A Glibertarians Exclusive: Season of Ice V
One morning at breakfast, as the leaves on the trees around the homestead were growing golden, Hengist announced a trip to the trading post he had mentioned. “It’s along the Black River,” he told Mabinne, “About a day’s trip south by wagon, assuming the road is good. There’s a pass through some low mountains we’ll have to go through, but it’s early enough in the year we should have no trouble. We’ll want to make the trip in a single day, though, so we’ll rise early tomorrow morning and set out. I’ll set up the wagon and our gear today, so in the morning all I’ll have to do is hitch up the horses and we’re away.”
“We’ll be spending at least a night there, then?” Mabinne wanted to know.
“Yes,” Hengist nodded. “There’s an inn. I know the innkeeper, as it happens. He serves up some of the best food I’ve tasted; it’s an Ashlander couple does the cooking, their food is spicy but very tasty. I think you’ll like it. Think, then, today, on anything you’ll want by way of supplies for the winter, and we’ll fill the list.”
They set out before sunrise the next morning and took the trail south. Mabinne wore one of the tunic-and-legging outfits she had worn almost continually since coming to Hengist’s home along with her heavy lined coat, but in her pack, she placed the blue wool dress Hengist had bought her in Port Stronghold.
The horses’ breath sent plumes of mist into the chilly air; Hengist and Mabinne’s breath did likewise. As the sun rose, Mabinne watched as the landscape rolled past.
Through the morning the road (Mabinne thought it was being a bit overly generous to call a pair of wheel-ruts half-buried in grass and weeds a “road,” but she kept her silence) climbed into some low hills that eventually gave way to taller ones; a tad before midday they crested a final rise on a saddle between two large, rocky mounts to see a wide gentle valley below.
As they descended into the valley one change made itself manifest very quickly. “It’s warmer,” Mabinne noted. In fact, she was growing uncomfortably warm in her heavy sheepskin-lined coat, and so removed it and placed it in the wagon behind her.
“It is warmer,” Hengist agreed. “As we drop down towards the river, it will grow warmer still. We’re on the south side of the peninsula on which Port Stronghold sits, you see; on that northern side, the ocean is near the northern ice and is cold but here, a current from the south swings by and keeps the weather milder. The hills back there, they block most of that weather from moving north but here, one can feel the full effect. Nice, isn’t it?”
“It is. It’s a wonder anyone would choose to live in the north with this land looking so agreeable. And there don’t seem to be many people about.”
Hengist shrugged. “Home is home, eh? Besides, not too long ago, in my father’s time, war swept through here. The land and the people haven’t fully recovered yet.”
“War? With whom?”
“Jutland. Mondria.” He looked at her. “And Beretan.”
“When I was in the magic-user academy,” Mabinne said soberly, “they taught that Ikslund declared war and began by raiding on our coasts. Beretan allied with Mondria and Jutland to drive the invaders out.”
“Sweet,” Hengist said gently, “the town we are heading for was occupied by Beretanian troops for three years. Beretan invaded the south side of this peninsula, along with Mondria, while the Jutlanders came at us from the west. Port Stronghold held out, but the invaders swept over most of the countryside. Towns, villages, farms were burned, whole families taken into slavery. This academy you speak of, it’s on the south end of Beretan near the coast, yes?”
“On a cliff overlooking the ocean, yes.”
“And many of the workers, the cooks, stable-men, drovers and so on are Ikslunders, yes?”
“Why, yes,” Mabinne replied in some confusion; she had noted that as a girl in the academy, but had never given it any thought; the tall, fair Ikslunders were just servants and workers, surely?
“Slaves,” Hengist said. He looked ahead; his expression was now carefully neutral. “Many such were taken when Beretan, Mondria and Jutland occupied southern Ikslund. Many more taken on their raids into the north, even to the approaches of Port Stronghold. They took their slaves with them when King Harald Iron-Jaw finally raised an army of Northmen from Ikslund; they and our allies from the Ashlands drove them out. My father fought in King Harald’s army when I was just a boy. He took an arrow in the chest at the final battle in the Auburn Hills and died only three years later, leaving me his home. While he lived, he often told me of his cousins who lived here in the south, who were taken. Many families lost members to the slave-traders in the south. When we get to the town, ask any of the folk there, they will be able to tell you.”
“And so, you raid Beretan now…”
“To get a little of our own back,” Hengist finished for her. “And in the hopes of finding some lost relatives. Every year, the raiding parties bring a few Ikslunders home. Too few.”
They rode on in silence for some time after that. Hengist was brooding; Mabinne thought it best to say nothing. At length, Hengist spoke again.
“I’ve grown very fond of you, sweet,” he said at last. “I may well grow to love you one day. But I am an Ikslunder. I cannot forgive Beretan for what has happened to my land. I hope you can grow to understand that.”
Mabinne just nodded. Everything she had thought about the matters between Beretan and Ikslund seemed to be wrong; the shape of her world had just gone topsy-turvy.
Sometime later, she felt the need to break the silence. “Hengist,” she said, using his name for the first time, “your mother?”
“Died,” he said simply. “Birthing me.” He looked at her and smiled sadly. “So, you see, while my father died at the hands of Beretan, my mother’s death, well, that was my fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” Mabinne objected. “You were a baby.”
“That’s as my father always said.” He gave Mabinne a wry smile. “Somehow, you know, it never made me feel any better about it.”
They rode on in silence for some time after that; Hengist continued his uncharacteristic brooding. Mabinne dithered; she had grown accustomed to the big Ikslunder’s usual cheerful good nature and wasn’t sure how to bring him out of the brown study that had captured him.
Finally, late in the afternoon, they crested a low rise to see a bend in a large river, and alongside it a town of good size. The trading village of Tillgatt sat on a bluff overlooking the Black River, on the outside of a shallow curve in the river. Lower ground on the upstream and downside gave access to the river, while the bluff protected the town from floods; it was an ideal situation.
Hengist had described Tillgatt as a village, but it seemed to Mabinne to be a good-sized town. It was nearing nightfall when they arrived at an inn on the edge of the main marketplace. The building was clearly old; the huge wooden beams of the walls were black from soot and exposure. The big main hall was framed by two large wings of what Mabinne guessed were sleeping quarters. The sound of horses and rattling of tack gave hint of a stable behind the main building.
“Go on inside,” Hengist said as he brought the wagon to a stop in front of the inn. “I’ll see to the horses and join you as quickly as I can.” He smiled at her. “I’m sorry about my ill humor earlier, sweet,” he said. “Brooding on past injustices does a man’s spleen no good, eh? I’ll make it up to you with a good dinner and a warm sleep in a soft bed, what do you say?”
Mabinne nodded and clambered down from the big farm wagon. “It’s warmer here, but the chill still comes on quick in the evening. I’ll meet you inside.”
“Give the innkeeper my name,” Hengist called. “You’ll know him when you see him, big fellow, thick beard. Tell him Hengist Jorgenson seeks a hot dinner and a warm bed, he’ll know how best to answer.” Chuckling softly to himself, he snapped the reins and drive the big horses off towards the stable.
Mabinne pushed in through the big double doors. The main hall wasn’t too different than those of inns in Beretan, although it was larger; but then, the typical Ikslunder was larger than most any Beretanian, so that wasn’t much of a surprise. On opposite sides of the room, fires crackled merrily in identical stone fireplaces; a couple of barmaids carried platters of food and mugs of drink around to the several small tables occupied by men and women. Larger tables sat along the back walls, mostly occupied by families; the chattering of children lay as an overtone to the mutter of conversation and the occasional burst of laughter.
In the center of the room stood a small counter and, on a stool behind that counter, the fattest man Mabinne had ever seen. He was easily as tall as Hengist, and as wide as he was tall; he was chatting with a customer, and pale blue eyes sparkled merrily over a huge, gray-streaked beard. He gestured as he spoke, revealing broad hands with fingers like bloated sausages.
This was, presumably, the innkeeper.
Mabinne walked over to the counter. The fat man’s eyes swung over her, at first in appreciation, then in speculation.
“Evening, lass,” he said. “Outlander, aren’t you? Beretan?” His eyes no longer sparkled. Mabinne suddenly remembered Hengist’s stories of the occupation of the town.
“I was of Beretan,” she replied easily. “Now I live in Ikslund. Hengist Jorgenson sends his regards, and says I am to ask you for a dinner and a bed. He is putting up his horses in your stable even now.”
“Is he now?” The fat man peered at Mabinne for a moment in silence. Then his broad face opened in a wide grin, and the sparkle returned to his eyes. “And so, how is that young bastard? Haven’t seen him in two, three years – what brings him to Tillgatt now?”
“Supplies, grains, spices, wax for candles,” Mabinne answered, “stuff we can only obtain in trade.”
Mabinne found herself blushing. “Yes. I share Hengist’s household.”
“And his bed, no doubt. Well, good enough. I am Bjorn; Hengist is my cousin, which is how that presumptuous young lout thinks he can just assume I’ll keep a place for him. I do have a room, as it happens; it even faces the morning sun, as I know he prefers.”
Mabinne had by now been in Ikslund long enough to know that the term “cousin” was generally used to imply “someone I’ve known a long time,” not necessarily a blood relation.
Just then Hengist burst in through a back door. “Bjorn!” he shouted. He strode through the dining room to grasp Bjorn’s fat hand. “You old bastard. How do things swing for you?”
“Well enough.” Bjorn slapped Hengist on the shoulder. “And your traveling companion, I must say – you always did like the pretty ones.”
“Indeed,” Hengist chuckled. “What to eat?”
“Bison stew, baked ducks, pickled beets. Cold ale if you want it, hot tea if you’d prefer.”
“I’ll have the lot!” Hengist roared, “and a round of ale for the house!” A roar of approval shook the rafters at that remark. Hengist took a pouch of gold coins from his jacket and tossed them to Bjorn. “And whatever my sweet might want, bring it to her!”
They took a small round table pulled up cozily to one of the fireplaces. Hengist ate like a man starved, while Mabinne was satisfied with a leg of baked duck and a small dish of pickled beets, of whose tart flavor she was fond. The duck was delicious, having been marinated in savory Ashlander spices before roasting. Hengist was certainly right about the food.
When at last he finished, Hengist drained the dregs of his last mug, belched companionably, and smiled. “Let’s be off to bed,” he announced. “We’ll do our trading tomorrow. Here,” he found another small leather purse that clinked heavily and handed it across to Mabinne. “In the morning, I have some business to tend to, and I’ll be off to the market to fill our list of foodstuffs – I’ll get you that grain and yeasts for your bread, as you mentioned. To the east of the inn are the fine goods stores, clothing, jewels, the like. Anything you want, anything you need, you buy it, yes? If you run out of coin, come find me. We won’t be able to come back for maybe a year, so buy accordingly.”
“I will,” Mabinne agreed. Is he really going to leave me on my own? But then, why not? Where would I go? Who here, in a town that was occupied by Beretanian soldiers, who here would help me?
“Good. Let’s be off to bed, then.”