and jewelry that would surely please one as lovely as yourself; Tand, hold up that white fox for the lady.'

Tand was still motionless with surprise, but picked up his cue with only the briefest hesitation and stood, displaying an excellent fur.

The woman noticed Larth and Tand for the first time but paid them little heed, looking instead at the stacks of furs. There was a pause, and then she said, 'I'll be right down.' Her head vanished from the window, and Galt's false smile relaxed into a genuine one. The danger was past. They had been accepted.

When Garth returned several minutes later he found a small crowd clustered around his companions, bickering cheerfully over quality and price.


Garth glanced apprehensively at the door to the Baron's mansion as it swung open for the first time that morning. So far whatever gods there might be had smiled upon his little caravan; they had had no trouble on the road from Ordunin, nor with the merchants and farmers who had so far entered the market. The reactions of the villagers to a quartet of overmen sitting calmly in their midst amid displays of furs and carved whalebone had varied from simple acceptance to astonishment and horror-which could usually be soothed by a few quiet words and perhaps a gold coin or two. The fact that those already there appeared unconcerned had been a major factor in preventing general alarm or even a-riot.

Unfortunately, Garth knew the Baron of Skelleth and his guards would not be so easily swayed. His previous visit to this northernmost outpost of humanity had ended messily, and the Baron had ordered his death, more for being an overman and uncooperative than for any specific crime.

Of course none of Skelleth's pitiful guardsmen were likely to try and tackle four overmen; Garth thought it unlikely that the village's full complement of three dozen would have been a match for his party if he hadn't insisted his companions be unarmed. They were on a peaceful trading mission, and he was determined to see that it stayed peaceful. For far too long had the overmen of the Northern Waste been dependent upon the sea traders of Lagur, who missed no opportunity to exploit their monopoly; if Garth succeeded in opening a land trade route through Skelleth the monopoly would be broken, and his people would have their first chance at a decent life since the bitter Racial Wars of three centuries earlier-and incidentally Garth would be honored and wealthy, which would be enjoyable.

The door was open now, and three guardsmen stepped through, blinking in the bright summer sunlight; Garth recognized one of them. The tall one in the steel helmet was Herrenmer, captain of the guard.

The unknown pair took up their posts, one on either side of the door. Herrenmer, having stationed his men, took a casual glance around, his duty done for the moment. His gaze fell on the overmen and Garth saw him tense. He spoke to his men, but Garth could hear nothing over the noise of the market; then all three started across the square toward the outlanders, Herrenmer in the lead, all three with hands near their swords.

Garth put down the wolfskin he had been showing to an overweight woman and said, 'Larth, keep an eye on my goods while I speak to these men.' He stood and stepped forward to meet the soldiers.

The trio stopped a dozen paces from the displays; Garth stood halfway between. There was a moment's pause, then Herrenmer demanded, 'What are you doing here?'

'We have come to trade.'

'You know that the Baron wants no overmen in Skelleth.'

'I was aware that he wanted no armed overmen adventurers, an attitude I can fully understand, since such would tend to disturb the peace of your town; but surely he can have no objection to four unarmed traders, whatever their race or nation!' Garth had carefully thought out this little speech in advance, and was pleased to see that it had the desired effect, leaving Herrenmer momentarily confused and speechless. He pressed his advantage.

'I have heard the Baron himself express dismay at Skelleth's poverty and lack of trade; surely, then, he will be glad to have a whole new people eager to deal with Skelleth. We have gold and furs and other goods to trade for our needs, which will make Skelleth's merchants wealthy when sold in the south, where we dare not venture. Surely the Baron cannot object to that, for where the merchants are wealthy the government cannot fail to profit thereby.'

'I know nothing of that; it is not my concern.' Herrenmer paused, considering, then went on, 'I will speak with my lord further about this.' He turned and strode angrily back to the mansion; his two men followed, and when Herrenmer vanished through the still-open door, slamming it behind him, they took up their posts once more.

Garth watched them go, then turned back toward his companions. Before he could take a step, however, he heard his name called. He stopped and looked about for the source.

A waving hand caught his eye, and he recognized a man approaching across the market. 'Greetings, Saram,' he called.

'Greetings, Garth,' the man replied.

Saram was heavily built, of medium height; he wore his hair short and kept his full black beard neatly trimmed, though he claimed it was not from vanity but practicality. When last Garth had seen him, he had worn the mail shirt and short sword of the Baron's guards, with iron studs in his leather helmet marking him as a lieutenant; now he wore a ragged but clean tunic of gray homespun and went bareheaded. Only the leather pants and heavy boots remained the same.

He drew up within convenient speaking distance and remarked, 'So you have returned as you promised.' His tone was casual, but his green eyes flicked warily about, missing nothing.

'I have,' Garth answered politely. Saram had done him considerable good when last he was in Skelleth by refusing to attempt to kill him.

'The old man said you would.' Saram's eyes focused on Garth's face as he spoke.

The overman shrugged, his face impassive, and said nothing.

'I had my doubts, but here you are. Where is your warbeast? I was sure you'd bring it if you came.' Saram glanced idly about.

'It's hidden nearby. I saw no need to frighten your townspeople.'

'Wise of you, no doubt. And you brought friends with you this time.'

'Companions, rather; I am not myself adept at the ways of buyer and seller, so I brought the master trader Galt, his apprentice Tand, and my double-cousin Larth.' He pointed out each of the other overmen as he named them; young Tand and stolid Larth did not notice, but Galt nodded in acknowledgment.

'Pleased to meet them all, I'm sure. Gods, what are those?' This last was in response to glimpsing the yackers, just visible from where he stood.

Garth was startled. 'Yackers. Don't you know them?' He glanced down the alley at the great beasts of burden, which stood quietly meditating, safely out of the bustle of business.

'No. I never heard of them.' Saram stared at them momentarily, then turned back to the overman and said, 'Garth, I have a message for you. The old man wants to talk to you.'

Garth replied, 'I don't want to talk to him.'

'No? He claims to have a proposition for you.'

'I am not interested; when last I made a bargain with him it resulted in nothing but deaths and difficulties.'

'Just as your agreement with the Baron did him little good,' Saram said smiling crookedly, 'Yet you expect him to listen to your explanations about your renewed presence in his domain.'

There was a moment of silence. Then Garth said, 'Your point is made. I will hear the King out. Where is he?'

'Need you ask?'

'No. A moment, then.' He turned and called to his companions, 'I have an errand; Galt, you take charge here.' Then to Saram he said, 'Come on,' and the pair ambled off across the market square.

Their goal was an ancient tavern called the King's Inn, though no one knew of any connection between the inn and any recognized monarch; it stood on an alley that had once been but a few steps from the village market, but which had been cut off and left to die when the first Baron of Skelleth erected his mansion across the

Вы читаете The Seven Altars of Dusarra
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