By the time the caravan began climbing again into the mountains, they were down to six merchants’ wagons and the mood was one of those on the final slog of a long march, though one that passed through lush countryside. In the high Fifth Redding, there were occasional encounters with less savory characters, most of which Boyle was able to smooth over with some calming conversation (it was not unusual for him to know someone’s mother, or brother, or cousin) and payment of additional “fees” for passage through or near a community. The merchants’ representatives still with them at that point seemed to be seasoned enough to understand this was nothing more than a less organized, and less armed, version of the League’s collection of tariffs, and accepted it as part of the cost of doing business.
The road narrowed as it passed into the mountains and led up to Sutton, the fortress held by Ellinden So that guarded over the high, rolling valleys of her holdings. “So five years or so since you came through here?” Blythe asked Boeden, as they saw the walls rising before them.
“Yes,” Boeden said looking at the walls. “It… will be good, to see home again. I will miss your company though, for the last leg of the trip,” he said smiling down at her. “A man would have trouble finding a better traveling companion than you.”
Blythe returned his smile, and laughed. “Well, if you return to the southlands, you can look us up through Boyle in Halveet. You’ll probably be able to find some wagons going from here to Farolan. Hey, boss!” she called out to Boyle, who grunted in response. “You’ll give him a letter of reference, won’t you?”
“Damn straight,” Boyle agreed readily. And he did, writing one out quickly once they were through the gates and were cooling their heels while Sutton’s own tax collectors took everyone’s names, examined the wagons and crates, and checked the paperwork to make sure everything was in order. “You might already know this, having been through here before, but you’ll be able to find rooms for yourself here – Jotunn caravans come down from Farolan often enough, there’s call enough for it that some of the innkeepers’ll have accommodations sized right for you.”
“I would travel with you again anytime,” Boeden said to Blythe and Boyle. “Thanks, Boss,” he said to Boyle, holding out the letter of recommendation. Turning more serious, Boeden said, “If either of you should ever need me, you can get word to me via the Vind Halls, and I will find you.” Boeden then smiled and said, “or if you ever need a safe place to hide, tell someone in Farolan that you are a friend of mine, they will take you to my parents’ house. The Narwin name carries some weight in Farolan.” Boeden knelt down on one knee, and hugged Blythe, then shook Boyle’s hand. “Until we me again my friends, maybe I will go visit Ellinden So again, while I am here.”
He stood up and walked away, smiling to himself, about them pondering what he had just said. He really had no intention of visiting So, he would probably just make a fool of himself again. Besides, that hit a little too close, to what he was taking a vacation from. If by some improbable chance of fate, she found out he was here, and sent word for him to meet with her, of course he would then go. But he didn’t figure there was much chance of that.
He thought he would stay the night here, and then in the morning, he would go look for a caravan heading to Farolan. “Einmar’s truth,” he thought, “it will feel great to sleep in a proper size bed again.”
True to Boyle’s assurance, it was no trouble at all to find an inn that included tables in the very large common room suited to Jotunns, and ground-floor rooms with beds to suit. There were even two of his countrymen staying there already, ships builders who were headed south from Farolan towards Halveet.
Boeden went to the innkeeper and booked himself a room for the evening, then went over to the other Jotunn and introduced himself. “Narwin?” the reddish-brown haired fellow said. “Are you the Draedon Narwin’s brother and son?”
“Yes,” Boeden said simply, suprised and happy about the pride that was in his tone.
“You don’t look like either one of them, but you look just like your uncle Braylet. Taller, leaner, lighter hair and eyes,” the red-haired man said.
“Yeah, we are the good looking ones in the family,” Boeden said smiling.
“Yep, you got his sense of humor too,” the man said. “I am Caryle, and my friend here is Ollie.” Boeden nodded to each man, as he shook their hands. “Please, sit, have a drink with us,” Caryle said, pushing out a chair for Boeden.
“I hear things have picked up some with the Jiand, is it getting bad?”
“Ohhh, I would say the fighting has been more active than it has been in a while, but it is nothing we haven’t seen before or can’t handle,” Caryle said with Ollie nodding agreement.
“Do you know if Savarne Hoine, is in the main harbor?” Boeden asked.
“Dron Skippe Hoine?” Caryle asked.
“Yes,” Boeden said.
“She was when we left Farolan,” Ollie said around a mouthful of food. “Word was a couple of ships needed some refittings. Why, you know her?”
“Yes, I got to know her, when she was assigned to guard my brother, down south.” “I thought we could catch up a bit when I get back. How long have you guys been gone?”
”’Bout three weeks,” Caryle responded. He waved down the Shal barmaid for another flagon of ale, and then stopped as the front door opened and a young Shal woman with curly brown hair stepped in and looked around. She stood at the front, hands on her hips, looking around the room until her brown eyes lighted on the trio. The front of her tunic bore the insignia both of a Skaldings house, as well as the emblem of the Lady of Sutton.
As Boeden followed Caryle’s look, he noticed that a number of the other occupants of the common room were watching her. She saw it too, and simply grinned and waved at everyone. “I know, I know,” she said, with a mock bow, “you have your hopes up for a performance, but I don’t have time to sing tonight.” A few of the people nearest her protested loudly, pretending to disappointment, and she laughed. “Instead, I’m here to fetch someone.” She straightened, put her hands back on her hips again, and cleared her throat loudly. “Boeden Narwin, son of Draedon and Arene Narwin, hero of the southlands, slayer of wyrms, a mighty warrior is he! Your presence is requested by my liege, my Lady, my mother, the Lady of Sutton!”
“Fuck me,” Boeden whispered, half to himself. Boeden stood and bowed to the girl, “I don’t know about the rest of that, but I am Boeden Narwin, son of Draedon, son of Arene,” he said pleasantly.
“Ah, there he is.” She turned, and gave an elaborate bow. “An honor it is to meet you, and to be your escort to the august and revered presence of the Lady.” Despite what she had said earlier, this clearly was a performance, one that had everyone, including Caryle and Ollie, staring at him. “Come, come, do not be so shy and humble,” she gestured with one hand, while extending her other arm to the door to precede her into the street. Brown eyes danced with good humor as he stepped out, and she kept her smile in place as they turned towards the Keep. Two blocks on, though, once the initial interest from on-lookers had faded, the smile started to fade.
“Welcome to Sutton,” she said with a note of something not-quite-pleased in her voice. “I’m Janne So.”
“It is nice to meet you,” Boeden said genuinely, “but what is with all the theatrics? I was just passing thru on my way home, do you know why your mother wants to meet with me?”
Janne rolled her eyes, and shrugged. “I’m not within the favored circle, to know what she’s thinking. I was told to come fetch you, and I did. If she didn’t want theatrics, she would’ve sent someone else.” She glanced up at him, and her unhappy expression relaxed. “Sorry, it’s not your fault she’s playing us both.”
“It’s OK, I should be getting used to games by now, I guess. How did you, or should I say your mother, find out about the wyrms though?”
“I grew up here. I’m still not used to the games,” she said with a sigh. “As for the wyrms, one of the fellows with you went to the Libraries and told a couple of the Scholars about your trip north. Called himself Vermillion of the Nightsong Guild.”
“Interesting,” Boeden said, not sure what statement he was answering, maybe both. “Well know this, Janne, I will not add to these games, what you see, is what you get. OK?” He said stopping and turning towards her, holding out his hand.
She looked up at him skeptically, and for a moment she looked like someone who usually had a sunny disposition similar to Blythe’s, one ill-suited for the political scheming of her family. “All right,” she said slowly, “I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.” She reached up and took his hand. “But cross me, and I’ll make up a song about how you ran screaming from the wyrms.”
“Fair enough”, he said with a chuckle, walking on again. “Political intrigue is far from my strongsuit, I am a warrior plain and simple, that is one of the reasons why I am curious your mother wants to see me again. It didn’t go too well the first time.”
“Not for you. I’m sure it went about the way she wanted. At least, she’ll act as if it did, even if it didn’t.”
With the daughter of Ellinden So as his escort, he made it quickly through the front gates, and subsequent layers of security without any trouble. She eventually delivered him to what looked to be a sitting room, which had some furniture capable of accommodating Jotunn. Ellinden herself sat at a desk on a raised platform – again, to put her head level with his when he sat – and set aside a stack of paperwork as they entered. Manton stood by the window behind her to her right.
“Mother,” Janne began without much ceremony, “I’m pleased to deliver the package.”
“So now I’m ‘the package’?” Boeden said looking down at Janne with a half smile. Looking up he nodded to Manton, then turned to Ellinden, “So my lady, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”
Janne helped herself to a handful of grapes and threw herself into an armchair. “Fomenting gossip, I’m guessing,” she suggested. “Imagine the chatter, that Boeden Narwin was asked to visit the Lady of Sutton, invited by the Lady’s own daughter.” For a moment, she looked ready to continue, but one glance from her mother was enough to quash anything else she might have been prepared to contribute to the conversation.
“It would be odd for you to pass through, while I am in residence, and not visit,” Ellinden pointed out, as she waved him to a chair. “People might think we have had a falling out.”
“These ‘people’, think too highly of me then,” Boeden said, taking a seat. “I myself had no idea you were, ‘in residence’, and since I had represented my family name and my people so well the last time we spoke, I was just going to stay the night and then move on. I meant no offense, if you took any.” He was not being sarcastic in any way, but did not seem worried in the slightest either.
“The High Council is in recess for the summer. The weather here in the mountains is much more pleasant during this season than on the coast.” Her tone was conversational, and she leaned back in her chair, seemingly completely at ease. “Tell me, did you give any thought to perhaps taking the book to your own priestesses, rather than allowing the Temple of Hamal to hold it?”
Boeden raised one eyebrow, “And what book might you be talking about?”
There was a momentary silence, until Janne choked back what might have been a laugh. Ellinden ignored her, and simply looked at Boeden, and then sighed. “Your traveling companion, Vermillion – or will you pretend not to know who I am talking about?”
“Vermillion told you about the book? What exactly did he tell you, and why would he tell you anything?” Boeden was not smiling now.
One corner of her mouth curled in a humorless smile. “I did not say he told me anything about the book, which now, apparently, you know something about. In any event, it is not as if you and your traveling companions have been terribly diligent about keeping it secret. Survivors in Palderton. Obber’s Mill. Pater Dolmen to the Conclave. And,” she added, “your acknowledgment merely moments ago.”
“Is that why you have summoned me here, to talk about the book? I do not deal in secrets, as some people do, and you know from our last meeting, that I also lack my people’s skill in diplomacy. People could care less if I visited you or not, that is even if they knew I was here in Sutton. If you want to know something, my lady, just ask me straight out, and I will decide whether you should know the answer.”
“Strange, isn’t it?” Ellinden asked, half-turning to Janne, “that the guttersnipe from Tarrish, who left four heads in the Aihv’, conducted himself with greater delicacy?”
Janne just rolled her eyes in response, indicating that her sympathies here lay with Boeden. “I think you meant to say, ‘who allegedly left four heads in the Aihv’,” she retorted. When her mother’s eyes turned briefly her way, she shrank back into her seat.
Ellinden turned back to Boeden. “I did ask you straight out. You were the one who chose to pretend not to understand the question. Did you consider giving the book to your own priestesses, rather than leaving it to the Temple of Hamal?”
It was Boeden’s turn to smile, “Being delicate, is something I rarely ever am described as… No, I trusted Athron’s opinion. My turn, what do you think of the book and it’s ‘properties’?”
“It is the properties that cause my concern about giving it to the Temple of Hamal. Pater Dolmen may have a high opinion of his fellow clerics, but experience tells me it is unwise to give such an item over to the intended victims and trust them not to use it against Sa’iph. Once it was out of his hands, he lost control of it.”
“So you would trust my leaders with it?”
“Don’t you?” she parried, surprised that he would ask the question. “Do you think the Daughters of Einmar would allow such a thing to be used? Even against the Jiand?”
“No, but I also trust Athron’s Order,” Boeden told her. “So what is your opinion of Isabel Cavallos now?”
Janne made a choking sound, coughing up a grape, and coughed again. Ellinden’s head turned to consider her daughter, who had obviously been caught by surprise by the sudden turn Boeden took in the conversation. The Lady of Sutton waited until Janne, brown eyes watering, recovered. “Are you saying-” Janne gasped, cleared her throat, and glanced at her mother.
“Go on, daughter.” Ellinden’s voice was level, and her face unreadable.
Janne looked like she doubted whether it was to her benefit that her mother would allow her to complete the question. “Are you saying Isabel Shal Cavallos was behind what happened at Palderton?” She asked it quickly, as if worried she wouldn’t be able to get the words out – and as if wishing she had been dismissed from the meeting shortly after bringing Boeden to her mother.
“Palderton and Hinderlet,” Boeden said looking at Janne. “What kind of evil does it take to do that?”
“It shouldn’t have blonde hair and blue eyes,” Janne muttered. But after another glance at her mother, she fell silent.
Ellinden herself said nothing for quite some time, as she considered her daughter. “Now let’s see how well you can keep that secret,” she finally said to Janne, and it was obvious from the girl’s face that she’d rather forget the information entirely. Ellinden turned back to Boeden. “Does the Temple know this? Of her involvement?”
“I don’t believe so. And what will you do with this information I have entrusted you with?” Boeden asked.
Ellinden spread her hands and gave a slight shrug. “I do not know, yet.”
“Fair enough. So what else would you like to talk about, My Lady?”
This time, her smile might have reached her eyes. “Actually, I would like for you to carry a gift to the Oberste Dochter. During the winter, she sent to me a quite lovely ice wine, and to return the favor I would like to offer her two bottles of the twenty-five year whiskey that Sutton’s distilleries have released this year.”
“Sure, I have been worse things than a courier, I hope they let me in to see her,” Boeden said with a smile. “Well, that sounded like a dismissal, so, I am really looking forward to a real size bed.” Boeden stood up, “My lady, would you do me the honor of allowing your lovely daughter to escort me back to my inn?”
“Of course. Janne, the bottles are on the credenza.” Janne sighed audibly, and stood to pick up the two bottles, one in each hand. She gave her mother a cursory bow after the necessary pleasantries were exchanged, and led the way back out. On the walk out of the keep, she passed the bottles to Boeden.
Boeden took the bottles and put them in his pockets. “I think that went pretty well,” Boeden said with a smile. “Are you mad that I requested for you to accompany me, back to my inn?
“No, not mad at all. I’m annoyed with her, all around, to tell you the truth.” She shoved her hands into her pockets. “I can’t wait until I’m a full Skalding, and then I don’t have to come back here when my master tells me I need to visit my mother.”
“I am sorry that your relationship is so strained with your mother, I can’t pretend that I can understand, I am very close with my parents. The whole situation is foreign to me, the whole political intrigue thing is lost on me. I do appreciate your company, you are a very nice young lady.”
“She thinks I should be better at it, that I can’t expect to avoid it, even as a Skalding. That there will always be people who will try to take advantage of me.” She sighed again, and hunched her shoulders. “She’s probably right, and that just pisses me off more.”
“She’s just looking out for you, but trust in your own instincts. For I think it is wise to be wary of people and to be cautious of someone’s motives, I think it is equally foolish to not trust anyone, and miss the good that is in people.”
“Hmm.” She thought it over, and her mood lightened slightly. “I can’t think it’d be easy to see the good in people after what I heard happened at Palderton.” She glanced up at him. “That’s not an invitation to give me any detail about that, by the way. I’ve heard enough of the stories, and I’d really rather hear again about the heads that your pal Vermillion allegedly put in the Aihv’. He at least had a reason for what he did, and the folks the heads belonged to deserved it. That other … well,” she glanced around the street, “I won’t say anything about it in public.”
“What exactly did happen with Vermillion and these heads in the Aihv?”
“His Lady was attacked at the Aihv’, in the privy.” She stopped and reconsidered. “Wait, that one didn’t get her head cut off, she was just knocked out. Then there were the spell traps set on some gifts and letters sent to their inn. But I don’t think any of the senders had their heads cut off. It was the ones who attacked them in the middle of the night, that he killed.” She glanced up at Boeden. “They never did find the rest of the bodies, just the heads, perched on top of a door. Scared the shit out of the clerk when they fell off the next morning.” She said it rather cheerily. “At least there weren’t, as far as popular gossip has it, any more attempts on her life before the Council released her and the League revoked the bounty posted for her. Might be something still on the menu, for those who want the A’nari seat, though.”
Boeden’s face frowned in thought. “His lady… Tess? The Council at the Aihv released her? A’nari seat? Vermillion what have you got yourself into to?”
Janne laughed aloud. “Iaondrin Shal A’nari,” she corrected him, and then shrugged again. “She’s pissed my mother off, too, so we’re all in good company.” She came to a stop outside Boeden’s inn, and held out a hand. “Have a safe trip home, Boeden Narwin.”
“Good-bye, Janne So, it has been a pleasure to meet you, and don’t let anyone change that good heart of yours.” Boeden shook her hand and watched her walk away. I’m hungry, dinner sounds good, Boeden thought to himself, then went into the common room to eat.
The next morning, Boeden was easily able to find a caravan traveling from Sutton to Farolan, and a master who, after reading Boyle’s letter, was more than glad to have the Jotunn’s service as a guard. This last leg of the trip home passed with less laughter and good-natured joking than he had experienced with Blythe, Willem and Patyr – this far north, it was not unknown for Stamm to attack, and during those final weeks, Boeden found ample use for his sword to scare off, wound or even kill the occasional group of orcs or ogres and the like.
The wagons moved slowly the last few miles, as the ground leading to the cliffside Jotunn city became more rocky and jagged. He could smell the sea before he could hear it, and could hear it before he could see it. Then, five years after he had left, Farolan was before him, and beyond it the rolling foam of the northern oceans, where the Daughters of Einmar held dominion.
Boeden Narwin was home.
To be continued.
DM’s Note: Illustration is from “The great cloth hall: Ypres.” by George Wharton Edwards. From Vanished towers and chimes of Flanders, Philadelphia, 1916. Via archive.org.