John Horne

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XVII. A Spy and a Birthday

January 21st, 2008 · No Comments

The first week in Xandar Tahn passed very quickly; each day had its own wonder of fresh discovery. Garyth saw a huge library with countless volumes. He and Al-tir attended a concert given on the plaza in front of the Councilhouse with strangely beautiful music played on instruments he had never seen before. He watched acrobats and jugglers performing in street carnivals long after sunset. It was beyond anything he had ever dreamed.

Xond took Garyth to meet the Council on the first day of the second week. The Councilhouse was the multistory building Garyth had visited when he and Xond first arrived. The Council was in a round of talks about the upcoming border deliberations. Garyth was warmly received, but he could not follow all of the discussion and speeches. He was very impressed with the size and beauty of the Council Chamber, which occupied the center of the building. The ceiling was at least four stories overhead, supported above the top of the building on columns, leaving open spaces on all sides to admit light and air.

Later that same morning, Al-tir took him back to the Councilhouse and showed him a pattern of beams projecting from the brickwork in a niche on the side of the building. These, she explained, could be used as a ladder to climb onto the roof. There was a stairway inside the building, but the roof access door was kept locked. The niche was hidden from view, and the climb was a little tricky. Al-tir said it was something she had done a few years back with a cousin, and she began to climb without hesitation.

If Garyth had paused to consider, he would have felt a bit childish, but he followed just behind Al-tir as she climbed. She stopped suddenly when she was able to see onto the roof, signaling to Garyth to come up quietly. When he was alongside Al-tir, he looked in the direction of her pointing finger. A robed figure was lying flat on the roof, beside the opening of the raised ceiling of the Chamber. It was an adult, but the color of the robe matched the color of the outer roof and Garyth could not tell if it was a man or a woman. The person was writing on a tablet, apparently transcribing every word uttered in the chamber below.

“The meeting in session is closed to all but the Council,” Al-tir whispered. “The treaty debate is a matter of national policy and open only to the Council of Chiefs. Whoever that is, they are spying on the Council. Let’s get out of here before we are spotted.”

Nothing more was said until they were back on the terrace.

Garyth stayed where he could watch the niche they had used to climb to the roof while Al-tir ran to keep watch on the other side of the building, which had a similar access. It was getting toward dinner time when Garyth saw Al-tir waving at him. He ran to her side as she crossed the terrace to look down on the waterfront.

“I think it was a woman,” she said. “She took off the outer robe when she got down and was wearing a woman’s robe underneath. Look over there.” She pointed to a woman getting into a rowboat. “That’s her.”

They both saw the boat move away from the waterside steps. Two men rowed while the woman sat and talked with a third tall man. Garyth and Al-tir watched as the boat headed for one of the larger fishing vessels moored out from the shore.

“We have to remember both boats,” Al-tir told Garyth. “Look carefully at the boats and the people.”

The boat finally reached the larger craft and the woman climbed aboard. Details were obscured by the distance, but they saw the woman speaking with someone on the fishing boat as she handed him something. Then she got back into the rowboat and returned to shore. They were able to see her face fairly clearly from their vantage point on the terrace. She mingled with the crowds along the waterfront steps and they soon lost sight of her.

When Garyth and Al-tir got home, Xond and Dor had arrived from the Council meeting just ahead of them. Al-tir had to be careful in relating the story of the spy since she had to explain why she was climbing to the roof in the first place. Her confession met with disapproval, as she expected, but she explained that the Councilhouse roof offered the best view of the city and she wanted Garyth to see Xandar Tahn from a lofty perspective. As she had hoped, the tale of what they had seen distracted the conversation away from her transgression. Dor asked to see the fishing boat and they all climbed the stairs to the upper veranda to look out over the lake. The boat was not where they had last seen it, but Garyth spotted it far out from shore moving southward across the lake.

“We had best visit the other Council members tonight and discuss how we must deal with this,” Xond told Dor.

“Are you going to lay a trap for the spy?” Al-tir asked.

“Perhaps your information will enable us to catch a net full of fish instead of only one,” Xond answered.

“But that is for the fishermen to decide,” Dor said. “Go help your mother finish getting dinner ready. Don’t worry her with the story of your climbing.”

Garyth and the two men stayed on the veranda setting up the low table and cushions for the evening meal. Xond told Garyth to avoid the vicinity of the Councilhouse for a few days, explaining that as long as the spy did not know she had been discovered, they could use the Council sessions to mislead her and her cohorts.

They set up a metal grill in the center of the table, since the meal consisted of skewered chunks of bison and vegetables dipped in seasoned oil and grilled over charcoal. The warmth of the grill dispelled the chill of the night. At the end of the meal Gael left the veranda and quickly returned carrying a huge circular loaf of sweet bread with a lighted candle stuck in the center. Then everyone congratulated Garyth on his birthday, which he had completely forgotten in the excitement of the afternoon. Xond made a short speech about Xenarian boys being given ownership of their first horse on their fifteenth birthday and how unfortunate it was that Garyth had not been born Xenarian. Then he said that he could not correct Garyth’s nationality nor set time back four years, but from this day forward Tarn belonged wholly to Garyth along with the saddle and bridle. Garyth was overcome with happiness. Up to now, his enjoyment of life in Xenar had been marred by the knowledge that he would one day have to part with Tarn.

Dor made the next speech, saying that Tarn’s bridle was not up to the decorative standards acknowledged throughout the country. He reached into the door to Xond’s bedroom and pulled out a brand new, beautifully decorated bridle. It was carefully crafted and had polished silver ornaments at all the tie points. Finally, Al-tir stood and told how she regretted that either they had no funny jokes in Wyeland or else Garyth needed a lot of help with the Xenarian language. Then she presented him with a beginning reader, filled with pictures and words. Although Garyth already knew the sounds of the words, the book would enable him to learn to read the Xenarian language and he was very happy to get it. She insisted that now he had no excuse not to write her a letter, for she hoped and expected there would be more commerce between Wyeland and Xenar in the future, including letter delivery. Garyth was at a loss for words in either language. He thanked them deeply and could say no more.

The next morning, at Xond’s suggestion, Garyth and Al-tir left to visit the horses and do some riding. Garyth, especially, wanted to see Tarn again and use his new tack. The day was sunny and very cool, and Ha-zel fixed a lunch basket for them. They caught a ride out of the city on a wagon carrying fish to outlying markets.

The Council met in their closed afternoon session and the discussion seemed to continue the debate of earlier sessions. However, it was a performance for their unseen audience on the roof. Council bailiffs had been stationed to unobtrusively observe the two outside accesses to the roof, and one had reported seeing a robed figure disappear into the shadowed niche on the west side of the building that morning.

Xond had expected opposition to closer ties with Wyeland to come mainly from clans in the southeast of Xenar. The trading port for Golian ships was at the southern edge of Xenar’s eastern coast. The road from the port to Xandar Tahn crossed the southeastern grazing corridors, and a number of people profited from the arrangement. The Golians had behaved themselves along the southeastern border, in sharp contrast to their aggressive incursions in the southwest. The Southeasterners believed they might lose if trade with Wyeland was opened in the west.

Xond and Dor had visited each Council member the previous night to discuss plans for the afternoon Council session, accompanied by the Council leader. There had been some skepticism by the Southeasterners, but as soon as they were informed of the morning’s observations by the bailiffs, they put aside their personal motives and backed the plan to deceive the spy. The deception centered on the expected date for the border meeting and the route the Wyeland delegation would take from Dryish to the city.

The motive of the spy was uncertain, but Xond dispatched a rider south to scout the frontier and meet his clan near Dryish to report. Xond was concerned that the Golians might be planning to interfere with the Wyeland delegation in an attempt to embarrass Xenar. A boat was obtained and a select group of Council bailiffs were sent out on the lake to learn what they could of the passing of the spy’s information. Xond also began to plan an early departure so he and Garyth could visit the Falmir and Sindin clans and alert them to the situation.

That evening around the dinner table, Xond informed Garyth that they would be leaving in four days for the trip west. Al-tir immediately asked to go along, but Gael reminded her that she had already missed too much time from her studies and would have to catch up if she were to have spare time when the men returned with the delegation. Garyth liked Al-tir a lot, but the difference in their ages was more apparent to him than to her. Around Xond he felt he could act like a man, but with Al-tir he tended to behave more like a boy. He would miss her, but he was relieved that she would not be riding with them.

Four days later, Garyth and Xond departed early from the city after saying their good-byes to the family. Al-tir threw her arms around Garyth and kissed his cheek, embarrassing him. Their pack horse was once again loaded with provisions as well as gifts and letters for clan herders. They rode almost due west and left the road when it turned southward to follow the shore of the lake. Xond had explained to Garyth how the seemingly featureless terrain was actually filled with subtle signs that enabled fairly precise navigation, but Garyth had not yet acquired the eye to see those signs. Xond wanted to practice his Wyeland pronunciation so their conversations were no longer exclusively in Xenarian.

Winter was pushing south and the north wind blew cold. At night they cut grass, rolling it into shocks for their campfire and tied it to make a windbreak to afford them some protection while they slept. If they were lucky they found dried bison dung to burn, for it made very good fuel. They had several days of light snowfall but no hard storms.

Xond turned north on the eighth day and by evening they could see faint columns of smoke rising in the distance against a pale, wintry sky. At noon the following day they rode into the camp of the Sindin clan and were received with the open friendship of the plains. They tarried a day, enjoying the warmth and hospitality of the clan, while Xond held dialog with Sindin and the clan council. The tale of events in Xandar Tahn was of great interest to the clan members and they agreed to move their winter camp further south and await word from Xond.

Leaving Sindin, Garyth and Xond rode west to find the Falmir clan. A ride of five days brought them to an area that showed the recent passage of a bison herd. They turned south and in two days came to the Falmir herd with the main camp about half a day further west. Once again, cheerful greetings, the warmth of substantial campfires, and hot food revived them. Falmir said that Xond’s clan was camped to the southwest, about three days from Xolandin near Dryish. The story of the council spy aroused the clan’s anger and the members pledged to move further south to be closer to Dryish in case Golians crossed the frontier to disrupt things. They also promised to send scouts east to establish contact with the Sindin clan so that forces could combine to face any incursion. Garyth and Xond spent three days with Falmir, held back from continuing their journey by a storm. They were comfortable in a large tent, but eager to rejoin their own clan and await the report of the scout sent south from Xandar Tahn.

The journey to Xond’s clan took only five days, for the weather cleared quickly after the storm. The plains were bathed in winter sunshine, which looked hot but felt cold. Some of the higher peaks of the eastern Wyeland mountains could be seen from the camp. It was a joyous reunion. Garyth felt that he had come home. To the herders, his command of their language had greatly improved and at the campfire that night they asked him to describe his visit to Xandar Tahn. He felt very happy and at peace when he finally lay down to sleep.

Next day Xond asked him to rest for the day and ride for Dryish the next morning. Xond wanted to know if the Dryish settlement knew of any Golian trouble. Garyth was surprised that the opportunity to ride back to Wyeland did not excite him, but he didn’t want to disappoint Xond. Xond had told him that a ride of three days would bring him in sight of Xolandin, and from there it would be easy to reach Dryish in one more day. As the sun set that evening, Garyth pushed two arrows into the ground to mark a line in the direction of the setting sun. He had learned a lot from Xond on their journey across the plains.

The weather held and by noon of the third day most of the Wyeland mountaintops were visible above the horizon on his right. The top of Xolandin popped up before sundown nearly in front of him but a little to the right. Garyth knew that if Xond had ridden with him, the hill would have been dead ahead. He made camp that night without need of sighting the sun and set off next morning to pass south of the hill and ride straight to Dryish. He rode fast, for now that he was close he wanted to get to Cafton’s barn before sundown. By mid-afternoon he could see the barns and corrals of the settlement on the mountain slope. The sun dropped behind the mountains earlier than he expected, but the twilight lingered long. He rode up to Cafton’s house before darkness had closed in. His arrival set the hounds to barking, bringing Cafton and Kurt out on the porch, but they didn’t recognize him in his hooded robe.

“Greetings,” Cafton called to him in Xenarian, having learned at least one word on his visit with the clan in the summer.

“Greetings, horse-brother,” Garyth called out in Wyelandese, grinning. “I am Garyth, grandson of Randal.

Cafton bounded from the porch and gripped his hand. “The wanderer returns to his homeland. Come inside and tell us all about it. You certainly look as though it did you no harm. Come in and share whatever Ursula has put in the cook pot.”

Garyth gave the reins to Kurt and followed Cafton into the house. Once inside, Garyth dropped the hood of his robe so he looked a bit more like a Wyelander. He greeted Ursula, who was already setting another place at the table.

“You remember meeting Garyth last summer, when he borrowed a horse to ride out with Randal, Borin, and me to talk with Xond,” Cafton said.

“Of course I remember Randal’s grandson,” Ursula answered, “but when you took him with you I expected you to bring him back.”

“Well,” Garyth smiled. “I finally found my way back on my own.”

They sat down at the table, offered thanks for the food, and began to eat and talk.

“I taught Garyth all he knows about horses,” Cafton said, with a wink.

Garyth laughed and replied, “Perhaps I’ve learned a few more things since, but you certainly got me off to a good start. I thought about that first ride as I passed Xolandin, the lone hill, yesterday. I’ve ridden many leagues and seen many things, but I’ll never forget the soreness I felt after my first day’s ride with my grandfather. Xond and I rejoined the clan only four days ago. They are camped three days beyond Xolandin. There is some concern that Golians may be planning to try to disrupt the talks.” Garyth was about to add, “Perhaps even attack the delegation,” but Ursula turned toward him and he realized such talk could frighten her, so he changed the subject.

“Have you heard any word from the delegation?”

“Not yet,” Cafton answered. “I expect to see them riding into Dryish any day now. Samir made quite an impression here.”

Ursula broke into the conversation from across the table. “Did you hear talk of members of the clan visiting Dryish a fortnight ago?” she asked.

“No,” Garyth replied. “I stayed with the clan a full day before riding for Dryish. I’m sure I would have heard if anyone from Xond’s clan had ridden this way. They are the only clan in this area. Did Xenarians come here?”

Cafton looked a little uncomfortable and told him briefly that three men had ridden into Dryish from the south dressed in Xenarian herder robes.

They were riding fine horses, but being a horseman himself and having been close to Xenarian horses, he knew the men were not riding Xenarian horses. “They responded to my Xenarian greeting but spoke no Wyelandese. And no one in the settlement could understand them, although I did hear Xond’s name several times. They just looked around and asked some questions using gestures, such as where the road led and how long it would take to reach the next village. I gave them some water and bread and cheese and they finally rode off in the direction of Fairview.”

“I can’t say where they came from,” Garyth mused, “but I know they didn’t come from Xond’s clan.”

There was silence in the room before Cafton began to question Garyth about his adventures. The talk went on until Ursula reminded Garyth that he had had a long day in the saddle and would need some rest. She told him there was a spare bed in Kurt’s room. So Garyth soon found himself in a Wyeland bed in a Wyeland house, feeling somewhat like an eagle must feel when it drops from the heights and alights on a treetop.

The next day Garyth helped Kurt with his morning chores and talked horses with both Cafton and Kurt. It surprised him that Kurt knew a few syllables of horse speech and they told him about Samir’s brief visit before Randal and Samir rode out for their journey across Wyeland. At midmorning Cafton asked Garyth to accompany him to Borin’s house, leaving Kurt to exercise the yearling colts in the corral.

After warm greetings, Borin questioned Garyth about Xond’s assessment of the Golian threat. Garyth told him of the spy in Xandar Tahn and the southern movement of the three western clans to guard the route the delegation would take across the plains. He explained that Xond had sent a scout south to discover if any Golians were across the frontier in Xenar and was awaiting the scout’s report in his clan’s winter camp.

“If word of this got out in the settlement, some people would be heading for Fairview before the sun sets today,” Borin observed. “We have wonderful views to the east but can see no more than a half-hour’s ride toward the pass, the direction those fake Xenarians rode off toward. If a raiding party came from that direction we would have a problem for sure. Escape would be cut off and they would be upon us before we could muster a defense. Perhaps a few of us should ride up and scout out the ridges toward the south, just to make sure they aren’t in the area.”

“If they are up there,” Cafton said, “the village would need us here. I think it is unlikely they would openly attack a Wyeland settlement. If they want to sour relations between Wyeland and Xenar, they could be planning to attack the delegation inside Xenar. Perhaps they came here to see if they could spot any sign of the delegation.”

“I could ride up and see what may be found,” Garyth volunteered. “I have my tent and blanket, and it would be no hardship. It would occupy the time until the delegation arrives. At the least it would relieve your minds if I could find no sign of them.”

“That is a good suggestion,” Borin said. “I am sure you have the woodcraft for the job, but it would help if you knew the mountain trails.”

There was a moment’s silence before Cafton spoke up. “Kurt knows the mountains fairly well. He rides that way every chance he gets. He is well known to Fairview folks too, if you met anyone on the trail. After all, you might seem strange to a Wyelander in your clan robes.”

“We could leave first thing in the morning,” Garyth said, “and ride out for several days. If we find Golians, Kurt could bring back the news while I watch a little longer to try to find out what they are doing. If we find nothing, we could be back in five or six days.”

“We must agree on a definite time of return,” Cafton said. “If you do not come back by that time we will send someone to look for you. As Kurt’s father I want to know when to start worrying.”

Borin laughed. “Kurt could make it back if the hills were filled with Golians, Cafton. Those mountains hold no secrets to him and you know it.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Cafton replied. “I’d probably even consider sending him up alone if Garyth weren’t here. Yet although the boy’s skill is great, his judgment may be lacking, and I’ll feel better with Garyth leading the expedition.”

Early the following morning Kurt and Garyth set off on horseback toward the mountain pass, promising to return in six days. Garyth was wearing clothes Cafton had loaned him. He had left his Wyeland clothes in Xandar Tahn with Gael so she could use them as a pattern for a new outfit to wear when he returned to Xandar Tahn. He was glad to have Kurt along for his local knowledge as well as for company. Kurt had already heard a lot of Garyth’s stories about life on the plains and was primed to hear more. His ride to Fairview with Randal and Samir had left him fascinated with Xenarians and their beautiful horses. Garyth enjoyed telling the stories, for it gave him a chance to organize his memories and review once again the life he had lived on the plains.

At the end of the first day, they had ridden some distance south in the valley behind the first pass. It was familiar country to Kurt, but it was Garyth who found occasional traces of the passage of unshod horses. Kurt was certain that the Golians had passed along the trail, since Wyelanders always put horseshoes on their animals. The signs were not recent, so they had no fear of rounding a bend in the trail and surprising a camp of Golian warriors. They made camp in the valley, but Kurt wanted to ride up to a ridge that commanded a view toward the south. He was sure it was their best chance of spotting campfires if the Golians were camped within twenty leagues. The air became quite cold after sunset, but they were dressed warmly and they were tense with expectation. The fall of night brought only a grinning sliver of moon to the western sky and a thousand glittering stars. They scanned far into the darkness and saw no glimmer of distant fires, so they used the light provided by the narrow moon to descend back into the valley to their campsite near a rocky pool. Soon they were both snug in their tents, sleeping soundly.

The next day they left the trail that the Golians seemed to have taken south and crossed two ridge lines to the west, ascending a wooded summit that was higher than the surrounding ridges. It had been many months since Garyth had been in a forest. Being surrounded by trees again made him feel as though he were returning to his previous life after a beautiful and interesting dream of another existence. He pulled his belt and sling pouch from his saddlebag. It was winter and he didn’t expect to see game, but one never knew when a wild turkey or partridge might show. Kurt had said that the summit would give them a good view of the southern hills.

Sunset found them on a rocky knoll with a commanding view toward the south and southwest. They scanned the horizon for distant columns of smoke illuminated by the red setting sun, which seemed to flatten itself on the horizon. They could see for many leagues but there was no trace of other human beings.

“I suppose they were just looking over Dryish to see what they could see,” Kurt said, as they scanned for any telltale red glimmers. The night was even colder than the previous night.

“The disguise puzzles me,” Garyth replied. “They had to know they would eventually be found out when the delegation meets with Xond’s clan. If they were only seeking information about Dryish, they have succeeded. But I am certain they do not know their deception was spotted. Still it would be good if we could find something more definite than traces of hoof prints to assure us they are Golian.”

They stayed long enough for the last traces of daylight to fade so they could see fire, but the only fire they saw was a shooting star blazing across the southern sky. Next morning they retraced the path back to their first campsite. The wind began blowing from the south at midmorning and the sky became cloudy. By evening a cold drizzle had set in and they carefully sited their tents for best drainage. There was some lightning and thunder during the night and morning broke gray and chill. It was hard to start back to Dryish in the cold rain. They took some comfort in the knowledge that warmth and cozy dryness awaited, even if getting to it would be very unpleasant.

Mud on the trail made the going difficult, and they both rode with head down to try to keep out the rain. They were nearly back to the road between Dryish and Fairview, at a place where the trail skirted a large boulder, when something at the side of the trail caught Garyth’s eye. He dismounted and picked up a silver bridle ornament similar to those that decorated his own bridle. He quickly checked to make sure his bridle was not missing an ornament and then inspected his find more closely. The medallion was embossed with a ship under sail. He had never seen such an ornament in Xenar. He called to Kurt as he looked around for anything else he could find. When Kurt rode back he held out the ornament.

“Samir gave me a Xenarian medallion when I rode with him to Fairview,” Kurt said, taking the object and turning it over in his hand.

“Yes, and I can tell you that it had either a bison, or a horse’s head, or perhaps a prairie serpent on it, but it didn’t have a ship,” Garyth told him confidently. “The rider must have scraped this boulder as he passed by, dislodging the ornament from his stirrup or bridle. Keep it safe, for it is strong evidence that it was Golians who were snooping in Dryish.”

It was well after dark when they arrived at Cafton’s barn, but Kurt would not go into the house until both horses were rubbed dry and given fresh hay. Garyth thought Tarn showed reasonable intelligence by preferring indoor accommodations rather than fretting about being enclosed. Cafton and Ursula were very happy to see them back early, especially since the weather had turned ugly. Cafton helped with the horses while Ursula added more vegetables, spices, and water to the pot of stew cooking over the fire in the greatroom.

“Some of those valleys flood badly in winter and spring storms,” Cafton said. “Does your early return mean that you hurried back with bad news, or that there is no news at all?”

“We found enough signs to tell us we were on the right trail, but we saw no one, and we could see far,” Garyth replied.

“Do you think there were more in the area than the three who rode into Dryish?” Cafton asked.

“No,” Garyth replied. “We did not find anything that would make us think there was a large group. Today, water washing down the trail uncovered a tack ornament that Kurt will show you when he is done. I am certain that it is Golian; at least I never saw one like it in Xenar.”

Kurt put the towels away and drew a pail of water so he and Garyth could wash for dinner. Then they went inside and he showed his parents the medallion. They could all rest easier knowing their worst fears had come to naught, as most fears do. Garyth went to sleep that night feeling great contentment and peace. Soon his father, and perhaps Steven, would join him for the return to Xandar Tahn. He owned a horse and knew the way; there would be no surprises.

The storm hung around several days. Garyth helped with chores around the stable and learned some leathercraft and smithing from Cafton and Kurt. He told them what he had seen of Xenarian leathercraft. They carefully compared his Xenarian saddle with the saddles Cafton had on hand. They were similar, but very subtle details can make a big difference after ten hours of riding. Cafton was surprised that Garyth spoke so wisely about horses and saddles, for he remembered teaching Garyth the very rudiments of riding hardly half a year earlier.

The weather finally cleared and the cold winter sunshine returned. The second day of fair weather found Garyth, Kurt, and Cafton riding up to visit the place on the trail where Garyth had found the ornament. Garyth was wearing a Xenarian robe, which he realized kept him warmer than Cafton’s borrowed clothes. When they reached the pass, Garyth looked back over the plains and caught sight of a dark mass on the distant horizon that had to be Xond’s herd. They had just cleared the pass when they caught sight of a group of riders coming from Fairview. Garyth did not hesitate, for even at a distance he recognized his father and two friends. Samir was in the lead with Steven riding beside him. Carlten was riding behind them, deep in conversation with two other men. Garyth saw his father look his way and, for a brief moment, fail to recognize his own son galloping toward him in a fluttering robe. Then Carlten dismounted in the middle of the road and strode forward with an expression of joyful recognition and relief.

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