When last we left our intrepid adventurers, Squirrel had found both employment and a new name at the estate of Lord Rosk in northern Garst. Krisse, the overseer, names him Silent Tom. Squirrel’s brother, Lowgrowler the wolf, remains in the woods outside the estate, and survives only through Tom’s pains to keep the elderly warrior fed.
Krisse began having Tom work with the horses more and more, as his skill with them was obvious. If a horse wandered off, Tom brought him back effortlessly. If a horse was skittish, Tom’s presence calmed him down. But Tom was not a rider. Every time he climbed on a horse, it started rolling its eyes and shaking. Krisse could not figure it out.
The other mucker was Derdim, an older, rugged man with a face smashed in so many fights, it looked like a walnut. His clothes were stained and worn, and could be smelled even above the tang of the stables. He worked hard enough, which is the only reason Krisse kept him around. Derdim not only stank, but he let fly whenever he liked with both wind and humor that everyone on the farm found execrable.
Tom liked Derdim. The old man was very much like the bears, and once he made friends with a bear, the bear was always a true comrade. Tom didn’t really trust any human, even Krisse, but he did like Derdim.
For his part, Derdim thought Tom was a good kid. Tom was the only one who laughed at his farts, the only one who grinned under his slaps. Derdim really didn’t care who liked him, except for the women of course, and he found it very difficult to understand them. He had tried his luck on the farm several times, unsuccessfully, and the farm women now kept a good distance between him and them. Krisse wouldn’t let him his house any more. So Tom and Derdim slept in the loft and laughed each other to sleep.
One night Derdim thought he heard the kid yelling; yelling at him. He woke with a start. Tom was shaking him back and forth and there was smoke in the air. It took him a few moments, but as his brain cleared he realized that the barn was on fire.
“Modor and Faedir!” yelled Derdim, “We’ve got to get out of here!” He followed the kid down the ladder and started running for door. With a sinking feeling, he suddenly realized the kid was going the other way. The horses were still in their stalls and the ones furthest away were screaming and plunging, so Tom was trying to rescue them, and headed straight for the fire. “Kid! Get your ass out of there!” he yelled, but the boy ignored him. He loved those animals, beyond all sense. “Crap, crap, crap!” growled Derdim, but they had a few moments of safety yet. He reluctantly turned to the stall doors near the exit and began to free the animals.
Tom went straight to the very last stall in the barn. In it, Lord Rosk’s warhorse Golgetta was screaming and scraping his legs against the walls as he reared and plunged. Tom tried to calm the horse. I’m here, I’m here, he sent. Calm down, you need to stop hurting yourself. I’m opening the gate. Golgetta was beyond reason and kept screaming and plunging. His stall was filled with smoke, his eyes and lungs were burning, and he wanted out!
When Tom slipped open the gate, he tried to jump clear. The gate flew open with all of Golgetta’s weight on it, striking Tom’s arm and throwing him down. Golgetta skittered out of the stall, nearly falling as his hindquarters slid out from under him, but he dragged himself upright and charged out of the barn. Derdim pressed himself against the stalls as the giant Friesian charger flew past him.
Tom’s left arm was broken and the smoke was getting thicker, but he got two more stalls open before he had to give up, drop below the smoke and crawl out. He felt cool clean air and then a strong hand gripped the back of his shirt and hauled him up. Derdim’s face was smudged and his eyes red from the smoke. The two collapsed about forty feet away. The flames at the north end of the barn were now flying twenty feet above the barn and getting higher. The mules that were trapped were screaming. Golgetta was limping out near the pasture, and five other horses were milling near him. The chickens had gotten out of course, and the barn cats sat under the oak tree taking in the spectacle. They didn’t like the smoke, but were entranced with the flames.
Krisse and the other workers were trying to slow the flames, but the water was doing little good. The old dry wood of the barn was burning fiercely, and driving its rescuers back further every second. No one could stand the head. Soon the flames were fifty feet in the air and the farm workers were forced to listen to the frantic high-pitched screams of the mules, which thankfully faded quickly into the general roar of the conflagration.
By the morning, the horses were in the corral and Golgetta’s wounds had been treated and bound. Tom’s arm was set and splinted, and he was sent to help the women in the garden. Since it was late summer and little weeding was needed, he was given the task of hauling water from the river up to the melons. Derdim was sent to the woods with five other men and four of the horses to begin downing trees to build an open-air stable. The horses were hitched in pairs, with Samwell and Barth driving them. In the woods, they took turns with the axe, and while the three resting men talked about the fire.
“I wouldn’t doubt if it were trogs,” said Aben, a slender young man with a romantic view of warfare. “Mayhap Sir Rosk will lead an expedition to the Darkrealms.”
“It were just as likely goblins,” snorted Samwell, “and that’s not very likely, is it?” The burly man signaled to his partner to hand the axe over. The conversation was pointless, so the men concentrated on their work.
Derdim was as confused as his two companions. Lord Rosk’s holding was in northern Garst, tucked along the Silver River. It was at the northern edge of civilized lands (Tom had come from the lands of the Grefftarr, one of the barbaric tribes who lived in the northern mountains and plains). There had not been a trog raid in northern Garst for over forty years, and no goblins or other creatures of Faerie had been seen within mortal memory in the region. The Empire was at war with the Gurukali, but the Red Islanders were still far to the west. Everyone on farm suspected that the person who started the fire was someone from the holding itself, but none dared say that aloud. Silent Tom and Derdim were the only strangers on the farm, and normally would be the chief suspects, but their efforts to save the horses at risk of their own lives had saved them from that suspicion. It did not allay, however, the growing tension among the members of the holding. Only the culprit’s capture could do that.