“That hole broke the back of two empires. To want to venture there, and then enter it? Foolishness! And you’ll regret it! Mark it—you’ll regret it well.” The man’s unshaven chin jutted with the strength of his words. His eyes flashed, and he pulled another mouthful from his gourd.
His audience expected that reaction, of course. Angry, spiteful, and a little afraid, the man spoke the truth. That hole did break the back of two empires. It also swallowed a city—the city that his ancestors called home. The assembled group was fairly certain that the old man’s anger was born more of that unspoken tragedy than of the spoken pair. Would he part with the information they sought? That was their only concern.
“What can you tell us of the path?” Kolredd asked the question, trying to hide the impatience that even he could hear creeping into his voice. He was a large man, broad-shouldered, and imposing to most, but his size didn’t seem to bother the old man at all.
“The path? Bah! That’s why you’ve come? Mark it—the path is death!” The old drunk’s voice rose until his words echoed from the stone face of the nearest building. The young men gathered around him grimaced at the stench of his breath.
Kolredd’s face flushed, but Terga dropped a restraining hand on his shoulder. Terga was shorter than Kolredd, slightly shorter even than the old man. He moved closer and forced the drunk to meet his eyes. “All paths end at the same.” His voice was quiet and calming.
“Well spoke, that.” The drunk paused, looked down to his gourd and then down further, into his lap. “But some end sooner than others.”
“And some, such as yours, seem to go on and on.” Terga’s voice was confident and slippery. The old man didn’t like it.
“Bah! Too long, some might speak it.” The drunk’s voice grew quiet, and only the closest could hear him, “I, for one.”
Terga heard the comment, pondered it for a moment, and then let it pass. He knew that the drunk was not going to elaborate.
The old man turned his back to them, announcing in his way that he was done talking to them.
“Come,” said Aine as he pulled his compatriots away, “the old man is done with us for today. We’ll see him next Marketday.” The comment was enough to get Terga moving. Aine had to physically pull Kolredd from the man.
The three friends moved from the brewer’s cart and walked across the small clearing at the center of New Tharrenton. The village consisted only of seven closely-grouped buildings, the tallest of which was the mill that sat on the bank of Westerly Run. Four of the other buildings and the mill surrounded the clearing that was the site of the Marketday gathering, during which the farmers and hunters from the surrounding country would meet, exchange tales, and barter for goods and services. It was the one day each sixday that the three friends, and their fellows, were sure to gather together.
Kolredd, Thirdborn of Karred and the oldest of their group, worked as a hand on his older brother’s homestead. He was obviously frustrated with the conversation.
Aine wasn’t surprised by the frustration. Being the third son of the man who was closest to nobility in this backwater village gave Kolredd a unique perspective on the world and his place in it. Aine, however, carried no such illusions. He was the last remaining son of a poor widow. The world looked very different to him than it did to his larger friend. Although not surprised by it, Kolredd’s frustration annoyed him nonetheless.
“The Second Harvest is almost done,” Terga said. “Next Marketday will be busy.” Unlike Aine, he took the entire interaction in stride and, in fact, found it slightly humorous. Having ventured far beyond the New Tharrenton countryside in his younger years, he had observed Kolredd’s sense of entitlement in many people, and to a much greater degree.
Ahead of them and across the clearing, their three conpanions were speaking to a group of woodsmen, whose wares were spread across the ground around them: Furs, pouches of wild berries, and forest herbs.
“How is the harvest on the eastern fields?” Kolredd asked. The only answer he received was a shrug and a shake of the head. “The southern?”
“Better than the west,” Aine answered.
“And Karred’s fields?” Terga asked the question out of politeness, although he knew the answer. Kolredd responded with a look that said, Fine. Of course.
The three just then came to their friends: Gaenid, Fourthborn of Karred, Felrath, a would-be Initiate of the Church of Eight, and Gevean, the orphaned son of a travelling merchant. The young men, all six of them, were between seventeen and twenty years of age and felt a closer kinship with each other than even their own families. They had grown up together, had daydreamed, and plotted, and planned together, had worked the fields together when needed.
“What’s the talk?” Gaenid asked. Shorter but as broad as his older brother, Gaenid greeted them with a wide smile.
“The fields. Second Harvest,” answered Aine.
“The west weren’t so bad,” Felrath said.
“What of the Maebranecks?” Gaenid asked.
“They were,” Kolredd insisted.
“They chose the crop!” Felrath said.
“They didn’t consult the Eight,” Terga said, eyeing Felrath surreptitiously.
“The Eight—!” began Felrath, ready to defend his faith, before realizing that Terga was merely ribbing him. He smiled at the good-natured attack.
“The Maebranecks chose a crop for the southern lands,” Gevean said, “without merchants.”
“Where were… Where are the merchants?” Aine asked.
“The road to New Tharrenton is long,” Terga replied. “It’s not as it was.”
“The Midsummer Harvest—” said Gaenid.
“It’s a gamble for the merchants,” said Kolredd. “The merchants didn’t come.”
“They’ve always come. They’ll always come,” said Felrath.
“Will they?” Gevean asked. He had come to New Tharrenton in a merchant train years before as a young child. His own experience told him that the merchants were done with this nowhere town.
They stopped at the rise adjacent to the mill overlooking the Westerly Run. The water flowed fast and cool under the gray sky. The day was drawing to a close. Shortly, the men would each go their own way, but, as was their custom, they spent the late afternoon huddled in a group close to the Run watching the last of the Marketday happenings.
“What of the old man?” Gevean asked.
“Drunk,” Aine answered.
They all laughed. Of course Sammus was drunk. He almost always was.
“He’s not ready to talk,” Terga offered.
“Will he ever be?” Kolredd asked, his frustration clearly having returned.
“Perhaps not to you,” Aine said. “Maybe Terga and I should try alone next Marketday.”
Kolredd’s eyes grew wide, and he was about to respond when his younger brother stepped-in.
“This has to be our year,” Gaenid said. “It will be about two sixdays before Winter Ready, and we won’t be able to leave then.”
“What are you saying?” Kolredd glanced cooly at Gaenid.
“We have to try,” Gaenid pushed. “It’s waiting for us. If we wait too long, it won’t happen.”
“He’s right!” Gevean interjected enthusiastically. “We need to go before he gets her pregnant!” Laughter all around.
“She’ll hold him tight after that!” Terga said.
“The Pit?” Aine asked. “He won’t even be allowed to join us at Market!”
Against the loud laughter, Gaenid tried to change the subject. “Mabrin came to Market with four hired porters. They helped deliver his wares. Do you think they would be willing?”
“Not as willing as her!” Felrath broke in.
The laughter only grew more raucous, except for Kolredd. “What’s the need for porters?”
“To carry our loads,” Gaenid said.
“You’re serious,” Aine said.
“I am,” said Gaenid. “The Pit is waiting. Walking there will tire us, unless they carry for us.”
“The Pit?” Felrath deadpanned.
“We’ve been talking about it for the last three years,” Gevean said. “The Pit holds riches. This village, the fields, do not. Village is dying—you can all see it. We’ve talked about it! The Pit, with its crowns and gemstones, will be around long after this village has returned to the forest.” He looked around, trying to gauge their interest. Every word he had spoken was true, so they believed. He noticed a glimmer in more than one pair of eyes. “If we don’t go now, we never will.”
“How long to walk it?” Aine asked.
“Three or four days?” Terga said.
“What of the fields?” Kolredd asked. “What of our families?” Despite his own desire to go, he felt a responsibility to his father.
“That’s you,” answered Gevean. “Some of us don’t have families.”
“There is nothing to hold us here,” said Terga.
“There is something in this village,” Aine countered, “to hold each of us here.” But he knew that might not really be the case for Terga or Gevean.
“Some ties are stronger than others,” Gaenid offered. “Some of us are ready to break those knots.” He looked around but seemed not to notice the look on his brother’s face. The group had discussed such a journey many times. It seemed to him that, more so than ever before, most were taking the idea seriously.
“New Tharrenton is not the village our parents remember,” said Felrath.
“It’s not the village I remember,” said Terga. Not having been born in New Tharrenton, his views on the place were different than most of theirs.
“That place is dead,” said Gevean.
“What happened to it?” Aine asked. “I want it back.”
“Most of us do, but it’s done,” said Gaenid. “We must make a new place. We must start a new time. It will help us. We can start a new time together!” His excitement spread; the others felt it.
“The porters then?” Felrath asked.
“Mabrin is done with them,” Gaenid said.
“Then perhaps we should start,” Aine said, although he wasn’t so sure.
“Me? Orris, or even ‘The Porter’ if you prefer. It makes no difference.” The man looked at them, sizing each of them up.
“Porter, then,” Gevean said. “What effort can you offer us?”
“I will provide four porters, including myself. We will carry your packs, your kit, and your rations. We will set your camp and break it, as needed. We will do no more. We will not wield weapons, except in our own defense. We will not enter the Pit.”
They eyed him; he was of average height but thick-armed. He was paler than them, and his close-cropped hair had patches of gray. His voice was a little too matter-of-fact, the words coming quickly and confidently.
His manner belied more experience than any of them possessed, and that made them nervous.
“We don’t need him, or his ‘porters.’” Kolredd spoke to his friends, as if Orris was not present. “We can carry our own.”
“We’ll not want to carry our bedding into the hole,” said Terga.
“You will speak to me only; my companions will not speak to any of you,” Orris continued as if Kolredd has not interrupted. “They will take orders from me and only me. My companions are easily offended. You’d be wise to keep that in mind.”
“What is the tariff?” Kolredd’s question stopped Orris from talking. The porter glanced evenly at him, and then at the others in turn, before his gaze returned to Kolredd’s face.
“One. Mark.” The answer was repeated and considered. The most ignorant of the group felt that the amount was fair. Another, that it was too steep. Two others believed it preposterous, and their thought was confirmed by the man’s next words.
“For each day of labor,” Orris added.
The protest was immediate, loud, and simultaneous. “Only a fool would pay that!” “What for?!” “A mark?” “We’re paying you only to guard our belongings.” Orris waited in silence, expecting the outburst but knowing full well the outcome of the conversation before the others.
“One mark for each day of labor,” Orris said. “And you will pay us seven before the day we set off.”
“Seven marks?” asked Gaenid.
“To carry our supplies?” asked Aine.
“You’re daft.” Even Gevean was surprised at the exhorbitant sum.
“I’ll carry my own,” Felrath said.
“Three day’s march,” said Orris. “One day’s camp. Three day’s return to this…village.”
“We’re not paying it,” said Terga. “Can’t.”
“Won’t. We’ll carry our own,” said Gaenid.
The protests died down. The porter waited patiently.
Finally, Aine spoke, “Why only one day’s camp? What do you—”
“Know? I know that none of you have been to the Pit,” Orris said. “I know that most men do not seek out their deaths, and that those who do, often find it more quickly than they expect. I know that none of you has seen violence, not real violence, and that the most serious hurt you have seen was suffered from the errant axe of a woodcutter, or the broken axle of a harvest-laden cart, or from a long tumble from the top of an oak. I know that one day will be enough for you children to want to return to your homes. And so, one day at the Pit—near the Pit—and three days walking in each direction. Seven days, seven marks.”
His words gave the young men pause. Was he trying to scare them? Regardless of his intentions, he was correct. Most of them knew it.
Again, he waited patiently.
It was Gevean who finally spoke. “We’ll pay three marks before our journey and—”
“Spare me the barter. You know the tariff. In a few days, my crew and I will walk from here. Whether to the Pit, with you, or west, to the next village. Perhaps there I’ll at least find a wench, some wine, and clean straw.” The porter stood and left the group.
“It’s not worth it,” Kolredd said. “The tariff is too high.”
“After the Pit, we’ll each be able to pay that tariff!” Terga countered.
Kolredd looked at him evenly and shrugged.
“We’re doing it?” Aine asked.
“Aye,” Gaenid answered.
Some were excited; others were not. They argued amongst themselves for several more minutes but in the end agreed to pay the porter. They split up, each heading to his home and perhaps to locate his share of the tariff.
That is Chapter One of my new novel, The Ramparts of Tharrenton Deep. I am running a Kickstarter campaign to fund its publication. If you enjoyed this read and want to read more or if you're willing to support a would-be fantasy novelist, please go take a look at my Kickstarter campaign. I would really appreciate it. Thanks!