The sounds of an argument roused me from my slumber. While certainly a disagreement in a Tavern is not news, lately, sleeping there, at least, isn't either. Ignoring the raised voices for a moment, I tried to concentrate on my priorities. Like, how much wine did I have left? I fumbled for the bottle in front of me, hopefully, nearly knocking it off the table. Sadly, it was empty. How much money did I have? Also, none.
I sighed. Sooner or later the barkeep would notice me and I would be back on the street. Life isn't easy for an unemployed caravan guard.
Maybe I can find work as a bodyguard, I thought, considering my sheer bulk, someone would have to believe I am as imposing as I look. At least I still have my sword.
With a slightly panicked grab, I felt for my scabbard. Still there. Although it was made of a metal better suited to pots, it WAS a sword. Many didn't even have that much and resorted to using clubs.
The argument intruded on my misery again, as it was getting noticeably louder. Oddly enough, the shouting all seemed one-sided, like a man arguing with himself. I leaned around the ell-shaped room's corner to see what was happening.
"Now, THAT isn't something you see everyday," I muttered to myself, smiling. The only occupants of the Tavern at this late an hour were a drunken lout, not me... ANOTHER drunken lout, and a Noblewoman. Not that I hadn't heard stories of Noblewomen whose preferences ran to unclean, unshaven drunken bar patrons, I just had never run into one. Not that I wouldn't LIKE to, you know.
This Lady was obviously nothing like that. She was regally tall, with short-cut gray hair, wearing an elegant, though simple dress. Her poise suggested somehow that she was accustomed to the weight of a crown. Standing with her arms crossed, she faced a very drunken man, who lounged half on, half off a stool tilted precariously against the wall. It was he that was responsible for all the shouting. Even just these few feet from them, I could barely hear her responses.
"Really, Rando," she said, calmly and hardly above a whisper, "I don't think you know nearly enough about my parentage to make such claims. That however is not the point. Once again, you were hired as a guide and guard, to get my husband and myself to Shilla safely. Not merely as far as your favorite pig sty of a watering hole."
"Hey!" the drunk objected, tilting his chair back from one leg to another, never quite losing his balance. "The barkeep's a friend of mine! Don't call him a pig!"
"Actually, I didn't." Somehow I got the distinct impression that she had called for the Headsman to silence less offensive louts. "I called YOU a pig. The barkeep may take his place as the swineherd."
Somehow, even through my wine-muddled senses, I got the impression that something just wasn't right about this. Several questions came to mind. Why would a Noble woman be in such a lowly bar this late? Where WAS that thrice-damned barkeep, anyway? What was it about that drunk that just didn't ring true?
By the Gods, I could use a drink! Then I remembered how I had fumbled for the wine bottle that turned out to be empty, and it struck me.
What drunk could balance on two legs of a barstool? He had to be faking how drunk he was.
This was a set-up.
Sure enough, as if on cue, the barkeep appeared from the back room. He moved silently but the glint in his hand wasn't from a bottle. He held a dagger!
Somewhere deep inside my guts rose a feeling that I needed to do something. My eyes strayed to my pot-metal sword. No thanks; I barely knew how to hold the weapon.
What I needed was a plan.
"What I really need is a drink," I muttered almost silently.
I picked up my empty wine bottle and staggered--very little real acting was involved--to my feet and started singing.
"The Sohni girl had big black eyes.
"The biggest pair I've ever seen..."
I crashed noisily around the corner towards the Noble woman. She turned her back on the drunk and the treacherous barkeep. Uh, oh. This wasn't going quite the way I had planned it.
"Barkeep!" I shouted, pointing my empty bottle towards the shadow. "Stop lurking in the shadows, and get a man a drink!"
Both the acrobatic drunk and the Lady turned towards the Barkeep.
"I thought you said we were alone," the drunk said, coldly to the fat Innkeeper. Suddenly, he didn't sound all that drunk anymore.
The barkeep shrugged.
"Look at the size of him!" he explained. "After he passed out, it would have taken four of us to throw him out. Don't worry, I will get rid of him."
The interplay between these two was not lost on the Noble. Whatever else you can say about her, she wasn't stupid. Slowly, she began edging away from the pair, towards the door.
"Forget it, Sweets," the barkeep leered, noticing her motion. "The door's barred until we finish our business."
"Barkeep!" I roared, stumbling closer, putting the slight frame of the Noble Lady protectively behind me. "What do I have to do to get that drink!?"
I brandished my empty bottle drunkenly.
"Careful with that, sot," the barkeep sneered, "Rando might not look like much, but he's the best swordsman in the kingdom."
Rando smiled at the compliment and crossed his arms, exposing the hilt of a sword. Even my untrained eyes, I could tell that HIS sword was not made from a pot.
I turned back to the barkeep.
"Guess it's a good thing I never learned to use a sword then."
The bottle smashed against the side of the barkeep's head with a very pleasing crunch.
"Run!" I yelled to the Noble Lady, but she was already running... heading in the wrong direction! Toward Rando!
With one dainty slippered toe, she delicately kicked the carefully balanced stool out from under him. He collapsed with a crash, splintering the stool, but doing no real harm.
"Lady, I'm no swordfighter!" I hollered, at a loss as to how to proceed. So much for plans!
"Then fall on him!" she yelled, the first I had heard her voice over a whisper.
Nice voice, I thought.
Obediently, I threw all my weight directly on top of Rando.
After a moment, I slowly got back to my feet, expecting Rando's blade to slide between my ribs any second.
"I'd say he's out of the fight." The Noble Lady was bent over Rando, peeling back one eyelid. He seemed to still be breathing, but there was definitely no one home.
"We make a good team," Smiling, I hobbled towards the door, which opened easily at my tug.
"Thrice bedamned!" I shouted. "He lied! This wasn't locked. You could have run!"
"And miss all this fun?" she smiled at me and I swear for a moment, her smile was so bright, I forgot how much my shoulder hurt.
Although I really hadn't been much help in the bar fight, I gallantly offered to escort the Lady home. I guessed that such a classy would be staying in a fine Inn, and that means fine wine. No more cheap rice wine for me!
My hopes faded bit my bit, as we turned away from the avenue with quality Inns, and then passed without pausing at the medium quality Inns. Even the poor Inns went by without a comment from the Lady. We finally came to a halt in front of the Palace's garden gate.
"You are staying at the Palace?" I asked, dumbfounded. My stomach gurgled at the thought of the quality of wine served here.
The Lady deftly slipped the latch, opened the gate and waving me through. Then quietly shut it behind her.
"Not exactly," she frowned, and then hurried past me along the path.
In a clearing near a fountain was a small campfire, burnt mostly to ashes with a single blackened pot resting carelessly tilted on the coals. Two bedrolls had been laid next to the fire, one was occupied. Faint sounds of slumber escaped whoever was wrapped so tightly in what appeared to be several blankets.
"He seems safe," the Lady whispered, and then moved away a bit for privacy.
"Thank you for your help. I am afraid I wasn't expecting trouble from our own guide. Tomorrow I will start looking for another; as we still need to get to Shilla."
I glanced around the clearing. The campfire was small, true, but must have been spotted by the Palace Guards. Who could possibly be important enough to be left alone to camp on the King's doorstep, yet not be welcome to stay inside? Why not stay at an Inn? My curiosity was gnawing at my guts, like a ferret with a fish.
"Can't say I am busy, My Lady," I rubbed my chin. "As a caravan guard up and down these roads for my whole life, I think I would be a good guide. Never been as far south as Shilla, but at least you know from the fight, that I am trustworthy."
As she considered this and seemed carefully choosing her words, I suddenly caught a whiff of something VILE. I glanced around the campsite again, expecting from the smell, something like a forgotten corpse.
"Good Gods, what is that?" The odor seemed to be coming from the pot in the fire. Leaving the Lady, I bent over the pot and pulling out a rag from my pack, wrapped my hand against the heat. "May I?"
When I cracked the lid, steam escaped... along with an indescribable odor of old socks, seaweed and someone's forgotten barnyard boots?
"Um, is it a poultice?" I guessed. "Your companion has a bad rash? Perhaps an infected wound?"
The Lady frowned and the garden noticeably got colder. I shivered.
"Dinner," she responded, grimly.
"No! Really?" Curiousity was always my greatest weakness, so I dug a spoon out of my pack and stirred the murky contents of the pot. "What is in this? I think I see beans... cabbage?"
"Both of those and some dried fish," she admitted, shrugging, "Along with a spice packet I bought from a merchant some years ago, and some vegetables perhaps a bit past their prime. Why? Do you think you could have done better, Caravan Guard?"
I closed the lid and shook my head sadly. With a sigh, I picked up the whole pot and carried it off into the bushes.
When I returned, I filled the freshly scrubbed pot with clean water from the fountain. After raking the coals, I set the pot on them.
Inside my pack, I found a few odds and ends. Some kohlrabi and bokchoy, fresh from the market this morning, went into the pot expertly sliced. Her Ladyship watched with some interest as I diced an onion, then sliced a small piece--my last--of dried seasoned beef.
As the pot began to boil, the clearing filled with a much more agreeable aroma.
"As a guess..." I stirred the aromatic pot slowly. It wasn't a great soup, but a nice one. "... Your spices were old, and moldy, and you used too much. A mistake any cook could make."
"Any novice, perhaps," she corrected. "Or maybe a child. You can tell that I never spent much time in the kitchen. I appreciate you trying to spare my feelings."
Remaining silent, I filled a couple mugs with broth from my soup, and handed her one. She sipped slowly, smiled, and then drained half the mug.
"Very good!" she exclaimed. "So, not just a Caravan Guard, you are also a cook?"
I laughed quietly. "As well as a drunkard? Yes, I did most of the cooking for the guards on caravan. I think we will let the soup simmer a while, perhaps have it for breakfast?"
"Alright, you're hired," she finished her soup. "We can't pay much. I did a quick search of both the barkeep and his swordsman friend, but didn't turn up many coins."
I raised an eyebrow. This highborn Lady rolled TWO unconscious men so quickly, that I never even noticed! She has hidden depths.
"Money is nothing," I told her, "but it is nice to visit the market once in a while."
"Especially if you know what to buy," she admitted. "Very well, you'll have plenty of gold to purchase food and perhaps later you can find a good position in Shilla. If our recommendations mean anything there still, you can have them; assuming we make it alive."
"There are people trying to kill you?" I asked, astonished. "Whatever for? You obviously have little money."
"I guess you should know," the Lady explained, "Exactly what you have yourself in for, and for whom you work."
"About twenty years ago, I married Ostrei... that fellow sleeping over there so peacefully. But his family demanded I produce a male heir. Well, the Gods blessed me with two beautiful daughters and then decreed I would have no more. Ossie's family asked him to divorce me and try again with a Lady of their choosing, but he refused. You see, Ossie's younger brother had many sons, so he just decided to turn the family business over to him. But Rastrei, his brother, turned out to be somewhat of a poor businessman, and the family business has fallen on bad times. We guess that this is the reason he has cut off our stipend. After Ostrei quit his job, we have been living off a small sum every year for these last eighteen years, sent by his brother."
"Rastrei... Ostrei... " I repeated. Something sounded way too familiar. A family business? Why did this remind me of some traveler's tale?
Then it dawned on me.
"RastreiDae?" I asked, shocked. "The King of Shilla?"
"That's him, the younger brother," she admitted. "I didn't say it was a GOOD job."
"Not a good job?" I asked. "What could be better than being king?"
The Lady, formerly Queen AsaraeiDae of Shilla, sighed.
"Kings have many demands on their time," she explained. "They are answerable to their people, to the larger land-owners, and the rest of the Royal family. Ever since the Royal House of Dae moved south from Kugnae, we have assumed both authority and responsibility for the lands and people. It is a daunting job."
"What of your brother-in-law?" I asked, reasonably. "Is he a good ruler?"
"Rasie was never groomed for the job." She shrugged, "He mostly spent his time chasing women and racing horses. Things haven't been too good since he took over. I have heard there is much talk among the people and the landowners of giving the crown back to my husband. It is possible, you know. After all, he could name one of Rastrei's sons as his heir."
"Wouldn't that make everyone happy?"
"Everyone but Rastrei, my husband, and me," she frowned. "I am afraid we have gotten quite used to a leisurely life. Ossie has a strong sense of duty, though. I don't know what will happen."
"Seems like there is more to think about than I can handle tonight," I smiled at the Lady. "We can continue talking tomorrow. Why don't you get some sleep and in the morning after you have eaten, I will go to market for supplies."
After my "nap" in the Tavern, I had little trouble staying awake. My soup had done well overnight, and I heated a small pot for tea.
When OstreiDae woke, I greeted him with"Your Majesty", but he just chuckled good-naturedly and told me to call him Ossie. I resolved to continue to call his wife My Lady, though.
He seemed very nice and not the least surprised that his wife had hired a guard without asking him. He was very pleased with breakfast, realizing immediately that his wife had nothing to do with it.
"I take it cooking is not an Art of Kings?" I asked, smiling as the former sovereign finished a second mugful of soup.
OstreiDae was a tall man, well muscled though slender. Unlike his wife's gray hair, Ossie's still had streaks of auburn running through it.
"Excellent meal!" he congratulated me. "If you can do this well without preparation, what can we expect on the road when you plan ahead?"
"Basic fare, I guess," I shrugged. "Perhaps a few interesting recipes. Having no kitchen DOES reduce my options. Even a wagon would help."
Ossie stood up and stretched. Then he did a few "poses" balancing on one leg. Then he pantomimed drawing a bow and started chopping wood? It was all very strange.
"I hope you were a better king," I chided the exercising Royal, "Than you are a dancer, because Shilla was really in trouble!"
Ossie paused a second, the sweat on his forehead showed his exertions. He chuckled softly.
"Not dancing... sword exercises," he explained, and then resumed slowly showing me the basic moves. "You must do something like this, as you have a sword."
It was my turn to chuckle.
"You are a magnanimous sovereign, indeed, to stretch the definition of 'sword' to include this humble blade."
I drew the pot metal, dinged blade nearly worthless, and offered it to Ossie for inspection, hilt first.
The former king examined the blade critically, then attempted a thrust... a parry... an overhand slice. Then he relaxed a bit and waved the blade gently back and forth a few inches at a time.
"What are you doing?" I asked, confused. It looked like he was trying to hypnotize a snake or something.
"I believe I have found the proper use for this blade," Ossie explained with a smile, still waving the blade back and forth. "Buttering toast."
I roared with laughter and took back the blade, red-faced with embarrassment.
The monarch nosed through one of his packs for a moment, then drew a beautiful steel long sword with a silk wrapped hilt in the colors of Shilla. A bolt of lightning was worked into its tapering rose-colored blade.
"Beautiful!" I exclaimed, watching Ossie move through some of the exercises again, this time showing how the blade worked with them. It seemed like an extension of his arm, with its tip moving as easily as if he were pointing a finger.
"A King's blade, indeed!"
"Somewhat less than that I am afraid," Ossie examined the blade closely then re-sheathed it. "But as it will no doubt break on my death, my dear brother allowed me to take it. This and some jewelry!"
Ossie flashed a red jewel at me, set in a delicate gold band. It looked like a woman could wear it, too. On another finger, though, was a heavy gold signet.
"Is that your crest?" I asked, shocked. "Surely they didn't want you to take that?"
Ossie pulled off the heavy band and tossed it into the air. Deftly catching it, he tossed it again.
"Are you suggesting that if this ring fell into the wrong hands..." he smiled, wryly at me as he continued to toss his ring, "that the kingdom of Shilla would crumble?"
The thought HAD occurred to me. False documents ordering... say, wine in large amounts to be delivered to an itinerant caravan guard?
"One problem with that," Ossie explained. "Let me show you."
Without warning, he tossed the signet towards me. With, I hope, acceptable dexterity, I snatched the ring out of the air and examined it. There was a carving of an antlered stag against a shell background.
"Very pretty," I hazarded a compliment, "but I don't see the what you mean. What is the problem?"
"When I left Shilla," he explained, while rooting through his packs again, "Rasie changed everything. There is a new seal, so my wife and I, along with my two daughters, kept our Royal signets. Mementos, mostly. Now, they don't have enough authority to order lunch."
He laughed, although it didn't sound very sincere.
"Here it is!" he exclaimed, withdrawing a much smaller scabbard than the first blade. "Trade you."
I took the scabbard from Ossie and handed him the signet. Pulling free the blade, I was slightly disappointed. Although blazoned with the crest of the "House of Dae", it was considerably shorter than the King's blade and barely thicker than my thumb. Still, it had a sharp edge and was not cookware in a previous life.
"After Asa had Pteri, I nearly gave up on ever having a son," he explained. "It was hard on her having a baby, but she gamely tried again for a boy. I had that blade made up for him. When Estrei came along and the doctors said she would die if she had another, I packed it away. Girls in Shilla do not practice swordplay. Keep it. It should be a good novice blade for you."
I was stunned. Though certainly no dragon killer, this blade was worth more than a caravan full of wine.
"I am honored," I stammered, "while in my care I will treat it with respect."
For the next hour, OstreiDae led me through the exercises he had shown me. Every move worked a different part of the body and seemed to have a different name, obviously steeped in the traditions of sword mastery, handed down generation to generation. So, of course, I whimsically renamed them in easier-to-remember terms.
"Dragon's breath," Ossie said, sweeping his sword horizontally, while lunging.
"Mowing the lawn," I thought to myself.
"Willow shield," he announced, waving the blade upright, pommel steady.
"Wagging a finger," I thought.
"Saber salute," he sliced the blade to the left and right, near his feet.
"Killing bullfrogs," I said.
"What did you say?" Ossie asked, pausing in his exercises.
"Oops," I stuttered, red faced, again. "Did I say that out loud?"
"Killing bullfrogs," Ossie repeated, and then chuckled. "That's a good one. But seriously, if you ever want to learn more of swords, go to see Taebek in Kugnae. My family still has ties to that town. He will remember the House of Dae."
"Really, husband, should you be making such long term plans?" AsaraeiDae chided Ossie as she reentered our clearing. "We haven't even made it to Shilla. Perhaps Gareth will find a position there to make him happy."
Ossie showed me how to roll my scabbard up protectively in my pack, yet allowing me to draw it again in an emergency.
"Every man should have options," he shrugged. "I think he would do well in Kugnae. Somehow, I can see him mastering warrior magics."
"Magic?" I looked up from my pack. "I have heard there are great magics north of here, Nagnang, Korguyu, and Buya. Is it true? I have never seen real magic."
"Oh, magic is real, Gareth," Ossie smiled. "Of course, it helps to be born with a little aptitude."
"Aptitude?" I asked.
The Lady laughed.
"I think he is referring to me," she explained. "And hinting that it is time to get in touch with our daughters."
AsaraeiDae picked up her pack and took it over to one of the garden's many benches. From the pack she drew a bundle of tiny scrolls. Separating out one from the bundle, she handed me the rest.
"I'll let you do all the work," she smiled. "Don't worry, I can make more."
"But what do they do?" I examined the tiny scrolls, each no longer than my finger. All were neatly tied with a blue ribbon.
"Watch," Ossie chuckled behind me. "This is my favorite part of the day."
"You mean favorite when not sleeping," Asa chided. "Ossie can sleep through a hurricane."
She held her tiny scroll upright, with two fingers and gently tugged on the ribbon. A small blue bubble of light appeared over the bench. Not much larger than a firefly, yet I was still VERY impressed.
"Extraordinary!" I exclaimed, watching, as the bubble grew brighter.
"Keep watching," Ossie suggested. "It gets better."
The blue bubble stopped getting brighter, but instead began flattening into a disc, slowly growing in diameter. When it was about as large as the palm of my hand, a tightly bound parchment scroll appeared, bit-by-bit, as if being passed through from the other side.
I quickly peeked around the bench, but there was nothing visible at all from the back.
Asa plucked the scroll out of the air, and then began feeding one of her own into the glowing disc. It offered some resistance and the effort was telling on the dignified Lady but soon enough all the scroll was gone.
With a pop, the bubble disappeared.
"Well done, Dear!" Ossie grabbed his wife in an enthusiastic bear hug. She returned it briefly, and then sat down on the bench, exhausted.
"Fascinating!" I exclaimed, at a loss for words. "What did I just witness?"
Asa looked too tired to explain, and Ossie was obviously impatient to open his scroll, but he curbed his anticipation long enough for a brief explanation.
"In Shill, we have an unusual pest," he began, fingering the seal on his scroll. "They are magic leeches. About the size of a melon, dead white, they sometimes attach themselves to the unwary, draining their hosts vitality converting it to magic."
"Are they dangerous?" I asked, glancing concerned at Lady Asa, who seemed somewhat recovered, yet still weak.
"In some section of the forest where they live in numbers," Ossie went on, "children and the elderly do not walk around alone. Still, it was embarrassing to my rule to have even one fatality. So I announce a bounty. Hunters started bringing in leach skins for coins. We collected quite a few and considered burying them, but my wife thought that their paper-thin skin might actually be used for scrolls."
"We ended up with stacks of hundreds," Asa continued, for her husband, "but all my scribes kept going home, sick. After a few experiments, I discovered that the skins continue to draw vitality and store it as magic."
"I would think that could be a good thing?" I suggested, uncertainly.
"Good and bad, we found," Ossie replied, shrugging. "When the leech skin is used, it holds the magic just fine, but unfortunately, it starts to rot. Very foul!"
"Then how can you use them for a portal?" I asked, confused.
Asa laughed delicately.
"Why do you think I am so tired?" she smiled at me. "A very talented scribe taught me how to make Scrolls of Gateway, which I carefully copy onto the outside of a leech skin, then my daughter and I cut them in half and roll them up inside out. Everyday, at this time, we unroll them together and a portal appears. It drains the operator of vitality to work, though."
"Like a homing pigeon?" I asked, seriously. "It never fails to find its way home?"
Both laughed at my jest.
"The eradication program worked too well," Ossie explained. "Now, leeches are quite uncommon. Soon, we will be out of scrolls and then we will have to resort to messengers."
"Won't you be heading home again after your visit to see your brother?" I asked.
"Perhaps," he answered noncommittally.
The next day found us on the road for Shilla. The Royals rode horses they had stabled at the Palace, but I drove a small wagon. This vehicle just appeared as if by magic after a discrete inquiry by Ossie at the stable, belying the assertion that his word still carried no weight. Perhaps the rumors of his return to power were getting to even this backwards kingdom.