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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A New Life

     It was late morning before the sun finally rose high enough to reach the western slope of the Stormhorn Mountains.  A lone figure strode down the western road; his breath condensed in the crisp autumn air that carried the promise of a harsh winter.
     Fergon had left the citadel at High Horn Pass well before dawn; the light from a full moon in a clear sky had been sufficient at this altitude for the young man to make his way down the western road from the pass.  The young Northman hurried along, aware that the regular patrols along the road did not remove all the hazards a traveler might face. 
     If he put enough miles behind him, he should meet up with a patrol of Purple Dragons, as the professional soldiers of Cormyr were called.  The patrol was scheduled to be two day’s travel away, and Fergon knew that if he left early and kept a solid pace, that he could cover that distance in one long day, at least downhill.  A caravan had left High Horn four days before, and Gareth had estimated that it would settle down for the evening with the patrol.  Fergon had wondered aloud how they could travel so slowly and still manage to make any profit, and the old sergeant had laughed, saying, “You’ll find out.  Your best option is to travel with them the rest of the way to Eagle Peak.  Get First Sword Zessington to vouch for you to the Caravan Master, mind yourself with the merchants, and don’t let the guards get to you.  It’s boring work, traveling with a caravan, but it’s a damn sight safer than traveling these mountains alone."

     In the summer that he had spent at the garrison at High Horn, Fergon had impressed even the grizzled veteran soldiers with his ability to cover vast distances on foot.  He had also polished many a pair of boots, shined more armor than he had ever seen before, and swept cubic yards of dirt.  In return, the soldiers at the garrison taught him the local language, showed him how to use a wide variety of weapons, and mesmerized him with stories (some of them true). 
     Fergon had arrived at High Horn as the slave of a foreign wizard disguised as a storyteller.  A perceptive sergeant had seen through the charade, and managed to thwart the wizard’s plans and free the boy.  Fergon’s first act of freedom was to kill his former master in a fit of rage, inadvertently impressing the garrison with his bravery and capacity for violence.  The soldiers had taken him under their communal wing, and the young barbarian had absorbed everything the troops had shown him, often impressing them with his attitude and aptitude.  For instance, Astel, a trooper known for his sarcastic sense of humor, had shown Fergon the manual-at-arms for the two-handed Greataxe, joking that “A barbarian should use a barbaric weapon.”  Fergon spent the next month mastering the Greataxe, and used it to best Astel in a sparring session. 
     But Fergon had recently turned seventeen years old, and he knew that many of the soldiers expected him to take the oath as a Purple Dragon.  While he loved the soldiers as liberators, teachers, and even father figures, he was a child of the wild barbarian tribes of the Great Glacier, not a son of the ancient empire of Cormyr.  Even though he owed the soldiers of Cormyr a debt that he may never repay, he also knew that the structured life of a soldier was alien to him. 
     Winter was fast coming on, and Fergon knew that the garrison would feel like a prison under the snows of winter.  It was time to leave and seek out his own path, wherever that would take him.  He had told his friends of his intent, and started packing his few belongings, when individual soldiers began to give him with gifts of their own.  Some would present them to him with emotional goodbyes, such as when Gareth gave him a suit of studded leather armor.  Others preferred anonymity, such as when Fergon came back from sweeping the training hall to find a Greataxe on his bedroll.  Although nobody would admit it, he suspected Astel. 
     So Fergon left the Citadel of High Horn with a somewhat heavier pack (and heart) than he had intended. 

     The sun had just kissed the western horizon when Fergon sighted the combined encampments of the caravan and the Purple Dragon patrol a half-mile off.  The cool morning had given way to one of the last mild days of the year, and despite the dry mountain air, sweat darkened the Northman’s clothes.  He quickened his pace; there was no danger of getting there before dark, but he was eager to be amongst familiar faces, if for the last time.

     Jendetha looked up from the clothes she was washing and stared at the approaching caravan.  The song she had been singing trailed off and she let out a heavy sigh.  Caravans depressed her.  Father would want to get rid of his excess goats for the oncoming winter, and the whole family would be up late tonight.  All the animals would be have to be combed to make them attractive (and to get as much mohair as possible before selling them). 
     But caravans meant more than to Jendetha than extra work.  They were proof of a world outside Eagle Peak that she would never see.  Eagle Peak was not a bad place: she was relatively safe, fed somewhat regularly, and loved her family (most of the time).  Her needs were taken care of, but her wants were left wholly unanswered.  She wanted to travel, to see distant lands, to live a life in which every day would be something other than a minor variation on the theme of goatherd. 
     She sighed again, and began to sing again.  Wishing wouldn’t make a life of adventure happen.  There was still laundry to do, and then there would be wood to gather for the upcoming winter, and then there would be shearing and birthing in the spring….  The song was a favorite of hers, a long lay about a maiden rescued from a life of drudgery by a dashing prince, and she had lost her place.  So she began again with the recounting of the life of drudgery faced by the dainty maiden.

     First Sword Zessington had indeed introduced Fergon to the caravan master, who showed obvious distaste at the young barbarian.  But he had agreed to let him travel with the caravan, if he would carry his own gear and eat his own rations.  “And if he makes ANY trouble, he’s out on his arse!”  Fergon had no choice but to agree or make his way alone down the dangerous road from High Horn.  At least water was free, thanks to the Chantrus, an acolyte of Shaundakul that traveled with the caravan and created pure water every morning and evening. 
     Fergon quickly found that Chantrus was the only man on the caravan friendly to him.  The merchants didn’t trust barbarians, and the guards seemed to be threatened by his size, greataxe, and fine armor.  So he had spent the last four days in Chantrus’ company, learning about the Rider of the Wind.  Fergon had often felt as if the vicious gods of his homeland had forsaken him.  But Chantrus managed, over a dusty four days, to convince the young man that Shaundakul, the Rider of the Wind, the Lord of Roads, the Traveler’s Protector, would care about him in his travels and adventures.  For the first time since his abduction, Fergon found a deity worthy of his prayers.  And though he did not fully join Shaundakul’s flock, he felt as if his place in the world was starting to be written.
     But right now, Fergon was thinking only of Thulvas, and how good it would feel to break his nose.  The caravan guard had once again called Fergon “that animal”, and his teenage patience was wearing very thin indeed.  He sped up his pace, partly out of anger, and partly to get away from the guard.  But Thulvas, unencumbered by a backpack, kept up with him.  “Why do you run, foreigner?  Do you fear my rapier wit?  You should be far more afraid of my sword.  Did you know that Cormyr is always driving off foreigners like yourself?”  Fergon ground his teeth again.  At this rate he would get to Eagle Peak with nothing left in his mouth but bloody gums. 
     Chantrus was speaking to the caravan master at the lead of the column, and Fergon hoped that his meeting would be done soon.  Thulvas would not pick on Fergon around the acolyte, having the uneducated man’s fear of the gods, and a caravaner’s innate respect for the God of Travels.  Fergon kept up the pace, hoping that Thulvas would trip and fall, or maybe that Shaundakul himself would rise out of the road and strike him down….
     And then he noticed Chantrus making his was back down the line, a smile on his face.  He saw Fergon and picked up his own pace.  Fergon and Chantrus greeted each other as Thulvas hung back, falling into an uncharacteristic silence. 
     “We will be in Eagle Peak within a few hours.”  Chantrus knew that Fergon was unwelcome by most of the caravan, and that he had planned to stop at the small town to look for work or adventure. 
     Fergon grinned.  This was indeed good news.  Although he knew how far it was from High Horn to Eagle Peak, the slow pace of the caravan threw off his sense of distance, and Chantrus had been less than forthcoming with their progress.  He looked out at the rugged terrain, and noticed a sod-roofed, rock-walled house perched on the crest of a nearby rocky outcrop, not more than a few hundred yards away.  A tiny figure in the small front yard seemed to be looking directly at him. 
     “So Eagle Peak begins here?”  Fergon’s wave included the house on the hill.
     Chantrus raised an eyebrow at the strange question, and then shook his head.  “No.  I know you haven’t seen much of Cormyr, but Eagle Peak’s a very small town, much smaller than the garrison at High Horn.”
     Fergon persisted.  “These people are under Eagle Peak’s protection?  They trade there?”
     “Yes, if you want to see it that way.  Eagle Peak is the closest town, and their garrison patrols this area.  Why do you ask?”  Chantrus’ confusion was written plain on his face.
     Fergon whirled around and landed a strong right cross on Thulvas’ nose.  There was a muffled crack as his nose broke.  Blood flowed across his upper lip.  Fergon turned around, smiled at Chantrus, and said, “Because now I do not travel with the caravan.  Now I am in Eagle Peak, and the caravan master cannot throw me ‘out on my arse.’”
     Chantrus stood shocked for a moment, and then a chuckle broke his face into a grin.  He began to laugh loudly.
     Fergon heard the soft ringing sound of a sword being drawn, and saw Chantrus eyes widen as he looked at Thulvas.  He spun around again and jumped at Thulvas, gripping his sword wrist and driving him backwards.  Fergon’s other hand reached out and gripped the caravan guard’s abused nose, grinding it back and forth like a mortar in a pestle.  Bone ground against bone, sounding like knuckles cracking.  Thulvas whimpered like a beaten dog, dropped his sword, and collapsed on the ground.  Fergon thought about kicking him for good measure, but Chantrus gripped his shoulder, bringing him back from the edge of fury.
     “I’ll handle this with the caravan master.  The fool drew his sword, and your axe is still slung on your back.  You should go now, and stay out of town for the next few days.”  He paused, and suddenly dug into his belt pouch.  “I want you to have this.”  He put a small pewter symbol of Shaundakul in Fergon’s clean left hand.  The two gripped wrists in the traditional handshake.  Fergon hesitated, glancing between the holy symbol and Chantrus. 
     “Take it; I have many more.”
     “Thank you.  May the road bring us together again.”  Fergon nodded and set off up a talus slope towards the stone house.  Maybe they would need some wood for the winter.  After all, I do have an axe….

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