Master Trader Stavin is sent out to buy Kavinston's supplies. He fears it is the end of his life as a Warrior, but after the supply run, Stavin goes to Evandia to tend his Trading House with Warmaster Kel'Horval.
In Twin Bridges, Stavin becomes involved with the Royal Guard. That leads to him being targeted by the king's enemies as well as his own.
Book Three in the Stavin Kel'Aniston Dragon Blessed series.
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The Andarian Affair
The Evandian Minister of the Interior's face was dark red as he pounded on the council table with one fist and shouted, "King Kalin, this is an act of war! We cannot allow the Andarians to get away with raiding our territories like this!"
"We have no proof that it was anything but bandits, Lord Zel'Lamal," the Minister of Trade shouted back, just as loudly. "The Army patrol didn't capture even one prisoner to question, so we can't even be certain which kingdom they came from."
Another minister rose and shouted, "These raids have been going on for years, and we've done nothing to stop them!" as he waved his arms in the air.
"We've killed our share of the raiders," the General of the Armies of Evandia said in a soft voice that served to quiet the others. He remained seated and looked around the room, his piercingly blue eyes locking on each of the other Ministers before continuing. "They've killed their own wounded to keep them from talking. That in itself is telling." His hair was still mostly brown, but the hair on his temples was strikingly white against his well-tanned face. Lord General Zel'Fordal's words carried a lot of weight in the Council. He was the king's oldest and most trusted friend. And his brother-in-law.
Kalin Levand Revalan Zel'Andral, King of Evandia, sat back in his chair, impassively observing as the ministers of his council raged around the room. His well-groomed white hair and short beard helped hide his dissatisfaction with his ministers. The Ministers seemed oblivious to his presence. He let them carry on for a while. Once they had gotten their rage out of their systems he might be able to get some sense out of them.
A knock at the Council Chamber's door drew everyone's attention, and the king signaled for the door to be opened. An older-looking man in an Army Messenger uniform stepped into the room and looked around. Seeming to find who he was looking for, he walked half way around the oval Council Table to kneel at the king's side. "My Lord King, I bring you a message from Major Zel'Roldan," he said, holding out a message tube to the king.
Lord General Zel'Fordal had come to his feet as the messenger rounded the table, and took the message tube in the king's stead. He gave the man a narrow-eyed glare. Army messages were supposed to go through him, not directly to the king. He opened it and brought out the parchment, then read aloud, "A force of thirty-two men was--"
The door burst open, slamming against the wall, and two Royal Guardsmen ran in, scanning the room quickly before dashing to the general's side. Without a word one of them slapped the message from the general's hand and stamped a foot on it.
The king half rose from his chair and roared, "What's the meaning of this?" as his Ministers sat shocked silent.
"King Kalin, the guardsman who checked the message just fell over dead," the guardsman who was standing on the message replied. "We don't know if the message is poisoned or not, but it seemed best to take precautions rather than wait and see."
Dahral Zel'Fordal was looking at his hands. "Kalin, I think--" The general fell to his knees as a terrified little boy's expression crossed his face. "Oh, Kal, I think--I think I'm--oh, Gods Be--." The general collapsed forward onto his face and the two guardsmen seized the messenger.
"What was on that message?" one of them demanded, but now the messenger was choking.
The king turned and shouted, "Markal, can you--?" and one of the Ministers stood and pointed at the messenger.
"Het Jao Hoa Jolad! Joa Ho Netat Demel! Wek Han Sol Oh!" the mage intoned in an echoing voice, but it had no effect on the messenger. He continued to choke for a moment, then went limp and collapsed.
The room was completely silent as the king knelt beside the body of his brother-in-law and friend. He whispered, "Always my protector, weren't you Dahral? Right until the end." The king looked up from the floor toward the two guardsmen and his expression hardened. He snarled as he commanded, "Find out who that messenger really was, and where he came from." Then he looked back at the body of his best friend and his expression and voice softened. "And send Lieutenant Zel'Fordal to me. I should be the one to tell him about--" the king's voice died as he focused all of his attention back to the body of his closest friend.
The Archive in the old fortress that served the town of Kavinston as Town Hall, Academy, and Training Ground echoed with an unusual sound: the wail of an unhappy baby. Children were not usually found in the Archive or its attendant teaching rooms until they were five years of age, but this one was special. Little Karlin Kel'Aniston was the son of Apprentice Scribe Stavin Kel'Aniston and his wife, Journeyman Scribe Sharindis.
Karlin's parents were unusual in many ways. His father was a man who had never grown much beyond the size of a ten-year-old boy. He had shown extreme bravery in his fifteenth year when he climbed the wall of the Kel'Kavin caldera alone to enter a cave reputed to hold a dragon's hoard of gold. The gold was protected by The Fear: a psychic projection that chased everyone away in terror as soon as they saw the gold. Only Stavin, of the hundreds of boys who had entered the cave, hadn't run. He'd been determined to prove his bravery, or die trying. He'd come close to dying, but the fear cut off and he discovered the true nature of the great pile of gold everyone had seen. It wasn't a dragon's hoard: it was the dragon itself.
The dragon had been impressed by Stavin's courage. Not only had he not run away from The Fear, he didn't run away when the dragon swung its great head around to stare him in the eyes. As a reward for and proof of his bravery, the dragon had made Stavin armor of its own golden scales, and a weapon called a Dragon's Tongue as well. The Dragon's Tongue resembled a quarterstaff with a large spear point on each end. Made of dragon scale, it was unbreakable and sharper than any steel blade could ever hope to be.
Sharindis was unusual in that she was a scribe who could barely see. Her sight had been dimmed by a blow to the head when she'd fallen from a horse as a teenager, and Master Scribe Kel'Zorgan had taken her on as his assistant. Sharindis could see well enough to copy scrolls in bright sunlight with the aid of a magnifying crystal that her godmother's husband had provided. She was also two years older than her husband, who was her best friend's little brother.
Together, the young couple worked through the winter in the archive under the direction of Master Scribe Arlen Kel'Zorgan, Sharindis' uncle, but Stavin had other duties as well. Every man of the community was required to spend five summers in the lowlands, working as caravan guards to provide the gold to buy supplies and necessities that the community could not provide for themselves. Stavin had already spent two springs and summers on the expeditions, and had surpassed every boy in the two-hundred-year history of Kavinston.
On his first visit to the lowlands, Stavin had been named a Friend of Evandia, the kingdom that bordered his native Farindia to the south, by King Kalin and Princess Marina Zel'Andral. That status made him very valuable to a trader because he and all who traveled with him were exempt from taxes and tolls throughout the kingdom. It had also made him a target for kidnappers and scoundrels of every kind. In the course of defending himself and his employer's caravan, Stavin had racked up a kill count that was unheard-of. Thirty men had fallen to Stavin's dragon-made weapon during that first season, making him the first person in the history of Kavinston to earn an officer's star on his first expedition.
Stavin's star had been upgraded on his second expedition when he'd managed another nineteen kills. He'd also done something else no other warrior of Kel'Kavin had ever done: He'd founded a Trading House of his own in Evandia in order to keep his employer's caravan from being seized by the Evandian Traders' Guild representatives in the city of Valovad.
On their way out of Evandia, the caravan had travelled to Evandia's capital city, Twin Bridges, and stopped in the East Bridge Caravansary to trade. Stavin had been summoned to a meeting with King Kalin soon after they arrived. That meeting had been interrupted by an Evandian lord bent on assassinating the king, but Stavin had interfered. He'd killed the assassin, continuing the duties of his ancestors in the Farindian Royal Guard, and had been rewarded with an officer's commission in the Evandian Royal Guard for his service.
Now at home at last with his wife and new son, Stavin was back to doing what he loved best: practicing the scribe's art in hopes of one day being made Kavinston's Master Scribe.
Stavin picked up his fussy son and sniffed. "Again? How can such a little body make so much poop?" Taking him off to the side, he quickly changed the diaper and then went over to his wife. "Shari, he's up again."
"I heard." Sharindis chuckled. "Bring him here." Stavin complied and she pulled the neck of her blouse down to bare one breast. Once she had the baby settled, she sat back and relaxed. She couldn't get close enough to see her work with the baby between her and her desk. "How are your students progressing?" she asked as she looked down and smiled at her son.
Early in the winter Stavin had been summoned to the training ground for his normal training session. Every young warrior who was eligible to go on the expedition had to spend every third day at weapons drill to ensure they kept their skills sharp through the winter. Warmaster Kel'Carin had met him his first day with a different set of instructions. He and Karvik, Stavin's best friend, were assigned to drill the boys who would be joining the expedition for the first time with Dragon's Tongues all winter. Stavin and Karvik were considered to be the best fighters with the Dragon's Tongue that the valley had ever produced, and the Elders' Council wanted them to pass on as much of that skill as they could. Karvik hadn't matched Stavin's achievement of earning a star on his first expedition, but he hadn't missed by much. He'd earned his star halfway through their second season.
Stavin laughed, then shook his head. "They're doing better every day. Kar and I can still beat any of them two out of three times, but those third times are coming too close together these days." Stavin continued to smile as he thought about her question.
"I can just imagine." Shari laughed. "With twenty-three of them, you and Kar must be spending a lot of time bowing to the victors."
Stavin was laughing as he turned back to his desk. He was copying a scroll of decrees from Emperor Elvandar Zel'Borandal, Seventh Emperor of the Zel'Borandal Dynasty, that had been set down during the emperor's twentieth anniversary celebration. Stavin couldn't help but chuckle as he transcribed the scroll.
"What's tickled you this time?" Shari asked as she smiled. One of the things she loved about him was his laugh.
"Emperor Elvandar seems to have had a lively sense of humor. Listen to this. Be it known that any man who dares to trespass upon the sacred precincts of the Imperial Daughters' Chambers shall be condemned to listen to the chatter of the Imperial Daughters for ten days. According to the text, he had thirty-one daughters." Stavin laughed as Sharindis turned toward him and glared. "I only had three sisters, and--UMPH!" Stavin crashed over backwards in his chair, still laughing.
Sharindis returned the pillow to behind her back and settled in. "Chatter, indeed. I'll have you know that your sisters and I had a lot of very important things to discuss."
"Yes, I know." He climbed back to his chair as he spoke. "Boys. And fashion. And boys." She reached for her pillow again, so he shut up and went back to his copying. But he was still chuckling.
The winter passed quietly, and soon the Elders' Council Messenger was delivering the list of young men who had been chosen to serve in the lowlands. He made his rounds, summoning youths to the expedition as always, but there was one surprise: Stavin wasn't summoned for his third expedition.
"What happened?" he asked his father the next morning. "Why didn't they summon me?"
"I don't know, Stavin, but we can go ask the Council," Karlit replied, taking his son by the shoulder and guiding him toward the Town Hall. Of the five members of the Elders' Council, only the Warmaster, Barvil Kel'Carin, was present, and he nodded knowingly as soon as he saw Stavin.
"You want to know why you weren't summoned," he said, making a statement rather than asking a question. There was a slight smile curving Barvil's lips, as if he'd expected Stavin to protest his exclusion.
"Yes, Sir," Stavin answered, coming to attention. Karlit stopped two paces back to let Stavin handle this on his own.
"Remember what I told you about our supply train and Traders?" Warmaster Kel'Carin asked, and Stavin sucked in a breath. Barvil nodded before continuing. "You are going to be summoned, but not for the expedition. You, Master Trader Stavin, will be leaving the day after the expedition to take our wagons to Kahrant's Pass for our spring supply run." He smiled at the look of disappointment on Stavin's face. "Don't worry. It will count as your third expedition. And once you return, you and ten others will be going to Trade Town as guards. I warned you that the Council was going to make the most of your status."
Karlit was nodding when Stavin turned back to him. "It does make sense, Stavin. Your status will save the town more than your presence on the expedition would have earned."
Stavin took a deep breath and sighed, them grumbled, "But this means Kar is going to get ahead of me."
Karlit and Barvil both burst out laughing. Karlit looked at Barvil and shook his finger at the younger man. "You have no place laughing, Barvil. Not with you and Charvil reopening your competition." Barvil laughed even harder as Karlit and Stavin left the council chamber.
Two days later Stavin watched with undisguised envy as the expedition left Kavinston. Six groups were once again going to Aravad and the Zel'Vandar Trading House, but only four groups were going to Trade Town. The extra groups from the year before had replenished the town's account, and the Elders' Council had decided that the standard ten groups would be sufficient.
No matter how good Kar does, I'll catch up next year. Stavin heaved a huge sigh as he turned away. He was walking back to his father's house when a large hand clamped down on his shoulder. He turned to find his father-in-law looking down at him.
"Stavin," Charvil began, giving him a little shake, "don't go moping because you aren't going out with them again. You'll be out all spring and summer anyway. I'm joining you on the supply run. As a matter of fact, Warleader Fifth Kel'Aniston, you are still going to be the lowest ranking member of the team." He chuckled as Stavin's expression went from sullen to puzzled. "Given the unusual nature of this supply run, the Council has requested that nine senior veterans make it. We don't really expect trouble in Kahrant's Pass, but better safe than sorry."
"Who is going, Sir?" Stavin asked as he turned to face Charvil squarely.
"Well, you and I to begin with. Darak Kel'Norlan, Marlan Kel'Cavar, Barlat Kel'Vardil, Elval Kel'Kandell, Keval Kel'Carin, Ander Kel'Coris, my brother Stoval, and Jorvan Kel'Chamlin. Jorvan needs some supplies for his cobbler's shop, so instead of ordering them, he's going with us to get them himself."
"Sir, if I remember correctly, Jorvan has forty-six kills. How am I--?"
"Because you haven't completed all five of your expeditions, Stavin. I know, technically you have more kills than he does, but--" Charvil left the statement hanging and Stavin picked it up.
"But he's done all of his required expeditions and I haven't," Stavin said to complete the thought. He heaved another huge sigh, and nodded. "I understand, Sir."
Charvil chuckled and patted Stavin's shoulder. "We'll be taking your four wagons and six that belong to the town. It's a good thing you bought them last year. Three of the wagons the town owns aren't in the best shape."
Stavin had to smile at his father-in-law as he asked, "When are we leaving?"
"First light," Charvil answered.
"First light, my foot," Stavin grumbled in the dark. "First light isn't for seven or eight spans," he continued as he harnessed the mules to his wagon. All around him were other men harnessing mules for their wagons.
Bahrandik, his next older brother, was holding a lantern for him, and heard his complaint. "What are you complaining about, Stave? You're just going to be driving a wagon all day."
Charvil and Kahndar walked up then and Charvil checked Stavin's harness. "We're all ready, Stavin. Where is your vest?"
"In the box under the seat, Sir," Stavin answered as he automatically came to attention.
"And your weapons?"
"My knives are in their sheaths and I built a holder for my Dragon's Tongue, Sir. I'm also bringing that big knife, like you said," he hesitated and then shrugged, "but I'm still not very good with it."
"We'll be working on that when time allows. Probably every day while we're waiting for the evening meal." Charvil turned to his son and clasped him by both shoulders. "Let's go home for a few moments. You go home, too, Stavin. Say your goodbyes and meet us at the gate in two spans." Charvil and Kahndar climbed up on the wagon he was going to drive and rolled away.
Stavin did as he was told and pulled the mules to a stop in front of his father's house. Going in, he heard his mother and wife in the kitchen.
"I'm going to miss him so much," Sharindis said as Stavin walked up to the kitchen door.
"Don't start missing me yet," Stavin said as he chuckled. He walked in and hugged Sharindis tightly. "We're only going to be gone for twenty-four or twenty-five days. A moon at the most."
Sharindis held him tightly and bent her head down to kiss him. "Be careful, Stavi. Come home safe to me."
Stavin closed his eyes tightly against the tears that were trying to force their way out and held her closely, then had to ease his grip. There was another farewell he had to say. Little Karlin was asleep in a cradle near the door and he knelt to brush the baby's dark hair with his fingertips. He kissed his fingers, then placed them on his son's forehead, and stood.
"Shari, Mom, I'll be back soon." That said, he left the house and drove away toward the gate. He stuffed his helmet on so no one could see the tears he couldn't hold back. Leaving was getting harder and harder each year.
Charvil took the lead as the wagons rolled out of the town gate, and Stavin found himself in the last position. Junior, as always. He tied a bandanna across his nose and mouth and let the mules follow the ninth wagon as he squinted against the dust. Stavin looked at Arandar as He rose above the horizon and had to admit that Charvil had told the truth: Arandar wasn't even completely above the horizon. He held out his hand flat to the sun and nodded. The top of the sun disk wasn't even one finger-span above the horizon. First light, by definition.
The wagons traveled for two days down the road toward Trade Town before they turned north again on the road that led to Kahrant's Pass. True to their training and traditions, rations on the road consisted of mostly boiled beans or grain, salted meat, and rock-hard journey bread. To his own surprise, Stavin found himself daydreaming of Endar Bel'Vandar's delicious meals.
It took eleven days for the wagons to make the journey to the old city of Kahrant's Pass. Once the city walls came into view, Charvil called Stavin to the front.
"All right, Master Trader Stavin, it's time for you to put on your vest and lead our caravan."
Stavin and Charvil spent a few moments knocking the worst of the dust from his armor, then Stavin shrugged his vest into place. Once it was settled, he flipped the reins to get his mules walking again and drove down to the caravansary.
A portly little man in a Master Trader's vest with the badge of the Kahrant's Pass Traders' Council met them as soon as they entered the caravansary grounds. "Good day, good sirs." He peered at Stavin's vest intently for a moment, squinting as if he was having trouble with his eyes. "Is that--? Yes, an Evandian Master Trader. We get few Traders from Evandia this far north."
Stavin nodded to the man. "We are in search of supplies," he explained. "Where are the grain merchants located?"
The man blinked several times as he looked behind Stavin. He seemed to be realizing for the first time that every driver was in armor. "What house do you represent?" he asked cautiously. Armed and armored men could be dangerous.
Stavin grimaced. Damn! "Forgive me, I should have introduced myself. I am Master Trader Stavin of the Evandian House of Kel'Aniston." Stavin touched the dragon on his vest as he gave the man a half bow from his seat.
"I ask your forgiveness in return, Master Stavin, for I've never heard of your House." The man bowed, but not all the way.
"I founded it last year. The grain merchants?" Stavin prompted.
The man almost shook himself, then looked around. "Master Stavin, the grain merchants are all located along Emperor Zel'Borkanal Way." He pointed up a road to the right.
Stavin bowed minimally from the seat of his wagon and said, "Thank you." He flipped his reins and guided the mules toward the indicated street. Think, Stavin! Of course they've never heard of you or your House. They probably haven't heard of Friend Stavin, either! Then his sense of the ridiculous exerted itself and he chuckled softly. Wouldn't matter here anyway.
Six merchant houses showed the bundled sheaves of the Grain Merchants, and Stavin pulled to a stop in front of the second one. It had a familiar name: Zel'Vandar. Charvil followed him into the warehouse office while the rest of the warriors stayed with the wagons. Inside, Stavin and Charvil were greeted by a prosperous-looking man in the ubiquitous vest of a Master Trader.
"Ah, good Master Trader. What can I do for you?" he asked, smiling down at Stavin but keeping one eye on Charvil.
Stavin bowed slightly. "I am Master Trader Stavin of the Evandian House of Kel'Aniston. I'm seeking a supply of assorted grains and beans."
"I've never heard of your house before, Master Stavin. I am Master Trader Doran, of the Zel'Vandar Trading House. How much grain are you seeking, and of what kinds?"
Stavin bowed again. "I just founded the House last year. We are seeking one hundred bags each of wheat, rye, and barley, and two hundred of beans."
The trader was nodding thoughtfully as he said, "A substantial shipment, Master Stavin." The trader looked past Stavin to the wagons outside. "I see you have your own wagons. Very well, for such a large supply this early in the year, I must ask for seventy gold crowns."
Stavin settled into the game of bargaining, applying the lessons that Sahren, Kethlan, and Rahlina had taught him. He and Master Doran traded bids and counter-bids, each seeking to out-do the other in the ancient game of haggling. Three spans passed before an agreement was reached, and they clasped forearms.
"Fifteen gold crowns it is," Master Doran said, shaking his head. "You are a very talented trader, Master Stavin."
Stavin smiled and chuckled a little. "If I was very talented I would have gotten you down farther. Where do we take the wagons?"
"I'll accompany you," Master Doran said, and joined Stavin on the lead wagon. He guided them down the street and around a corner, then back up another street to the back of the warehouse. Ten men were waiting for them.
"Begin loading the wagons," Master Doran said as he climbed from the seat of Stavin's wagon directly onto a platform. "One hundred bags each of wheat, rye, and barley, and two hundred of beans." Turning back to Stavin, he indicated the back of the wagon. "Count with me, if you will, Master Stavin."
Each driver counted the load that was placed on his wagon, turning to bow to Charvil when their load was complete. When the warehouse workers were done, Stavin accepted the town's purse from Charvil and laid out fifteen gold Farindian crowns. They were slightly smaller than the Evandian crowns he had earned in the south, and he felt very good about the bargain he'd made.
Once the wagons were loaded and the payment made, tarps that had been folded over the wagon seats were spread out and lashed down to protect the grain. Master Doran got Stavin's attention while the ropes were being tied.
"Your pardon, Master Stavin, but why are all of your wagons being driven by warriors?" he asked in a puzzled tone.
Stavin looked at him in silence for a moment, then replied, "We are from Kavinston in the Kel'Kavin valley. Every man of our people is a warrior."
"This is the Kavinston shipment?" Master Doran asked in a breathy whisper as he stared wide-eyed at the nearly legendary Royal Guards.
"It is," Stavin agreed with a bow.
Master Doran was visibly confused. "But I thought--your House is in Evandia. How is it that you are from Kel'Kavin?"
"I founded my House last year when I was working as a guard for the caravan led by Sahren Kel'Vandar, of the Kavadian House of Zel'Vandar." He paused to smile as Trader Doran took a step back as his expression turned to one of surprise. "Master Trader Sahren and the other two masters with the caravan were killed, and I founded my House so I could bring them home."
Master Trader Doran shook his head slowly. "We heard a rumor, but no one believed it." He looked at the armored men by each of the wagons. "A minstrel was spreading the story through the winter. We aren't affiliated with the Kavadian Zel'Vandars. We just share a common ancestor somewhere along the line. But there are going to be some very upset men when they find out that you are taking this shipment."
"Not nearly as upset as I am," Charvil said from behind Stavin's shoulder. "This same shipment last year cost us fifty-one crowns."
Master Trader Doran looked at Charvil and swallowed convulsively. "You have to include shipping," he almost whispered.
Charvil glared for a moment, then shifted his attention to Stavin. "We should be going."
"Yes, Sir," Stavin snapped. He nodded to Master Doran, then all but leaped onto his wagon. All of the drivers had taken their seats, and Stavin led the way back to the caravansary. Stavin paid the five silver crowns to park in the caravansary, and they pulled the wagons into a tight square. Once their wagons were parked and the teams seen to, Charvil called his men together.
"It would seem that Stavin is even more valuable to us than we thought. He got our shipment at less than half the usual price. Jorvan, take Stoval and Ander with you to get whatever it is you needed. I'd like to hit the road first thing tomorrow."
The warriors set an unusual camp for the caravansary. Two tents were set up at each corner of the squared wagons, and Stavin and Charvil set their tents in the center of the sides facing the fences. That was the most likely direction for someone to try and sneak into their wagons.
Jorvan and the others returned after a short time with several large boxes, and added them to the loads on their wagons. Once all of them were present, Charvil gave his orders.
"We'll patrol four and four. Corner pairs will change off at midnight. Stavin, go see if you can get an inn to deliver us some good food. I swear, out of the ten of us I would have thought at least one man would know how to cook." There was some chuckling, but no argument, from the others. It was hard to mess up boiled beans, but they had managed a time or two on the trip down.
"I'll go with him," Darak Kel'Norlan said, receiving a nod from Charvil. As a Warleader Third, Darak was second in command of their little team.
Stavin and Darak walked out of the gate and immediately spotted an inn with a sign advertising that they catered to the Traders parked in the caravansary. It was a simple matter to arrange for ten meals to be delivered for just two silver crowns, and Stavin added two silver crowns of his own to get the morning meal delivered as well. He and Darak were walking past another inn when an altercation broke out.
A sturdy teenage girl in a blue dress scrambled down the steps of the inn, seeming desperate to escape the man behind her. She reached the road and started running, but the man threw a heavy clay mug and knocked her from her feet. She sprawled face down in the dirt of the road, and the man was on her in an instant.
"I'll teach you to tell me no, you little slut!" he almost shouted.
"No! Please, no!" the girl cried as he rolled her over. She held up her hands, but the man punched her in the face anyway. "You swore you'd take care of me! You swore!" The man drew his hand back for a second punch, but froze when a cubit of brightly shining steel appeared in front of his eyes.
"Stand up and back away," Stavin commanded.
"This is no business of yours," the man snarled, keeping his eyes focused on the huge knife that was just inches from his face. He didn't move otherwise, and kept hold of the girl's dress.
"Perhaps not, but that's never stopped me before," Stavin said in a soft voice.
Darak was just behind Stavin's shoulder and asked, "Who is this girl?" in a strong, angry voice.
The man shifted his gaze to Darak, but if he hoped someone was interceding on his behalf, he quickly realized that the big man in armor was not. "A foundling, nothing more. No business of yours, Warrior."
"You're my uncle," the girl whimpered. "You shouldn't do those things to me."
Stavin's hand hadn't wavered at all up to this point, but now he shook with rage. He snarled, "What have you been doing to her?"
"He raped me!" the girl cried. "He's been forcing me since my aunt died at mid winter."
"She's your blood--" Stavin began, but the man interrupted him.
"She's no kin of mine! She's my wife's niece. There's no blood between--"
"It's still incest," Darak growled, silencing the man.
"What's going on here?" a loud voice demanded, and a big man in rich clothing forced his way to the front of the crowd. He demanded, "What's the trouble here?" as he hooked his thumbs in his belt.
Several people began shouting explanations all at once, but the man was focusing his attention on Stavin. "By what right do you hold this man at sword point?" he asked as he moved into Stavin's field of view.
"By Right of Justice, under the Code of the Warrior," Stavin answered without moving his eyes or his big knife.
The newcomer tilted his head to the side. "Name yourself."
"Stavin, of House Kel'Aniston, Warleader Fifth of Kel'Kavin." Whispers ran through the crowd as the words "Royal Guardsmen" were repeated over and over.
The man shifted his gaze to Darak, but seemed unsure of himself now. "And you?"
"Darak, of House Kel'Norlan, Warleader Third of Kel'Kavin."
The man swallowed convulsively and bobbed his head in a minimal bow. "Do you claim Right of Justice against Innkeeper Gorlav?"
Stavin answered. "I do. The girl claims she is his niece, and he has been forcing her to have sex with him since mid winter."
"She's not my--"
"Silence!" Stavin snapped, moving the blade a hair closer to the innkeeper's eyes.
Darak looked at the man who had been questioning them and asked his own question. "Who are you?"
The man looked startled, then bowed his head. "I am Chardin, of House Fel'Junval."
"What is your position?" Darak asked, watching the man closely.
"I am third assistant to the caravansary manager."
"And your interest in this man?"
The man looked at the innkeeper and said, "He's my cousin."
Stavin asked, "And the girl?"
"His sister-in-law's daughter. They are not blood kin."
"By kin-law," Stavin said, keeping his focus on the innkeeper, "they are."
"Not by our law, Guardsman. Not by the laws of Kahrant's Pass."
Stavin's eyes narrowed as he looked at the innkeeper and motioned with his sword. "Stand up," he commanded. When the innkeeper was standing, Stavin looked at the girl and asked, "How old are you?"
"Fourteen this spring, Sir," she answered timidly, remaining on the ground.
"Do you have any experience taking care of babies?"
The girl looked puzzled, but answered, "Yes, Sir. I was oldest of six."
Stavin nodded and sheathed his knife. "I would like to hire you to help my wife with our baby."
"Now just a moment," the innkeeper said loudly, drawing Stavin's attention again. "She's my property, not a freeman to be hired."
Stavin looked at him, then at the girl, then back at the innkeeper. "Name a price, but don't try my patience. Anger me and I'll pay you with steel."
The innkeeper swallowed and looked at his cousin for help, but there was no help there. "Five gold crowns," he snapped, but when Stavin's hand fell on the hilt of the big knife again, he quickly changed his price. "One! One gold crown."
Stavin pulled out his pouch and drew out a gold Kavadian crown, holding it up for everyone to see, then let it roll off the back of his hand to fall in the dust at his feet. He held out his hand to the girl and said, "Come with me." She glanced at her uncle, then scrambled to her feet and took Stavin's hand as she stepped forward to his side. Stavin kept her beside him on the walk back to the caravansary, and Darak followed a step behind them. The sound was faint, but Stavin was certain Darak was laughing at his back.
Charvil saw them coming and stood up, looking at the girl first, then at Stavin. "What did you do?" he asked in an exasperated tone. His expression mirrored his tone. The rest of the men just chuckled.
Stavin took a deep breath and said, "It's a long, sordid story, Sir, but the end is that Shari has someone to help her with Karlin now."
Charvil shifted his attention. "Darak?"
"Well, at least he didn't kill anyone this time," Darak replied with a chuckle. "It was a near thing, though." He went on to describe the event, and soon Charvil had his hand over his eyes as he shook his head.
"We can't take you anywhere, can we?" he asked as he looked at Stavin.
"Sir!" Stavin almost whined, but Charvil waved him silent.
"I know, Stavin. I know. I probably would have just beheaded him and been done with it. But now you've an extra mouth to feed. Did you think of that?"
Stavin paused for an instant, and then said, "Ahhhhh, no."
Charvil was nodding. "Didn't think so. Before we leave in the morning, see what you can do about getting us some food that we can't ruin. Sausages, cheeses, bread that will keep a few days. That sort of thing."
Stavin looked at his father-in-law for a moment, then bowed his head. "Yes, Sir." Turning to the girl, he asked, "Do you know where we can get supplies like that? I'm sorry, I didn't ask your name. Who are you?"
The girl looked at him and said, "My name is Sallin Bel'Bartem, Master Stavin," as she bowed deeply.
Stavin bowed his head deeply in reply. "Sallin, do you know where we can get ten or twelve days' worth of sausages and cheese, and some hard bread that will last?"
"Yes, Master Stavin," she replied.
Stavin looked at the sky and hummed. "We have time." Turning to Charvil, he came to attention. "Sir, I request permission to go get the supplies now. I'm going to have to get some supplies for Sallin as well. Blanket and bed-roll at least." He looked at her and shook his head. "If there's a clothing district, we'll hit that as well."
Charvil smiled as his son-in-law demonstrated the kind of decisiveness that set leaders apart from followers and looked at the rest of his men. "Darak, Ander, Stoval, Jorvan, guard the wagons. I think the rest of us should go with Stavin and see if we can keep him out of trouble." Everyone except Sallin laughed as Stavin blushed with embarrassment.
Sallin led them out of the caravansary by another gate and into the market. It wasn't a full bazaar, but that was only because of the size. Just about everything could be found there, and she led them to where food could be purchased first.
Stavin stepped up to a butcher's stall and smiled at the woman behind the counter. "Your pardon, good madam," he said to catch her attention.
The woman turned, and looked at Charvil first, then down at Stavin. Her expression was one of intense curiosity as she said, "I beg yours, Master Trader. What do you seek?"
"Hard sausages that will keep in this weather," he replied. The game was on, and he spent a full span haggling over the price. In the end, he purchased twenty arm-long sausages, and walked away with a smile on his face.
"Think you bought enough, Stavin?" Charvil asked. He and the others were carrying the sausages over their shoulders.
"Should be, even with Elval's appetite," Stavin replied. All of the men laughed at that, especially Elval.
The next stop was for cheese, and the process was repeated. This time he only bought five rounds, but it was nearly an equal weight to the sausage. Charvil looked at Stavin, then at the rest of the men and shook his head.
"You four take this load back to the wagons. Hopefully the food Stavin and Darak arranged will be waiting for you. We'll be along shortly." He turned his attention to Stavin. "Shortly, Stavin."
"Yes, Sir. A baker next, Sallin," he said, and she led them up a different street.
The baker smiled broadly as they entered his shop. "Good Warriors, I am pleased to see you," he said, focusing his attention on Sallin. "And you, Sallin. You're free of that sorry excuse for an uncle of yours. What is your pleasure, Warrior?"
"A supply of rolls that will keep for a few days in this weather," Stavin replied, watching Sallin from the corner of his eye.
The baker looked at him for a moment without speaking. "How much are you in need of?"
"There are eleven of us, and we've a twelve-day journey ahead of us, starting tomorrow morning."
The baker nodded. "If you'll take the end of today's baking, I can deliver the rest in the morning. I can't guarantee they'll last twelve days, though."
Charvil chuckled. "It'll be better than what we ate on the way down here."
Stavin and the baker haggled briefly, and ended up settling on a very good price. Stavin slung a heavy net bag of rolls over his shoulder as they left, but his attention was on Sallin. "You know him, and he obviously already knew what had happened at your uncle's inn. Who is he?"
"It's a little complicated, Master Stavin," she answered. "He's my father's best friend's brother. He was always nice to us, and offered to take me in when mama and the rest died of the plague two years ago, but Uncle Gorlav and Aunt Shauna said I was blood and their responsibility."
"I'll release you to him, if that is your wish," Stavin said, and she turned to face him.
"But you paid--"
"Don't worry about that, Sallin."
"No, Master Stavin. No, I have to worry about that. You paid a whole gold crown for me." She paused and bit her lips, then looked down. "And if I stay here, Uncle Gorlav might come after me."
Stavin had to nod his agreement with that point. "Very well. We need to get you a blanket and some other supplies as well. Where can we find a cloth merchant?"
Sallin led them to a cloth merchant, and Stavin bought her a thick wool blanket and a brand-new saddle blanket that would serve as a bed pad. He also bought three bolts of wool cloth in dark brown, black, and white. On the way, back to the caravansary they stopped in the castoff lane and picked her up three more outfits. Charvil was tapping his foot impatiently when Stavin had paid for the last one.
"It's getting dark and I'm getting hungry, Stavin," he said as he looked down at him.
"We're done, I think. Sallin, lead us back to the caravansary."
Sallin bowed and led them off in a different direction rather than retracing their footsteps. It was a short walk, up two streets and over one, and they arrived back at the caravansary through the same gate they had left through.
"I was completely turned around," Stavin admitted in a stunned tone.
Charvil grunted, but didn't say anything. The food Stavin had ordered was waiting, and Stavin shared his with Sallin. She tried to object, but he insisted. "We've plenty of bread and sausage if we're still hungry later," he explained. Stavin was on the first watch rotation, and he sent Sallin to bed in his tent. When his watch ended, he curled up on his wagon seat rather than disturb her.
The night was quiet, but the morning arrived with a shout. "You!" a rotund little bald man screamed as he waddled into the caravansary. "Who do you think you are?" he demanded as he waved his hands in the air like a bird beating its wings. "Bel'Serva handles the Kel'Kavin shipments! What makes you think you can come in here and disrupt our trade?" There were ten men dressed in a motley assortment of armor behind him, but none of them looked like a Warrior. More like common street toughs.
Stavin began to answer, but Charvil beat him to it. "Be silent, you fool!" he growled, and the man stopped to stare at him as his eyes widened. "Last season this shipment cost us fifty-one gold crowns. Doubling the price on us was a serious mistake, Bel'Serva."
"I don't know you," the Trader said as he drew himself up to his full height and looked down his nose toward Charvil's chest.
"You know me, Bel'Serva. I am Warmaster Charvil Kel'Horval of the Royal Guards of Kel'Kavin."
The Trader froze and suddenly looked terrified. He knew that name. It didn't stop his protests, though. "Elder Kel'Horval?" he asked in a timid tone, seeming to hope he was wrong.
Charvil glared as he growled, "Precisely."
The Trader eased forward and continued in a wheedling tone. "Elder Kel'Horval, I've always given your people the best prices. Now you hire this nobody--"
"My son-in-law is not a nobody," Charvil snarled, interrupting the fool. "He is Master Trader Stavin Kel'Aniston, owner of the Evandian House of Kel'Aniston, Lieutenant of the Evandian Royal Guard, and Warleader Fifth of Kel'Kavin. Our shipments will be handled by him and his House from now on."
"But, Elder," the Trader said in the same wheedling tone, "Bel'Serva has been handling the Kel'Kavin shipments for over a hundred years."
"And I have to wonder just how long you've been double-charging us," Charvil asked in a dangerously soft tone.
The Trader took a step back, then another. When Charvil laid his hand on the hilt of his sword, the fool turned and ran for his life. So did the men behind him. No one challenged the Royal Guards. Charvil let them go. Only laughter chased them as they fled through the gate.
That was so funny! Wait till I tell Shari. Stavin was chuckling softly, and Sallin gave him a curious look. "I'll explain later."
The morning meal Stavin had arranged was delivered soon after the incident, and they all ate heartily. None of them were looking forward to the road. The baker arrived while they were eating with a middle-aged woman at his side. They carried a large basket between them, and walked directly up to Stavin.
"Master Trader Stavin, here is the rest of your bread," the baker said as they set the basket down. Then the woman walked over to Sallin with a different bundle in her hands.
"Salli, dear, here are some of your things from the inn. I had Bellin snatch them up while your uncle was asleep. You're well done with him, and no matter what the law says, the people will see justice done on your behalf."
Sallin took the bundle and bowed deeply as she said. "Thank you, Mistress Annalis."
Charvil was nodding in satisfaction as he looked around. "All right, men. Let's harness the mules and head home."
Once the animals were harnessed and ready to go, and Stavin led the caravan out of the city. Once they were outside the city walls, though, the travel order changed, and Stavin's was once again the last wagon. Sallin was on the seat right beside him, and he had to cut a piece of the white cloth for her to wrap across her face. Her curly brown hair was already covered by a pretty floral bonnet that Mistress Annalis had brought her. "Being the most junior member of a team is always like this," he explained.
The first night they camped, Stavin and Sallin handed out bread, sausage, and cheese to everyone before sitting down to eat their own evening meal. Sallin asked, "Master Stavin, why don't you cook meals?"
"Because none of us can cook very well," Stavin answered. There were chuckles of agreement all around as the warriors nodded.
She replied, "I can cook."
All of the men froze for an instant, then they began eating again. "Tomorrow, we'll let you try, if you like," Stavin said. "We usually just have beans with salted or dried meat when we're traveling. It takes real talent to ruin beans," he said, then chuckled before saying, "but I can do it."
As darkness fell, Stavin arranged Sallin in his tent, then made himself a bed in the foot-board of the wagon. She looked at him with a puzzled expression and asked, "Master Stavin, why you are sleeping out there? The tent is big enough for two." She looked at the large men around them. "Well, the two of us at least."
"I'm sleeping out here because it would not be proper for me to sleep in the tent with you, Sallin," he replied. He yawned hugely, then shook his head. "Besides, they'll be coming to wake me for watch in a few spans. Just sleep the night through, and we'll discuss anything else on the road tomorrow."
Stavin was back in the wagon, snoring softly, when morning arrived. Charvil woke him up by tapping on his forehead with one finger. "Stavin, your girl has been busy."
"Hm? What? What do you mean, Sir?"
"Come to the morning meal and you'll see," was all the answer he got.
What he found at the morning meal was amazing. He'd been expecting cold sausage, cheese, and bread again. What he got was a warm roll stuffed with diced sausage and melted cheese mixed with diced wild onion.
"This is good," he managed to say around his first mouthful.
Sallin smiled as she handed out similar meals to each of the men as they arrived, then took one for herself. "Nothing is wasted at an inn, Master Stavin. I've had two years learning how to make a morning meal out of the leavings from the night before."
Elval looked at Stavin and said, "She's cooking from now on," as he licked his fingers.
Charvil nodded as he chewed the last of his bread. "Stavin, we're co-opting your servant. Is that all right with you?"
Stavin's grin threatened to split his face as he answered, "Absolutely, Sir. Anything to avoid your cooking."
"Watch it, Stavin," Charvil growled as everyone except Sallin laughed. "You still have sword lessons at sundown."
"Yes, Sir!" Stavin answered, but he was fighting not to laugh.
* * *
Once they were on the road again, Stavin looked at Sallin and smiled. "I think a few of the older warriors were mad that I brought you along, but none of them are now. That was the best meal we've had on the road."
Sallin smiled and ducked her head in embarrassment. "It really wasn't much trouble, Master Stavin. I saw the onions last night when we stopped and picked them when I got up this morning."
"Well, it was a welcome surprise to all of us. I didn't think to ask you about your background, so tell me about yourself."
Sallin blushed and shrugged again. "There's not much to tell, Master Stavin. I'm from Devon, north of Kahrant's Pass. My family were farmers on Lord Zel'Corradan's lands. We worked the land in the warm seasons and made little things in the cottage during the cold times. Then two years ago, the Red Tongue Plague killed almost all the people in Devon, even the lord's family. I lived, but no one else from my family did. I was sent to Aunt Shauna, and you know the rest."
Stavin nodded. "Your uncle is lucky I didn't kill him," he almost whispered.
"Have you ever killed a man, Master Stavin?"
Stavin's head whipped around to stare at her. "You don't know what the star on my shoulder means?" he asked in a stunned whisper.
"No, Master Stavin."
Stavin took a deep breath and began a dissertation about the meanings of the Kel'Kavin rank insignia. Rank hadn't always been dependent on a kill-count. Originally, rank had been earned through more genteel methods. Time in the service of the king had been the primary way rank was achieved. A display of special talent or initiative could result in a non-commissioned officer becoming an officer, much the way Stavin had been made a lieutenant in the Evandian Royal Guard for saving King Kalin the year before. Family patronage was another way, though no one ever claimed they made rank because of their family and friends. There was always a better story.
It had been after the fall of Farindia that the elder officers of Fort Kel'Kavin had reverted to the ancient ranking system. They had no authority to confer rank in the regular way. That had been the king's prerogative.
It had taken thirty years of trial and error to decide on the kill-counts that would designate rank. It was assumed, rightly in most cases, that the experience of going to the lowlands and fighting, and winning, was the best teacher, and in turn the best indication of who knew the most. It wasn't always accurate, but most men tried to live up to their rank by studying tactics during the winter.
"But you have a four-pointed star with a white square in it."
Stavin tilted his head to the side. "Yes. That just means that I've won a lot of fights, and killed a lot of men. I have a lot to learn before I can lead men the way Warmaster Kel'Horval or any of the rest of these men can."
Sallin nodded and kept quiet for a while. Stavin had given her a lot to think about.
* * *
Sallin became adept at swinging down from the wagon on the roll, dashing off to pick wild onions, carrots, or other edibles, then running to catch up and climb back aboard. She demonstrated an almost endless array of recipes based on bread, grain, beans, sausage, and cheese mixed with wild vegetables. By the time they arrived at Kel'Kavin, she was a fixture that none of the men wanted to do without.
The wagons rolled up to the storehouse and a crowd of men and women surrounded them to help unload--and to ask questions about the new member of their group. Once the wagons were unloaded and returned to storage, and the mules set loose in the pasture, Stavin led Sallin to his father's house.
Sharindis met Stavin at the door and wrapped him in a tight hug, kissing him repeatedly. "I've missed you so much, Stavi," she whispered.
"I've missed you as well, Shari," Stavin murmured, hugging her tightly and snuggling his head between her breasts.
"Who is this?" Marinis asked from the doorway and Sharindis let Stavin loose a little, but didn't completely let go.
"Stavin?" she asked as she finally saw the shadowy figure behind him.
"Shari, Mom, this is Sallin," he said, motioning the girl forward. "I brought her back to help with Karlin."
Sallin bowed deeply and said, "I am pleased to meet you, Mistress Sharindis and Mistress Marinis." Stavin had had her change into the best of the outfits he'd bought her in Kahrant's Pass while they were unloading, and she looked every inch the proper servant.
Sharindis looked at the girl's shadow and tilted her head to the side. "But why?"
"It's a long story, Shari," Stavin said, putting pressure on her to go back into the house. "For the most part, though, it's to give you someone to keep Karlin busy while you're teaching. He does get insistent when he wakes up, middle of class or not."
Sharindis tilted her head to the side again, then said, "Very well. Sallin, come here please." She held her hand out and Sallin immediately came forward to grasp it. Stavin and Charvil had explained about Shari's lack of vision on the trip, so she wasn't surprised by Shari needing help.
"How can I help you, Mistress?"
"I don't know yet. Marinis, can you see to Sallin while Stavin and I go upstairs?"
There was a hint of humor in Marinis' voice as she said, "Of course, Shari. Sallin, come with me and bring those things with you. We'll have to find you a proper place to sleep and get you settled."
Stavin and Sharindis were only peripherally aware of Sallin and Marinis. They went to the stairs and up to their room, and Shari helped Stavin out of his armor. "I've missed you so much, Stavi," she murmured in a breathy whisper that sent shivers up his spine. Then their lips came together and there was no more time for talk.
Later, as they snuggled, she traced circles on his back and said, "I don't know what's wrong with me. I could barely contain myself until we got to our room."
"Whatever it is, I'm enjoying it," Stavin said, then laughed when she tickled him. "That's not fair."
Sharindis hummed and settled back. "So, tell me about Sallin."
Stavin told the story as he'd seen the events, and what Sallin had told him on the road. "I don't know what prompted me to hire her, but I think she'll be a big help when I'm in the lowlands."
Sharindis nodded. "Perhaps. What does she look like?"
Stavin thought back. "She looks like Ahvana at that age, but with blunter features. Brown hair, brown eyes," he said as he visualized the girl's face, "wide mouth. Good teeth. No blemishes that I could see."
"Is she pretty?"
Stavin chuckled as he figured out what she was driving at. "Not really. She's not ugly, not like Jannin," he shook his head as he mentioned the most unfortunate of the valley's girls, "just sort of plain. The kind of girl no one pays attention to."
Sharindis sighed and settled back against the pillows. "Very well. You're right about my needing help with Karlin. Mom had Var helping me, but he's got to devote his full attention to his training now. Sora has been lending a hand as well." She chuckled. "She's turned into quite a milk cow and can feed Karlin and Noral at the same time."
Stavin laughed for a moment. "I'm going to tell her you called her that."
"She knows. Last time I said something, she just said, 'Moo,' and kept feeding the boys."
It was late in the day when Stavin and Shari came down stairs. Karlit saw them coming and smiled. "Well, Stavin, the council has already sent a summons for you--for tomorrow. It seems your Trading House is even more valuable to the community than anyone expected."
Stavin smiled and shrugged. "Someone should have been watching Trader Bel'Serva more closely, Dad."
"That's the consensus of the community as well, as far as I've heard. Your mother has Sallin working in the kitchen, so sit down and tell me what you were thinking when you hired her." Stavin told his father Sallin's story, and Karlit's eyebrows drew down when he got to the end. "I'm surprised you let him live."
"I almost killed him, but I didn't think it was a good idea. Gods Above know I wanted to, but I just didn't think I should."
"Thinking is something you're good at. There's something else that you should be thinking about, Stavin: your own home. You're married and have a child now. You need to get out on your own."
Stavin's face froze as his mind raced. "I--We should have moved out last winter," he said as he continued to consider the idea. "It was just that--"
"I can't see well enough to run my own household," Sharindis said as she held his arm.
"But you have Sallin now," Karlit pointed out. "And you can certainly afford your own household." Stavin nodded mutely and Karlit continued. "Farlit will be bringing his family back here soon. What your mother and I were thinking was that you and Far could change places. The little house that he and Delia are in is getting too small for their family."
"Shari?" Stavin asked as he looked at his wife. Her expression answered before she spoke. She looked stunned in a happy way that Stavin had never seen before.
She spoke in a soft, wonder-struck tone as she said, "I never thought I would live in my own home, Stavin. After my accident, I thought I would be living with my parents or Kahn for the rest of my life." She was smiling even though there was a tear trickling down her cheek. She whispered, "My own home."
Karlit chuckled. "I think she likes the idea."
Stavin looked at his father and asked, "Now, or come winter?"
"Winter is soon enough," Karlit answered.
Sallin came in then and said, "Masters and Mistress, the evening meal is ready."
Everyone sat at the table except Sallin, who stood respectfully by the sideboard as Karlit and Marinis invoked the blessing of the Gods Above. Marinis turned her head and said, "You may serve now, Sallin."
Sallin served all of them, then stood aside and waited to see if any of them needed anything else. She waited patiently as they ate and immediately cleared the table as soon as they were finished.
Stavin caught her attention as she took his plate and asked, "Did you eat yet?"
"No, Master Stavin. I'll eat after I clean up."
Stavin looked at his mother, then at Sallin and said, "You may eat first, Sallin. The dishes can wait a bit."
She looked at him carefully, then bowed. "Thank you, Master Stavin."
The Elders' Council met early the next morning, and Stavin was summoned. He found Charvil waiting for him as well, facing the Council.
Mikal Kel'Kaffrey had been chosen as the new Chief Elder when Sorval Kel'Davin had retired, and now he considered Stavin silently for a moment before speaking. His hair was still mostly brown, being younger than average for the Council, and his eyes were light brown, like most of the men of Kel'Kavin.
"Stavin, your skill and status saved us thirty-five gold crowns on our shipment. How good of a deal do you think you made?"
Stavin came to attention before answering. "Chief Elder, I made a good deal, but not an extraordinary one. The shipment I sent from Aravad last season cost seven gold Kavadian crowns, but it included two crowns for shipping." He paused and sighed. "If I was as good as Kethlan Kel'Vandar, I believe I could have gotten this shipment for twelve Farindian crowns." His mouth was twisted into a wry grin, but there was a trace of sadness in his eyes for his lost friend.
"Is it your opinion that the Traders in Kahrant's Pass have been cheating us?" Warmaster Kel'Carin asked.
"Very much so, Warmaster," Stavin answered, locking eyes with Barvil. "They have been at least doubling the price. Maybe even more than that."
"I think Sahren would have agreed," Barvil said as he looked at his colleagues and stood. "I now lay before the Council a proposal that we stop buying from Kahrant's Pass. Aravad is three days farther away, but with Kel'Aniston shipping for us," he smiled at Stavin, "we should come out ahead."
"Agreed," Chief Elder Kel'Kaffrey said. One by one the other three Elders agreed as well. "Stavin, we're going to use your House to ship goods for the community. We are not, however, going to demand that you do it for free." He smiled as Stavin's brow drew down in confusion. "If you agree, shipping our stores will fulfill your family duty to the community. We'll also allot the necessary extra feed for your mules. You'll need more wagons, though."
Stavin thought furiously for a moment, then bowed. "I agree, Sir," he finally replied.
"Good. As for Trader Bel'Serva," Mikal paused and looked round the room, "we will express our--displeasure--at a later date."
Charvil stepped forward now and bowed to the Council. "Elders, as you commanded I have chosen a double-hand of warriors to go south with us. Actually, all of the veterans who went with us to Kahrant's Pass except Jorvan and Elval want to go." He stopped and grinned down at Stavin. "Elval refused when he found out that Sallin wasn't going to be cooking for us this time." While Stavin sniggered, he again spoke to the Council. "Wallin Kel'Markat and Dennil Kel'Rovan round out our group."
"Very well, Charvil," Chief Elder Kel'Kaffrey said as he nodded. "Warleader Kel'Aniston, while you technically outrank three of these men--"
Stavin bowed deeply, interrupting the Chief Elder. "I understand, Sir. I haven't finished my five expeditions yet."
Chief Elder Kel'Kaffrey nodded his head deeply, but he never took his eyes off Stavin. "No, you haven't. You seem to be one for setting precedents, Stavin. This has never been an issue before, but I think you know that. I'm glad you understand why you are still the lowest ranking of your group."
"Yes, Sir," Stavin answered.
Charvil looked down at Stavin. "We are leaving in the morning."
Stavin snapped back to attention and replied, "I'll be ready, Sir."
* * *
The group rode in a column of twos, with Stavin and Dennil bringing up the rear. "As always," Stavin grumbled as they rode out of the valley. Dennil was ten years older than Stavin and had earned his star the previous season as the leader of one of the teams that had gone to Trade Town. He was none too happy about bringing up the tail either.
"How did I let the Warmaster talk me into this?" he grumbled to Stavin as they rode.
Stavin grunted, "Force of habit: No one says no to the Warmaster."
Dennil nodded his agreement and wrapped a bandanna across his nose and mouth.
The six-day ride down to Trade Town went without incident, and soon Charvil was leading his men among the Traders. He spotted a man wearing the badge of the caravansary manager pinned to his Master's vest and walked directly to him. "Your pardon, Master Trader, but do you know of a caravan that is headed to Twin Bridges?" he asked the caravansary manager.
"I do," the man answered, but his eyes were focused behind Charvil on the field of stars his men wore. "Why do you ask?"
"We are in search of employment, and desire to go to Twin Bridges."
The caravansary manager licked his lips. "You are an unusual group. So many veterans. What happened to your usual 'two hands and a brain' team?"
"We were late getting out," Charvil replied. "Could you direct us to the proper caravan?"
The man nodded. "There are two caravans going to central Evandia, and one small shipment that only has three wagons. This way, please," he said and led the way, threading his way across the caravansary to a caravan of ox carts.
"Master Trader Bel'Borva," he said to the trader as they approached, "these fine warriors are seeking employment for the trip to Twin Bridges. Have you secured guards yet?"
"No, I haven't. Few good men available this late," he replied in a heavy Reynadian accent. "What do you ask?" he asked, looking at Charvil.
"The standard five silver crowns per day, plus meals."
The trader shook his head. "Cannot afford so much. Can afford three."
Charvil shook his head and turned to the manager. "Who else is going our way?"
The manager took a deep breath. "There is another caravan, but they are going to Kolovad, not Twin Bridges."
Stavin said, "It's ten days by wagon from Kolovad to Twin Bridges, Sir. Six by horse."
"Lead us to them," Charvil said, motioning for the manager to lead the way.
The next caravan was a long series of wagons drawn by mules, and each wagon bore the stamp of the Fel'Eldan Trading House. Charvil took one look and shook his head and growled, "We don't deal with Fel'Eldan."
The manager nodded. "Unfortunately, those are the only two caravans going to central Evandia."
"We're going to have to take the three crowns a day," Charvil said in a dispirited tone. "Ox carts are so slow we'll probably make more in the long run."
"There is the other option," the manager said, catching Charvil's attention again. "It's not a caravan, though. I don't know how much they will be willing to pay."
"What is it?"
"It's three wagons belonging to the Evandian House of Fel'Carvin."
"Madam Elain?" Stavin asked, pushing forward.
The manager looked at him for a moment, his eyes going round as he looked at the golden armor--and the hollowed star on Stavin's shoulder. He took a deep breath and said, "Yes, Madam Elain Fel'Carvin."
Stavin looked up at Charvil and shrugged. Charvil nodded. "We'll talk to them."
The woman the manager led them to was a dark-haired beauty who was approximately the same age as Charvil, and she looked them over carefully. "You want to hire on as guards?"
"We do. It is our understanding that you are going to Twin Bridges."
The woman looked at the two men behind her and asked, "What do you think?"
"I think it beats the risk of being robbed on the road, Hellin," the first man answered. "This shipment isn't exactly a secret, and even Mom's reputation can't stop fools who don't know about her." The second man just nodded his agreement.
The woman turned to Charvil and said, "I'll pay three silver crowns per day, plus meals."
Stoval nudged his big brother's elbow. "These wagons will be a lot faster than those ox carts, Char. Plus, everyone knows of House Fel'Carvin. At least they can be trusted in Trade. I've never heard of Bel'Borva."
Charvil glared at his little brother, but all Stoval did was grin. He said, "Very well," as he turned back to the woman. "When do you leave?"
"Two more days," she replied. "The shipment isn't complete yet." She smiled as the warriors milled about, but her expression froze when she saw the small figure in golden armor. "Gods Below," she whispered.
"Trader?" Charvil asked, then followed her gaze. "Oh, yes. I should have mentioned that Friend of Evandia Stavin is one of my men."
Hellin began smiling very broadly. "Mother is going to be so pleased."
"Ma'am?" Charvil asked as Stavin walked to his side.
"Perhaps I should properly introduce myself. I am Hellin Fel'Baldan. Elain is my mother." She bowed slightly to Stavin. "Friend Stavin, or should I call you Master Trader Kel'Aniston?"
"Friend Stavin will do, Ma'am," Stavin replied with a slight bow. He could see the family resemblance now, despite her brown hair. "Are you Elain the Sixteenth?"
"No, that's my big sister," she replied, then added a slight chuckle. "I'm the third child." She smiled deeply and motioned the men closer. "Friend Stavin, please let me introduce my husband, Greval, and my big brother, Jordav." She paused as Stavin nodded his head deeply to each man, and they bowed in return. "Perhaps I should go ahead and assure you that this is a completely legitimate cargo." She smiled impishly. "There's a silk merchant from Reynadia who comes here every five years. Mother has a deal with him, and we take delivery here rather than in Twin Bridges. As Evandian Master Traders, our taxes are lower than his would be, and he passes half the savings on to us."
"I can see to the taxes for you--for half your savings," Stavin said with a grin.
Hellin grinned right back. "You and Corinne are going to get along wonderfully."
Stavin wanted to take advantage of the delay to make other arrangements as well. He caught Charvil's attention as soon as Hellin turned away. "Sir, I'd like to send a message to Aravad," he said as soon as Charvil was looking at him.
"What message, Stavin?" Charvil asked as he looked down at him.
Stavin pulled a slip of parchment out of his pouch. "It's to the wainwright I bought the other wagons from. I want to commission sixteen more wagons." He grinned as Charvil took a step back. "House Kel'Aniston is going to need them to ship the valley's supplies."
Charvil shook his head. "I think you should wait a bit, Stavin. We can buy the wagons in Twin Bridges or another Evandian town and take them up ourselves. That many wagons would require a pre-payment, and you don't have a representative in Aravad."
Stavin almost cringed. "I didn't think of that, Sir."
Charvil smiled and patted his shoulder. "You don't have to worry about it right now, Stavin. Besides, you might not need them."
Charvil chuckled as he shook his head. "Stavin, those three Trading Houses the king gave you must have had some wagons."
Stavin thought for a moment, then nodded. "You're right, Sir." He shook his head as he laughed. "I don't know why, but I keep forgetting about them."
"You haven't laid your hands on them, so they're not real yet. Wait until you actually see what you have before you buy more."
Stavin smiled and came to attention, then bowed deeply. "Yes, Warmaster."
Loren Jones lives near Tampa, Florida. He married Pamela A. Willis in 1983 and they have stayed together to this time, and have three adult children. A US Navy veteran, Loren served as a nuclear reactor operator on attack submarines for six years before his honorable discharge in 1986. Loren makes his living as an instrumentation and controls technician and writes because the stories won't leave him alone.
Stavin DragonBlessed series
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The Andarian Affair Copyright © 2017. Loren K. Jones. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
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