M. K. CASPERSON
Stirring in the Shadows
Dethar pulled his hood farther over his face to keep the sun away. He loathed the day, so open and bright. Night was much better for business such as his. If only he could find a way to prolong the darker hours…though, of course, there was no such way.
Dethar was a stranger to these parts. Indeed, even in the far south, where his cool complexion, blue eyes, and sandy hair would be unremarkable, Dethar was an outsider. In his mid-twenties, he had seen more than any older man. He was tall, agile, and dressed from head to toe in black, a small reminder to himself of who he was and a hint to others that he didn’t like to be bothered. Across his back was slung a longbow and a quiver, and at his side was a powerful two-handed sword.
Dethar stood on the peak of the southernmost hill, his dusty boots rooted to the South Road, the only civilized route out of the valley in which these reclusive peasants had chosen to live. Dethar hated these small settlements, so secluded from the rest of the world that they had no one to see but their neighbors, nothing to talk about but their friends. It was almost impossible for someone to visit and not be noticed by every person in the community.
This visit will be short, Dethar told himself as he hiked down the hill into the valley. He’d never been to this town, and if circumstances hadn’t required his coming he would have passed it by.
Despite the glowing sun, the afternoon air was chilly, reminding Dethar why he despised the area. The springs in this region were no different from the early winter days: always cold, typically rainy, sometimes a break of sun. The summers were not much different, the warm days lasting only a few weeks before rain bombarded the land again.
Dethar followed the road to Chesstel, passing through, as he went, many fields and thin forests, observing numerous side trails, undoubtedly leading to some farm or other. It seemed a peaceful place, undisturbed by the turmoil created by war and politics that plagued the larger cities.
The town was much deeper into the valley than Dethar had counted on, and it wasn’t until he had walked a good five miles that he finally caught sight of it. It wasn’t as pitiful as he had expected. Most of the streets were paved, and the buildings were well constructed. There weren’t many people about, and the few who saw him paused for but a moment to stare curiously at him before hurrying on. Looking for an inn, Dethar made his way to the center of town, where such places were usually built in smaller towns like this, and indeed he was not disappointed. The Old Wood was built on the southern side of the square, unnaturally large for a town of Chesstel’s size, and oddly shaped as well, more like an oversized farmhouse than an inn. It had a large, wraparound porch lined with rocking chairs, stools, and benches, glass windows that looked in need of washing, and a thick door with heavy, iron hinges. The yard was well-kept, with cut grass and a painted fence.
Dethar regarded the entire thing with a skeptic’s eye, and then passed through the gate and into the inn.
The front door brought him directly into the main dining room, presently devoid of all people. Rows of tables filled the room, each furnished with a candle for nighttime use. A counter stood on the east side of the room, behind which were shelves laden with mugs, bottles, plates, and bowls. A door, presumably leading to the kitchen, was to the counter’s left. Voices emanated from within.
“Ho!” Dethar cried, stepping near the counter. “Who runs this place?”
There was a pause in the chatter, and then an older woman appeared, her graying hair pinned up in a bun, her apron damp from apparent dishwashing. “Can I help you?”
“I wish to rent a room.”
“Oh, of course!” The woman smiled, stepping up behind the counter and producing a large book from underneath. A girl had joined her from the kitchen—her daughter, Dethar guessed. She could be no more than sixteen and was blushing terribly, a trait Dethar found all too common in unmarried girls.
“How long will you be staying?” the woman asked.
“Only one night,” Dethar replied.
The girl’s disappointment was evident at this declaration, for she immediately turned away to fiddle with something on the shelves behind her.
“It will cost you five aries,” the woman informed him.
Dethar handed her the money.
Taking the currency and marking something off in her book, the woman smiled and announced, “Room five is all yours. What brings you to Chesstel, sir?”
“Confidential reasons; nothing I find reason to share,” came the curt reply. “I would like a key.”
Startled, the woman took a moment to react. “Oh—oh, of course!” she stammered. “Leanne, girl, fetch this gentleman the key to room five.”
As the girl scurried off, Dethar looked at her mother incredulously. “You mean you don’t keep them nearby? What sort of inconvenience is that?”
“Most folk don’t request them,” the woman replied stiffly. “They recognize how utterly harmless Chesstel is.”
Dethar didn’t try to argue. When the girl returned, she kept her eyes mostly on the floor, lifting them only for a fleeting moment to look at him as she handed her mother the key.
“Here is your key, sir. Enjoy your stay.” The woman’s tone was stiff.
Dethar took the key without comment and headed for the stairs.
“It’ll be to your right, three doors down!” The cry came from a young voice, obviously the girl.
Once Dethar had deposited his pack in his room, he locked the door and returned downstairs. The women were still at the counter, whispering.
“Where can I find a blacksmith?” he asked.
“Amlion’s shop is right across the square,” the woman replied. “You can’t miss it. But you might not—”
Dethar went out, ignoring her further cries.
His reason for coming here was simple enough. He had been traveling north for nigh on a month and his supplies were dwindling. He needed arrows and cornmeal. Markshire was still a long distance off.
To his irritation, however, the blacksmith’s yard was empty, and when he pounded on the door, no one answered. He pressed down the handle. Locked.
Harmless town, is it?
A few shops down was a sign reading, “Miller Dorkin’s Grain Depot.”
Dethar was halfway up the porch steps when he saw a notice nailed to the door: “Closed.”
He frowned. It wasn’t harvest time…
“Ho, there!” Dethar stuck his head into the inn, again. “Where’s everyone gone in this town?”
He could hear some bustling in the kitchen, but no one answered him.
Dethar spun, glowering at the empty streets. Heat rushed obediently to his hands. Blinking, he realized the world was spinning.
The fire in his hands cooled. He had not realized how weary he was. Fatigue often surprised him.
Shutting the door, he climbed the stairs and collapsed onto his bed—the first bed he had lain on in weeks.
So the villagers were enjoying a holiday of some kind. No matter. Dethar would rest and try the stores tomorrow.