Burn the Map

...and the atlas and the guide book and the GPS and everything else that thinks it knows where you're going. 'Cause I'll tell you a secret, friend: They don't have a clue.

Welcome, traveler!  Is it a new world you're looking for, or perhaps a very old one?  Either way, your journey begins as soon as you click one of the links to the left (or up above, if you're inclined to the mobile devices).  Think of them as portals to other times and places... I mean, you could think of them as simple navigation buttons, but if you're going to do that, there are zillions of websites you could visit.  But you didn't.  You came here.  So saddle up, suit up, buckle up...  Grab your blaster, your sword, your spellbook...  Basically do whatever it takes to feel ready for adventure and dive into stories where no explorer or mapmaker has dared set foot.  Oh, and I almost forgot...  Where you're going, you might as well burn the map. 

Chapter 16

“Daniel,” Reuben said, “the time has now come to remove your wondrous blade from concealment under your darkest of cloaks.  It is that I have prepared the Lord Aidan for the purpose of our visit; better to show the weapon openly then to keep it hidden as though for some nefarious purpose.”

Daniel complied, but he felt strange showing the sword so openly on his hip, especially as the rest of his garb was not much finer than a peasant’s Sunday best.  Above all, he had no legal right to carry a sword, and he knew it well.

Nevertheless, the guards at the door to the manor house itself were more cordial in their greeting than those at the gate had been, and Lord Aidan’s herald announced the party’s entry.

“Yes,” Roland muttered as they moved into the hall, “let’s everyone call as much attention to our coming as possible.”

It could have been that Reuben didn’t hear him in the noisy banquet hall, but whatever the case, he didn’t reply.  Daniel, for once, was inclined to agree with Roland.  Fortunately, their arrival seemed to gain little enough notice; the room was filled with the indistinct babble of dozens of small conversations, and most of the guests barely looked up from their business.  Lord Aidan’s hall was more austere than Lord Hector’s, at least as Daniel remembered it, having only been in his own lord’s hall on a pair of occasions.  The room he saw now spoke more of practicality than of the wealth that had become Corngold’s reputation; the furniture was solidly crafted, but not opulent, and the servants who roamed the room with flagons of wine and mead were dressed well, but not richly.

The meal was yet to be served, but it was clear that one realm in which Aidan chose not to skimp was the food: dishes of candied fruits and nuts set at intervals at the three large tables, arrayed in a squared U-shape with its open end toward the main doors Daniel had just entered, and platters of dried meats passed freely from hand to hand as all he guests whetted their appetites.  Daniel knew only a little of heraldry, but from the colors and patterns he could see, he guessed most of those in attendance were tradesmen or guild leaders rather than other nobles.  Even still, he was as out of place as ever he’d been, and he looked to Sir Reuben for clues on behavior.  The knight caught his questioning gaze.

“Having now been announced,” Reuben said, “Roland, Rebekah, and William will find whatever places they may on the side tables, keeping near to the foot as they have no station here.  You and I, as honored guests of Lord Aidan, must walk the gauntlet between the tables and present ourselves.  Come.”

Daniel noticed that Sir Reuben’s stance was rigid, and his speech was terse and direct, a posture he’d only seen in the knight once, before their fight with the bandits.  On closer inspection, Daniel was quite sure the man was more ill-at-ease now than he’d been before the fight.  “Starting to think we shouldn’t have come?” Daniel asked as they started down the long space between the tables.

“Hm?” Reuben responded as if coming out of deep thought.  “No, I just…  Court is not always a gentle place for a third son.  There’s a reason I spend most of my nights sleeping on the ground.”

In another moment they reached the center of the head table; Lord Aidan sat in a heavy chair on the other side.  He was a tall man with severe features and platinum hair.  Cold eyes peered out from under bushy brows that made him look older than his forty years. When he spoke, his voice was smoother and richer than Daniel had expected.  “Sir Reuben,” he said, “welcome back to my hall.  It is an honor.  My stable master asked me to inform you that Noble Karl is settled well.”  Daniel was surprised and for a moment thought he’d misheard.  Surely it wasn’t customary for a lord to relay a message for a stable master.

“I’m glad, Lord,” Reuben replied, “I value your hospitality toward him as much as that toward me.”

“More, I don’t doubt,” Lord Aidan chuckled, “but Karl doesn’t seem to mind a roof over his head, even if you can’t abide one.”  Sir Reuben opened his mouth, but Lord Aidan spoke again before the knight could voice a reply.  “And you must be Daniel,” he said.  “Such strange times and tales you’ve been thrust into, lad.  I don’t envy you.  Will you sit next to me?”

Daniel’s eyes widened, and he stammered for a moment. “Of course, my Lord,” he finally managed.  A servant came around the table and escorted Daniel and Reuben to Aidan’s left side, then held chairs for them both as they sat.

Aidan handed Daniel a dish of candied nuts.  “Reuben tells me you are a miller’s son,” he said.

“Yes, Lord.”

“And were you learning the trade well, before you were pulled into all this?”

Daniel hesitated, images of his village flooding through his mind, the ghost town of his nightmare imposed over the terrified throng of his last day there, and both layered over the happy roads of his childhood.  The sword’s song smoothed as though hoping to comfort him.  “I learned all I could, Lord.”

“That’s good, lad.  A man should have a trade, a skill of his hands to add things that last into the world, or meet a vital need, like your mill’s flour.  Half the popinjays out there couldn’t work a day in the trades their guilds represent.  They do nothing but move money from place to place; where’s the good?”

“I…”  Daniel cleared his throat.  “As you say, milord.”  He looked over to Sir Reuben for help, but the knight was watching the far end of the room where the captain of the guard had just entered through the main doors.

“Something to say, young miller?” the lord asked.  He said ‘miller’ almost as Daniel had been saying ‘lord,’ and it made him bold.

“I understood that you were friendly to merchants, Lord.”

Aidan’s stern face was softened by the hint of a smile.  “Well…  I let that reputation grow to irritate my neighbors.  The only thing more worthless than a high guildsman is a noble; I know I’m one myself, but a man can’t help the station of his birth.  Besides, I’m no fool.  I can sense a shift in the winds as well as the next man, maybe better than some.  There’s a change coming, Daniel, perhaps a long time overdue: a time when men like you will grow tired of having their value squandered by men like me, and the growing power of the trades is the start of it.  It’s a good thing, in my eyes, though I doubt I’ll live to see it come to fruit.  If every noble saw things as I do, tradesmen wouldn’t need to hide behind wealthy bureaucrats to get fair treatment for their families and pay for their wares.  Perhaps someday they won’t.”

Aidan’s eyes had gone distant during his speech, but the smile hadn’t left them.  Daniel thought he wouldn’t mind seeing such a world, but at the moment it sounded so unthinkable that even to imagine it made him uncomfortable.  Just then, the guard captain arrived with a change of subject…