As Beltur walked along the stone walk on the south side of the causeway extending from the gates to the city, he glanced down at young Scanlon, walking beside him, half wishing he hadn’t needed to bring the boy with him, but there was no help for that, not if he wanted to keep the burnet he was seeking from spoiling too soon. Satisfied that the ten-year-old was having no trouble keeping pace, Beltur studied the low-lying fields that stretched almost a kay eastward from the main gates of Fenard before reaching the outer walls. Supposedly, the water gates in the outer walls and levees could be opened to allow the river, such as it was, to flood the fields, making them impassable to an armed force.
The only problem, reflected Beltur, was that much of the time, the Anard River was little more than a stream, unlike the River Gallos, into which it flowed all too many kays to the northeast. He’d never quite understood how a cubit or two of water over the paved causeway and the fields would be much of a deterrent to a determined army, but then no one had asked him, and it was unlikely anyone who mattered would, or that they’d listen to a third-rate mage.
In the meantime, he needed to see if he could find enough burnet—just because Salcer hadn’t gathered enough before he’d left, and there was no one else to gather it. Not that the great white mage Kaerylt could be bothered, nor even Sydon. Beltur swallowed his resentment, if he dared to do otherwise, especially given that Kaerylt was not only a powerful mage, but also his uncle and the only one standing between Beltur and his possible conscription as a battle mage for the Prefect’s army. The very fact that the Prefect needed so much burnet meant trouble, since his principal use for it was as the main ingredient in a balm used to stop blood loss, and stockpiling the ingredients for that balm was a good indication that someone anticipated significant losses of blood.
As for Kaerylt getting the burnet himself, well, if Beltur were to be fair, he had to admit that it wouldn’t have been the best idea to let his uncle or even Sydon anywhere near herbs, given that they both carried so much chaos that their touch would wilt the herbs largely to uselessness. But then, while yours has much less chaos, you still carry enough to spoil the herbs. It would just take longer, Beltur knew. Which was why Scanlon was accompanying him to the old herbalist’s gardens.
Beltur took a deep breath and kept walking, thinking of the old rhyme.
Blood from the blade, screams in the night,
Bind him with burnet, in dark or in light,
So blood doesn’t flow
And order won’t go.
Although it was early morning, with the sun barely above the low rolling hills farther to the east, Beltur had not only to squint against the light, but to blot his forehead. The summer day was going to be hot, as were most of the days leading to harvest, and the stillness of the air made it seem even warmer than it was. He had no doubt that he’d be soaked through with sweat by the time he and Scanlon returned, since Arylla’s cottage and gardens were more than a kay from the nearest gate in the outer walls.
“Why couldn’t we have hired a cart, ser?” asked Scanlon.
“Carts and horses cost silvers. Walking doesn’t. If you want your coppers, don’t complain.”
“Yes, ser.” Scanlon shifted the empty cloth bag from one shoulder to the other.
Roughly a half glass later, after walking from the outer gates along the wall, Beltur rapped on the weathered door of the small cottage, whose gardens spread behind it under the old outer wall of Fenard. The gardens contained no trees. By edict of the Prefect, no trees were permitted within half a kay of the wall, despite the fact that all that lay between the outer walls and the city walls were fields and pastures.
The door opened, and a wiry woman stood there, wearing brown trousers and a patched brown tunic. Beneath short brown hair strewn with occasional gray, black eyes focused skeptically on Beltur, looking up at him just slightly, not exactly a surprise because Beltur was somewhat on the short side, and more than a head shorter than his uncle.
“Good morning, Arylla,” offered Beltur with a cheer he did not entirely feel.
Arylla looked sourly at Beltur, then at Scanlon. She shook her head. “Brinn or burnet?”
“Makes no sense to me why Prefect Denardre put a white mage in charge of making balms.”
“You know as well as I do, Arylla.” Because the few healers in Fenard wouldn’t. “You won’t do it, either.”
“I could, but knowing why he wants it, I wouldn’t sleep for days.” She stepped back and motioned for the two to enter the cottage, then closed the door behind them, turning and walking toward a narrow doorway at the rear of the cottage.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” Beltur replied. “You aren’t even a healer. Besides, how can making something that can save a man’s life be chaotic?”
Arylla stopped, her hand on the latch to the rear door. “War is chaos, especially if you don’t have to fight. It’s not like the Marshal or the Tyrant are ever going to attack Gallos. Or even the Viscount for all his talk. As for those traders from Spidlar, they hate war. Bad for trade, they say. Anyway, I’ve only got enough left for one bag.”
“You have more than that,” pressed Beltur.
“I do. You take that, and there won’t be any come next summer.”
He could sense the truth of her words, and that meant Kaerylt wouldn’t be happy. But then, his uncle was seldom happy, and when he was, it wasn’t for long, or so it seemed to Beltur.
“You have a bag for me to put the leaves in?”
“Scanlon, give her the bag.”
“You haven’t touched the bag, have you, Beltur?”
“No, and it hasn’t been near Kaerylt, either.”
“That’d be some small help. Wait here.” She paused after opening the door. “And I’d thank you not to touch anything.” Then she stepped outside, leaving the door half open.
As he waited, Beltur was glad they were inside, because the cottage was cooler than outside, if not by much, and they were out of the sun.
“She never lets us go with her,” said Scanlon.
“No. Herbalists are like that.” Except Beltur knew that Arylla had no problem with Scanlon, just with Beltur. She was protective of her plants and bushes. He couldn’t blame her.
“Brinn costs more, doesn’t it?”
“Why doesn’t Mage Kaerylt want more of it?”
“It’s not what he wants. It’s what the Prefect wants.” And burnet was easier to grow or find than brinn, and a great deal less expensive. “The Prefect most likely has all the brinn he needs.” Enough for his officers, at least.
Scanlon did not ask any more questions.
Beltur waited and watched as Arylla cut the burnet, easing the long leaves with their ragged-looking edges into the bag. Despite her deft movements, the wait seemed to stretch into what seemed to be almost a glass, but was undoubtedly only a fraction of that, before Beltur could see Arylla returning. He stood back as the herbalist reentered the cottage and closed the rear door.
She handed the bag, seemingly slightly more than half full, to Scanlon, then looked to Beltur. “Half a silver, and a bargain at that. You got more than half a bag.”
Beltur extended the five coppers. “Thank you.”
“Still doesn’t make any sense to me,” murmured the herbalist, shaking her head, then adding in a louder voice, “You’d best be on your way. It won’t get any cooler if you wait.”
In moments, Beltur and Scanlon were walking back along the dusty road that paralleled the outer wall, puffs of dust rising from the mage’s white boots with each step he took. He was careful to keep enough distance from Scanlon so that he wouldn’t inadvertently brush the bag of burnet. The last thing he wanted was for anything to happen to the burnet, because his uncle would immediately blame him.
When the two of them reached the open gates of the outer wall, one of the guards in the black uniform and leathers of Gallos looked at Beltur. “What’s in the bag, Mage?”
“Burnet. It’s an herb for healing.” When the guard looked skeptical, Beltur said to Scanlon, “Open the bag a little and show the guard.”
The other guard frowned. “Why the boy? The bag’s not that heavy.”
“Chaos wilts the herbs, and they won’t stop the bleeding as well.”
The second guard waved them through.
The causeway was even hotter than the road outside the walls had been, and Beltur blotted his forehead again. He hated to think what the city proper would be like by late afternoon.
Unlike the guards at the outer gates, neither of the two at the inner gates gave more than a glance to Beltur and Scanlon, perhaps because they were more interested in a peddler and his cart, and the young woman with him. Once inside the walls, Beltur glanced up at the clear greenish-blue sky, then dropped his eyes to the ancient stones of the old city wall, a wall that supposedly dated back to the time of Fenardre the Great. Certainly, he could sense the age, with the random chaos that coated the old ordered stone blocks of the wall.
With a small sigh, he turned his steps toward the Great Square, well beyond which was the stone dwelling he shared with his uncle and Sydon, Kaerylt’s main assistant, and also a much stronger mage than Beltur. Then he adjusted his heavy off-white tunic, almost wishing that he didn’t have to wear it, because of the early heat of the day, and because it led people to think that he was a more powerful mage than he really was, as opposed to the weak white wizard he was. Who can sense and use a small amount of order as well. Then again, the white tunic did mean that he was less likely to be the victim of a cutpurse or other less savory types.
From somewhere drifted the acridness of burning wood and the more enticing aroma of fowl roasting. For a moment, he thought that it was too early for that … except it was already midmorning, and whoever was roasting the bird or birds wanted to have them ready by noon.
Beltur could feel his entire body tightening, the way he felt when there was a concentration of chaos somewhere nearby. He kept walking, slowly looking across the Great Square, taking in the various peddlers and their carts and stalls. His eyes paused at a stall that featured all manner of blades, in mainly knives, but he realized that was because one of the older blades, an ancient cupridium shortsword of some sort, seemed to contain chaos. For use against ordermages? Pushing that thought aside, he kept searching, both with his eyes and senses, past a vendor with a rack of scarves, whose voice carried across the square.
“The finest in Hamorian shimmersilk scarves, all the way from Cigoerne … the very finest!”
“Perhaps the finest since the vanished silks of Cyad, if that,” murmured Beltur to himself, as he continued to seek out the source of chaos, his eyes going beyond the silks peddler to a heavyset man with a cart piled high with melons of at least two types, who was so ordered that he couldn’t possibly be the source of the chaos. Nor would a mage with that much chaos be comfortable for long near the grower.
Beltur glanced back over his shoulder and saw no one, but he could definitely sense the chaos several yards behind him, which meant that the mage was holding a concealment. The unseen mage was also fairly close. Wondering whether the mage was just moving across the square without wanting to be seen, or if he just might possibly be following them, although Beltur couldn’t imagine why anyone that powerful would follow him, he said to Scanlon, “This way,” and then turned to his right, away from the scarf vendor and between the stall with the knives and another stall where a wizened woman in gray was setting out cloth bags that looked to be herbal or fragrance sachets, not that Beltur could smell the fragrances amid the heavier odors of fowl and bodies.
Scanlon glared at Beltur for a moment, but kept pace with the mage.
After passing several rows of vendors, Beltur changed direction again, back toward the north side of the square and the side street that would lead to the old stone dwelling where he studied and lived under Kaerylt’s sufferance—and largely did his uncle’s bidding. Unhappily, the concealed chaos mage remained behind him, if slighter farther back, but still fairly close. That wasn’t surprising, given that Beltur was a weak white who didn’t hold that much free chaos near him, and most whites sought out chaos in sensing, possibly because many strong whites were practically order-blind. Given the power and the amount of chaos Beltur sensed around the other, there really wasn’t too much else that he could do except continue on … and raise his feeble shields if it appeared that the mage following them was going to attack.
Still worrying, Beltur and Scanlon turned onto the street that led home, or the only place Beltur could have called home in the ten years since his father’s death, since Beltur had no other relatives. He tried to stay on the east side, where there was still some shade. The street had no real name, but everyone called it Nothing Lane, because unlike Joiners Lane, Coopersgate, Baggersway, or Silver Street, there was no particular shop or occupation represented along its narrow way, among them a small inn with a sign proclaiming it was the Brass Bowl, even though most regulars called the public room the “yellow bucket,” a cloth merchant, a fuller’s shop, and a number of narrow dwellings including that of Kaerylt, although his could have been said to be on Middle Street as well, since it was on the corner of Middle and Nothing.
Kaerylt hadn’t been pleased the one time that Beltur had referred to its location as “half-nothing.”
Strangely, after Beltur and Scanlon had gone two blocks toward Middle, still two blocks from home, the other mage had stopped, then turned back toward the Great Square. Beltur wasn’t sure what that meant, but he was glad the man hadn’t kept following them. He blotted his forehead again. Even so, sweat was still running down the side of his narrow face and into his eyes. He took a slow deep breath and kept walking.
As the two neared the end of the second block, Beltur found he wasn’t sweating as heavily. He was sure the shade helped, but he had been worried about the mage who had been seemingly trailing him. When he reached the heavy oak door, just one step above the uneven bricks of the sidewalk, he paused, then took out the heavy brass key and unlocked the door. The lock was heavy and crude, but it kept out casual thieves. Even Beltur could muster enough chaos to take care of those who were less casual, and Kaerylt never left traces—except ash—of those who were foolish enough to enter.
Once inside, he just slid the lock bolt, and blotted his forehead again. At least the stone house was cooler than outside, and would remain so until late afternoon, perhaps even longer. He motioned for Scanlon to lead the way to the storeroom, then followed, stopping outside the locked outer door. He used a touch of order to shift the stored chaos from the lock to the sealed cupridium box fastened to the rear of the door, then unlocked the door and opened it, stepping back and turning to the boy. “You know what to do.”
“Yes, ser.” Scanlon stepped forward and opened the second door, revealing the thin sheet of iron attached to the back side, moved forward.
Beltur watched from the hallway as Scanlon put the bag on the second shelf, beside several others there, then stepped back and closed the inner door on the small storeroom, the one place in the house that neither Beltur nor Kaerylt ever entered, unlike the larger storeroom and work spaces farther back in the house. Although the larger storeroom was also locked in the same fashion, a double door was not required.
After Beltur closed and locked the outer door to the small storeroom, replacing the chaos, Scanlon looked to Beltur, with a trace of a grin. “Do I get my coppers, now?”
“When we get to your house. Not until. The same as always.”
“Mother will take them.” Scanlon offered a mournful expression. “She always does.”
“We’ll see.” Beltur hid a smile.
The two made their way from the building that was both dwelling and workplace back out onto Nothing Lane, crossing Middle Street, and hurrying slightly to avoid a dray being driven too fast by a young-looking teamster, before entering the fourth door on the east side of the lane, over which was a signboard of sorts that displayed two baskets, rather the halves of two baskets, because displaying a complete basket would have been an invitation to theft as soon as it was completely dark.
In the small room behind the door stood a sturdy dark-haired woman with a worried face, concentrating on weaving osier shoots into a small basket. She looked up.
“We’re back, Therala.”
Therala looked to her son. “Were you good?”
“He was quite good.” Beltur nodded, then extracted the three coppers from his wallet and handed two of them to Scanlon, keeping the third hidden.
In turn, Therala held out her hand.
With a grimace and a sigh, Scanlon handed the coins to his mother.
“Your father needs help with the osier shoots.”
“I’ll go with him,” said Beltur. “I need to ask Zandyl about a basket-weave belt.”
“He doesn’t like to make those.” Therala shrugged. “Talk to him if you want.”
“It can’t hurt.” Beltur managed a rueful smile, then turned to follow Scanlon, who trudged toward the rear workroom. Just before they reached the archway into the workroom, Beltur slipped the last copper into Scanlon’s hand, murmuring, “Not a word.”
The boy managed not to grin, then said to the man at the workbench, “Ma said you needed me.”
“About—” Zandyl broke off his words as he looked up and saw Beltur. “Didn’t know you were here, Mage.”
“Therala said you weren’t too keen on doing woven belts.”
“Basket-weave anything for the right price.”
“I thought a woven belt might last longer than a leather one.”
“It true that you mages are hard on garments?”
“Some are harder than others. How much might a belt cost?”
“Half a silver.”
Beltur nodded. “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Think too long, and it might cost more.”
Beltur grinned. “Can’t say that surprises me.” He looked to Scanlon. “Thank you, again.”
Then he turned and headed back toward the front room. Therala barely looked up as he let himself out and began to walk back home.
He still couldn’t help but wonder why a powerful white mage had been holding a concealment in the Great Square … and why the man had followed him and Scanlon for two blocks from the square before turning away.
Did he think you were someone else?
Why else would anyone follow a third-rate white mage?
Beltur certainly couldn’t think of any other reason.
In the meantime, he intended to clean up the main workroom, something that Sydon and Kaerylt felt was beneath them.
Copyright © 2017 by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.