Hali’s frozen bones seemed to thaw a little as she and Sir Sanin crested the snowy hill. Just seeing the distant fire burning in the little town warmed her beneath her layers of shaggy white furs. She let out a sigh of anticipation, watching her breath disappear into the grey sky. “Is that Zangul?” she asked.
“Reckon so,” Sir Sanin said. Sir Sanin had been a hulking brute when they first met, over a year ago, and he was still twice her size, but much of his muscle and more of his fat had melted off on their journey through the taiga forest called the Graveyard. It was a foul, poisonous, frozen wasteland. Half the pines were petrified, the other half were toxic, and only a master forester could tell the difference. Sir Sanin had lived most of his life in Khabar, but he was not a master forester. His one good eye was narrow and mean, and the other was a slick and puckering wound that he had once covered with a snakeskin patch, back when they had first met at the Great Siege.
Hali had quested in Khabar once or twice, but she had never gone south to the Cickatrice Tail. Her long, black hair was braided and wrapped in coils around her head, covered in a white fur-lined scarf, then topped with a thick cowl made from a baby stone bison’s head. Stone bison came with either white fur or green. The white ones were considered tastier, and more expendable. Hali’s cowl was white.
Their horses were white too. Shaggy odals that looked half-goat, they were small for horses but well suited to the rocky, swampy landscape of the Graveyard, which covered the eastern half of the Cickatrice Tail. Hali’s old palfrey had died in his sleep from the cold before they even entered the Tail, but they were able to pick up a second odal in Kehirzin in exchange for a chunk of cinnabar. Sir Sanin grumbled, but it was that or ride double on his own horse, which would surely have killed it.
They had reached their journey’s end, however, and even their horses seemed to pick up the pace as they rode down the hill toward the scattering of wooden shacks that composed the town of Zangul. It was like a larger version of the tiny villages they had passed before entering the Graveyard: near its center was a massive firepit that was already ablaze in preparation for the approaching sunset, and all the shacks and cottages emanated from it in a sloppy circle outward. Hali could see a smithy on the far side of the firepit, one wall missing for the heat of the forge to escape. She would have to look for a new set of armor before they got to business. Only a fool would wear steel whilst traveling the frozen waste, but they had dangerous work ahead of them now.
The townsfolk were already heading home from their day’s labor as the sun dipped lower behind the hill. As with the tinier villages, they got a fair bit of wide-eyed stares, and more than one woman rushed into her cottage, many of them carrying large reddish fish, larger than their heads.
“Is there a lake near here?”
“The sea,” Sir Sanin answered. “Those’re rose snappers. You ought to know that, coming from a port city like Khair.”
“I wasn’t a fisherman.”
He snorted in amusement. “No. I reckon you weren’t.”
They rode toward the firepit, nice and slow and non-threatening, where a group of four heavily-scarved men in furs were dumping logs and poking the flames with great iron staves. The men looked up and whispered to one another, but no more. Even in the dying light, Hali could see one of them pointing to the sword at her hip. Sir Sanin carried a blade as well, but his was in an old leather scabbard. It had a worn handle and broken pommel. Hali’s was castle-forged, wrapped in new black leather, set in a wooden scabbard. If they pulled the blades out, even a village bumpkin would have known hers to be worth ten times the other.
The fire was still a bit modest for a pit that size, but the warmth was so great that Hali thought she could feel her bones cracking from the sudden mercy, and her eyes thawed so much she feared she might have to wipe tears away. Each day had been colder than the one before, and they had not set a campfire the last three nights for fear they might be seen. These men could glare all they liked, as far as Hali was concerned. If they suddenly produced pitchforks and stabbed them to death, it would be almost worth it just to melt by the fire.
Night-blind as they were by the flames, they did not notice the old woman until she was nearly upon them. She stood straight despite her curly grey hair and seamed face, and her narrow eyes sparkled in the rising dark. She wore long robes of brown and night blue, covered in a cloak of green fur. “What business have you here?” the woman asked.
“We are paladins from the Holy Solulan,” Sir Sanin answered; Hali did not correct him.
“Good for you,” the old woman said. “And what’s your business?”
“Heard you was having trouble with Ironhide raiders.”
“Oh? Who told you that?”
“The Holy Archon, at the Solulan.” Hali did not correct him.
“The Solulan’s over a thousand miles away,” the old woman said, staring up at them with naked suspicion. “How’s the Archon supposed to know about any such troubles down here?”
Sir Sanin shrugged. “Maybe the All-Mother told him in a dream. Couldn’t say. We was charged to ride out here and help you with them.”
The old woman snorted and spat into the snow. “The Ironhides been extinct for centuries, according to the Solulan.”
He shrugged again. “Scripture’s scripture, but I reckon those raiders ain’t gonna disappear just cause you quote the Word at’em.”
The ghost of a smile flickered cross her face. “You’re right there, SIr. But we been dealing with Ironhides for centuries without any help from you and your holy brethren. We’ll keep dealing with them on our own, if it’s all the same to you.”
Sir Sanin sniffled. His huge, grizzly, black beard had a grey streak in it running down from the left edge of his mouth. In truth, he and the old woman were likely of an age. “We’re armed and armored,” he said. “Whatever folk you got, seems like we could help.”
“Ay, you could,” she said, “or you might follow us into the Graveyard and butcher us when our backs are turned.”
“We’re paladins,” he reminded her. Hali did not correct him.
“Paladins don’t mean much in the Tail,” she said, “especially past the Graveyard. All I see is a couple of strangers. With swords.”
Sir Sanin let out a rumbling sigh. “So be it. We know when we’re not wanted.”
“Good. That’s a rare virtue.”
He took a glance around. “It’s nearly nightfall. Where’s your tavern?”
“We don’t get many travelers out here, Sir.”
“But you got drunks, don’t you? Where’s your tavern?”
She pointed south, grudgingly. “About five-hundred yards that way. Two stories with a slanted roof and some old rain barrels she ain’t never taken in. Got a sign above the door with a blue bison head on it.”
She shrugged. “Green paint’s hard to come by. You can sleep there, help split some logs in the morning, and be on your way.”
“On our way where?” he asked, a snarl creeping into his voice. “Fall’s coming in a few days. By the time we get back to the Pass, it’ll be covered in a hundred foot of snow.”
“Guess you should’ve thought of that before you rode into the Tail. Sir. Five-hundred yards south. Tell Gadhri that Fansara sent you.” She turned and walked off to the north. Three of the four men were staring at them sullenly, still prodding the fire on occasion. The other must have wandered off.
The tavern was called the Blue Bison, according to the name scrawled over the crudely drawn bison head on the sign. The torches were lit, and there were a few muddled conversations bouncing around inside.
“Sounds like a quite a party,” Hali joked.
“Khabar’s a hard, mean place,” Sanin answered, “and the Tail’s the meanest part of it. Reckon these folks don’t have much to sing about.”
“Where do we tie up the horses?” There was no post or railing outside the tavern. “They must have horses somewhere, even if they don’t have visitors.”
“I’ll find a post,” he said. “You head inside and get us a room.”
She screwed up her face. “Why don’t I tie up the horses?”
“Are you my squire or aren’t you?” he asked, the dark wound in his face seeming to glare harshly at her.
She nodded, slipping from her odal into three or four inches of snow. Her boots were fur-lined, inside and out, but the left one had a hole in its toe, and she immediately felt that unpleasant, cold wetness soak into her stock. She handed her reins to Sir Sanin, who rode north back toward the firepit, grumbling.
The interior of the tavern was no friendlier than the exterior, but it was so warm she did not care. The bar was just before her on the left, and opening out to the right was a fairly large common area featuring six tables, each of those with four chairs. Everything was made of pine, of course, though the pine had been treated with an oil that made it especially pale. Iron lanterns hung every few feet on the wall, their tiny flames dancing in merry desperation. Against the far wall was a great hearth of flat stones and a greenish, crumbly mortar. Even from here, it felt warmer than the firepit outside had felt. Away to her right, against the west wall, hung two enormous rugs, Amanese from the look of them. The first was purple and blue, with red sunbursts and whirls woven through it. The second was a deep indigo, covered in squares of white thread that glittered almost silver in the firelight. All the squares were of different sizes and seemingly random patterns, interlocking with each other at a few points. Hali blinked and realized the only windows in the tavern were the two in the north wall, to her right.
Unsurprisingly, everyone was staring at her. And her sword. It had been the same in the tiny villages west of the Graveyard. There were only three proper towns in the Cickatrice Tail. Tozu was too far south and west for them to have bothered with, but Neiro Vira, which marked the border between the western Tail and the Graveyard, was a fairly active port town known for producing quality silks, as well as numerous other exports and imports. It had been there that Hali had purchased her calf-head cowl and most of her white furs. It was also where Hali had first seen the green-furred stone bison.
They were enormous, as big as a small building, with dark amber eyes and horns as ghast as snow. She asked Sir Sanin where the creatures had come from, and he said Zangul. Sir Sanin had some green fur in his patchwork cloak, but she had assumed it was dyed. Instead, it had come from the giant cattle that lived in the Graveyard. They were gentle, docile creatures, and people put huge saddles on them and rode them. She saw a set of children giggling as one carried them in little circles, letting itself be led about by a girl no older than ten, whom it could have swallowed in a single gulp. Neiro Vira was cold, but the people were much warmer.
The people staring at her now seemed somewhat less friendly. Only two of the tables were occupied, each by three grizzly fellows that hunched over their stone plates and huge cannikins of foamy ale that looked paler than the pinewood tables. They were half-hidden in shadows with the fire blazing behind them. But she could make out their shapes at least. The men had beards near as shaggy as Sir Sanin’s. The women were as large as the men. Hali felt half a child.
She moved up to the bar. The bartender was a woman near fifty, broad and big-bellied, with corded arms larger than she had ever seen on a woman. Her hair was short and curly like the woman at the firepit, Fansara, though still black. Both her ears had been cut off, and tiny patches of dead black skin dotted the surrounding area.
“What are you staring at?” the woman growled. “First time seeing frostbite?”
Hali shook her head. “No.”
“Won’t be the last, neither,” she grunted. “Fall’s coming by week’s end. First storm’ll be here a week after that. Little thing like you’s like to lose an arm.”
“I appreciate the forewarning,” she answered. “We’re looking for a room for the night.”
“Me and a paladin, Sir Sanin of Utazar.” In truth, she had never asked Sanin where he was from, but she thought naming a Khabarese town might ease things a bit. The Holy Khaganate of Zalja was a much warmer place, and Hali’s copper skin stamped her a foreigner here. Zalja and Khabar had been allies for centuries, united by their Faith, yet in Hali’s experience nothing could stop a person from goggling at an unusual face.
Hali was used to being the pale one in most of her journeys. Khair was a southerly city, as far as Zalja was concerned, though even in the winters snow was rare there. The Khabarese were still earthen-skinned, of course, but the harsh winds were said to blast their faces ghast as corpses. Hali had thought this an exaggeration until she entered the Cickatrice Tail.
The barkeep grimaced. “What’s a paladin doing here?”
“We came to help with the Ironhide raiders.”
The barkeep snorted at that, and a couple of the men nearby chuckled. “The Ironhides are dead, missy. Ain’t your scripture told you that?”
Hali drummed her fingers on the tavern. The Barkeep frowned at that. “Fansara sent us.”
“Fansara? She write you a letter or something?”
“We met her at the firepit. She sent us here.”
The barkeep’s lips were pressed so tight together Hali thought a diamond might spill out when next she spoke. “But she didn’t bring you here? She didn’t summon you to town?”
“Forgive me, I misspoke. The Holy Solulan sent us here,” she explained, the lie already tasting as sweet as truth. Hali pulled a golden sun from her pouch and set it on the bar. Many of the villagers in these small towns had no use for coin, but innkeepers often made little emirs of themselves, generating fortunes to rival the ruling families.
The barkeep looked grudgingly at the coin, but swept it up all the same. “Zaljan coin,” she said.
“It’s still gold, though,” Hali murmured.
“No argument there. We got a spare storeroom upstairs and some bedrolls you and the Sir can use, then be on your way come morning.”
She did not argue. “Do you think we could make it to the Pass before the snows block it off?”
The barkeep snorted at that, her grimace almost looking like a smile. “You won’t even make it out of the Graveyard.”
She nodded at that. “We have our own bedrolls. We’ll want a meal, though.”
“Course. Take a seat.”
The two tables closest to the hearth were occupied. Hali sat under the Amanese rugs hanging on the western walls. It was the coldest spot in the tavern, but still warmer than she had been in weeks. It was not long before the barkeep dropped a stone plate before her, along with a knife and fork made of bone. Upon the plate was a mixture of green beans and fireweed shoots, dowsed in a spicy oil, along with black and blue slices of strawberry that were shriveled but still tasty. The main dish was a stake so thin Hali thought she might be able to roll it up. It was more pale than pink, but it was delicious and well-cooked. Many Zaljans did not eat meat, but Khair was a southerly city surrounded by Khabarese territory, and they were dependent on fish besides. Even in her youth, Hali had no trouble killing for her meal.
The ale was going bad, but even this far from the hearth it was becoming warm enough for Hali to appreciate the chill of a good drink. She was famished, and had cleaned her plate by the time Sir Sanin appeared and limped over the table. He eased himself down into his chair, keeping his right leg as straight as he could, setting their saddlebags down next to him. “Got us a room?” he asked. Hali nodded. “Good.”
The barkeep dropped another stone plate and bone fork before Sir Sanin, and Hali pulled a pair of copper triangles from her pouch and ordered a second plate for each of them. Sanin had devoured his meal in less than a minute. “Ain’t had bison in a long time,” he mused. “Not as good as I remember.”
“Better than I thought it would be,” Hali murmured. “It looks so thin and pale, I thought it might taste more like fish. It’s surprising they’ve got black strawberries here, too, isn’t it?”
He shrugged. “Not as good as I remember.”
They were on their third mugs and nearly finished with their second plates when one of the grizzly villagers plopped down uninvited next to Sir Sanin. “What brings you strangers to Zangul?” he asked in a voice that was, not warm, but certainly warmer than anyone else’s.
“Ironhides,” Sanin answered, still chewing.
The villager grunted. “Ironhides? Ain’t you a paladin?”
Sir Sanin’s one eye was grey as stone. It was glaring at Hali now. “Yup.”
“Ain’t sure we’ve ever had paladins here,” the stranger said. He was a bear of a man, as big as Sanin had been when Hali first met him, though his brown beard looked deliberately trimmed. He wore piebald leathers and black wool, with green furs on his shoulders and boots. “We get a lot of bandits on the road to Neiro Vira, not Ironhides you understand, they’re all dead, but bandits. Still, ain’t never been no glorious paladins riding down here to rescue us poor folk.”
Sir Sanin grunted, still chewing.
“Leave ‘em alone, Padhin,” grumbled one of the other drinkers.
Padhin ignored him. “You here to pick up a stone bison?”
“They’re pretty pricey. Don’t you paladins foreswear all your inheritance when you take your vows? How you gonna afford something like that?”
Sir Sanin kept chewing.
“Let the strangers eat,” the fellow at the other table said.
“They’re eating, they’re eating,” Padhin insisted. “What’s your name, Sir?”
Sir Sanin kept chewing.
“Normally, a stranger comes into town, they try and act friendly, get the locals on their side.”
“You get a lot of strangers here?” Sanin asked.
“You’re the first in five years at least.”
“Then strangers don’t normally do anything.”
One of the grizzly women lurched to her feet, tipsy with drink, and came over to drop a meaty hand on Padhin’s shoulder. “Let’s go, Padhin. Got a big day tomorrow.”
“I’m just asking the stranger’s name.”
“He’s a stranger. He’ll be gone tomorrow before we are. Who cares?”
Padhin’s glazed eyes finally slid over to Hali. “Your name, girl?”
Hali would be seeing her thirtieth year soon, but she let it pass. “Hali hun Parsad.”
Padhin leaned back. “Hun? You don’t look Khabarese to me, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“She does,” the grizzly woman said. “Let’s go, Padhin.”
“Don’t they go by Ra or Ro or something like that? Up in Zalja?”
“The noble families do.” Hali regretted having nothing left to chew. Sir Sanin was making quite a meal of his last few bites.
“Well you’re a paladin, right? Don’t they all come from noble families?”
They did not, necessarily. “I’m not a paladin,” she said. Sir Sanin looked up and gave her a taste of his eye before looking back to this stone plate.
“Not many paladins left, I hear,” Padhin went on. “Last time we visited Neiro Vira, we heard a bunch got wiped out in some big siege at the port of Dalsaman, way up north.”
“There is no port at Dalsaman,” Sir Sanin grunted. Anymore was left unsaid.
“Course there is,” Padhin insisted. “Half our fruit comes off the boats from Dalsaman.” His eyes slid back over to Hali. “You from Dalsaman?”
“Khair,” she said.
His eyes lit up at that. “Khair? You’re practically one of us, then, aren’t you?” Hali could not tell if he was being sincere or not. He turned back to Sanin and stared for a moment. “What happened to your eye?”
“I ate it in a snow storm,” Sanin answered without missing a beat.
Padhin seemed to believe him. “You ate your own eye?”
Sir Sanin swallowed, then turned very slowly to face the villager. “Eyes taste good,” he said.
The pause was brief, then the grizzly woman began pulling Padhin to his feet. “All right, time for bed.”
“I think that paladin just threatened me,” Padhin said, more to himself than to anyone. It did not sound like he was trying to start a fight, but rather like he was excited by a new experience. Excited, yet drowsy.
“I’m sure he didn’t. Let’s go.” She finally managed to get Padhin to his feet and out the door. The other woman at their table got up and followed them out. At the other table, only two of its three occupants remained; the other must have left during the loudmouth’s visit. One of the remaining pair, a ghast-haired old man big as an ox, was staring at them. The tip of his nose was lost to frostbite, and his white hair was so shaggy he looked like a stone bison himself.
“That true what you said?” the old man called over. “About Dalsaman?”
“Who cares?” the bartender said.
“I do. We sell a lot of parts to Dalsaman ships, and buy other things besides. What happened to the port?”
Sir Sanin had stretched his meal out as far as he could, but it was gone now. “Taken by barbarians out of the east,” he said. “It’s called Vargano now.” He set his hands on the table and slowly pushed himself up, easing his right leg back under him. Hali stood at once.
“You reckon them Vargano folks is friendly to trade with?” asked the old man.
“Go and ask them.”
The stairway up to the second floor as at the far end of the bar. Sir Sanin started limping that way, Hali carrying the bags behind him, when the old man stood and intercepted him. “We need to know these things,” he said, not unfriendly. “We’re taking a herd of bison west to Neiro Vira tomorrow, but if no one’s buying, we can’t afford to waste the effort. Are these barbarians in Vargano still sailing? They’re looking to trade, surely, or they wouldn’t want the port.”
“Go ask them.” Sanin looked about to shove the old man out of the way, but ghast-haired as he was the old man was still even bigger than Sanin.
“I don’t mean no harm, friend.”
“I’m not your friend.”
The old man’s dark blue eyes crinkled at that. “This your first time in a small town, friend?”
“I ain’t your friend,” Sanin growled. He made to move past, but the old man placed a huge slab of a hand on Sanin’s chest.
“Visitors are rare,” the old man said, visibly controlling himself. “News is valuable. We just let you sit in peace and eat our meat and mead.”
“We paid for that.”
“You’re under our roof.”
“We paid for that too.”
“There’s some things money can’t buy.”
Sanin swept the old man’s hand off his chest and gripped his sword handle. “Then give us the coin back and fuck off!”
“Take it outside, boys!” the barkeep called. “Now!”
The old man put his giant hand over Sanin’s. “You don’t want to do that, son.”
Hali wondered how many years it had been since anyone called Sir Sanin ‘son.’ The other old man at the table was up now. He had a knotty wooden club in his belt.
“Please,” Hali said, “we just want some sleep. We don’t know what the barbarians plan to do with the port.”
The old man eyed them both. “You married?”
To each other?
“No,” Sanin grunted. “Get out of my way.”
The old man took his hand from Sanin’s. “Your daughter’s got more sense than you, son.”
“She ain’t my daughter neither.”
“You’re quite a contrarian fella.”
“Get out of my way or you’ll see how contrarian I get.”
“Outside!” the barkeep shouted.
“Sanin please!” Hali half-wailed. “I just want to lie down and sleep.” She turned to the barkeep. “I’m sorry, madam. I’ll keep him in line.”
“Hand them swords over before you go upstairs.”
Hali’s stomach dropped at that, but she saw little choice. She unbuckled her black leather belt, took the scabbard in both hands, and set it on the bar. “Sanin?”
“Do as she says, son.”
Sir Sanin ripped his sword from his scabbard. It was old and poor, but sharp as a death. Whether he meant to clap it on the bar or shove it in the old man’s belly, none could ever say. As soon as he pulled the steel, the old man stepped back with a shout and shoved his hands against Sanin’s chest. The old paladin stumbled backward onto his right leg, which spasmed briefly before going out from under him. He collapsed onto the floor with a roar of pain, his sword scattering away from him. Hali rushed over, picked up the blade, and carried it in two hands over to the bar.
“Damn you!” Sanin howled. “Damn your ancient bones!”
“Get out, both of you!” the barkeep shouted. “Go sleep in the smithy, if he’ll have you.”
The old man bent down and offered a hand, but Sanin slapped it away. Sanin covered his face with one arm, shaking slightly as he lay there.
The old man shrugged at the others and walked out. “Sorry about your… paladin,” he said, pausing at Hali’s side. “We’re leaving early tomorrow. You two might wanna come with us, back west to Neiro Vira.” With that, he left.
“Get out,” the barkeep said again.
“Please,” said Hali. “You’ve got our swords. We’ll be gone right after sunup.”
“After slitting my throat, I warrant.”
Hali pulled another golden sun from her pouch and set it on the bar. “That’s two gold coins, for a night on the floor of your storeroom.”
The barkeep glared at the coin as though it were a viper, but finally swept it up. “I want you both gone by the time I wake up.”
“Thank you.” Hali placed her first three fingers on her heart and offered a tiny bow. The barkeep stared at her as though she had never seen the gesture before.
Hali strode over and knelt by Sir Sanin, ignoring his tears as he used her shoulder to climb up onto his feet. There had been a time when his weight would have forced her to the floor, but now it barely hurt her shoulder at all. Sir Sanin hobbled over to the stairs and slowly started up. When he was halfway up, she looked back to the barkeep.
“There are people taking bison west to Neiro Vira tomorrow, yes? To sell?”
“Ay,” she nodded, grudging every word.
“If there’s danger of bandits out here, they might have use for our steel.”
She shrugged a shoulder. “Bargain with ‘em all you like, so long as you do it outside my tavern.”
“Understood. Thank you again.” She ignored her as Hali slowly followed Sir Sanin up the stairs.
There was no fire upstairs, but it was still warmer than Hali had been since they left the inn at Neiro Vira. She slept lightly, dreaming of her brother Jivril, whom she had not seen since they were children, but his face kept melting into a beautiful sword, and Hali kept waking up thinking of sneaking down to the bar. Sir Sanin kept waking up too, but she ignored his weeping.
She awoke before first light, as she had every day for over a year. Sir Sanin was shivering, though it was not that cold, and he still slept. Hali crept down to the bar to retrieve their swords.
Day broke through the windows at a sharp, shallow angle as she bent over the bar, and she became distracted by more weeping. Outside, someone was crying in the snow. Forgetting their swords, Hali looked out one of the north-facing windows to see a congregation of about a dozen villagers huddled around something.
As she stepped outside, she saw what they were gathered around. It was the ghast-haired old man from the night before. He was lying not ten feet from the tavern, half-covered in a light dusting of snow, his eyes frosted blue and red in his beard. He was not breathing.