He wanted desperately to make a good job of it; Idris was the only person in Lagwich who seemed to like him, the only person since the death of his mother with whom he had shared the secret of the dreams that came to him when he lay in one of his trance-like intervals and other people thought he was simply being “Idle Conrad”.

And stoned him to make him wake.

Out here, beyond the town’s land, no one cared what he did, and he liked that side of the task. What he detested about it was that his vats were sited much nearer the barrenland than the town itself. Things came from the barrenland, and usually they were dangerous. There had never yet been an emergency for him to cope with, but he had a dreadfully active imagination.

Consequently, when the red and black waving thing came in sight at the bend of the path which curved around the barrenland he jumped to his feet in fright, letting the carving fall. He dived for the bow and arrows he kept propped against a handy rock, fitted an arrow clumsily to the string, and only then looked again to see what had appeared.

He relaxed, tempted to laugh at himself. What he had seen from the corner of his eye proved to be a length of black and red cloth flying from a pole in the hands of a rider with several companions. He thought of the marrying expeditions which he had sometimes seen come from other towns to look for wives. They rode like this, with some flag or banner, and all done up in their finery. Yet marrying expeditions were a spring-time affair, and it was now high summer, and anyway although these men were very well clad they were not as gorgeous as the would-be bridegrooms he had seen …

He waited uncertainly, clasping his bow, while the newcomers reined their horses and conferred. One of them dismounted, raised both hands to show they were empty, and walked to within easy speaking distance. Conrad had a little trouble following his pronunciation, but the sense of his words was clear.

“Greetings! My name is Jervis Yanderman and these are my men. We come in peace. Are you from the village whose smoke we can see yonder?”

Slightly nettled, Conrad gave his own name. “But that’s no village!” he added. “It’s a prosperous town of many hundred inhabitants and a guard of sixty strong men.” He added the last phrase just in case the strangers were less peaceful than Yanderman claimed. “And the name of the town is Lagwich.”

Not that I have any particular liking for the place, he glossed under his breath.

“It’s near the barrenland?” Yanderman said.

“Closer than any other town, they tell me. But we have a strong palisade and a deep ditch with a bridge, and we live safe enough from any danger.”

Yanderman seemed pleased. Looking at him, Conrad decided that he differed in many ways from anyone he had ever seen before. He was bigger than average in all directions-though Conrad’s work involved humping heavy loads and had added muscle to his arms and shoulders, Yanderman was heavier-set as well as being a handspan taller. His companions seemed bigger again, as well as Conrad could judge from this distance.

But it wasn’t his size which was most impressive about Yanderman. It was his thoughtful, relaxed way of moving, as if he were at home in any country he visited, even this one where he was admittedly a stranger. Conrad’s heart began to pound with excitement. It would be a very important occasion, the arrival of these outsiders in Lagwich!

He said, “And you? Are you from Hawgley?” He named the most distant town from which marrying expeditions sometimes came to Lagwich.

Yanderman shook his head. “From Esberg-fourteen days’ journey south of here.”

Conrad felt his mouth fall open. He knew it was foolish-looking, but he couldn’t help it. Sometimes, sitting by the soap-vats, he had wondered how big the world was, and had come to the conclusion that it must be quite small, because the people of his visions seemed so ready to leave it and go to look at others. But if you could travel fourteen whole days and find no end to it, the world couldn’t be as small as that after all. Unless-

He grew aware that Yanderman had said something else which he had failed to catch, and apologised for his lapse of attention.

“We’d like to go to your-town,” Yanderman repeated. “To talk with its lord, or governor, or whatever you call him.”

Conrad looked dubious. “I could take you to the five wise men,” he said after a pause. “Indeed, they’ll certainly wish to see you. I don’t believe anyone has ever come to Lagwich from further away than Hawgley, so this is a great occasion for us.”

“Will you guide us to these-ah-wise men?”


He wondered for a moment about leaving his soap-whether he ought not to collect a load to take with him. But he dared not risk keeping these important visitors waiting while he did so. He pointed in the direction of the town and set off at once, Yanderman walking beside him and the horsemen following, one of them leading Yanderman’s mount.

There was silence for a while. Then Conrad, plucking up his courage, ventured a question. “Tell me-what’s life like where you come from? I wouldn’t seem inquisitive, but here life’s dull and we see no one from outside, unless a marrying expedition comes in spring, or a peddler, or a man seeking gold in the rocks.”

“Life where I come from?” Yanderman laughed. “Much as it is here, I imagine-only quieter, for we’re further from the barrenland and the things that come from it.”

Conrad was startled, and did not easily hide his disappointment. He said, “But surely …! Uh-the peddlers who come this way with news regale us with stories of a gay exciting life in distant parts.”

“That the beer may flow more freely and the pack grow light apace as the tale continues,” Yanderman said, and laughed again. “We receive wanderers like that, and-yes, they tell colorful tales.”

Conrad bit his lip to stifle the remark which he had almost let slip. He had been about to demand how it was, life being on Yanderman’s assertion much the same even fourteen whole days’ journey away, he could have visions of a bright rich world served by unbelievable powers known to no one in Lagwich, or Hawgley, or anywhere. But he had long ago sworn to himself that he would never bare the secret of his dreams to anyone except Idris-and even to her he had never imparted the wildest tales he could tell.

It would be far safer to keep silence until he had presented the visitors to the wise men. Maybe later on he would speak to Yanderman again, and the stranger would not be so discreet in his admissions.

Accordingly, he waited till they turned a bend which brought them in sight of the towns land. Then he raised his arm and indicated the neatly laid-out fields, with men and women working in them and some cattle browsing, and the town itself beyond.

Lagwich sat on a low, dome-like hill around the foot of which a stream curved in a third of a circle. A ditch had been cut in the side of the hill; above the ditch was a barricade of sharpened stakes planted like prickles in a rampart of dirt and stones, with wooden watchtowers every hundred feet or so around the circumference. At the very top of the hill was a stone fort, and the space between there and the palisade-not very large-was cram-jam tight with buildings of three or four storeys. A blur of dark grey smoke hung over the roofs, fading to light grey as it rose.

Yanderman glanced up at the elderly man riding behind him and leading his horse. He said, “For where it stands, it’s no mere bunch of huts!”

Directly they came in view, the people working in the fields had incontinently left their tasks. Accustomed to spring to action on a moment’s notice, they had seized picks, mattocks or anything that came to hand and dashed up to the edge of the path between the fields ready for violence if need be. On seeing that Conrad was accompanying the strangers, however, they paused uncertainly.

One of them-Waygan, Conrad saw with dismay-shouldered between the rest and sized up the situation. Waygan was the town’s hornman; instead of something he could wield as a weapon, he had snatched up his beloved horn. If someone had asked him why, he would doubtless have said it was so that he could sound an alarm for the townsfolk. Conrad suspected it was more likely because he prized the safety of that horn above the safety of Lagwich itself.

Admittedly, it was a magnificent object, worth being proud of. It had grown on the chest of a thing that came from the barrenland in his father’s day, and had killed six men in broad daylight before his father slew it and claimed the horn as reward. Only Waygan and his eldest son could now wind it and produce the ear-splitting blast of which it was capable.

Waygan looked at Conrad. “Well, useless one?” he said.

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