The dark-bearded man rushed forward to the jetty as the ferryman prepared to cast off. The sun was low in the sky and it was late. He’d spent longer at the waterside than he’d planned, but it had been highly profitable. After seven days of making contacts and following grudging recommendations and half-remembered names halfway around the city’s barges, inns, and watering holes, he had finally made the contact he had been searching for. And now, excited, and with the scent of adventure in his nose again, he was in a hurry to rejoin his companions.
“The sign of the Traveller ferryman.” The man declared, stepping off the jetty into the ferryman’s boat. He pressed a coin into the ferryman’s open palm and the man pocketed it with a practised movement.
“As you say sir.” the ferryman replied and pushed away from the banks with his oar. “My lady’s going on farther past so I’ll be after dropping you at the Traveller along the way.” He gestured to the lady sitting in the stern, her woollen cote wrapped about her, a collection of large linen bags placed neatly beside her on the bench. She was straight-backed, and well-built, with fair hair beneath her kerchief. A woman of middle years, though still fair of face, with skin unmarred by any years of hardship or a mother’s fears. She greeted her new companion with a smile. The bearded man settled himself on the seat opposite the lady as the ferryman worked his oars from the middle bench. His beard was neatly cut, and still dark black, despite the weather-worn look about his eyes, and the lines of years hard-lived upon his brow.
“You speak Amoric well.” The lady said.
“You assume it is not my native tongue.” The man replied. “And do I not look as fair a Scindian as the finest and fattest merchant.” He continued lightly, his face smiling to show the jest.
“Aye, the first of them all perhaps, but it is your tongue that betrays your roots.”
“You say I speak my words poorly?”
“I would not say poorly, for your language is clear and fine. I would say that your mind knows the words well, but your tongue is still in love with the north.”
“My tongue is a traitor to my learning then. And there was I thinking I had mastered this fine speech and transformed myself into a fair-haired southerner, like rough night to brightest day.”
The lady laughed. “And well you may still, good sir. But while learning can teach us much, it is only experience that truly changes us.”
“Such wisdom suits you well my lady, and well I know it for the truth. But how far would you guess I had travelled, from my speech and bearing.”
“Such a riddle, and before dinner as well. How will I do honour to the wisdom you have praised in me. I would guess you have come far, despite the southerly fairness of your words. I would say as north as a man can go, the high north, a mountain man no doubt, of rough stone, and bare earth. I would call you Nordran, but the Emperor’s domains are large and such a call would not serve to place you closely.”
“You riddle well mi’lady, and you do guess true. Nordran indeed am I. But what clue alerted you I was from the Emperor’s lands?”
“A few of your words are spoken as no man from southerly climes would. Scindia for instance, you phrase the middle ‘n’, while Amoric fairly skips over it as a stone across a pond. The city that has welcomed us is called by its natives ‘Se-DEE-ah’, for instance.”
“Of course,” Karl exclaimed. “I had forgotten in my confidence, my tutor did teach me that the amoric tongue hates its consonants and flees from them like a virgin from an unwanted suitor. It is a language of vowels he said, and to speak it well one needs to be a fish, mouthing open ‘O’s and ‘Ah’s all day long.”
“A pretty illustration, and one with much truth in it. My tutor in her turn taught me that the nordran tongue was like a hammer against the anvil of the mouth, beating out the words with great harsh blows.”
“And there is truth in that as well. You have studied my mother tongue?”
“Not well I am afraid. My experience of it is rusted, and when fresh I learned it of the forests, not the peaks. My dialect would be almost as incomprehensible to you as that of a Swartian.”
“A shame, but our use of the southern tongue rewards me. My companions speak little but a few words of it, and I enjoy the practise of the conversation. I learned amoric to understand the common speech of the merchants that flock to my city. They spoke behind my back among themselves and I thought if I could understand them I would gain an advantage in our dealings.”
“And did it work.”
“Not as well as I had hoped. They had their own dialect, and their own vocabulary that meant I caught only one word in ten. And those an insult.”
The lady laughed aloud. “Aye merchants do love their private tongues, their secrets and their codes. If others could understand their conversation clearly more than half their power would be gone, like smoke in the wind. But we shall continue in our speech. For our conversation pleases me as well. But though I now know your homeland, I do not know your profession or what brings you so far from it. You say you travel with companions.”
“I do, and my journey is not to Scindia, but the city is only a stop along the way. I travel east.”
“East, across the middle sea? To Leovine perhaps, or Scindia’s great rival Lenoa?
“Further even than that, out of the middle sea entirely.”
“You seek to round the Point? A dangerous venture surely, especially in the current climate as the nations eye their arms, and buckle their belts about their waists.”
“When do they not? Surely war is like the poor. Both are always with us.”
“Aye, to our shame. And each does increase in proportion to the other. But are you not afraid of the danger?”
“Perhaps, but my profession does not turn from danger too commonly.”
“A dangerous profession then, and not a profession of modest boast. Your face and its marks of experience become clearer then. A leader of men then, a warrior, or more like an adventurer, on a quest perhaps. But what profession would breed such a man?
“Do you give up?”
“I would say you are a man of violence, though not commonly to other men. A hunter then, and what quarry does a hunter seek among the peaks of the far north? What else but the greatest quarry of them all. I name you hunter and I name your quarry the firedrake.”
“My praise is yours. Your bolt strikes true. The firedrake is indeed my profession. Though that is not our name for it.”
“Mauglith, they call it do they not.”
“Some do, but in Nordra we are more plain-spoken and name it only as the Red Dragon.”
“A dangerous quarry indeed. I can understand your sneering at the dangers of the Point.”
“Danger is always relative. On one’s own, unprepared, such danger is indeed a terror of men and a fearsome widower of women. But with a good plan, and stout companions, and the appropriate tools and cunning of our trade, any danger can be managed fairly.”
“A noble profession indeed. But it doesn’t explain your presence so far from it.”
“My guild will survive without me for a while. And the reason for my journey is a riddle I will have to beg your patience not to solve. Though perhaps one day all will hear of it.”
“A fierce riddle indeed. But now I have guessed your profession, let me set you a riddle in turn. What is my own profession and from where do I call home?”
“A fine riddle. For you wear no insignia of rank or position. Your countenance is confident, and fair, a women without daily concern for her means, I would guess. Your clothes, the outer ones I can see of course, though plain, are finely made, and well-cut by a tailor of skill and dexterity. A woman of means but not of ostentation, a rare sight indeed upon this fair earth. For surely all with wealth and power are known among their fellows only by its flaunting.”
“So far so good. There is nothing amiss with your eye. But what is your conclusion.”
“You have authority, a leader recognises it in others. But you travel far from the seat of your authority, by the size of your burdens. I would say you are travelling north up the great river. To the heartlands of Moravia perhaps. But there you have me at a loss my lady, for my geography of the Moaglean continent is sparse, and I must plead poverty.”
“You do well, your wisdom is richer than your knowledge. But while you aim true, you do not go far enough. My homeland is further north than the Blessed Empire of Moravia, and to the east, the fair land of Ulduun, straddling the highlands and valleys between the Republic of Mian and the Golden Sea. But my homeland declared, you have not yet finished your riddling. What profession do you name me?”
“You are a woman of means, of authority, of learning. But you have not the haughty eye of the first estate, nor the hungry grasp of the middling sort, nor the flushed rough vigour of the labouring folk. I would have to place you among the clergy.” The lady’s eyebrow rose and her smile widened.
“Yet not of the first rank perhaps. With all respect to your profession, I would not believe that one could rise to the Abbey’s heights without some love of finer living, and the trappings of position. But in a smaller placement, away from the cut and thrust of politics, I would say your talents would be recognised and appreciated all the more. You are clergy of the second rank I would say, from a small priory in the country. I know not the varied ranks of clergy well, for the Abbey is a southern religion and we have no monks in Nordra. But if I speak any truth I would say your fellows would be blind fools if you were not their Prior.”
The lady laughed delightedly. “Your eye and your wisdom match each other in excellence. You have found me out. Prior indeed am I, of the Priory of Falcor in Ulduun.”
“Then we have made the measure of each other my lady. But here, as the ferryman pulls his boat into the banks, I must depart and bid you farewell. Though perhaps, if you had the time, a cup of wine would warm you, and we could continue our pleasant conversation inside.”
“Nothing would delight me more, but I must here beg your forgiveness, for time is not my friend today. I am staying at a sister Priory tonight, and must make my entrance before the lamps are lit and the hours are sung. Or else I will be waiting out the age for them to give me entrance. And I leave north upon the river barge tomorrow without delay.”
“A terrible shame my lady, for our conversation has cheered me greatly, and I would have loved to know you more. My tongue can only improve with practice.”
“And I would have loved to provide you with such practice. But alas, such pleasures must be put aside in favour of practicalities. But if you are ever in Ulduun, at the town of Falcor, please come to see me, and we shall practise our tongues together without fear of such practical obstruction.”
“I shall remember your invitation with fondness, and I wish you gods speed on your journey.”
“And on yours, god be with you my fair-tongued northman, in whatever infamous quest awaits. But please, before you leave,” she said, as the northman clambered out of the boat, tipping another coin to the ferryman in thanks for his passage. “Tell me your name.”
“Karl.” The Nordran replied with a smile. “Karl Mordant. And yours my lady?”
“Juliette. De Forcia.” She replied. “A pleasure and an honour”, and she waved as the ferryman pushed them off from the side again. And the boat was caught along on the current, taking it on and out of sight.
As the light faded it became just another huddled shape on the river, one among many. And Karl left off looking after it, a feeling in his heart like the passing of a road seen but not taken. But the future awaited him, and he turned and entered into the inn under the sign of the Traveller.