One look at the man seated with Drun and Bourninund, quaffing ale like a man with a fatal thirst, and Renir understood more than he wished to.
Shorn’s old mentor and teacher, Wen Gossar, was more than slightly suicidal. The dark skinned man was a giant, broad across the shoulder and chest, with thick, strong hands. His back was bowed with age, but he looked hale enough to Renir His head gleamed in the bright sunshine that streaked through the slats across the windows, and a strip of light fell on his face, lighting the man’s eyes — it was a sight that Renir thought would live long in his memory.
Renir tried to refrain from making an instant judgement, but, he thought, Shorn must be as insane as his teacher surely was to bring him along. Renir could see insanity bubbling in those red-rimmed eyes, shining bright with madness. The man’s mouth leered on one side, like someone affected by a heavy blow to the brain. He was dribbling his beer on his stained jerkin, looking around the room distractedly as Drun was saying something to him.
The man was too busy eyeing the bar to take note of Renir’s examination, although Renir knew he had spotted them entering the tavern. In a glimpse of those eyes Renir saw not only madness, but a cold intelligence, despite the slack features on one side of his mouth.
Renir wondered if the sparseness of customers was because of the unusual heat, or because the customers of the Horseshoe were wise enough to place self-preservation above the desire for cool ale. Renir thought it was probably the later. Shorn left Renir standing just inside the door and walked to the small group. Renir found himself rooted to the spot. Of all the crazy things he had done since finding Shorn that cold night so long ago, meeting Wen was the thing he least wanted to do. It was more than apprehension. It bordered on fear.
He would not let it rule him.
Urlane, although a vague memory, would never allow him to be a coward, and usually Renir gave little thought to his own welfare. It was not a habit he would let himself fall into. He pulled his feet from the boards and walked slowly, reluctantly, to meet the giant.
“Ah, and this is Renir. He, too, joins us on our journey,” said Drun by way of introduction.
Renir felt himself weaken as Wen looked him up and down. The leer on his face did not distract from the danger this man posed. He was far from finished. Renir noted, now that he was closer, how the man’s eyebrows stood out, white where his skin was otherwise darker than that of a Sturman.
“He’s just a boy,” growled Wen, taking a swig of his ale and dismissing Renir.
Shorn felt obliged to defend his friend. “And proven in battle already. He’ll stand true.”
“I hope so.” Wen’s eyes darkened and he fixed Renir in his powerful stare. “Do you feel the moons, Renir? I feel them pulling at me. They are full, and the Seafarers will not wait much longer. Are you ready to put your life on the line?”
“I am,” said Renir with more surety than he felt. “I’ll not be left behind. But what of you? Are you to be trusted?”
Renir sensed Drun’s warning glance, but ignored the priest. He would not be put on the spot by a stranger, with whom he had shared nothing. It might be wise to fear the man, but he was far from wise, and wiser than most men in that he knew his failing.
Wen laughed, his voice cracked in what Renir knew was the throat of one accustomed to the harsh smoke of seer’s grass. It changed minds, Renir knew, and not for the better. That would explain the red-rimmed eyes, and perhaps the permanent leer fixed on his face.
“I’m as reliable as rock. I will stand.”
“Well, then that’s the introductions over with. Whose round is it?” asked Bourninund.
“I’ll stand this one, and pay up what you owe. I have money in abundance,” said Wen. He drew a pouch from his belt and tipped the contents out on the table.
The silence was sudden.
Hundreds of tiny, cut rubies tumbled across the wooden table. Shorn was the first to react.
“Put them away, man! You’ll have every thief in the city trying to cut our throats!”
Wen barked a laugh and scooped the rubies back into the pouch. “The wages of death, my friend. I have saved every one. It is only fair that the dead should pay our passage north. They know their own kind.”
Renir wondered if the man thought he was dead, and if he was some strange assassin who only accepted payment in rubies.
“We’ll take the money where we can get it, thank you, Wen,” said Drun, ever polite. “But I think one should be sufficient to cover the remainder of our bill.”
“Very well. I will save the rest. The Seafarers have a liking for baubles, too. Although I don’t know why. It’s not like there’s any use for gems in the ocean.”
“You do know why,” said Shorn, “Don’t pretend like you’re some fool who’s never left home.”
“Every man is a fool, student, but I left home many years ago. I know it well. I remember the day I left, and every day before it.”
Shorn ignored him. He had heard the tale of the weapons’ master’s exile many times during his tutelage. It was a sad tale, but Shorn would not let it have unmanned him as it had his old teacher.
But then, perhaps Shorn had his own bane. Every man of war was beset by ghosts. It was just that Wen communed with his, whereas most warriors merely pretended they could not hear the babble of the slain on their shoulder.
Renir took a seat next to Drun, and beckoned the barmaid with a gesture. He studiously avoided looking at Wen, and glanced round the tavern. There was not much to see. It was early yet, and few men in Pulhuth had the time or the money to spare to spend all day drinking.
He was fortunate indeed.
As the older men discussed their journey, Renir watched them and held his council. Once, when his journey had begun, he would have tried to lighten the mood. Now he knew he would have only done so to alleviate his own discomfort. He was a different man now, but still, somewhere deep inside, there was a core of innocence and decency that could not be tarnished by the trials he had already born, and the hardships yet to come.
But he was not blind. There was some tension that Renir could not fail to notice, and fresh wounds on Wen’s bare upper arms. He came to the obvious conclusion that the two men had fought, and not with fists, but he could see none of the animosity that was so often evident in Shorn’s manner. It was as though Shorn was resigned to the fact of Wen accompanying them on their journey north, and had set aside any thoughts of revenge on the giant warrior.
It must have been some fight, thought Renir. From what he knew of Shorn, it would not have gone easy. And for this man to have trained him…the ground must have shook.
Renir felt it was up to him to steer the conversation into more friendly waters. Perhaps if he got to know Wen better he would feel less apprehensive about the man.
“And where do you come from, Wen?” he asked as a convenient gap opened in the conversation. “You have a strange accent, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“I come from a distant land, boy. Far from here, across the endless seas. People on Lianthre call it the fourth continent. We call it Makref. It means ‘land of sand’. It is a largely barren land, peopled with strange creatures much like the Protectorate that you flee, and human people, like me. It is there that I learned to kill, and there I learned to enjoy it. But that is all I will say. There is plenty of time to get to know one another on the journey to the north.”
Suddenly, Renir realised, there was nothing he would like to do less.
“But more of you, Renir. You are haunted are you not?” Wen looked at him sideways. Or perhaps it was just the set of his face.
Renir was forced to re-evaluate the man. Only the Bear and Drun knew of his strange nightly visitations. He obviously saw much with his bloodshot eyes.
“I don’t think that’s any of your business.”
“Of course it is. Death is my business. We are both haunted, are we not, Renir Esyn? I know more of you than you think. The dead do not reserve their meanderings to your mind, boy.”
Bourninund, while not a wise man, saw enough shock on Renir’s face to stir him into action.
“Perhaps we should be moving on,” he said, with a careful smile to the others. “There’s tavern’s a’beckoning, and I’ve got a thirst that needs to be slaked. There’ll be plenty of time for chat tonight, but I’m tired of this place. I need to say goodbye to the city if we are to leave tomorrow. What say you all?”
“As good a plan as any, Bear,” said Renir, tearing his gaze away from Wen’s seeking eyes. It was almost as difficult as tearing his eyes away from a fresh corpse. There was a certain morbidity about the man.