We started for Bridgeton an hour before midday the following morning. The wheelbarrow Jonathan had salvaged was filled with the things from the cellar and what we found in the town that we thought we could use or sell in Bridgeton. Jonathan had then elected me to carry the rest of our supplies in my pack.
We had been walking for about six hours, when the arrival of dusk signaled the start of our night. We pulled several feet off the road and made camp. The next day was more of the same, but colder.
Late in the afternoon of the third day, we arrived in Bridgeton.
As we walked into town, watching the townspeople go about their daily lives, a question I had forgotten to ask earlier suddenly popped back into my mind. “Rat, what is a generator?”
“A generator? It’s a machine that makes electricity.” Rat looked at me. “The ones in Bridgeton are powered by the river that the town is built upon.
“What river? I don’t remember seeing any rivers, here.”
“That’s because they’re underground. The town was built upon the aqueducts of the ancient kingdom of Aercanaan. The townspeople have apparently found a way into it and use its current to spin the blades of their generators, producing electricity which, in turn, powers their various machines.”
“What is electricity? Does it smell bad?” I asked, picturing people carrying clay jugs around town of some oily substance and calling it ‘electricity.’
Jonathan interrupted. “Do you remember when Farmer Tannin’s tree burnt down?”
“You mean the one that exploded when it was hit by lightning?” I responded.
“Exactly.” Jonathan continued. “When the lightning hit the tree, the sap in the tree boiled and that caused too much pressure to build up inside of it. That is the power of electricity. Dangerous stuff when you don’t understand it.”
“Lightning is electricity?” I was trying to follow, but knew I was falling behind in the conversation.
“Yes, basically,” answered Rat, “but electricity can be generated by many different means. King Ira has invested a lot of the kingdom’s treasury into researching electricity and how it can be used.”
“Seems a bit over my head.” I finally replied. I had no idea how to picture in my mind what they were telling me, and so I could not understand.
Conversation between us was thankfully kept to lighter topics as we walked further into town. When we reached Butterby’s Inn, Henny left from there to go to her uncle’s home. Jonathan and Rat then left to begin searching for a place to set up shop. I suggested talking to Wilbur about that and, upon hearing the name, he decided he would go there first.
Then, finding ourselves alone, Mikel was, as usual, quite hungry, so the two of us went in to get something to eat.
Butterby recognized me instantly, which reminded me again of how we had left, and what we had seen.
“I was hoping you’d come back this way, young sir. I don’t often worry for my customers, but you gave me quite the scare!” He said as he helped us with our cloaks. “And who’s this? A new friend of yours. New business is always appreciated.”
Mikel introduced himself with a deep bow. “Good day, kind fellow. My name is Mikel, and it is a pleasure to meet such a fine businessman as yourself.”
“Ah, a honey-tongued one you are, young master. Come, you must be famished.”
We were quickly seated and Mikel was soon making a pig of himself again, as if the last several days were nothing but an unpleasant dream to wake up and shake off. I began to wonder if he was right.
Apparently lacking anything else to do, Butterby strode to the table and sat down across from me. “So what pulled you from bed at such an hour?”
“Tis not a pleasant story, I assure you.” I warned him.
“I’d not imagined it was.” He replied gesturing me to continue.
“I had a dream; A very realistic dream about my hometown, Stumpton, being razed to the ground.” I swallowed another bite of chicken and continued. “Turned out to be less a dream and more of a portent as when I had finally returned home I found it was as I had feared. My home and nearly all who lived there had been destroyed.”
“How?” The innkeeper asked.
I looked him in the eyes and answered. “Trolls.”
The other patrons in the room all stopped what they were doing and looked at us.
“Trolls in Stumpton? My brother just left for there a week ago?” One man worriedly stated before hurrying out the door.
A toddler cried in the corner, his mother, in response, quickly picked it up from its seat and walked upstairs to her room. The others turned back to their meals a few seconds later, but pleasant topics suddenly eluded all who had heard the news.
“Stumpton razed by trolls… dire tidings indeed.” The innkeep’s eyes were as big as saucers. He then looked up at me and asked. “Where will you be staying tonight?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. My father is looking into finding somewhere to stay as we speak. As soon as I know I’ll tell you.”
Butterby nodded in response and walked off. When we finished a few minutes later, I motioned for him to return.
“Yes, can I get you something?” he asked.
“I was curious how much I owe for the meal?” I said.
“You gave me a whole scale the last time you were here, and you didn’t even stay for breakfast. This one you’ve already paid for.” He said as he motioned to Hammond to clear our table. I left a silver piece for the lad as we walked out.
As we stood outside of Butterby’s, waiting for Jonathan and Rat to return, the door to the inn was opened and a fiercely attractive young woman walked out. Mikel nudged me to bring my attention to her, but I ignored him. What could I even say to a woman like that? She’s wearing pelts like a northlander. A barbarian like her would probably gut me as soon as talk to me.
Turning my head to look down the street, I felt another nudge from Mikel.
“Come on, Mikel, I saw—” I turned my head towards where he’d been standing and saw, instead of Mikel, the woman in pelts standing beside me. “Oh, sorry, I—”
“Forget it. You said you saw trolls?” Her long, dark hair hung down on her shoulders framing the softly angled lines of her cheek.
“No, I—” I started, more than a little distracted.
“You lied?” She raised an eyebrow.
Mikel jumped to my defense. “No, he wasn’t even—”
A booted foot to Mikel’s chest knocked the wind from him as she spun around, drew a massive, violet-bladed sword from her back, and held it to my neck.
“Where—” I began to ask about the sword but she interrupted again.
“Shut up. Did you see trolls or not?” She pushed the side of the blade to my neck, causing it to bite just a little.
This was getting tiresome. “Are you going to let me answer you or are going to keep interrupting, because if that’s the case you might as well kill me for all the answer you’re going to get.”
“You‘ve got ten seconds,” was her reply.
I made sure to speak slowly so the ignorant barbarian could understand. “I wasn’t there when it happened, but yes, there are witnesses to the fact that it was trolls who did it.”
“You dare to condescend to me, half-beast?”
“No, he just treats people in an equivalent manner to the way they act,” Mikel managed to wheeze out.
She raised her sword, preparing for all I knew to bring it down on his head, and so I reached up as fast I could while she was distracted by him, and grabbed her sword by the blade, and pulled it from her grasp.
Her eyes nearly fell from their sockets as she looked from her empty hands to me. Silence filled the air as she looked at me in confusion, and then a light came into her eyes, and she turned three shades of red. I held the sword out of reach as she balled her fists, punched at my chest, and kicked me in the shins, screaming like a snared rabbit the entire time.
I looked over at Mikel, who looked back at me and shrugged.
“Look, I’ll give it back to you if you stop waving it at people. It’s a tool, not a toy!” I heard myself echoing Jonathan’s favorite proverb, and would have laughed, but thought better of it. Who knew what she’d do if she thought I was taunting her.
She dropped to the ground, legs folded beneath her, and fell silent. I’m so glad Henny doesn’t act like this. Yeesh!
“Well?” I prodded. “What’ll it be?”
“Do as you will. Kill me if you like. Makes no difference anymore.” She replied sullenly.
“Can you be any more childish? Is it even possible?” I took the sword and slid it back into the scabbard on her back. It slid into the scabbard without even a hitch. Beautiful craftsmanship. And the scabbard matches mine, too. Must’ve been made by the same smith.
I offered her a hand to stand up, which she ignored choosing instead to stand on her own.
“Now… what did you want to know about them?” I tried to get the conversation moving again.
She collected her thoughts for a moment. “I wanted to know if there was a specific troll with them… going by the name Gred.”
I looked over at Mikel who was dusting himself off. “Was there a Gred amongst them, Mikel?”
“As if I’m foolish enough to get close enough to hear names. Legends say they can smell fear, Rickter. And I would have reeked of it.” He spat.
“There was one who was closer, but… ” I stopped mid-sentence. I had no right to involve Henny in this any further than she had already been forced to endure.
“But what?” She looked up at me.
“It would be better for her to forget what happened. I’m sorry.” I shrugged. I guessed she’d have a good reason to go after him. Maybe even the same reason as Henny, but I couldn’t betray Henny’s trust any further that I already had just by existing.
Her eyes read me as easily as Jonathan’s did.
“Oh… Yes, I’m sure that would be best.” She dropped her gaze.
Just then, I looked down the street again and I saw Jonathan and Rat walking in our direction. Placing his hands to the sides of his mouth, Rat called out to us. “Rickter, Mikel… We’ve found a place!”
I looked back to where the girl was standing in front of me and shrugged. “I have to go. Anything else you need?”
She shook her head slightly, and I turned to go. I took several steps before a tap on my back turned me around.
Mikel stood behind me, and motioned with a nod and a sidelong leer at the barbarian girl who stopped a few feet short of us.
Rat and Jonathan then stepped up beside me and looked over at her.
“Who’s the lovely lady, Rickter?” Jonathan said through a smirk.
“I-uh…” I felt the blood rush to my face and I looked at Mikel, checking to see if he remembered her name. He shrugged in return.
“My name is Mara.” She said as she stepped towards us. “Were either of you present when the trolls attacked?”
Jonathan nodded, grunting affirmation. “I was, Miss. What do you need to know?”
She squared her shoulders and replied, “Was a troll by the name of Gred amongst them?”
Jonathan’s eyes went narrow at the mention of the name.
I watched him contemplate something. Jonathan’s familiar with the name? What does that mean?
“I know the name, but I’ve never seen him before. Sadly, I do not know if he was there. I’d gotten trapped elsewhere during the attack.” He regarded her carefully before continuing. “The town is naught but a grave for those who died there now. A fist of trolls is nothing even a barbarian should tempt fate with.”
“You saw an entire fist of them?” Rat’s eyes bugged from his small head.
“Yes, I saw a group five deep and as many abreast before I hid in the cellar.” He answered, not looking away from Mara, whose face was ablaze again.
“He must’ve been there. No other troll could lead so many there from the outlands. Thank you for your help.” She nodded her head and started to walk away, but turned back once again. “Is this one your son?”
“I adopted him and raised him as such.” Pride and jealousy tainted the reply. I looked between the both of them, wondering what was going on.
“I see. Here’s a warning for you, then.” She raised her gloved hand and pointed at me. “This man not only touched the blade of my sword but pulled it bare-handed from my grasp. Do you understand the implications of this?”
“Remind me,” Jonathan growled.
“For a ‘barbarian’, it can mean only one of two things. You’re about to die in battle…” She looked at him and then locked eyes with me as she finished, “or you are wed. Seeing as neither of us is dead, he now belongs to me.”
“I think you’ve forgotten something.” Rat spoke up. “I’ve met a few barbarians in my day and I believe, since he took your sword, you actually belong to him, not the other way around.”
“Hey. Wait a minute. I… that is… Don’t I get a say here?” I pointed my finger back at her. “I don’t even know you. I only took your sword away because you were going to chop his head off.”
Jonathan smirked at Rat. “Certainly sounds like a married couple.” Rat nodded his head in agreement and Mikel laughed as Jonathan continued. “But in all seriousness, I can’t let you have him just yet. He’s only recently pierced, and, due to our shop in Stumpton being burnt down, he no longer has the tools to support you with his trade. I’m sure your father would agree. Come back in a year, and then if you can convince him of it, you’re free to take him.”
She remained unfazed by his remarks, and continued her speech to me “I will be back… three days from now. Your trade is of no importance to me. My father died in battle with the rest of my clan, and I need you to start over. I will give you until then, but…” Her hazel eyes glared up at me. “…slight me again and we will cross blades. I do not think fate will favor you twice.”
She then turned on her heel and walked away.
“What an interesting young lady you’ve chosen!” Mikel punched my arm in mock congratulation and laughed.
I picked him up and held him aloft by his left foot. ”What was that, Mikel? I couldn’t hear you.”
Still laughing, he grabbed my leg to steady himself. “I’m sorry, Rickter. Put me down. I’m sorry.”
I lowered him until his scalp was on the road and the dropped him. Rat and Jonathan laughed at us as they turned, motioning us to follow them.
“You don’t sound very sorry, Mikel,” I said as I walked away.
* * *
As we walked, Jonathan told me that Wilbur had been looking to hire some help and had jumped at the chance to hire us. I, however, would not be helping in the forge, at first, as tools appropriate to the size of my hands had to be specially made and that could take some time. My job was described to be that of a porter, carrying the large boxes of raw iron that were to be delivered weekly as well as helping Nigel, Wilbur’s clerk, to keep the storefront organized and sparkling. A task that would keep me extremely busy, as customers regularly picked up, covered with fingerprints and usually misplaced the displayed merchandise.
“Don’t worry about it tonight.” We walked past the shop, turned and continued east almost to the limits of town. He then motioned to a building that looked like it could use some work. The wood shake roof had a few holes in it and the whole thing needed to be re-mortared and whitewashed. It did however, have a broad, copper-shingled awning and, under that, an old forge pit.
“You want to start a shop of your own here?” I asked as he gleefully pointed at the stones that lined the pit.
“Well, Wilbur likes making armor and weapons, but he’s always chafed at the mundane aspects of the trade: nails, tools, shoeing horses. I don’t mind those things, so we’ll both have a niche and won’t have to compete for business.”
I hoped he was right, and I suspected he did, too.
Breaking a moment of silence, Mikel’s stomach roared and, after we chuckled about it for a moment, he and Rat left for the market. Jonathan and I for the meantime walked in and looked around.
“I think you’ll need a cat, Jonathan.” I pointed at some mouse droppings in a corner.
“I saw that, too. Oh well.” He said.
I walked next door, borrowed a broom and swept out the worst of the mess. I then carried in the items from the wheelbarrow, hung our small cauldron on the chain in the hearth and started a fire to warm the place up.
“Other than some repairs to the outside of the place, I think the place seems pretty stout.” Jonathan said as he walked from the bedroom, through the main room, and into the kitchen.
“Some of the timbers in the floor need replacing.” I said, sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the fireplace.
“Yeah, but what’s a plank or two? You should’ve seen what your mother and I had to work with.” He reminisced as he cleared cobwebs from the dusty kitchen cabinets with the broom. “Now that place… We should have started from scratch… would have been easier.”
I had avoided talking about it as long as I could, but my curiosity finally got the better of me. ”Who is Gred?”
I heard Jonathan sigh from across the house. “Gred… never thought I’d hear that name again.” He walked over and joined me next to the fire, laying the broom down next to him.
“I only heard stories about him from your mother. He was apparently your uncle or some such, but he had become incredibly jealous of your father. Just a few months after your parents were married he attacked your father and killed him. Your mother miraculously escaped, not yet knowing she was pregnant, and came to Stumpton, the most isolated place she could find.”
He watched the fire as I again tried to picture what she looked like. “Did my mother ever speak of other family? Like grandparents or sisters or something?”
“I think she mentioned your grandparents once, but never any details. When you were first born I thought about trying to find them to return you to them, but I knew so little…” He paused and pursed his lips a little in thought. ”The only thing I really knew is that your grandfather made that short sword your mother set aside for you.”
The thought of Mara’s sword then rushed back into mind.
“Did you happen to see the sword that girl was carrying earlier?”
Jonathan shook his head. “No, what about it?”
“Her great sword was fashioned from the same metal as the short sword.”
He looked up at me for a moment and sighed. “You planning to go with her, then?”
“I don’t know.” I scratched at my jaw, now unshaved for more than three days. “I don’t care for the fact that she has no respect for anything I’d have to say, and the idea of becoming little more than a stud bull for the purpose of reviving her clan riles me.” I dropped my hands in my lap and breathed out, realizing I’d been holding my breath. “The idea that she might know something about my grandparents… people who might be… more like me. I wonder if that would be worth putting up with her for a while.”
Jonathan pulled himself up from the floor. “Well, regardless of what you choose, you’re always welcome here. Just let me know before you go gallivanting across the countryside.”
“And don’t put up with what you don’t have to. A woman like her is used to people having to earn her respect. Some Northlanders have odd means of doing that. I’ve heard tales ranging from the sacrifice of a wild animal to unarmed combat.” Jonathan turned and walked back to the kitchen as he continued. “She sounded like she’d prefer the latter. Whatever it is you have to do, do it. It’ll save you trouble later, but make sure you know the rules of the contest before you agree to it. That little tradition she mentioned about disarming your foe is just one example of a rule that could eventually hamper things for you.”
“Up ‘til now, I’ve been able to use my size and strength to outmatch my opponents. The length of her blade could make that a difficult task, though. If I can’t get in close enough to make use of my size, how can I defeat her?”
About the time I finished my question, I heard Rat and Mikel walk in the door.
“You two discussing the barbarian girl, eh?” Rat asked, raising an eyebrow.
Mikel walked into the kitchen with the armload of goods they’d acquired as I responded with a nod.
Rat pulled a small throwing dagger from its sheath and balanced it on a finger. “I’ve some experience with small blades, if you need some pointers.”
“Have you ever defended yourself against someone wielding a sword?” Jonathan asked before I could.
“Actually,” He raised the corner of his mouth in a sly little grin. ”I have on many an occasion, and though I might be a tad smaller than most, I’ve rarely lost so badly as to need more than a stitch or two.”
“Well, I’ve got all of tomorrow.” I laughed.