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Chapter 6

Nika, capital city of the kingdom of Darcia
22nd year of the reign of King Cernos
Exile year 1

"Where would I find Josten the horse-trader?”

The guard in the east gate of looked up to see a figure silhouetted in the late afternoon sun. He looked him over with care; a clansman from the east, covered in dust and leading a middling fine horse.

“Sergeant Karsgen,” the guard called out. A head stuck out the gatehouse door. “Is Josten the horse-trader in town right now?”

“Who wants to know?”

The guard pointed a thumb at the clansman, who raised a hand. “I have a message for him from one of the clan horse holders.”

The sergeant spat. “As far as I know, he’s still here. I haven’t heard that he’s left, anyway.” He returned to the gatehouse. The guard turned back.

“If Master Josten’s in town, at this hour of the day he’s probably at his riding grounds.” The clansman just looked at him. “Do you know the city? Have you been here before?”

“Um, no I don’t. I’ve only been here once, when I was little.” The guard caught a note in the man’s voice, and looked at him harder. Underneath all the road dust he wasn’t much more than a youth.

“Okay, give a listen. You’re standing at the Horse Gate. Here’s how you get there . . .” The guard instructed him on how to find the merchant’s establishment in the western part of the city. The directions were long and not simple, including going over a bridge, but the clansman just nodded when he was done. “You got all that?” He nodded again. “Well, then, be off with you and quit blocking the gate.”

As the clansman took up the slack of his horse’s reins and prepared to lead him off, the guard said one more thing. “Mind you don’t wander off the route I’ve given you. There are parts of town where someone would gladly slip a blade in your back for the sake of the horse you’re leading.”

At that, the clansman looked him full in the face. Eyes of storm gray peered out through narrowed slits in weathered skin the color of old oak. For all his apparent youth, there were creases graven at the corners of the eyes, nose and mouth. And like old oak, there was an air of hardness about him. His mouth formed in a thin smile. “I’d like to see them try.” He clucked to his horse, and moved through the gate.

The guard looked after him, and shivered. Yes, the guard thought, anyone who took him on probably would deserve pity.


Duncan turned into the double gate of the riding ground. He was nervous; the city was so different from the clans. The walls and people surrounded him, closed in on him. He jumped when someone spoke.

“Can I help you, clansman?” A short tubby man approached him, rubbing his hands together. “Sell a horse? Buy a horse? Need a horse-leech? Looking for work?”

Duncan gathered himself together. “None of that. I have a message for Josten the horse-trader from Nial corAnuwn of Clan Ailane.”

“Of course, clansman. Bide a moment, if you would.” The man turned and gave a shrill whistle, followed by a yell. “Master Josten!” Several heads looked up, but only one man moved toward the gate.

“Yes, Mortz?”

“This clansman says he has a message for you.”

Duncan endured the examination of the merchant, examining him in turn. Josten was a little grayer, a little heavier, perhaps, than when he had last seen the merchant, but was still the same man.

“Duncan? Young Duncan? Is that you?”

“Aye, Master Josten.”

Josten turned to the other man. “Thank you, Mortz. I’ll take it from here.” He turned back to Duncan. “So, what is so important that the son of the First Sword of Clan Ailane brings a message to me?” He looked around. “And alone, at that.”

Duncan took the string of pilgrim medals out of his jerkin. “Actually, it’s more of a request than a message.” He untied the thong, slid one of the medals off, then retied the thong and thrust the string back into his jerkin. He handed the medal to the merchant. “He would appreciate it if you would send that to him by some means.” With that, Duncan turned to leave, only to be stopped by Josten’s hand on his arm.

“Nah, lad, there’s something in the air here, something not right. Come with me, young Duncan, if you please.” Duncan wanted to leave, but he needed this man’s favor to communicate even minimally with his family. “Mortz,” the merchant called. The man who had met Duncan at the gate bustled up. “Take Duncan’s horse and have it fed and groomed while we talk.”

“I don’t know what I’d do without Mortz,” Josten said as they watched Swiftwing being led away. “Yes, I do . . . I’d be working a lot harder. He’s a good hand with horses, and they can tell it. He can do things with a horse that I’ve never seen anyone except maybe your father do, not even another clansman.” He turned and beckoned to Duncan. “This way.”

Duncan followed to a door set to one side of the grounds. They entered a room, where Josten gestured to a chair. “Be seated, Duncan, if you would.”

The room exuded hardness to Duncan. The walls were hard; they did not move in a breeze like his mother’s tent would. The floor was wood, but it wasn’t limber like the trees he’d hunted among—it was dead, dead and pegged down so there was no give to it. Even the west-facing window was strange: a square opening filled with the clear stuff that must be glass. There was no breath of wind. He felt very odd in this space; weird, even.

The chair, however, was a folding chair like those he knew in the east, either made by a clansman or copied from such a work. Duncan settled in it gratefully, hands caressing the arms, glad to be in touch with something that familiar.

Josten turned away from the side table and brought a brass cup to Duncan. “Here, lad, you look as if you might could use this.” Duncan took it and brought it to his lips. It smelled of wine, which a sip proved the contents to be. Josten pulled his chair out from his desk, sat down and leaned forward. “Now, what has happened that has brought the son of the finest horse-breeder in the clans to Nika without companions or an escort, seeking to send a message back to his father?”

Duncan was glad he had the cup as anger and grief surged through him. He held it to his lips, delaying the moment when he would need to speak. After several breaths, he lowered the cup again. “It is this way . . .”

It took some time to recount the whole story of his exile. Duncan was amazed to see when he was finished that the sun appeared through the window to be rather lower in the sky than he would have expected.

Josten sat back in his chair and whistled. “Exiled. For eighteen years. That’s harsh, that is.”

“Aye,” Duncan whispered, then cleared his throat. “Da said that he thought it might be more due to who I was rather than what I’d done.”

The horse merchant gave a slow nod. “I can see that; indeed I can. I’ve been buying horses from the clans for fifteen years, and I know more than a bit about what makes them work. The confederation rests uneasy right now, it does, and your clan leaders are not slow to call foolishness by its proper name, now are they?”

Josten shook his head. “Eighteen years.” He heaved a breath, then clapped his hands on his thighs. “Well, I suppose you’ll be wanting to join the Highland Guard at the king’s palace. Natural place for you. I can take you there tomorrow.”

Duncan shook his head. “No. The terms of the exile are that I can’t be in association with other clansmen. Once the word got here from the clans, which it surely has already, they would not accept me. No, I’ll be making my own way.”

“Hmmph. Let me think on it. What are your plans for the evening?”

“To find an inn.”

“Nonsense. Come home with me. You’ll sleep in a soft bed tonight. Tomorrow is soon enough to be dealing with all this.”

“Nay.” Duncan shook his head. “I’ve money, and I’ll not impose on you. It might make hardships for you with the clans if they find out you gave me hospitality.”

Josten’s mouth formed a firm line. “That would not be your problem, young Duncan.”


The horse merchant stared at Duncan, but the clansman would not relent. Finally, Josten nodded. “As you will. But there is a room here in the stables that you can sleep in tonight to save your coin, and you will not say me nay to that.”

Duncan thought about it for several breaths. With a quirk to his lips, he nodded. “That I can agree to. It is no more than you would do for any messenger, I think.”

“Less, my boy. Less. So, let’s go see how your horse is doing and find you a place to sleep.”

Duncan followed the horse dealer back out into the yard and toward a large spacious building. “My stable,” Josten said with pride. “Enough air to keep the horses healthy, large enough stalls so that they’re not bound up, stone floors to keep out hoof rot.” Duncan nodded, a little amazed at the thought that a merchant would go to this expense. His father’s horses ran with the clan herds in the open air. But, in this new world of walls and streets, maybe such things as stables were a necessity. He could see that horses and other beasts couldn’t be left to wander the streets as they would.

“Mortz!” Josten called as he entered the stable.

The little man popped out of an open stall door just down the way from where they stood.

“Here I am, sir.”

“Where did you put Duncan’s horse?”

“End stall this row, sir.”

Josten walked by with a waved hand. “My thanks.” He led the way down the row, Duncan following to his left. As they passed a large stall, a horse’s head snaked out of it, big yellow teeth aiming to take a bite out of Duncan’s neck.

Duncan caught enough of a glimpse of the motion to slam a forearm up against the horse’s cheek, knocking the head away. He followed up by grabbing both the horse’s halter and an ear. “What’s this?” he asked. “Or rather, who is it?”

“Mortz!” Josten bellowed. Mortz stuck his head out of the stall he was in, saw the picture of Duncan and the horse, and bustled down the row to reach them.

“What is Goblin doing loose?” Josten demanded.

“Sorry, sir. He must have chewed through his lead again.” He made to enter the stall, and the horse tried to rear. Duncan’s hold kept him down, but Mortz stopped where he was.

“So, Goblin,” Duncan murmured. “An ill-omened name. Are you likewise ill-omened?”

“I was warned when I bought him that he had a chancy temper,” Josten replied. “But I threw the dice and took the risk, for his bloodline is good and he could sire some very fine colts.”

“So he hasn’t been cut, then?” Duncan asked, with caution letting go of Goblin’s ear.

“No. I bought him for breeding. He’s only been here two days, and Mortz hasn’t had much of a chance to work with him yet.”

“Goblin needs to learn some manners, Goblin does.”

Duncan breathed into the horse’s nostrils. The horse’s head dipped a bit. Duncan pulled on the halter enough to bring Goblin’s eyes to a level with his own. He ducked his head as coldness seemed to rise from his chest. Muscles shifted in his shoulders, neck, face. He looked up again and stared at the horse through narrowed eyelids, almost as if he were wearing a mask. Goblin drew in his scent again; the horse raised his head and tried to shake it, eyes white rimmed. Feet starting to dance in the stall.

“Nah, nah, Goblin,” Duncan breathed, relaxing his muscles and reaching up to stroke the big horse’s neck. “Settle down, now, my big lad. Behave now, and things will be fine.” Once more he drew the horse’s head down until their eyes met. He reached up and groomed his fingers through the long black forelock. “Be bold, lad, but don’t be rash.”

Duncan released the horse, and Goblin shuffled backward in the stall until his tail was brushing the rear wall. The clansman broke eye contact with the horse. He turned to see Josten standing with his hands on his hips and Mortz, lips pursed, nodding his head.

“What did you do?” Josten asked.

“I’m . . . not sure.” Duncan shrugged his shoulders.

“So, as your father’s son, you have your father’s skills.” Josten rubbed his hands together. “I’ll give you a job here . . .”

Duncan raised a hand. “Nah, Master Josten. My Da is a man of many skills, but the ones came to me with the bloodline are not the ones of the horse training. Oh, I can do some simple things, but I’m not a horse holder, not by our standards, nor likely by Mortz’s either. Nah, what I got from my Da was the way of the blade. Sword, knife and bow, these I know, these I will claim skill at. I don’t know if I can make my way with them here in the low lands, but it’s what’s in my hands. I’ll try to find a way.”

After a moment, Josten nodded. “As you will, lad. Now, come see to your horse.” Mortz slipped into Goblin’s stall as they walked down the row.

“Here we are.” Josten opened the door to the end stall.

Swiftwing turned from the manger and stepped across the spacious stall to nose at Duncan. The horse whuffled and Duncan laughed. “Yes, I’ve touched another horse. No fears, my friend. I’m still yours.” Swiftwing whuffled again, then turned back to the manger.

Duncan looked around. Swiftwing was clean and curried and combed until his coat shone. He was eagerly eating the mixed grain and hay in the manger, tail swishing in a sign of contentment. The stall was large, with plenty of fresh straw laid down. The horse’s situation was better than his own at the moment. “Well enough,” he said. “Now, where can I lay my head down?”

“This way,” Josten said, throwing open a door at the end of the row. The room revealed was about this size of one of the stalls. There was a bed built into one wall with a rough blanket stretched across it, a stool, and several pegs hammered into the wall across from the bed.

Duncan looked at it; by clan standards, it was more than acceptable. He walked back to Swiftwing’s stall and pulled his saddlebags off the top rail, then carried them to the room and dropped them on the bed. “It will do.”

Josten shook his head. “Hard headed clansmen; you’re all alike.”

“It will do for tonight,” Duncan repeated. “I’ll find a place of my own tomorrow.” They headed back into the stable.

“Well, let’s talk about your horse for a moment, then,” Josten said as Mortz appeared beside him. “I wager you haven’t thought about caring for him yet. The best place for him in the city is right here. Most places that rent rooms don’t have stables, and the ones that do I wouldn’t send a rat to, much less a horse. As a courtesy to your father, I’ll give you two weeks free lodging for your horse. After that, if you don’t have the coin for it we’ll work something out.”

“Good horse, that,” Mortz mused with his arms crossed on the top bar. “You don’t notice him at first because your glance just slides off. That nondescript dun color begs to be ignored. Look at him twice, though . . . he’s not as tall as some, but his chest is broad and deep, he’s got strong hams and sturdy legs. Good horse.”

The horseman gave a definitive nod to Duncan, who nodded back. “Aye. He’s carried me on many a hunt, as well as the long ride here.” He swallowed the lump in his throat; Swiftwing was his only living link to the life from which he was exiled. He turned to Josten. “I’ll accept the courtesy for Swiftwing’s sake. But I will pay you, whatever else I do.”

“I’ll have someone bring you food, then,” Josten said as he looked out the doorway of the stable at the darkening sky. “I’m late for home, and I suspect my wife will let me know about it. Are you sure you won’t come with me? My guest room is much better than that bunk.”

“Nay,” Duncan said. “I’ll just stay here with Swiftwing for a while.”


Josten and Mortz walked out into the yard. “So what just happened back there?” the merchant asked.

Mortz was slow to answer. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the young clansman did, but I would swear that for an instant Goblin thought he was in the presence of a predator. He was definitely spooked. When I went into his stall, he was glad to see me, more so than he has been since he got here. He came to me, eyes still white-rimmed, and he nuzzled at me. He was that glad for my company, Goblin was. I don’t know what the clansman did,” the horse man repeated, “but I think I’m going to be glad he did it. Goblin sees me as a friend now, which is the first step of bringing him into line.”

“Son of Nial,” Josten mused. “He can do this, but claims that he didn’t inherit his father’s gifts with the horses.”

“He did say he inherited the blade skills,” Mortz reminded his employer.

“That he did . . . that he did. Which gives me an idea for tomorrow.” Josten clapped his horse man on the shoulder. “Send someone out now for meat and bread for Duncan. I’ll be in early tomorrow.”

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