“I’ll give you ten gold pieces for him.”
The grizzled veteran held in his temper, gritting his teeth as he replied. “Bearclaw is no rouncy! This stallion is a battle-hardened destrier. Ten gold pieces is an insult, give me seventeen and count yourself lucky at the bargain.”
The horse dealer turned his head to a slight angle as he studied the stallion. “Aye, he’s seen battles, too many of them. His left foreleg has a nasty scar, and both knees are a mess. His hocks are capped. When was the last time you had his teeth taken care of?” The trader patted the bay horse’s shoulder. “In spite of his wear, he does have a good sloping shoulder, deep girth, and short back. I might just keep him as a stud. Fifteen and that’s as high as I will go.”
Jaured felt bad at selling his old friend, but he had no need for a warhorse where he was going, much less a stallion. He stood and fretted a bit before making up his mind. “Fifteen it is. My friend has heart and courage. Promise me you will put him down before you sell him to a cart man or farmer. He served his King as well as did I.”
The horse trader’s eyes lit up with recognition. “I thought you looked familiar. You’re Sir Jaured, one of King Ulmer’s knights.” He held out his hand. “It’s an honor to meet the man who saved our King’s life in battle, three different times; I’m Chedrik, by the way.”
The old warrior looked embarrassed but he shook Chedrick’s hand all the same. “I was doing what I trained for. Had one of Ulmer’s other knights been in my place, they’d have done the same.”
Chedrik didn’t see a man with a weather-beaten face. To the horse-dealer, the old knight’s beard, more grey than brown, represented dignity and wisdom.
Jaured’s knuckles were gnarled and age spots competed with scars along his hands & arms. His feet were throbbing from standing too long. His back was aching, the time for his pain pills past due. The sooner I can get this over with, the sooner I can move on. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but I have other tasks to complete today.”
“Pardon me, milord. Of course, you do.” Chedrik stammered, reaching in to a leather pouch. He counted out twenty gold pieces and held them out to Jaured. “I know I said fifteen, but once it is known whose stallion this is, I will make up the difference in stud fees. Please sign the transaction slip to make it legal, good sir.”
Jaured patted Bearclaw’s nose one last time. “Be good for this man, boy, and do what he says.” Jaured walked away, ignoring the whinny from the horse he’d ridden daily for the last ten years. It tugged at his heartstrings; his vision became blurry as he fought to hold back tears. How stupid it is, to cry over a stupid animal. “The sooner I can escape Jendavi, the better.”
The next day, having sold most of his extra equipment, the former King’s Guard, Sir Jaured rode out of Jendavi on a sturdy chestnut mare, with a mule carrying only enough good goods to get him to his destination: Soldier’s End. The small town was nestled in the Kalegras Valley in the northeast part of Greycliff. Those who had been there claimed Soldier’s End was bloody cold in the winter, with snow up to a man’s waist in bad years and knee deep in good ones. The summer was cool, foggy in the mornings and if one was lucky a bit of sun came out for the afternoon. The town bred strong men and stronger women. Most of the residents were once knights or mercenaries: crime was near non-existent.
It felt strange, for the first time in over twenty five years, Jaured answered to no one. “I almost feel guilty.” He said aloud. “My entire life I have taken orders from a man of higher rank, whether it be my master or the Captain of the King’s Guard. I’ve barely made a move, ‘cept to take a piss, without a by your leave. Horse, there is no one around to order me about.” He looked around him as the horse walked on. “It is pretty here. The trees are tall. The Gods have worked their magic: I’ve never noticed the variety of the flowers before. To think that I have been in many lands, and countless cities, yet I can hardly recall any of them, yet ask of my battles and I can recall damn near every detail.”
The chestnut mare snorted, swishing her tail at a fly which refused to leave her flanks alone. The mule following behind brayed, as if sympathizing with the mare’s plight.
Jaured laughed, a deep rich laugh that came from within his belly. “I think you friend wants to help.” He said to his mare. “I suppose I should name you both, for calling out horse and mule will get repetitious. I shall name you Garnet, and my brown mule shall be Topaz.”
Jaured hummed aloud, not caring how fast, or slow, Garnet moved along the forest outskirts. Spring was in full bloom, with the month of Chanxeri’s Moon less than a week away. When the sun shined on high, he reined in his mare, selecting a sunny meadow near a small creek. He removed Garnet’s bridle, taking her and Topaz to the waterside. After the equines had a drink of cool water, he hobbled both of them to graze. Jaured nibbled on a hunk of cheese and some strawberries he found growing wild. Not wanting to fall asleep, he stood up, stretching his body.
It was time to get moving again. He caught Garnet, re-bridled her and attached the lead line to Topaz’s halter. With a goal of making Shepard’s Peak by dusk, he pushed Garnet to a comfortable amble. Garnet picked her way around the ruts on the makeshift road made by wagons traveling to and from Jendavi. Jaured let the mare choose her own footing as long as she kept moving. He knew the road would soon change to a trail once he changed direction.
The forest switched from junipers & boxwood to a graceful mix of birch, aspen, and elder. Jaira been generous, the shrubs and trees were in full bloom with flowers. Birds and bees flew about the branches and blooms seeking substance. Small game, rabbits, partridges, and dove were plentiful. Jaured itched to string his bow, eager for the taste of fresh meat. He decided to wait until he pitched camp.
That evening, Jaured relaxed next to a bright campfire, his belly full of rabbit. He enjoyed the sounds of the forest. “Topaz, do you listen to the birds and insects? I’ve never really paid attention to the beasts before; well, maybe to the ravens when on patrol duty.” A wolf howled deep within the cover of the trees, and soon the calls of its pack mates filled the night. “What a lovely sound.” He uncorked a skin of vorane, taking a swig of the hard liquor, relishing the burning as the fluid slid down his throat. A couple more sips had Jaured feeling the effects, seeing two horses and two mules. He banked his campfire and climbed in his bedroll, feeling at peace.
Five days later, Jaured approached Kalegras Valley. He could see the tip of Shepard’s Peak, still covered with snow. He was bone-tired, every part of his body aching. He urged Garnet forward.
Soldier’s End was a small town, the kind of place that was easy to miss if one blinked. A smattering of timber houses were spread out, along with an ale house, bakery, and a blacksmith. A few curious residents watched Jaured ride down the dirt street, but most ignored him.
Jaured stopped at the alehouse, dismounting and tying Garnet & Topaz to a hitch rail. Stretching out some kinks, he stepped inside.
The room was filled with mature and aged men & women. Jaured found an empty table and sat down. A middle-aged woman brought him a mug of ale.
“We’re serving stew with biscuits and all the ale you can drink, five coppers.”
Jaured fished out a silver piece, handing it to her. “Two servings of stew, two biscuits, and can you tell me if there is a cabin for sale?”
“Old Torril’s place is still empty. Toby here holds the deed. I’ll tell him you are interested in the place.” She returned quick enough with his food.
Jaured was on his second helping when a tall, blonde-haired man who probably had been a force to be reckoned with when he was younger, but whose muscles had gone soft, pulled up a chair.
“I’m Toby. Red Mary tells me you’re looking for a place.”
“I’m Jaured, and she told you true.”
“I look after the vacant properties in the Valley. Before you say another word, hear me out. We have a small population, and we like it that way. You’ll not see any children growing up among us. It’s not that any of us doesn’t want offspring, some of us have grown children living outside of the valley; we’re just set in our ways and most are too old to start a family the first time we entered Soldier’s End. Every one of us were soldiers, knights, or mercenaries before we came to Soldier’s End. We all respect one another’s silence regarding our past.”
“I can understand your thinking. I’ve nothing against young ones myself, just never had the hankering to be a father. ”
“There are few rules in this valley. First, never ask about another’s past. You may speak of your own, should you chose. Second, do what you will inside your home, but do not force your beliefs or lifestyle upon anyone else. Third, every home has a garden. All of the property here is part of a cooperative garden system. We all share in crops: each home garden grows selected items. You do your part and you will never starve. Fourth, any livestock you have are yours, but hunting or fishing is open to any man or woman anywhere in the valley – no exceptions- including on your property. Finally, a couple of us make a trek out of the valley twice a year to obtain special supplies we can’t get or grow. You will be entitled to make requests and send items for sale with the wagons.’
“Those rules are simple enough. What about the King’s taxes or knight fees?”
“We are exempt from both for life as originally negotiated by the owner of this Valley, Sir Trystin as long as we reside within these lands. Before Trystin died, he set up this valley to be self sufficient, with the land owned by retired warriors. As long as we live in peace, we can stay but is we ever leave the valley for the purpose of gaining more land, or use this place as a base for pillaging, and then it reverts back to the King. A spell was cast, to keep both sides honest and to discourage non-fighters from entering the valley.”
“Do you ever have visitors?”
Toby smiled, “Of course we do. We don’t live the life of monks! Shepard’s Pass makes the journey difficult in winter, but my son and his family make the journey every Kyregat’s Moon.”
“You have convinced me. I’ll take the house. How much?”
“One hundred gold pieces, it’s steep I know, but the cost includes the price of your future burial, stocking your larder, a couple of chickens, and, hay for your beasts. Next year, you will have crops to share, which will cover your share. Once you get settled, make a list of any items you want, for our wagon leaves in five days for Iddivyne.”
Jaured opened his pouch to count out the gold coins. “Can you have one of your companions show me to the house?”
Toby turned to a group of men sitting around a table playing cards. “Escol, you mind showing Jaured the way to Torril’s place? I’m sure he could use a hand cleaning the place up once he walks through the door.”
“That’s not necessary, Toby. I’m not afraid of hard work.”
“I never said you were, Jaured. It will be good for you to get used to accepting help. Escol can fill you in on your neighbors in the valley. If anyone needs his help, we’ll send a rider out your way. Escol can show you about a bit after you’ve settled in.”
Escol stood up, bidding his friends good day. “Sure I can.” He moseyed over to Jaured, holding out his hand in greeting. “Nice to meet you, I’m Escol, the village healer.”
Jaured grasped the man’s hand, “I’m Jaured, happy to meet you in return. My horse and mule are outside, ready whenever you are.”
Escol grinned, “My horse was getting re-shod. Do you want to walk with me to check on him? I can introduce you to Powystes, the blacksmith.”
The two men fetched Escol’s horse. The ride to Jaured’s new home took a full candle mark. Jaured was pleased to see a large, healthy-looking apple grove, the trees full of flowers. At least the former resident took care of the trees. Approaching the path to his new home, Jaured felt a sense of peace settle over him. No more bivouacs, no more sleeping on hard ground, and especially, no camping in the snow! I will make a real bed. If there is no mattress, I will order one with the last of my coins.
Torril had pride in his home; the front porch had a swing big enough for two to sit in comfortably. Flower beds ringed the entryway and lined the graveled path. A simple cross-rail fence surrounded the house, more to keep out the larger livestock. A corral was directly left of the residence, with the barn behind. Between the barn and main house was a clothesline, which doubled as a guideline from the house to the barn and back during poor weather. A large stack of chopped firewood leaned against the side of his new home, close to the porch.
By the time they arrived at Jaured’s new home, the sun was beginning to set in the horizon. Both moons shone in the night sky, giving plenty of light to unload Topaz by. Jaured and Escol bedded the horses and mule in the small barn. Escol brought in an armful of wood while Jaured started a decent fire in the fireplace. Jaured pulled a pot from a cabinet, placing it on the rack in the fireplace. In no time, they had a thick stew heating up, leftovers courtesy of Toby.
“Place needs a fair bit of cleaning.” Jaured observed.
“Aye,” Escol replied, “for the most part, it needs little care other than pruning and picking fruit. You’ll need to watch for the occasional bear or deer. When the fruit starts to ripen, send word. We’ll come help pick it. In return, others will expect help harvesting their own crops.”
“Want another fill of ale, or I have some vorane.”
The warm was getting warm. Escol debated over the wisdom of getting in his cups. “If I have any more, I shan’t be in any condition to make it home tonight.”
Jaured smiled, “As you can see, I’ve plenty of room.”
“In that case, I’ll take the vorane.”
“A man after my own heart! Shall we break out the cards?” Jaured asked, “It will help the night pass easier.”
They spent the next couple of candle marks playing cards and drinking vorane. When neither man could read the cards, the game was declared over. They broke out the bedding and settled down for the night in front of the fire.
It was late in the night when Jaured woke shivering from cold, an arm casually flung over his chest. Escol shifted and mumbled in his sleep, scooting closer for warmth. Jaured sat up. He moved away from Escol to get within reaching distance of the fireplace. It didn’t take long take long for couple of fresh logs to start burning. The retired knight found his place under his bedding. It was no big deal to share body warmth, and the comfort of another person’s touch helped heal the deep hurts from a lifetime of a knight’s work. It didn’t matter who, or what, the person was.
Jaured closed his eyes, letting his mind wander. Our masters never said what house and knight-errants were supposed to do once we’d grown too old to fight. I doubt any of us were expected to live to a ripe old age. Bless Trystin for setting aside this valley for those of us who had no place to go after the end of the glory years.
“Stop thinking and relax…” Escol murmured, pulling Jaured close. “Damn it’s cold. We have to fix your bedroom tomorrow. I’m too old to be sleeping on a floor. Red Mary has better sleeping arrangements and she is willing to keep a man warm.”
“You volunteered to help me here. I never said I was that friendly. Sharing body heat is okay – don’t push me.”
“Grumpy. Close your eyes, ox head.”
“I’ll go to sleep when you shut up, pig brains.”
Jaured smiled. He was going to like his retired life.