By James Enge
Illustrated by Chuck Lukacs
from Black Gate 11, copyright Ã‚Â© 2007 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
I will not live three hundred years. I’ll be dead before I’m eighty and, if I’m not, I’ll wish I were. The Strange Gods of the Coranians never knew my name, and I don’t know theirs. I’m not a Coranian Knight — I’m not a Coranian anything, but especially not a knight. I’m sick of that mistake. People see me in my armor, on my horse and they scuttle away or call me “sir.” Some of the Riders like that; it’s the reason they ride. But I don’t need it; if anybody calls me “sir” I tell them straight out. Nobody calls me “sir,” not even my sister’s boys.
That night I was riding with Liskin. I wasn’t happy about it. Liskin was a whiner, a rule-keeper: I’d heard about him. A rule-keeper, but his regular partner, Ost, was a bloody-truncheon, a dead-or-aliver who had killed ten people on the Road, just for fun, in the past year. There was no mystery about it: this was the sort of thing Ost liked to brag about on his nights off. It’s not a crime to kill on the roads or in the woods at night, as long as you bring the body back to a castleyard. It’s not a crime, but it’s not what the Riders are about, either. A couple of us got together (I wasn’t there but I heard about it) and asked Liskin what he was going to do about Ost. “What Ost does is not against the rules,” he said. So the rest of us did what we had to do about Ost. Liskin didn’t join us; it was against the rules.
I was the lucky winner who drew Liskin as a new partner, at least temporarily. My regular partner, Alev, had gotten his legs broken in a bargainer’s man-trap the night before. That would never have happened if Alev weren’t a rule-breaker and a bad example; we were strictly forbidden to enter the woods around the Bargainer village. But we brought his stray out, and brought him out alive. That’s what the Riders are about, and not keeping any particular set of rules.
Try and tell that to Liskin. He was on me from the moment I entered the courtyard of Rendel’s Castle. My sword and shield were both shorter than regulations allowed, he said; my cloak was dark blue, not black, he said; worst of all I had a long scratch in the black enamel on my armor, he said.
I could have explained to him that long swords and long shields aren’t handy for fighting in woodlands; a stabbing sword and a round shield are better. I could have told him that after sunset in the woods, dark blue is black, or so close as to make no difference. I could have said, in a reasonable tone, “Look, Liskin: it’s twenty days until we get paid and I’ve got to help feed my sister’s children. I can’t afford to send my breastplate to the armorer’s right now, not for a stupid scratch.” I might have said all this, but I didn’t have a chance. Liskin was still talking.
“Roble, you’ve got a slovenly appearance,” Liskin said, proudly standing next to his own shield, which was leaning against the courtyard wall. “How do you expect anyone you meet on the road to believe you when you say you’re not a robber?”
“Well — ” I began, but he swept on.
“I tell you, Roble,” he told me, “I never appear for duty without the proper gear in proper order. It isn’t safe, and it just isn’t right.” He went on to tell me what he’d tolerate from the person he rode with, but I didn’t have to listen to any of that. Because I knew what he’d tolerate.
I glanced over at his shield, standing tall and stainlessly black beside him. I drew my truncheon and struck it hard, back against the wall, scoring the enamel halfway down the shield. It bounced off the wall and fell face down on the dirty cobblestones of the courtyard. Hitching my truncheon back on my belt, I looked at Liskin. He stood there, his mouth slightly open.
Neither of us spoke, or had to. Liskin had a spare shield back at the Riders Lodge (he had a spare at every lodge in Four Castles). He could run and get it. But then he wouldn’t be back in time for evening muster, which was just about to happen. So he had to ride with a scratched shield or miss muster; either way he broke a rule.
I picked up his shield and handed it to him. After a moment’s hesitation he took it. Slinging it over his shoulder, he walked off without another word toward the mustering square. I waited a couple moments before I did the same; by then the mustering officer had actually appeared.
That night we were mustered by old Marmon. He had been a Rider for twenty years, but the time came when he could no longer stand the rough-and-tumble of the roads. By law of the Four Castles, he could eat and sleep at any of the Riders Lodges for the rest of his life, but you no longer got paid after you stopped riding the roads. So Marmon mustered us now and then (which paid a little something), and introduced lonely colleagues to his two “nieces” (which paid considerably better). He was grayer than your grandfather and only forty-five years old.
Marmon walked down the steps of the stabler’s house, hefting a hillconch shell to his lips. He blew a curt and negligent blast (strictly for form, as he saw we were all present). But the echoes were still ringing in the courtyard as we lined up on the mustering square.
“Who rides to the east?” he demanded.
“Arens,” said one of the other pair, and, “Teck,” said his partner. Marmon looked them over without enthusiasm.
“Who rides to the west?” Marmon asked eventually.
Marmon stepped over and eyed both of us. “Liskin, you seem to have a scratch on your shield,” he said, and I’d swear the old pimp was smiling.
“Yes, sir. Roble — ”
“I’m not your mother, Liskin,” said Marmon sharply, and Liskin shut up.
Marmon stood back and spoke to us all. “Arens and Teck, you’re fresh from a month off, so I’ll just caution you not to play hero. It’s one thing when you’re boasting in the tavern; it’s another thing when you’re out there in the woods. Remember: if you’re lost, that’s one more for the enemy to feed on. When in doubt, save yourself at least; bring back the bodies if you can.
“More specifically, watch where you step. You’ll be riding past the Bargainer village, and they’ve been setting man-traps all along the road and baiting them with real people. Take a long look at everything, especially the ground, confer with each other and, when in doubt, save yourselves. Go ahead and saddle up.”
They left and Marmon turned to us. Again, he was almost smiling as he looked at Liskin’s shield. “You two are new partners,” he said, “and something tells me you’re not going to get along. That’s fine with me; it’s fine with the Four Barons. You don’t have to like each other. But do your job. That’s all.” He waved us away.
“Marmon,” I asked, “what’s the road like between here and Caroc?”
“Nothing unusual. Some older children staying out late- Ã¢â‚¬Ëœjust walking in the woods, mother,’ you know. That’s about it. Get on the road.”
I turned away with Liskin and ran toward the stables. The sun had almost set.
“He didn’t tell us not to be heroes,” Liskin complained.
“I guess he forgot,” I said.
It was twilight when Liskin and I rode out of the courtyard of Rendel’s Castle and down the main road through Rendel’s Town. Liskin and I were both blowing on hillconches as we rode, and off to the east we could hear Arens and Teck doing the same. We made quite a racket between us; there can’t have been a person in castle or town who didn’t hear us. That, of course, was the idea.
We rode on to the stretch of gravel road at the edge of town, then reined in and turned. Liskin blew another blast on his hillconch and then I broke the law.
“By the authority of the Four Barons,” I shouted, “Masters of Caroc, Rendel’s, Etain and Bleisian (castles and towns and lands between), I declare the limit of the law. From town to town, through all the woods, from northern hill to southern plain, I say the law has vanished with the light and will return only with the sun. Until that time, those who enter the woods or walk the Road are guilty of their own suffering and loss, even to their deaths. Let their souls be cursed and their names be forgotten. I declare all this in the name of the Master of Rendel’s Castle (here unspoken) and my own, Roble of the Riders.”
Liskin blew a final blast on his hillconch and I shouted, “Naeli!” Liskin looked at me in surprise (for this was not part of the rite as he knew it) but he didn’t say anything. We rode over a small wooden bridge that arched over a narrow stream and galloped down the road into the lawless woods.
The Riders began as a guild of gravediggers, and in a way that’s what we still are. Our primary duty is to collect the dead bodies that accumulate along the road during the lawless hours. Equally important is to collect “strays” — people travelling, ignorant, on the road or lost in the woods. These we conduct to a place where law prevails. Finally, there are those who go beyond the law by choice: to kill or rob along the road during the lawless hours. These, too, we bring out of the woods. If they don’t resist, then all’s well. They have, after all, committed no crime, no matter what they have done. If they resist, we bring them anyway; if necessary, we kill them and bring the bodies out.
That’s the one law the Riders carry with them through the lawless hours: bring the bodies out. For every body left in the woods after dark became the subject and sustenance of our enemy, the Boneless One, the Whisperer in the Woods.
That was why the Four Barons had long ago declared the woods and the road through them to be beyond the law after dark: to prevent people from straying there. Those who didn’t fear the Enemy, whom they had never seen, would be held back by fear of their fellow-man, whom they knew all too well.
It had been a good idea, I’d always thought — perhaps the only thing that could have kept Four Castles alive across the centuries. But it was an idea, some were beginning to suspect, that was doomed to failure. Because there are always outsiders, who stumble into the woods without suspecting what dwells there. Because many who should know better simply do not do what is best for them. Because there will always be a few who say to themselves, I won’t be killed; I will kill. (And if they’re right they leave a body in the woods, and if they’re wrong they leave a body in the woods. Either way the Enemy, the Boneless One, gets what it needs.) And, finally, because of the Bargainers, who grow more numerous every year.
The first trap was on the road itself. It looked like a woman in a white dress being dragged off the road by three men with the narrow filed teeth of Bargainers. Glancing over at Liskin, I saw he had drawn his sword and was preparing for a heroic charge. I whacked him across the visor and said, “It’s a trap!” He gaped at me in surprise.
At the sound of my voice the “woman” turned toward us. Her hair and skin were as dark as mine; her nose was as high arched and delicate as my mother’s had been. Her voice was ragged with desperation as she cried out, “Help me! Help me! Why won’t you help me?”
I should know better by now, but it got to me. It always got to me. Alev, in contrast, was pretty callous and could even make conversation with the traps until they vanished in (I guess) frustration.
“Go to hell,” I muttered desperately; it was the best I could do, usually.
“Help me!” she screamed. “Help me! Why won’t you help me?”
“Shut up,” I muttered. “You’re not real.”
It went on for a while longer until the Enemy gave up and the illusion-bait disappeared. Left behind (because it was real, not illusion) was an immense man-trap — or horse-trap, really, since it was made to catch our horses as we gallopped to the rescue. I dismounted and went forward to move the thing out of the way and break it with my truncheon. Liskin remained on his horse as look-out, which was in accordance with the Rules and (for once) good sense besides.
“Be careful!” he called to me as I hustled the shattered trap over to the side of the road. “There’s sure to be a Bargainer or two nearby in the wood!”
“You think?” I grunted as I hurled the broken metal into the woods. At that moment I was glaring eye-to-eye with a Bargainer crouching in the brush alongside the road. He made no move toward me, nor I to him, but he smiled at me, showing his teeth filed sharp as needles.
My irony had been lost on Liskin. “Of course!” he said. “There had to be someone on hand to attack us and haul the bodies into the wood!”
“I’ve learned a lot from riding with you, Liskin,” I remarked, backing carefully toward my mount. I could not see any companions to my Bargainer out there. Possibly he was alone. If so, he could be killed and his body hauled out of the woods, which was a good thing, in theory. In practice, it was a little early in the night to start collecting corpses; no god knew how many we would be hauling by the end of the night. It would be extremely bad if we had to stop before dawn and burn some bodies on the road. Also, there was the possibility that the Bargainer I saw was not alone- that he was just another form of bait. I weighed the alternatives, reflected that it was Liskin, not Alev, who was watching my back, and decided to let the Bargainer go.
He apparently made a similar decision about me. At least, he made no move against us as I remounted and we rode away.
“We’ll have to tell the pair riding east from Caroc tonight about this,” Liskin said, after a while.
Still later he asked, “How did you know it was a trap?”
“The woman was my sister.”
He thought about this for awhile, and then just had to say, “But she could have been travelling east from Caroc — ”
“Naeli’s been dead for five years,” I told him. “She was lost in the woods.”
Liskin was silent for a long time. Finally he said, “I’m sorry.” (That’s what you’re supposed to say, isn’t it? It’s one of the Rules.)
“Her own damn fault,” I replied, to get him to shut up. It worked. But it didn’t work with Naeli. Nothing ever worked with her.