"It's not far now, my lad," said Tier. "That's smoke ahead, not just mist - we'll find a nice village inn where we can warm up."
His horse snorted at him in reply, or more likely at a bothersome drop of rain, and continued its steady progress down the trail.
The horse, like the sword Tier carried, was of far better quality than his clothing. He'd scavenged both the horse and sword from men he'd killed: the sword in his first year of war, the horse earlier this year when his own mount had been killed beneath him. A warhorse bred and trained to carry a nobleman, Skew had carried Tier, a baker's son, through two battles, six skirmishes, and, by rough reckoning, almost a thousand miles of trail.
He was a valuable horse, though in the first few weeks of Tier's journey the avarice in the eyes of the ragged men in the areas torn by years of war had as much to do with hunger as gold. Tier had waited eagerly for one of them to attack him, to ambush him if they could. But something, maybe the battle-readiness that still lurked under his calm facade, kept them away from him.
But in the more prosperous areas away from the Empire's borders, the chances of an attack were greatly lessened, damn the luck. A fight would have given him momentary respite from the dread he felt toward his current task - going home.
So many were dead. The two young men from his village who'd signed on with him to fight in a war half a continent away from their home had died, as had many other young men hoping for gold, glory, or escape. Tier had survived. He still wasn't quite certain how that had happened - he certainly hadn't planned on it. He had never sought death, but any soldier knows his demise could come at any time.
If the war had lasted forever, Tier would have fought until he died. But the war was over, and the post the Sept he'd served offered him was nothing he wanted. He had no desire to train up more young men for battle.
So now he rode back home. It would have never occurred to the boy who'd crept out of the family home almost a decade ago that returning would be so much harder than leaving.
Tier's massive gelding shook his black and white mane, splattering Tier with water. He patted the horse's neck.
"There, what did I tell you, Skew?" Tier said. "There's a roof down there, you can see it between the trees."
He looked forward to the warm common room of an inn, flooded with noise and ale - things to fill his emptiness. Maybe a bit of cheer would stay with him until he was home.
He was getting closer. Even without a map, the bitter taste of old magic that filled these mountains would have told him so. Though the battle had been over long ago, wizard's magic had a way of outlasting even memories, and the Shadowed had been a great wizard. Closer to the battlefield of Shadow's Fall, riding the forest paths could be dangerous. Near his home village, Redern, everyone knew to avoid certain places still held in fell magic's grip.
Unconcerned about magic of any kind, the bay and white patchwork-colored gelding picked his way down the narrow mountain pathway, and, as the slope turned gentle, onto a dirt track that in turn widened into a cobbled road. Shortly thereafter the small village Tier'd glimpsed from the hills above emerged from beneath the trees.
The wet stone houses, so different from the wooden villages he'd ridden through these past nine years, reminded him of home, though there was a softness to the architecture that his village did not have. It wasn't home, but it was a proper village. It would have a market square, and that's where the inn would be.
He envisioned a small, warm room, bathed in golden light from the fireplace and torches - someplace where a soldier could get a good, hot meal and stay warm and dry.
As he drew closer to the town market, the smell of smoke and roasting meat filled the air. It was reflex only that had him loosen his sword and made the gelding flex and snort: too much war, too many villages burned. Tier murmured to Skew, reminding him they were done with that part of their lives, though he could not make himself resecure his sword.
As they turned into the market square, he saw a burning pyre.
Evening was an odd time for a funeral; Tier frowned. This close to home they would bury their dead, not burn them. He looked through the crowd and noticed there were no women or children watching the fire.
It was an execution, not a funeral.
In most places where the memories of the Shadowed lingered, they burned witches. Not the highborn wizards who worked their magic for the nobles who paid them - they were above village justice - but the healers, hedgewitches, and Travelers who offended or frightened the wrong person could find themselves in serious trouble. When such a one burned, the village women would watch from darkened windows - safe from the wrath of the dead.
Strangers like Tier sometimes found themselves taken for Travelers or hedgewitches. Still, he was armed and had hard coin to pay his way - and from the smell of smoke and flesh, this village had already slaked its bloodlust. He rested his hand on his sword hilt, and decided it would be safe enough to stop for the night.
Tier rode by the pyre with little more than a glance, but that quick look had told him that the man in the center of the burning wood had been killed before the fire was lit. A dead man was beyond aid.
The sullen crowd of men gathered around the pyre quieted further as he crossed near them, but when he took no notice of them, they turned back to their grim entertainment.
As Tier had expected, he found the inn on the edge of the village square. There was a stable adjacent to the inn, but no one manned it. Doubtless the stable boy could be found in the crowd in the square.
Tier unsaddled Skew, rubbed him down with a rough cloth, and led him into an unoccupied stall. Looking for hay, he noticed a handcart bedecked in Traveler's trappings, leather fringe and bright paint, sadly faded. So the man they'd burned had been a Traveler.
Tier walked past the cart and took a forkful of hay back to Skew, though his eagerness to spend the evening in the tavern had ebbed considerably since he'd ridden into the village. The nearness of violence had set his nerves on edge, and the quiet stable soothed him. He lingered until full darkness fell, but finally the thought of something hot to eat overcame his reluctance to face people.
As he walked out of the stables, only a few figures were left silhouetted against the light of the fire: guards to make sure the man didn't come back to life and flee, Tier supposed. He'd never seen a man with his throat slit come back to life and cast magic. Oh, he'd heard the tales, too - even told a few himself. But he'd seen a lot of death, and in his experience it was final.
When he entered the tavern, he was taken aback by the noise. A quick glance told him that no one had noticed him enter, so he found a place between the stairs and the back wall where he could observe the room for a moment.
He ought to have realized that the mob wouldn't have dispersed so easily. After a killing, most men sought alcohol, and the inn's common room was filled to bursting with men, most of them half-drunk on ale and mob-madness. He considered retreating to sleep in the stables, but he was hungry. He'd wait a while and see if things would calm enough that it would be safe for a stranger like him to eat here.
The room rumbled with frantic laughter, reminding him of the aftermath of battle, when men do crazy things they spend the rest of their life trying to forget.
He had cheese and flatbread still in his saddlebag. It wasn't a hot meal, and the cheese was a bit blue in spots, but he could eat it in peace. He took a step toward the door.
As if his movement had been a clarion call, the room hushed expectantly. Tier froze, but he quickly realized that no one was looking at him.
In the silence, the creaking of wood drew his eyes to the stairway not an arm's length from where he stood. Heavy boots showed first, the great bull of a man who wore them followed at last by a girl he pulled down the stairs. From his splattered apron, the man had to be the innkeeper himself, though there were old calluses on his hands that might have come from a war axe or broadsword.
The innkeeper stopped four or five steps above the main floor, leaving his captive in plain view. Unnoticed in his position near the back of the room, a little behind the stairs, Tier faced the growing certainty that he was not going to get a hot meal and a soft bed tonight.
The distinctive silver-ash hair that hung in sleep-frayed braids almost to her waist told Tier that she was a Traveler, a relative, he supposed, of the dead young man roasting outside.
He thought her a child at first, but her loose night rail caught on a rounded hip that made him add a year or two to her age. When she looked up at the crowd, he could see that her eyes were clear amber green and older than her face.
The men in the inn were mostly farmers; one or two carried a long knife in their belt. He had seen such men in the army, and respected them. They were probably good men, most of them, with wives and mothers waiting for them at home, uncomfortable with the violence their fear had led them to.
The girl would be all right, Tier told himself. These men would not hurt a child as easily as they'd killed the man. A man, a Traveler, was a threat to their safety. A child, a girl-child, was something these men protected. Tier looked around the room, seeing the softening in several faces as they took in her bewildered alarm.
His assessing gaze fell upon a bearded man who sat eating stew from a pot. Finely tailored noblemen's garments set the man apart from the natives. Such clothes had been sewn in Taela or some other large city.
Something about the absorbed, precise movements the man made as he ate warned Tier that this man might be the most dangerous person in the room - then he looked back at the girl and reconsidered.
In the few seconds that Tier had spent appraising the room, she'd shed her initial shock and fright as cleanly as a snake sheds its skin.
The young Traveler drew herself up like a queen, her face quiet and composed. The innkeeper was a foot taller, but he no longer looked an adequate guard. The ice in the girl's cool eyes brought a chill born of childhood stories to creep down Tier's spine. Instincts honed in years of battle told him that he wasn't the only one she unnerved.
Stupid girl, Tier thought.
A smart girl would have been sobbing softly in terror and shrinking to make herself look smaller and even younger, appealing to the sympathies of the mob. These weren't mercenaries or hardened fighters; they were farmers and merchants.
If he could have left then, he would have - or at least that's what he told himself; but any movement on his part now would draw attention. No sense in setting himself up for the same treatment received by the dead man in the square.
"Where's the priest? I need him to witness my account." asked the innkeeper, sounding smug and nervous at the same time. If he had looked at the girl he held, he would have sounded more nervous than smug.
The crowd shuffled and spat out a thin young man who looked around in somewhat bleary surprise to find himself the center of attention. Someone brought out a stool and a rickety table no bigger than a dinner plate. When a rough sheet of skin, an ink pot, and a quill were unearthed, the priest seated himself with a bit more confidence.
"Now then," said the innkeeper. "Three days' lodging, four coppers each day. Three meals each day at a copper each."
Tier's eyebrows crept up cynically. He saw no signs that the inn had been transported to Taela, where such charges might be justified. For this inn, two coppers a day with meals was more likely.
"Twenty-one coppers," announced the priest finally. Silence followed.
"A copper a day for storing the cart," said the nobleman Tier had noticed, without looking up from his meal. By his accent he was from more eastern regions, maybe even the coast. "That makes three more coppers, twenty-four coppers in total: one silver."
The innkeeper smiled smugly, "Ah yes, thank you, Lord Wresen. According to the law, when a debt of a silver is incurred and not remanded" - from the way the word was emphasized, it was obvious to Tier that remanded was a word that seldom left the lips of the innkeeper - "that person may be sold to redeem the debt. If no buyer is found, they shall suffer fifty lashes in the public square."
Flogging was a common punishment. Tier knew, as did all the men in the room, that such a child was unlikely to survive fifty lashes. Tier stepped away from the door and opened his mouth to protest, but he stopped as he realized exactly what had been happening.
His old commander had told him once that knowledge won more battles than swords did. The innkeeper's motivation was easy to understand. Selling the girl could net him more than his inn usually made in a week, if he could sell her. None of the villagers here would spend a whole silver to buy a Traveler. Tier would give odds that the innkeeper's knowledge of law had come from the nobleman - Lord Wresen, the innkeeper had called him. Tier doubted the man was a "lord" at all: the innkeeper was flattering him with the title because of his obvious wealth - it was safer and more profitable that way.
It didn't take a genius to see that Wresen had decided he wanted the girl and engineered matters so that he would have her. She would not be beautiful as a woman, but she had the loveliness that belongs to maidens caught in the moment between childhood and the blossom of womanhood. Wresen had no intention of letting her be flogged to death.
"Do you have a silver?" the innkeeper asked the Traveler girl with a rough shake.
She should have been afraid. Even now Tier thought that a little show of fear would go a long way toward keeping her safe. Selling a young girl into slavery was not a part of these farmers' lives and would seem wrong. Not even the innkeeper was entirely comfortable with it. If she appealed to his mercy, the presence of the other men in the inn would force him to release her.
Instead, she smiled contemptuously at the innkeeper, showing him that she, and everyone in the inn, knew that he was exploiting her vulnerability for profit. All that did was infuriate the innkeeper and silence his conscience entirely - didn't this girl know anything about people?