The Wizards of High Valley
by Pam Uphoff
The blacksmith's son set out from the village of South Shore, walking north at roughly the same time the whore's son set out from Hastingsburg, walking south.
Daren had all of his worldly possessions in a sack over his back. Due to the unfortunate circumstances of his father not being married to his mother, the sack was rather small, the main weight was a mid sized pot that his father had given his mother, much to his wife's fury. It was also all that had survived the fire that had orphaned him. Certainly his father's widow wasn't going to take him in. Not after the disgrace of him dying in the arms of his mistress.
At thirteen, he was starting to out-grow clothing rather rapidly, and was starting to look like he'd be as large and strong as his father. Somewhere on this road would be a place that needed a worker. Not very skilled, because his father's wife had not liked to find him in the smithy, but willing to work hard and learn. He'd earned food, drink and even an occasional coin running errands. There would be work somewhere.
Marius's sack was somewhat larger, but as all it contained were clothes, jerky and bread it was even lighter than Daren's. At twelve years of age he was beautiful, with even features, large grey eyes, and wavy blond hair. Combined with the pure glowing innocence of childhood, he had recently started attracting altogether too much attention from the very impure men that frequented Madam Kestlia's very refined and discreet establishment. He had decided to leave before anything unpleasant happened, rather than after. Growing up as an errand boy in a posh whorehouse that catered to the nobility, he had no illusions, and knew quite well what had happened to some of the boys that were raised there.
He purely missed his books, though. Not that he had time to read, walking all day and burrowing into whatever small safe looking hole he could find off the road at night. He'd looked at a map while planning his departure. Seventy miles south to the crossroads, where this good road met the old Imperial Highway. Then turn west and walk for another one hundred and twenty miles to reach West Harbor, the largest city west of the Divider Mountains. Someone would need a junior clerk, who could read, write and figure. He knew how to keep accounts, he'd brought his own quill and ink. Someone would hire him. All he had to do was walk less than two hundred miles. Five days, if he walked along briskly. Depending on how steep the coastal mountains actually were.
Daren heard the horsemen before he saw them, and decided that he didn't really want to meet them. He slipped off the road onto a deer track and wound quickly through the brush and went to ground where he could see and not be seen.
One look at the mounted soldiers had him flushing with shame. Hiding from Sergeant Weatherby and his little troop. They patrolled the roads and were paid by a tax levy on the merchants that used then. Embarrassed, he stayed hidden and let them trot by without noticing him. At least he'd know the road ahead was safe and free of bandits. He wiggled back through the brush and started walking again. He'd heard from the Merchants that it was a two day wagon trip to Crossroads. It wasn't supposed to be as large as South Shore, but if he asked around, someone would surely tell him which way he ought to go.
Crossroads, when he got there, was even smaller than he'd thought. Two small farms flanked the road to South Shore before he came to the broad stone surface of the Imperial highway. A good sized Inn and stable, and a few small houses were the totality of the Crossroads. He could see some cleared fields with sheep beyond the Inn, and nothing more.
Intimidated, he approached the Inn, but then veered around to the stable. Two coaches were sitting out in the yard, a large one that looked a bit worn and had writing on the door. The other was a bit smaller, black with some fancy metalwork on it. Someone was swearing beyond the coaches, and he circled cautiously to find a groom swearing at an upset horse. Horses he knew. He'd held plenty for his father, and occasionally earned a penny helping a merchant.
"Hold him for you, sir?" he asked.
The man didn't even look up. "Ay. Bugger's done something to his hoof and won't stand still to let me look at it."
Daren plopped his sack against the wall, "Hey guy, we're just trying to help." He reached for the rein, and then reached up to rub the horse's forehead. He was a beautiful glossy black, still wearing his harness. With a person visible in front of him he settled down and picked up his hoof. The man pressed on it shifting his hands around and watching the horse's reaction. At one side the pressure got a snort and head toss.
"Bruised." The man put the hoof down and finally looked at Daren. "Who are you?"
"Er, Daren. Daren Smithson. Just walked up from South Shore, looking for work."
"Hmph." the man looked him over. "Well we've nothing permanent, but we've got enough horses in right now for you to earn a couple of meals and a night in the hayloft."
So, that easily his hopes of a job were dashed, and his hopes for a dry bed and real food were granted.
After forking straw into four stalls for the lame black and three more nearly identical black horses, he forked out the stalls of the six big horses that pulled the big coach, and four riding horses, then helped feed.
"C'mon lad, dinner for you. You're a hard worker, you just go on west and one of the bigger inns will be sure to take you on."
A thin older woman scooped up a bowl of stew and a fresh roll and parked him in a corner of a large dining room.
The stableman was talking to a man in black velvet with gold stitching, looking apologetic in the face of the man's obvious irritation. "Damn. Well, we'll see if he's sound in the morning." The fancy man had a fancy accent, and two fancy ladies with him.
There was a family group at one table, two priests at another. Several other men at tables. Rougher looking men were at the bar. Daren guessed they were the coach drivers. Maybe some of the riders. One fellow in black was probably the Fancy man's driver. Why hadn't he been out there, holding the horse, checking the hoof?
A comfortably plump woman was dictating a letter to a… If it hadn't been for the trousers, Daren might have thought he was looking at a girl. But the pretty boy had a fancy box with paper and an ink bottle, and was writing away as the woman chattered on. Daren frowned. Could anyone actually write as fast as that woman was talking? The pretty boy said something to her, looking apologetic. She smiled and patted him on the head. Yuck.
The fancy man wandered over and glanced at the pages. "You've got a good hand there, boy. Where'd you learn to write?"
"Hastingsburg, sir. I'm on my way to West Harbor, looking for a job clerking. I can read, write and figure."
Daren grinned. _Just like me, but prettier. And with a city accent._
"Huh. Why don't you ride with me to Ridgetop. My sister was saying she needs a secretary."
"I would be delighted, sir…?"
"I'm Lord Justin Benifent. My sister is Countess Celia Winstrum."
In the morning Lord Justin watched as Daren trotted the black horse, and pronounced him sound. "Good with horses, are you?" he asked.
The driver glared at Daren.
"Don't have a lot of experience, sir." Daren wondered if he should elaborate.
"You work here?"
"No, sir, just passing through, looking for work."
"Well." The man frowned down on him. "I'll pay you two pennies to ride along to Ridgetop, and if Bassey goes lame, five to lead him the rest of the way."
Seven pennies would double his carefully horded coins. "Aye, sir. Glad to."
And so he found himself clinging to the grip by the narrow rear footman's seat on the back outside of the coach. It was better than walking, and Ridgetop, even though it was east rather than the west he vaguely planned on, was bound to have jobs for a willing worker.
Sitting backwards in the coach, in his best outfit, Marius found himself making polite conversation with the two ladies. To his experienced gaze, he could tell that they were neither family members nor married to his lordship. _A step up from Madam Kestlia's_ he thought, but then seeing the lord's indifference and the slight desperation in the ladies' postures, he added, _And about to be dismissed._ The man glanced at Marius occasionally, studying him. He gritted his teeth and chatted to the ladies. _Not again!_
The team stayed sound, so the boy his lordship had hired was paid off with two pennies and dismissed at the town gate. The coach wound through narrow, steep streets and finally stopped before a large mansion with a commanding view across the Big Valley. From the front steps Marius could see the faint outlines of the coastal mountains. He turned back to the mansion doors, hoping for the best.
The doors were carved works of art, the foyer floor pink marble, expensive oil paintings glowed from the silk covered walls. A large standing clock chimed the quarter hour as they walked in. The ladies chattered their way up the grand staircase that curled gracefully from the right side over their heads to the left side of a balcony looking down on them.
Lord Justin stopped in the foyer and frowned down on Marius, clearly thinking… deep thoughts? "So my little pretty," he reached out toward Marius, who stepped back.
"My Lord, I think I must decline any offer of employment from your family. Good day." He turned and walked out, ignoring a disbelieving laugh from behind.
Daren caught the coins, and thanked the fancy man. Not that he'd wish an injury on a horse, but… Turning away from the coach, he saw the driver speaking to one of the soldiers guarding the gate. The driver smirked at him and whipped up the horses.
The soldier stomped up. "So, soring a horse to get a job, eh? We don't need your type around here." He pointed down the road the horses had just carted him up.
He closed his mouth and tried to think of something to say. Then he gave up and walked away. He'd grown up in a village. He knew that a reputation was all a man had, and his was ruined here before he'd set a foot inside.
How far had they come, since he'd last seen a little village?
Too far. He'd be sleeping rough tonight. And he didn't have any food either. With that in mind, he stepped off the road and followed a little stream, looking for edibles. Onion flowers. Ugg. Well, onion soup was better than an empty belly. He snapped off a straight branch and used the sharp end to dig up a bunch, and then headed for higher and drier ground.
He had plenty of daylight to cut back toward the road, and find a hollow out of the wind where he could watch the road and start a tiny fire. His pot was just starting to steam when the pretty boy came striding down the road. He stood up and whistled to get the other boy's attention, inviting him up the bank with a swing of his arm.
The boy hesitated, the shrugged and climbed the rocky ridge.
"Thought the fancy man was going to hire you?"
"Ha!" the pretty boy dumped his sack on the ground. "He didn't want a secretary, he wanted a catamite. Gods, I'm so sick of nobles. Perverts, every one." he caught Daren's eye and grinned, "Hi, I'm Marius. I'm penniless and walking to West Harbor."
Daren grinned back. "Hi, I'm Daren, I'm nearly penniless and I'm walking to wherever I can find a job." his fire spat as his pot came to a boil. "And I'm about to make some onion soup."
"I've got some jerky, and bread." Marius dug into his sack and removed a grease paper bag and a half crushed loaf of bread. "It's not too moldy."
"It looks delicious. Maybe if we boil the jerky with the onions it'll soften up?"
"Can't hurt it."
Surfeit on bread and really bad soup they slept well, and hiked out the next morning in good spirits.
"They killed old Harry, then waited until the coach came along and turned the cart right in front of the horses." Sergeant Hubernark was clearly furious.
Justin stood back up, and stepped away from the driver's corpse. "They let the passengers go?"
"Aye. Took everything but _some_ of the clothes on their backs and told them to start walking." The Sergeant turned around and kicked the dead horse. Some one had slit its throat in a moment of mercy, after it had broken both front legs. It was still laying on the remains of the crude cart "They took all the rest of the horses. Even Harry's old nag. Didn't want the alarm to be sounded too soon."
Justin nodded. "I've sent for the trackers, but if they stayed on the road until they hit hard rock country, we'll never find them."
"Same gang as hit the merchants down Hever way?"
"I hope so. I'd hate to think we've got two outlaw gangs bold enough to be hitting the stages and merchants. We'll have to tell the merchants to travel in groups and hire guards."
"They're not going to like that." The Sergeant predicted glumly. "They think that's why they pay taxes."
"I'm raising a hunting party. When they find out they're about to have several packs of hotheaded young noblemen roaming the countryside looking for something to fight, they'll probably hire even more guards."
The Sergeant snorted, but was too well disciplined to actually comment on Justin's peers. Justin just hoped he wasn't _still_ lumped in with the rest.
"Well it makes a change from politics, which is just as well. I thought I had a brilliant idea to infiltrate the upper servants, and totally misjudged my boy." He flashed a grin at the grizzled old Sergeant. "You should have been there to see me get snubbed by a twelve year old."
"Thought you were doing the pretty with young ladies?"
"Yes, and thoroughly sick of it, thank you. I thought this boy could go where I can't… well never mind."
One of troopers cantered up and shook his head before speaking. "No sign of them leaving the road between here and Brassford. The trackers are checking that road that branches off to the south, then they'll come here and head west."
"If they went west, they'd have had to lag behind the passengers they'd sent off, until the poor footsore lot turned off for Ridgetop." Justin pondered. "Let's take a look."