Kesswell-1: Good Help is Hard to Find

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Arron's View
The City-State of Kesswell; a land of high adventure, rabid intrigue, overwhelming greed, and moral ambivalence. A land where anything goes, for a price. Nam-Gal seeks to change his life from military adventurer to mostly honest businessman. For this he will need help and good help is hard to find. However sometimes you can find help in the most unusual places.

Submitted: September 22, 2015

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Submitted: September 22, 2015

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GOOD HELP IS HARD TO FIND

by

Wilber Arron

 

“Welcome, Nam-Gal,” I heard the builder call out. “I am pleased to see you are still alive.”

I looked up from the dusty dirt street at the front porch of the newly built two story wooden structure. It was large, made of fresh pine, oak and cedar that I could smell halfway down the block. It was soon to be my new home and business. Standing on the freshly painted porch stood a fat finely dressed man in the blue and brown apparel of a Master of the Builders Guild. I took one look at his round face, faked smile, large belly and the fat fingers opening the brown leather money pouch on his belt, and I knew the extent of his happiness. “More likely you are happy I am still here to pay you for the remaining work you have done on my place,” I said, walking up the newly hammered oaken stairs.

He faked surprise at my comment and his mouth moved to protest, but I cut him off with a wave of my hand. I had neglected to pay him the balance of his fee to finish constructing my place before I left to fight off the Jadar invasion. I neglected it because I did not want to come back to a half empty lot and a fat drunken builder.

“Oh no, Nam-Gal,” the builder went on anyway. “I am pleased to work for one the Redum. I heard it was a glorious battle. The Jadar, I understand, are beaten?”

“No, the Jadar are destroyed,” I reported to him as if he was my mother. “Their men are dead, their camps are destroyed, and their women and children condemned to be sold as slaves. This you would know about if somehow your sons and housemen managed to get around to answering Duke Arnascio’s call for fighting men. I assume you also managed not to take part in the Troll battle outside the Endurian forests?”

The fat builder stepped back feigning more surprise that I would question his valor. “Oh no, Nam-Gal, do not think I would shirk my duty to the Duke. My family and I were just busy building houses and businesses like yours.”

“And keeping you hides intact,” I added. I looked back to the street below. I pointed to the row of horse carts slowly coming up that dusty main street to the temple Ziggurat bringing the clay urns with the ashes of the men who did not share the builder’s reluctance for fighting. “Save your protests for them”, I spat out. I got to the top stair and felt it shift slightly under my weight. I looked down at the builder whom by now had stepped back another three feet. “I assume my room is complete and my bed moved in?” I asked.

“Yes, Nam-Gal, my son Aknude installed your bed yesterday. Your room is ready.”

“Well I am glad he did something useful. The building work is good, I hope” I said, inspecting the shifty top stair.

“Oh yes, Nam-Gal,” the builder droned on. “It is of the very finest craftsmanship.”

“Good,” I said drawing my katana out of its sheath so that the nearly two and a half feet of shining mage harden steel caught the orange glow of the sun and reflected it into the eyes of the builder. “I would hate to think the work was bad and I had to come to your business and discuss it with you in person.”

The jolly face suddenly went entirely pale, and the smile vanished in an instant. “My word as a Master of the Builder’s Guild, Nam-Gal, the building is sound.”

“For both our sakes, I hope you are correct,” I told him. I would deal with this problem tomorrow. I was tired and my bones ached, having walked most of three days to get out of the desert. I started to go through the swinging doors of the new building before I remembered something I wanted to ask. “How did the Troll battle go? I heard nothing while fighting the Jadar.”

“It went well,” the builder replied. “Both Duke Arnascio s heavy calvary and Sarrum Olafson’s foot solders caught the Trolls in the open and killed most of them. A dozen or so were captured and are to be sold in the slave market tomorrow, along with your captives.”

I laughed out loud. “As if anyone would be stupid enough to buy a Troll slave,” and walked up the new stairs to my room on the second story. My bed was there and my things were moved in. Nothing appeared to be missing. I barely got out of my chain mail and Kevlar padding before I fell fast asleep on my bed.

I slept like the dead for the remainder of the day and half the night. I got up at the turning of the second watch and spent the remaining time before dawn reviewing the account books my overseer, Mauldin, deposited in my room. All that was visible was the steady yellow light of an oil lamp. That lamp and hundreds like them are my contribution to life here in Kesswell and the source of a good part of my fortune. After sun up I went over to Nichol the Barber and had my beard trimmed and then soaked in my first hot bath in almost a dozen market intervals. I took clean clothes with me and so when I walked out, I looked and felt like a human being again. I left my old clothes for rags and spent a few hours with Zirram of the Furniture Maker’s Guild to go over plans for my tables, chairs, and the bar he was going to make, and paid him the down payment. I was walking out onto the main street when a stripling youth, maybe about 16, in poorly fitted, badly made chain mail, carrying a sword too big for him came up to me and bowed just enough to be respectful.

“Redum, Nam-Gal. I am ordered to give you this message from Salla Guilmick,” he said clumsily. Obviously new cannon fodder from the boonies that had been called up as part of the new Erin levies to replace the recently slaughtered old Erin levies. He hadn’t mastered the local common tongue yet, and spoke with a Celtic brogue of the northern woods. Lucky for him the invasions were over; he might live long enough now to learn to speak it properly. “He says that Duke Arnascio is having a meeting of the army commanders tonight at the palace hall at First Watch. You are asked to come. You may bring female company if you wish.”

I tried not to look bored and nodded slightly. “You may tell Salla Guilmick I will be there, most likely alone.”

“Yes, Redum Nam-Gal,” he replied, and then turned and walked away.

“I looked at the sun now almost at zenith. There was nothing to do for about five hours. On a whim I decided to pay my respects to Zu-Abbrigal the local magi. He was my oldest friend in town and the one man who helped me get started, after I got dumped here in Kesswell thanks to the vagaries of n-dimensional space-time physics. As it was midday I knew he’d be having lunch at his sister’s bar, “The Reluctant Wizard.” I strolled down the dusty hard-packed clay of the Commercial Quarter streets and toward the Ziggurat of the main temple in the center of the city.

The city was busy with trade. Finely clothed masters from the manufacturing and art guilds were out buying raw materials. Now that trade with the surrounding kingdoms had been reestablished, they could sell their high priced goods without getting their throats cut in the process. Plainly clothed farmers from the fertile plains to the north were in town buying goods for the winter now that they didn’t have to worry about being turned into human sushi by the Trolls. Most of the locals were back after fleeing in a blind panic to the hills to the west, since they now knew they were not going to be killed, raped, enslaved or otherwise inconvenienced by the Jadar. Finally, I noted the black skinned Moorish camel riders from the south coast were here as well. Now that the salt caravan routes were open and they could cross the desert without having to employ a corps of Catafracti to keep the Jadar at a safe distance. Not once in my twenty minute walk across town did one of these paragons of civic virtue mutter a word of thanks to me or any of the other soldiers whom kept their hides in one piece during the invasions, but then gratitude in Kesswell only ran as deep as people’s purses. I saw one Master from the Silversmith Guild berate a solider I knew for daring to step in front of his regal personage. I repressed the momentary desire to take his head off at the shoulders and walked down the street with my tongue firmly clenched between my teeth.

I got to the main city square immediately after the sparsely attended midday prayer of Thanksgiving to Malduke had been uttered by the senior priest. Obviously the people felt as compelled to thank the Gods for their deliverance as their soldiers. The weathered red mud brick of the five story ziggurat took up the east side of the one acre central city square of the Province and City of Kesswell. On the north side of the square were the gray stones and iron gates of the palace behind which resided our fearless leader, Duke Arnascio; the only place in the city with fortifications. That should tell you something right there. Along the south side of the square was the long limestone whitewashed barracks where the foot soldiers were housed and the heavy cavalry were stabled. The light southerly breeze brought to my attention that the horses were all back in the stables. Finally, to the west were the tall impressive statues of our former and current leaders proudly ensconced in front of the unimpressive government and court buildings. Inside those buildings were the finest courts and government money could buy on the entire planet of Nova Terra.

In the middle of the square was a large dais or stage from where our leaders made their orations to a mostly empty square on court days. There were workmen busily putting up cages for the slave auctions that were to be held tomorrow. I nodded to a few of the guards on duty that I knew. I walked out of the square into the Old Town where the government officials and old noble families lived far away from the commotion of the common folks whose crass commercialism they so despised and whose taxes kept this city running and the nobility in the style of life they so richly believed they deserved.

I continued down the stone paved eight horse wide Imperial Road and took the first narrow alley to the right and strode down the two-man wide brick alley to the third door under a sign of a wizard sitting on a tree truck thinking. Underneath the sign was written, “Reluctant Wizard”, in royal blue paint in cuneiform, common and Latin. It was a favorite hangout of the doctors, sages, university staff and other wise men of the city. It was a little highbrow for the government people, and not the den of rabid deal making found in the commercial section. I went down half a flight of stairs to beneath street level. As I descended I felt the air chill as drafts from the ice pits and beer cellars deep below brought a refreshing cool breeze into the bar that was laced with the smells of stew meat and cheese. A long oaken wooden bar that maybe twenty people could stand in front of was at the bottom of the stairs. Inside were two dozen tables and five times as many chairs where people were eating their noontime meal. In the far corner, with his back to the wall, and facing the stairs sat Zu_ Abbrigal drinking a mudee of the dark beer he loved. I got halfway down the staircase before his old, yet sharp, eyes spotted me and he began to rise.

“Michael,” he called out using my Earth name. “I am glad to see you.” The face showed a smile and the first sign of honest affection I had seen since coming back to this town. Other faces turned to look at me. Some smiled, some frowned, and the rest didn’t know or didn’t care to know who I was. As I walked in front of the bar, Dontelo the bartender held out his hand. I eagerly took and shook it with affection. He was the second friend I made in Kesswell.

“You have any of that thick beef stew, dark rye bread, goat cheese and fresh butter?” I asked.

“Yes, Mic. . . I mean Redum Nam-Gal,” he said with a bow.

I held up my hand. “You can always call me Michael, my position means nothing here, old friend.” I said fondly.

He smiled openly, “Yes Michael,” he said. “We have stew, bread, butter and fresh goat cheese, and a mudee of that pale ale you like. The butter and goat’s milk cheese are good, I bought them from your own farms.”

I laughed out loud. “Well here’s a chance to get some of your money back,” I said. “I will also pay for Abbrigal’s lunch,” I informed him and reached into to my money pouch and took out three gold Kudims and gave it to him. It was way too much, but I knew this place barely broke even at times and these people were friends. Dontelo’s eyes widened when he saw the gold and started to protest. “Keep it,” I told him, “and no arguments.”

I strolled over to the table nodding to those around me that I knew. There were many voices; one or two even congratulated me on the battle. I called this place home for the first three years I was in Kesswell. Abbrigal was still standing; he embraced me like I was the prodigal son returned. He sat down at his usual seat and I sat next to him. One of the first things the old man taught me was never sit with my back to the public. Too easy to collect knives and other sharp objects from behind. We both had a good view of the door and stairs.

“How goes your bar,” he asked in that dry English-like accent. Abbrigal sounded like he was in an old Charles Lawton movie. Scratchy voice but mellow, yet very precise.

“Building is up” I told him. ”I ordered the bar, tables and chairs today. It will still be a few months before I am ready to open. I do need someone to run the kitchen. My cooking would choke a Mountain Troll and send any customers I had fleeing for their lives. I was hoping the slave market would help me out. Many of those Jadar women were good cooks and desert style food is popular with the merchants and travelers. There was one I picked out on the trip back. All I need is to find someone that won’t slit my throat when I’m asleep. What I really need is a good brew master. Right now I’m doing my own brewing, but to be honest, I could use help.”

Abbrigal sat back I could imagine the wheels turning as he thought over what I said. He shook his head from side to side and said, “Most of the good brew masters are taken and well paid. Are you still going to operate the bordello upstairs?”

“Yep, but that is not a priority. I will need to find a good madam first. I am not going to spend half my time settling fights or picking up customers after they have been rolled.”

I could see he was still not happy. His gray eyes froze in place like two gun barrels pointing at me. “You know I do not like slavery,” he reminded me. “Using slave girls as prostitutes I am dead set against. I’d get the Duke to ban it if I could.”

“Not going to use the slave girls,” I told him. “Lots of free girls would gladly do the job for the money. Most of the best establishments use free girls. They are less trouble and less inclined to take the client for his gold. I will even free the cook after five years if she works out and doesn’t try to turn me into a soprano with the cooking knives. I agree with you Abbrigal, I have little use for slaves. I guess it’s because they tried so hard to make me one when I first got here.”

“I remember,” the old man said stroking his white beard. “I do not know who was more surprised, the old Duke, or myself, when you killed the slave master with a blurred motion of your hands, took his sword, and starting yelling in that gibberish you call a native tongue. I was glad you spoke enough Latin for me to understand you.”

“Well the old Duke, like his son, was a fool,” Abbrigal went on. “But least he knew a good fighting man when he saw him and had the good common sense to let you spend half a year with me learning Common and Latin. All of you newcomers are good fighters, but you were the best. The others have speed, you had both speed and skill.”

“Well you can all thank Sensi Foster and the five years of Kenjutsu and Ishin-Ryu karate I had before I got here.”

“It does not matter; you were good in fighting and in planning. I just never figured you for a scholar. What you did designing that oil lamp and making oil from the tar pit is still a little beyond me, it was so simple it was brilliant.”

“Simple distillation, Wizard” I explained. “Come over some time and I will show you how it works. I boil the tar and out comes the light petroleum cut that I distill for lamp oil. I bottle the oil and the tar I pile up in cakes. The Duke tells me he wants to use the residue as black top for the roads, but so far nothing has come of it. The oil works lots better than candles. The process is so simple, I could train your pet monkey to do it.”

“It is brighter, Michael, and also a lot less smoky.” Then he looked at me again, this time not with reproach but with concern. “But you look worn out. I do not remember circles under your eyes. The Jadar were not as easy to beat as the new Duke told us in the assembly.”

I grunted. “The new Duke wouldn’t know a cavalry lance from a trebuchet unless somebody shoved it up his ass. No, my friend, they were not the mindless rabble we were told they were. They did a thoroughly good job in taking out our desert outposts and butchering the garrisons. They were better organized and they tried to fight in formation. That is why I sent the fake caravan out into the desert and let them ambush it. The desire to loot was greater than the desire to keep formation. When the looting commenced I brought the house troops down from behind the hills and hit them in the rear. We slaughtered all the men. After what we saw at the desert outposts, the troops would have it no other way. The Erin in those outposts were only half trained and they were massacred, some even after they surrendered: heads cut off, hands cut off, along with other things done to them I will not mention. It was sickening. Between that and the battle, over half the Erin were lost. We lost maybe five hundred troops total. The Jadar lost maybe three times that many plus over a thousand women and children captured. I have them penned up outside the city.  They will be sold tomorrow. I already saw the salt traders in town ready to buy them to work the mines. I am just sick of it, Redum or not.”

“Still, you beat them and stopped them. If they had gotten here, how many more would have died?” Abbrigal said, trying to comfort me. “You did the best you could. You are not a Redum, a force leader, for nothing. The Duke and his barons should be beaten for putting the Erin out there with no support. Still that is what they get them for.”

“Didn’t waste any time bringing up the new lot I noticed.” At this point I decided to tell him the rest. “Look, Abbrigal, this is it for me. I am not going to lead any more troops. My days of planning battles and fighting in them are over. They can keep the Title of Redum, I am finished with the Duke’s wars. The Duke can get his soldiers killed any damn way he pleases. He has more than enough nobles who want to be heroes even through most of them couldn’t organize a latrine party, never mind actually command anything. He doesn’t need my help.  I am going to open my bar, tend to my farms, make my lamp oil, and enjoy my life here.”

“You can always go back,” Abbrigal suggested. “The conjunction is in fifteen months. I can send you back to Earth like I did before. You don’t have to come back this time.”

I had thought about going back home to New Jersey and what awaited me there. I have no family except my mother who left us when I was three. I did have a fiancée whom I didn’t really want, a job at the refinery in Bayonne that I really had no interest in, a life I never really enjoyed. There was also the minor detail of explaining where I have been for the last few years. I could just see telling my story. “Where have I been these last seven years, officer? Well, after I fell through a wormhole cause by a temporal fluctuation of n-dimensional space-time, I ended up in a land where mythical beasts and fairy creatures are real and I rose to be the commander of the ducal armies.” Other than marrying the beautiful princess, and being made king, my life here has been the stuff of Grade B movies since the time of Cecil B. DeMille. The only reason I never took a crack at the Duke’s daughter is that the last time I saw a face like hers, I was milking it on my Uncle’s Dave’s dairy farm near Newburg. If I told anyone my story, I’d be a permanent guest of Bellevue Hospital’s fight deck community before I finished my second sentence. Assuming anyone would remember me after all this time. Here I am powerful, rich, and most importantly, respected. “If I go back, it will be to visit and pick up some things,” I told him. “This place may be a primitive backwater when compared to Earth, but at least here, I feel in control of my life.”

“Well if you are going to go, let me know soon”, Abbrigal said. “I will need to gather the supplies. Also if you do not go now, you may have to go to the Magi Temple in Ostanor for the trip. I may not be around to send you back.”

I was shocked. That was the first time he ever mentioned he was getting old. “You can’t be serious; Kesswell wouldn’t be the same without you.”

He stopped drinking and looked down at the brown stained wooden table. The emerald eyes looked lackluster instead of shining like green stars. “No one lasts forever, Michael, not the nobles, not the old duke, and not even this wizard. Even Madia has been ill lately. We are just getting too old.”

“You are not that old, wizard,” I told him. “Now eat up, I need to kill a few hours before the feast tonight.”

The old man stared at me. “You are going to that?” the old man asked like I was on crack.

“Yes,” I told him. “I am going because I am telling the Duke, personally, to get another boy for slaughtering our neighbors.”

The old face lit up again and he rubbed his chin. “Hmmmm, then I will go too. I was invited, but didn’t care to go. I will go just to see the look on the Duke’s face when you tell him that. He and his worthless retainers will shit themselves.”

It was then I caught a familiar shape coming down the stairs in a bright and unused suit of chain mail, golden sash, with an outer tunic of red and black with a white unicorn on the front. It was the uniform of a Captain of the Imperial Guard. What a joke. If Napoleon had Imperial Guardsmen like Guilmick, he couldn’t have conquered Monaco. “Speaking of worthless retainers, here comes Salla Guilmick himself.”

Abbrigal turned, saw the figure and let out a slow long breath like he was looking at something for which he had utter contempt. “Well that ruins my day,” he muttered.

Guilmick looked around the room for what seem to be an inordinate amount of time before he finally managed to notice us in the corner and walked over with the bolt upright posture of a man in command. He actually seem annoyed when the lunch crowd went back to their stews rather than stand up as a sign of respect, or even acknowledge he even existed. He walked over to us and seemed even more annoyed when Abbrigal and I remained seated. I kicked out a chair for him to sit on and then motioned with my hand for him to use it. He remained standing upright.

“Ahh, Nam Gal, he spit out, “This does not concern you. The Duke has sent me over to summon the Magi Zu_Abbrigal to the dungeons.”

“What!” I shouted. Abbrigal took a deep breath in shock and I put my hand on my sword. No way was I going to allow this without a fight. It was going to take a lot more than this jackass to take Abbrigal to the clink. By now Abbrigal had recovered his form and reached for his staff, “I am being imprisoned on what charge?” he yelled out loud enough to be heard in the square. By now the tavern had gone dead quiet and a few of the customers near the stairs were using them in anticipation of the upcoming bloodbath.

Guilmick look at us confused and then suddenly realized exactly what he had said. “No Zu-Abbrigal, you are not under arrest, the Duke wishes you to question one of the Trolls we have in the dungeon. He appears to speak Latin.”

The bar took a collective sigh of relief and went back to finishing their noon meals. However, what Guilmick said intrigued me. “A Troll that speaks Latin,” I repeated. “I never heard of anything like that.” The Trolls had their own language, mostly of grunts, growls and the occasional war scream they used when enjoying a good massacre of the local peasants. Latin was the tongue of the intellectuals and the Trolls were beasts.

“I heard it, myself,” Guilmick said haughtily. “The Troll was speaking Latin and to another Troll at that.”

I felt like saying with Salla Guilmick’s vast reputation for intellectual prowess, I’d be surprised he could tell Latin from Swahili. Both Abbrigal and I looked at each other, nodded, and came to the same conclusion. “I will be there shortly,” he said with interest. “I would like to bring Nam-Gal with me since he is also knowledgeable about Latin.”

Guilmick let out a breath like Abbrigal did when he sighted him. “I suppose it is alright. Please come at once. I will meet you at the entrance to the keep in one quarter hour.” With that he turned sharply and marched out of the room and up the stairs.

“Latin,” Abbrigal repeated slowly. “That is a new one. This peaks my interest. Let us be off,” he spat out as he started to get up.

I noted Dontelo approaching with my stew, ale, bread, and cheese. Their combined fragrance made my empty stomach protest even louder. “Mind if I finish lunch first?”

“Salla Guilmick will be angry if we are late,” Abbrigal said with a smile.

“And?” I said reaching for the ale.

As it was, we were late and Salla Guilmick was angry and my apathetic and casual disdain of his anger only made him fit to be tied. He had one of the jailers lead us down the dark passageways to the underground cells. You know before I got here, I had always pictured medieval dungeons to be airless, dirty, rat infested hell holes that no one could live in more than a few weeks before dying of some unmentionable plague. That is not the case here. Now, how Edward-I treated his guests, I have no clue. However, if you are planning on making a buck out of your prisoners such as holding them for ransom, or selling them for slaves, it was in your best interest not only keep them alive, but also moderately healthy. After all, no salt mine manager is going to buy a slave to work 12 hours a day making salt out of seawater, or some noble buy them to work in the fields like cattle if he doesn’t think they are going to live long enough to make it home, never mind doing enough productive work to pay off the cost.

This is why most of the holding cells here are well ventilated and open to the sunlight. The straw is changed three times a market interval and burned, the prisoners get two decent meals a day along with plenty of fresh water. Except for the dangerous prisoners, none are chained to the walls or put on the rack unless they have information we need. Now I am not saying the Duke’s Dungeon rates three Michelin stars, but it is not all that bad. I was thrown in here after my impromptu arrival, and I was treated well. This was not because they cared about my human rights, but mostly because they thought they make some serious gold coins off me by selling my butt to someone for a life of unmitigating toil.

We were given torches as we went down the stairs past the upper dungeon where most of the prisoners were kept. Abbrigal did his Gandalf trick and made his staff glow like a 100 W light bulb as we walked down the fifty or so hewn rock steps to the bottom of the keep. The Trolls were kept in the darker deep keep, behind ten feet of hard stone, iron reinforced doors with steel bolts, and then chained to the walls with heavy iron links. Anyone who could pick up two guards and squeeze their heads until their brains squirted out like olive pits had to be treated with some degree of care. Also since Trolls never read Emily Post, they had no idea of how to conduct themselves in polite society, as if something ten feet tall, massing a quarter ton, mucus green and built like the Incredible Hulk needed permission to do much of anything it wanted.

The guard opened the outer steel door behind which was a second door made of thick iron bars you could easily see and speak through. There were twelve inside. Most were males but there were two females present. All the Trolls were seated; all were dirty and still dressed in their breech cloths both men and women. I had heard that Troll females do not cover their breasts. Although their upper bodies were well endowed in both size and shape, slime green was never my color for romance.

“Who here speaks Latin,” Abbrigal called out in that tongue.

At first no one moved inside. Even if they wanted to get up, they could only move maybe fifteen feet from where they were chained due to the thick iron rings in the wall. Each Troll was chained at the ankle, wrist and around the waist with chain links from the draw bridge. That stuff would hold a M1A2 tank in place, never mind green and ugly there. I did notice one of the smaller males and one of the females turned their faces toward us.

“Who speaks Latin?” Abbrigal repeated.

Still nothing, then Abbrigal broken out into a quick succession of words letting the Trolls know that if any did speak Latin they better speak up now before they were sold as slaves tomorrow. He didn’t mention this was going to happen anyway. Still it might improve the price if one of them could be understood by his master.

The smaller male got up, but smaller I mean he was only a foot bigger than me vs. ten feet tall as the other larger males were. He muttered something to the others in a voice of clicks, growls, one syllable noises that sounded like Darth Vader stoned out of his mind.

“I speak common and Latin,” he growled.

Both Abbrigal and I looked at each other, I never heard of a Troll speaking common, never mind Latin. The two guards looked about ready to freak. One went running, shouting for Guilmick as if he could do us a whole lot of good.

“Then I will begin with formalities, “Abbrigal said. “I am Zu_Abbrigal, the town magi. This is Michael Pendren also known as Nam-Gal, leader of the army that destroyed the Jadar. The Captain of the Guard who will be here shortly is Salla Guilmick.”

“I am called Druallen,” the Troll spat out. “My cousin and Battle Maiden Druilli is sitting next to me. She also understands Latin and common. The others are Frodallan and his Battle Maiden Sister Frodilli, the other are warriors from the Nultdul Clan.” With that he paused looked, at the guards and asked. “When are you selling us as slaves?”

As if expecting the question, Abbrigal answered calmly, “Tomorrow, along with what is left of the Jadar women and children.”

“Trolls will not work as slaves,” he said. “You will have to kill us for we will certainly kill our new masters.”

I took that as a threat and explained, “After the Duke sells you and gets his money, I doubt if he cares what you do as long as you do it far away from Kesswell. If you chose to die, that can be arranged, but death lasts a long time. While you are alive, there is still hope. Believe me, I know.”

“We have nothing to live for,” the Troll answered. “We have nothing to hope for. We cannot go back to our homes; we cannot find a home here. We are already dead.”

“You are outlaws, or under a ban?” Abbrigal asked.

“We are under a ban, but it was not for our deeds,” he explained. “The harvest in the mountains was bad last year, food stores are low and the Trolls too many. Our great king, Tokan, sent us away to fend for ourselves so all the others could eat. We were looking for a home when you killed off most of us in battle.”

He made it sound like it was our fault their buddies were dead, ignoring the minor detail of the wholesale destruction they created. This got the better of my Italian temper. “We killed you because, besides looking for homes, you were busy raiding the farms in King Olafson’s domains for grain, stealing cattle from our farms, and eating everyone and everything that got in your way. You expect us to welcome you with open arms?”

The Troll’s large face, broad nose moved not a millimeter. “We were hungry and we took what we needed, I make no apologies,” the Troll grunted.

“I will tell the families of the farmers and soldiers you killed of you concerns, I am sure they will understand your problems. Ok, I’ve heard enough.” I interrupted and turned to Abbrigal.

Abbrigal held up his hand motioning me to keep quiet before speaking again. “How did you learn the common and Latin tongues? It is unusual in a Troll.”

“Trading,” Druallen said. “We trolls trade with the Amazons of the North woods and the Sythan kingdom north of King Olafson’s domain. We mine metals and sell agricultural good like beer in exchange for weapons, and when we need it, grains. Last year the harvests were bad all over the north so there was no grain to be brought.”

“So I heard from my brother magi in Asgard and Sythmore,” Abbrigal said “So you were a merchant?”

“Yes, I am small for a Troll and not suited for heavy battle, so I joined my sister in learning the tongues of humans. I helped my uncle sell Troll beer to the Amazons, they like our beer.”

That got my attention. “You can make beer?” I asked.

“Yes, I am also good in mash making and distilling Numac.”

I never heard of that one. I looked at Abbrigal who answered my question before I could ask it. “Troll liquor made from grapes, nuts, and a few wild mushrooms that grow in the forest. It is rumored to be very strong and very delicious.”

Great, I spent three months looking for a brew master and I finally find one, only he is big, green, and a blithering psychopath. Malduke the chief god here must be laughing his ass off at me right now. Then an idea started forming in the back of my head.

“Druallen, when your friends are not running around killing everything that breathes, what is their normal day job? What do they do for a living?”

Druallen looked at me with a funny puzzle look on his face. Maybe sarcasm is wasted on Trolls. Then he said. “My cousin makes armor, Frodallen and his sister are from a farming house, they grow grains. The others are field workers; they cut trees, harvest grains, and sometimes mine ores. Why, you thinking of buying us, soon to be dead Nam-Gal?”

I could suddenly hear one set of rapid footsteps from behind and another set clanking with so much loose armor it sounded as if the guards let in a buffalo stampede.

“That is Salla Guilmick, and anything I plan never concerns him. First off I will tell you about what I am going to do before I do it. Second, and most important for your collective and continued health; a lot of people in this town have already tried to collect my head. In case you didn’t notice, it still sits firmly on my neck. We will talk more tomorrow before the auction.”

With that I clammed up to wait for Assistant Fearless Leader to arrive, which he did a few seconds later, puffing like a steam locomotive with a few too many leaks. While he was collecting his wind I made a high sign to Abbrigal to tell him we could talk later. I waited a few seconds for my hero to get his breath a before he stammered out. “They can speak common, too?”

“Yes they can,” I told him. “However they have told me they will never be sold for slaves. I consider them dangerous and a threat to the auction. I would sell these slaves last. You will have to be very careful tomorrow. I suggest taking them out one at a time and then chaining them up tightly together. Have your heavy crossbow men ready to shoot from the walls if they get out of hand.”

“I know my job,” Guilmick growled at me as loudly as Druallen. “They will be guarded as well as I see fit.”

As he saw fit meant to me that they all be back home in the mountains by nightfall. This was a waste of time. I would talk to the head of the watch tomorrow. He was a soldier who also shared my view of Guilmick’s marshal abilities. “Good, I will come over tomorrow before the auction. I think I have an idea on how we can make the Duke some extra gold on these slaves. I’d like to talk to them tomorrow before the auction if you don’t mind.”

“Anything that puts gold in the Duke’s pocket puts gold in mine,” he said, still huffing.

“Well it’s a couple of hours or so before the banquet starts. I think I’ll talk to my old friend here.” With that I started up the stairs. Abbrigal took the hint and followed me. I was back in the Reluctant Wizard before I told Abbrigal of my idea. You could have heard him laughing halfway to the Amazon Kingdom before I was done.

# # #

 

I heard rustling footsteps coming through an open doorway, like someone dragging a bag. I opened my eyes and saw I was still lying next to the fireplace in the Reluctant Wizard. After the fiasco that was the Duke’s dinner last night, I had come back here so fit to be tied I did something I seldom do, drank myself into a coma. My head was sore, my body ached, my vision was cloudy, my bladder was ready to explode, and my head pounded like one of the Trolls was beating on it.

“Michael,” are you awake?” I heard through my fogged brain.

I blinked a few times, trying to get the world in to some degree of focus, when I saw a tall, thin, older gray haired woman in a flowing white flaxen gown standing at the door that leads into the kitchen. After a few seconds the figure came into focus and I recognized her.

“Madia?” I queried.

“Yes, Michael. I wanted to talk to you. Abbrigal told me what happened before he went to sleep.”

I slowly got to my feet just as my stomach started to feel like I swallowed a paint mixer. I wasn’t sure which orifice was going to cut loose first, but something was definitely coming out. I started to move toward the back and the privies.

“They called Abbrigal and you cowards,” she stated, like she was afraid to speak the word.

“That and a few other choice words, or at least the Earl of Aswar did before I put my fist through his face. That action did not endear me with the court. When Abbrigal mentioned that under the law, any civilian who had fought in five campaigns was free from further call up, and that I had seven campaigns, he was shouted down as disloyal. I got so mad, I walked out. Then the gate guard tried to stop me I put my hand on my sword and asked where he wanted his body parts sent. That got me out of the palace and I came back here and drank myself into oblivion.” There was a large gurgling noise from my belt and I grabbed my stomach and moved past Madia with a short word of apology before I made it to the outhouse and left fly from all ends at once.

After managing to part with what seemed to be half my body mass in a variety of putrid liquids, I walked back into the bar and sat down. Madia brought me a small cup of wine with a white powder floating on the surface; Abbrigal’s old medicine for hangovers. I took it with a nod and downed it in two gulps. After some more churning of the bowel, I started to feel almost like a new zombie again.

"Sorry,” I muttered. “You think I know by now I can’t reason with these people like I do with you and Abbrigal. I hope I didn’t make things worse for you.”

Madia chuckled, “Before you came here, it was Abbrigal who used to raise the old Duke’s ire. I am used to it and I am far too old to worry about what the court thinks of us now.”

“I just do not understand it,” I said in exasperation. “You think they’d be happy to see me go. The court hates my guts because their inflated egos can’t swallow having an almost slave lead troops rather than them. Now I am a traitor for asking to go? Go figure!”

“They are frightened, Michael,” Madia said in her low voice. “Deep down inside, they know their worth and it is not much. They fear what will happen if they actually have to command against real troops. They fear the garrison soldiers and the Erin levies because they know these troops have no confidence in them and they are more likely to put an arrow in their backs rather than follow their orders. They fear the tradesmen because they fund the government and want more say in how things are run. They fear the desert savages to the south who hate anything civilized and seek to burn the city after they loot it clean. Finally they fear you because you walked in here and did what they could not do despite their training from birth; that is to inspire men and then lead them into battle. Men who are afraid will lash out at anything that even remotely seems to be a threat.”

What she said made a good deal of sense, something almost totally lacking in this place. “Well, it doesn’t matter. Not for me anymore. Unless it is a national emergency, I am now a barkeep.” Then it hit me. “Bar!” I shouted. “I have some slaves to buy.”

With that I jumped up, kissed Madia on the cheek and bounded up the stairs. Abbrigal’s powder had cured my hangover like sunshine after a summer rain; I felt refreshed and ready to go. I raced out of the bar back into the square, which was already starting to fill up. I moved over to the entrance to the dungeon. Two guards stood there; as I approached they crossed their halberds in front of my face barring my access.

“I am Nam-Gal,” I said. “I am allowed access to the place at will.”

“We know who you are,” the older guard bleated out. “The Duke has revoked your palace privileges. You no longer have access to the palace. Leave or I will place you under arrest.”

I felt like saying you and what other ten guys, but I saw the look in this face. It was like I just beat his puppy. Why was he this angry at me?

“Very well, guardsman, I will leave. I will talk to the Duke about my privileges.”

“You can talk to the new Army commander about it, Simon de Arnascio,” the guard said, and almost glared at me.

I started to say something and stopped. Now I knew the problem. The Duke placed his younger brother in charge of the troops. I also knew what a waste of DNA the Duke’s younger brother was. Since he was born to command, he never actually felt the need to learn what he should do with his troops except shouting orders to the peasant scum. Salla Guilmick was a genius compared to that guy.

After a few seconds of trying to find a witty answer for his concern, all I could muster was a feeble “I am sorry.” With that I turned and walked back into the main square. I felt like I had been kicked in the groin. My new status presented another problem. I wanted to talk to the Trolls before I bought them. Now I couldn’t. A small change in plans was needed. I adjusted my sword belt so I wore both the swords on my back and waited. I found an open bench by the courthouse, went over, and sat down.

The square filled up fast. Mostly with people who were little more than slaves themselves: farmers, small merchants, shop workmen, apprentices, and the odd rancher. All dressed in little better than rags and simple flaxen shifts. They were here to see the free show, which is all the entertainment they could afford. These people were the so-called backbone of society, the salt of the earth, without whom everything else would crash and burn. If you all believe that, I have some beach front property in Kansas I’d like to sell you. The government here, just like the one back home, treats these people with all the kindness and respect given a leper. Most of them made, maybe, two dozen Kudims a year. Most were ignorant, dirt poor and the government was happy to keep it that way. The poor and the stupid don’t give you any problems and this government had all the problems it needed already.

The crowd roared and jeered and threw the usual rotten vegetables at the prisoners as they were lead onto the stage. They mostly did it for kicks. This put the fear of whatever Gods the Jadar believe existed into the captives. Some had to be dragged on stage. ‘Vae Victis’ as Brennos said when the Gauls sacked Rome in the Fourth Century BC. Some things never change.

The older Jadar women with family were sold first. I took no special interest in any of them until the Jadar woman I knew came up. I had tasted her food in our march back from the desert and she could cook. She had two young daughters so I decided to buy all three of them. Yea I know it’s an extra expense, and the girls were far too young to be useful for much, but the mother would be a better worker if she knew her daughters were not being gang raped by some slob son of a guild master.

“Ten Kudims for all three,” I yelled out. It was a low price, and I was willing to pay ten times that, but I learned never to tell anyone what you want in this town. It is one the surest ways not to get it.

“Fifteen Kudims,” one of the Moors spoke up.

“Twenty,” a cloth guild master shouted.

At this point I shut up and saw how the trading went, the Moor gave up at thirty-five, then I yelled, “forty.”

“Forty-two,” the Guild master answered, looking at me curiously. He was wondering what I wanted with them.

“Forty-five,” I answered.

The Guild master shrugged his shoulders and raised both hands over his head, the sign that he was done. The slave master counted five and clapped his hands. The woman and girls were mine. I walked up to the platform and told the slave master to have them brought to my new place. I then walked over to the mother and children. She knew who I was and I imagined the terrors going through her mind wondering what I had in store for her and her daughters. I had to stop that immediately. The best way to get someone’s confidence is to be straight with them right from the start. A trick Abbrigal used on me. As I approached, the woman got down on her knees and pulled her children to the floor.

“Get up,” I told them.

The mother was confused, but got up although she still would only look at my feet.

“You can look at me, and so can your daughters. I bought you as a cook for my bar. I bought your daughters so you will know where they are at night and will work well for me. Do not worry, I am not one of those who enjoys the company of children at night.”

I let that sink in for a second before continuing. “Under Kessian Law, as battle captives, you are all slaves for five years. After that it is up to me to decide what happens to you. I will tell you now what is going to happen. I am opening a bar and I need a good cook. I tasted your food on the journey from the desert, and it is good. If you cook well for me, and do not try and run away, or steal from me, or try to cut my throat, after five years I will set all of you free. After that, if you want to say, I will pay you a decent wage, and I will see your children are given lessons so they can read and write. Until then they can help clean the bar. I will demand nothing more of you than y


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