled city ofHaverlin, and as was tradition,Rocawould pay them and release them from service before crossing the town’s threshold.
“Much obliged to the each of ya, sirs. Much obliged,”Rocasaid as they prepared to go their separate ways. “I’ll be here in town for about a week… if any of you are looking for another route, I’ll be headin’ east forGreystoneCity. I’d have ya all back, frankly. Same rate, Same deal. If so, look me up. I’ll be at the Green Maiden Inn, near the wharf.” While he addressed them all, his eyes lingered on Argand and Kosin.
They shook hands all around and began to depart, but Renald held Kosin’s hand for an extra moment as he caught Argand’s eyes. The older man’s eyes were wet, his voice rather shaky.
“I owe you my life, young men. I don’t know how you did it, but I am in both of your debt. You ever need anything, you look me up. I am always in and around the Jury or Cayn Roads on duty, but I live back in Oakbridge. Look me up, men, you hear me?”
He broke into another fit of coughing then, almost doubling over.
“You take care of yourself, Renald. I’m sure we’ll cross paths again,” Kosin said simply, then joined Argand to pass through the west gate and into Haverlin. They were waved in by an imposing group of Haverlin local patrolmen without inspection or comment.
They felt their wet spirits lift once they were on the crowded, marsh-oil lit evening streets. Vendors lined the avenue near the gate, still hawking their wears despite the late hour. Boots and caynspun shirts, dried peppers and sweet fruits imported from Cronia, hats of every type, small weapons, light shirts of mail, it was all available within a few feet of the Haverlin threshold.
At almost the same instant, the Argand and Kosin wrapped their nearly-dry outer cloaks tighter around themselves. Kosin was convinced that he must be coming down with a cold due to all of the Spring rains, but he knew that Argand would be far more susceptible after his stint in the Kirill river rescuing Renald.
“You too, huh?” Argand said. Kosin nodded and shrugged. “It doesn’t seem like it should feel this chilly, but I tell you, Kosin, I want to get in front of a fire in the worst way!”
“Not surprising,” Kosin said. “We haven’t exactly been keeping dry and warm, you know. If Renald’s spare clothes didn’t nearly fit you, I’d wager that you might be on your way to the nearest cuperative.”
“’Nearly’ fit is right! I need to get into some pants that I can wear in public.”
They passed out of the gate’s market area and turned right ontoFish Street, one of the main thoroughfares acrossHaverlinCity’s hilly expanse. Fish Street split the city in half, circling right around the Mayor’s mansion at the center of town, then continuing on to the wharf alongLakeHaverlinon the far side of town. Kosin knew that Argand was going to try to talk him into dipping a little deeper into their money pouches than usual in order to stay at an inn close to the city center. Kosin hated spending money on pretty much anything, but given the wet conditions they had just endured and the powerful chill he was feeling, a more expensive inn might be worthwhile.
“So what really happened back there, Argand?” Kosin said suddenly, now that they were quite far from bothRocaand any of his four guards. “The rock really did grow. ‘Like a burbin tree’, as Opren put it. I felt it, and I know you did too. So… given your fondness for talking to the ground…”
“Kose, you know I have no idea. I thought I was done for. The whole bank was giving way, I was trapped past my knees in the muck with the wagon practically falling on me… I couldn’t have escaped. I had no way out.”
He paused in front of a fruit vendor, and handed over two weight of silver for a bag of beautiful, bright oranges.
“Then the pulses hit me again, out of nowhere,” Argand continued. “And I could feel the stone, the rock itself, moving up beneath me. I don’t know how it happened. But thank the Creator it did!”
Argand tossed his old friend an orange, and they both began to eat as they walked.
“I wasn’t thinking about stone or rock… I didn’t do anything or think anything at all, except for how desperately I needed firm footing,” Argand said. “I could feel it… but I don’t know how I actually DID it.”
“And there was something else, Kose,” Argand added, sounding less sure of himself. “Remember back in the pithwood? Think back to… okay, remember when I thought there was one more thief than there really was? You were waiting for the last guy to pop up and attack us, but I told you that the last person I had sensed was gone? That last man was way far off, and sort of hidden, but I saw him. He was a smallish man in mostly black, except for shimmering, almost glowing silver gauntlets. He was just standing there, facing me, still as a statue, holding a sword that kind of resembled a spear…then he was gone.”
Argand turned to catch Kosin’s eyes. “I saw him again during the mudslide. The man in the silver gauntlets. For a fleeting second, there he was, off in the distance, standing in the storm. It was him. And afterward, once we were all clear, nothing. No sign of him.”
“Are you sure it was the same man?
“No doubts. None at all. There’s something different, profoundly different, about seeing someone ‘this way’,” he pointed to the side of his head, “versus seeing with the eyes. I think I would know him anywhere now. Whoever he is.”
Kosin looked troubled. “So you think we’re being followed.” It was not a question.
Argand shrugged. “I guess so, Kose. Either that or I am just imagining the guy. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just going crazy.”
“Ha! There’s no doubt you’re crazy, Argand,” Kosin said, “but what difference does that make since I’m crazy too? I believe you. Period.”
A pack of men on horseback raced past them at that point, forcing them to give way to one side. They wore the white berets of the Haverlin local patrol, and they were in quite a hurry towards the center of the city.
“So what about you?” Argand continued. “How did you possibly hit a moving target in the middle of a rushing, muddy river, with a stick weighted down with 100 feet of spring rope?”
“Like I told the old mercenaries, Argand. I have good aim.” Kosin took a big bite of his peeled orange, turned to Argand and grinned. Another wave of shivering hit him, and his grin faded. He felt cold right through to his core.
“You know that’s not nearly enough of an explanation, right?”
“Yup. Now let’s get some dinner and some sleep.”
Argand sighed, and the two walked deeper into the city in search of an inn and a warm fire.
* * *
Thanks for reading!