The city, small town really by imperial standards, looked not as primitive as Oboru had expected after last night’s inn. Not that it was saying much. Less primitive than a wayside inn was not a high bar to jump over.

* * *

Melissa had taken one look, or perhaps one sniff, at the threshold and recoiled, declaring that she could stay outside.

As he had in turn crossed into the building, getting the same view and smell of the place, Oboru had been inclined to follow her straight out the place again. Only the fact that at that moment the steady rain had deteriorated to a particularly foul mixture of hail and snow blown almost horizontally by a suddenly gusting wind had kept him. And not even, mostly, because he wanted to get out of the weather, but because the other two of his companions had suddenly wanted to get inside badly. They’d more or less pushed him inside and closed the door against the freezing, snow-laden wind.

Effectively trapped, Oboru after a moment had decided that it was at least warm inside and that since the candle flames showed no great sign of being swayed wildly by a cold draft beyond what was caused by people walking by, it meant that primitive as it was, the building was sturdy enough to not leak cold air everywhere. The rest of the amenities, though, were not as promising. There was a pit in the floor with a fire lit in it. There was no chimney to keep smoke and ash out of the room, just a small hole in the cam, with the predictable eye-watering effect.

There also was no door between the room and the stables. At the dimly lit opposite end of the building he had seen Brandt negotiate about the stabling of their horses with some youth. Probably, Oboru remembered having mused, one of the older sons of the innkeeper. That at least had been no different to how wayside inns operated in the empire, and the feeling had offered a tiny spark of nostalgia that he had sorely needed at that moment.

With ash and smoke going everywhere there clearly was no point in trying to keep the place tidy, and consequently nobody had made more than a token effort in a long time to do more than wipe off the worst of the grime of tables and chairs. It had not made the idea of staying the night any more appealing, and that had been something that would have been unthinkable in the empire.

The patrons, and there were a surprising number of them, had made no greater effort to clean themselves. Possibly less. Oboru had assumed it was the accumulated smell of three dozen unwashed humans that had driven Melissa to turn right back rather than entering a room with them. Added to the ripe mix had been the smell of wet animals, and everything that came with stabling. It made for a rather unpleasant experience, though it thankfully had deadened the sense of smell pretty quickly.

Oboru was not some fine noble who could not bear the smells of living animals. He’d always taken care of his own mare, or mule, at the times he’d had the use of one, so he was no stranger to the realities of stables. He was however well-educated and knew that accommodations like these were a disaster of plagues waiting to happen. In the empire even the poorest farmers, with only a pig to their families, were keeping them in shared stabling when the weather turned sour in late autumn. Seeing a place like this, an inn no less, had not given him any reason to think more favourably of these primitive barbarians.

“I apologise for the primitive conditions,” Brandt had said as he rejoined them. “This is not the traders inn I was hoping to use tonight.”

Keri had looked around nervously, “This is not the best place for us to stay.”

Brandt simply had patted the big sword he carried, “They’ll behave.”

The brown-haired woman had groaned, “must you start a brawl in every inn you stay?”. Clearly that had been a reference to some shared history between them. It had surprised Oboru though, for the big burly man had not given him the impression he was ill-tempered and inclined to seeking a fight.

“We’ll be fine, mostly these are local farm hands. They’re not looking for a fight. And not looking for you three… wait, where is Melissa?”

Oboru had said dryly, “she declined to enter this … place. I believe she mentioned that she would be more comfortable in the forest.”

“In a tree. She said she would seek shelter in a tree,” Keri had amended his statement with an apologetic smile. “Can’t say I entirely disagree with her. If I knew how she keeps warm outside I’d be there with her.”

“Oh hush mistress bard,” Brandt had grinned. “If you would sit next to me and Talya take the other side. And pretend like you enjoy it when I put my arms across your shoulders things’ll be just fine. They’ll just be jealous of you.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you barbarian?” Talya had accused him through clenched teeth, a fake smile plastered on her face.

“A little,” Brandt had admitted. “But don’t worry, I won’t try to kiss you. I know you’re shy in front of strangers.” Instead he had turned to Keri and pretended to kiss her quite thoroughly, accompanied by wolf-whistles from the nearest tables.

Oboru had seen the initial look of outrage on Keri’s face, followed by confusion and some mixed emotions he had not been able read last night any more than he was now, looking back at it.

That kiss though had broken any lingering tension and the rest of the evening had been uneventful if uncomfortable. There even had even been a bit of an impromptu party when Brandt had bought a barrel of beer ‘to celebrate his success’. Without explaining what that success might have been. He had left it to the impression of his giant sword and the imagination of the unwashed men and the four women who had been barely cleaner and no more virtuous. If they had thought it had something to do with both Keri and Talya appearing to hang on his arms, he had left that assumption unchallenged. And, Oboru had realised, it had made the other men reconsider challenging him as well.

Since the inn hadn’t boasted any rooms, or even beds, none of them had done much sleeping last night. Almost all of the men had left during the evening, to return to the farms they worked on and that were boarding them, but a handful had been travellers like themselves, only unable to afford any better place to say. And one or two had looked like farm workers, but clearly had drunk too much to move on their own, and had been left to sleep it off in the stables half of the building. Needless to say they had all been happy to leave with first light of the morning.

* * *

Compared to that miserable excuse for an inn the city of Glivenr looked prosperous and well put together to Oboru’s eyes, in a primitive barbarian kind of way. He had to remind himself not to expect too much civilisation if indeed these people had no access to magic and had to do everything by hand, by fire and by draft animal.

On top of a near vertical cliff side.

‘Perhaps there is something to these barbarians after all’, Oboru mused. ‘I certainly wouldn’t think it possible to do all this by hand’.

“This was a fortress?” he asked conversationally.

He didn’t exactly expect an answer, and was surprised when Brandt answered him. The actual answer surprised him even more. “Actually, no. It actually started out as a village.”

“They … they built up there just for … a challenge?”

Brandt and Talya laughed both, “hardly for the challenge of it. The village was built by religious zealots who wanted to be away from the world, and I believe the doctrines they carved in the walls also mentioned repenting the fleshly delights.”

Oboru looked around at the unforgiving landscape. The towering mountain that dominated the north, the entire north. The way it fell down hundreds of paces to the west to a land disappearing in the foggy distance.

“Guess they found their isolation,” he agreed. “They built this city then?”

Oboru was, from his expression, not looking forward to a city full of religious fanatics.

Keri shook her head, “Mind, this was before the Kingdom was even founded. We only have it from the writings they left behind, but near as our bardic historians could tell they got into fighting over details of their faith. They built that wall you can see, or the beginning of it any way, to keep everybody out. Then they started to build walls inside the city as well. To keep their fracturing denominations pure. By the time they got over their religious zeal they all died of hunger and diseases in the worst winter in living memory. Their living memory that is.”

Oboru looked at the mountain again, and its snow shrouded peak that was only barely above the level of the town. Not a place where one wanted to be unprepared for snow, he figured.

“They’re snowed in how many moons of the year?” he asked finally.

“Four to five. The big autumn festival is about to wrap up. Those who don’t leave shortly after will end up wintering here.” She didn’t add that was expensive, there really was no need to.

Though in the case of Melissa Oboru also was fairly certain the concept of money was alien to her and explaining the idea of money to anybody wasn’t something that was high on his list of things he wanted to do.

Talya interrupted “And what will we do?”

“That,” Brandt sighed, “depends on what we find. I guess.”

“That’s not encouraging,” Oboru remarked.

Keri said, “There shouldn’t be any problem. The city is bursting at the seams with travellers. A few more won’t raise any eyebrows.”

Oboru decided he had parsed enough of the strange words the brown-haired woman had used that he did not want to ask for clarification. Which was a good thing since Brandt didn’t wait for further comments and headed up the switchback road leading to the forbidding walls. There were battlements at every turn/

‘A handful of competent mages could make this place unassailable’, Oboru thought. ‘And I guess that even barbarians should be able to manage to defend this’.

Oboru allowed himself a moment of feeling smugly superior before admitting that in a country that was supposedly without magic at all, it was unfair to consider the inhabitants primitive for that. And he didn’t like it, but the effort that must have gone into getting those massive blocks of stone up here was something the imperial stone-wrights would have found a challenge even with the assistance of magic.

I really must stop thinking about the Empire, he finally said to himself. Even if these people are not imperial, that doesn’t make them stupid.

Looking back over his shoulder he noticed that Melissa was tense and uncomfortable. The tall woman was a mystery to him. Even burned out his senses told him that a particular type of magic clung to her. A kind of magic he had studied only in theory as it wasn’t available to mages no matter how long they studied, and how hard they practised. He’d witnessed it, though only rarely, in priests touched by the divine.

The woman had denied being a priestess, but even if she was nothing but a lay clergy, or even a simple guard as she claimed to be, Oboru was willing to bet a great deal that she was here in this particular place and time because her God or Goddess had directed her to confront the Evil that he also had to face if he wanted to survive and return home.

Speaking softly, so the others were less likely to overhear, he asked Melissa, “Your goddess, She’s one of the huntresses of the forest?” He wasn’t too familiar with religions in the empire, that being a subject that was only marginally useful and then only for political reasons of not offending the devout. His knowledge of the barbaric religions was even less substantial as his order was extremely unlikely to travel beyond the borders of the core lands of he empire. Still, there was a clear tie between Melissa and trees and most goddesses that he knew of were associated with forests were also huntresses, so he felt confident in making that guess.

Melissa eyed him with undisguised suspicion.

“I am not prying priestess,” he explained in as placating a manner he could. “But I could not help but notice you’re tied to trees, though I do not think the others realised this. And …” he cautioned “Brandt certainly has no idea if that is the case. He will not understand the importance of finding you a place that has a garden at least.”

Oboru looked at the walls that had gotten a distinctly looming quality now they had closed over half the initial distance.

He amended his comment, “I do not think we will find much in the way of a park or green in this place.

The tall blonde woman nodded unhappily. “It seems impossible live here,” she said.

‘She did not deny her goddess being a forest huntress,’ Oboru mused. He also realised that she ignored the question, so the conclusion was not much more reliable than it had been when he asked the question.

He reassured the tall sun haired woman, “I will ask Brandt in such a way that he thinks it is my wish to have something living nearby. It would not wholly be a lie anyway. Just a slight overstating how much help it would be for me to recover surrounded by living things. He doesn’t need to know it is also for your sake.”

“He?” Melissa asked.

For a moment Oboru felt he had misread the strange woman that she could ask such a derisive question, but then he saw her expression and the tone of genuine confusion in her voice. Which only confused him too. He knew that she spoke the language of these barbarians, no these people, poorly. Even more poorly than he himself did. Whatever lands she came from they were as strange to Brandt and Keri and Talya as the empire would be to them.

He was spared by Brandt shouting for them to catch up of having to figure out what misunderstanding had Melissa utter that one incredulous word.

“Unless you two plan to stay out I’ve to get us all past the guards at once.”

Melissa looked as if she seriously considered turning around, but Oboru cast one look at the lowering clouds and decided against it for her.

“There’s nothing but dead rock and cold here. The city can’t possibly be worse than this,” he cajoled her into following.

He picked up the pace and, after a long hesitation, so did Melissa.

When they had caught up with a visibly impatient Brandt and a shivering Keri, Oboru said to him, “Melissa is not used to cities.”

Or buildings he said to himself.

“Give her some time to get used to them.”

Brandt’s sharp look transferred from Oboru to the blonde woman.

Under that gaze Melissa felt compelled to answer the unasked question, “We, I, not in stone and dead tree, dwell.”

Brandt’s eyes narrowed further and he said, suddenly a lot more coldly, “is that so?”

He proceeded by asking something in a guttural language that Oboru didn’t recognise, though it managed in its harsh tone to remind him of the imperial court language though spoken without any of the refinement and tonality. Had he recognised any word he would have asked the giant of a man a few pointed questions of his own, in the imperial language. Just to see if he could lie well enough to hide his recognition. But it was clear enough he was speaking a language that by sheer coincidence had acquired some superficial resemblance to the court language of the Empire, but not that language itself.

Melissa did not recognise the language any better than Oboru did. Or she was a far better actress than he would have credited her for.

When Melissa failed to show any evidence of the harsh accusative question he had posed in the unknown language Brandt’s expression softened a little. Keri on the other hand, Oboru noticed, looked outraged. And Talya did not show any expression at all. If she spoke the same language as Brandt had used, she was much better at hiding it. It also taught Oboru that she had training in, and apparently a need for, keeping her expression inscrutable.

Brandt shook his head but ignored the angry look Keri gave him, though he certainly had caught it.

“The guards will want to know who you are and what your business is,” he warned, instead. “We should have got our stories straight last night, but I didn’t want to do this where we could be overheard and I had expected to spend the night in a couple of proper rooms.”

After the barest pause to see if anybody would protest he continued with his prepared speech, “we will stick as close to the truth as possible. Keri, you’re a travelling bard who joined up with us because there’s trouble in the Black Forest. Oboru, I think you should be an eastern trader and I’m your bodyguard. You got caught up in the same trouble and need to visit a banker here. Would be best if you can pretend to be an ore or gem trader. The trouble explains why you haven’t anything in the way of goods or caravan.”

He looked at the blonde woman, “Melissa, for you we’ll go with the original story. You’re an escaped slave”

Melissa clearly knew that last word for almost as fast as Oboru could blink she had her knife out and pressed against Brandt’s neck. Dimpling the skin but just short of drawing blood. “Slave not I am,” she said, her voice without infliction though there was no misunderstanding her fury.

Talya had her own knife out at the same time, but like Brandt made no further movement.

“You’re not really going to be a slave,” Brandt said in a voice that was decidedly higher pitched than his usual rumble.

“Explain!” Melissa demanded.

“We tell the guards that you escaped,” Keri answered for him, her voice more soothing than Brandt clearly was capable of at the moment. “And that we brought you here to find out where you’re from.”

“Why do?”

“You’re an outlander. You don’t speak the language and you’re clearly not going to pass as a trader. And … outlanders don’t visit the Kingdom. Ever … Even foreign traders rarely do.”

Melissa did not look away from Brandt’s eyes, but nevertheless managed to give the impression that she was listening closely and carefully to what Keri was slowly and patiently explaining.

“When you came into the inn that night, dressed only in your thin — what did you call it?”

“Chiton,” was the curt reply.

“Right, your chiton, Brandt thought — we all thought — you were an escaped slave. The King doesn’t allow slave traders. But other countries do and when they come here the King cannot forbid them to bring their slaves. Brandt wanted to protect you,” Keri grimaced. “He thought he had to protect you. But to do so he had to bring you to the magistrate here to prove he hadn’t broken the law himself.”

Melissa thought it over for a long moment.

Her answer was silent. She stepped back and her knife disappeared only a little slower than it had appeared. Brandt, Oboru noticed, didn’t rub his neck or otherwise gave any indication of being upset by how close to death he’d been.

Only his voice betrayed the lingering fear he didn’t outwardly show, by being still higher pitched than normal. “Talya,” he said as if Melissa never held him at knife point, “I don’t know how to explain you to the guards.”

The pale woman grinned ever so slightly, “I think I will be a religious scholar. After all the Ferrenu still have their remote descendants in the mountains north of here.”

Keri’s eyes went wide at that. “You … what? How?”

Taking a deep breath the brown-haired woman got herself under control again, “You have to come to Kingstown. The chroniclers will want to know everything you can tell them about the Ferrenu.”

“What are you talking about?” Brandt demanded.

“The people who built these walls. We know almost nothing of them. Only that they called themselves the Ferrenu.”

“Talking about walls,” Brandt interrupted Keri, “Stay close to me or Keri and don’t wander off alone. This whole town is a maze.”

Predictably Melissa asked “What maze mean?”