Garst was the northernmost kingdom in the Anthavarn empire. It served as a border state with Gurakali client state of Sargon to the west, with the Seven Barbarian Tribes to the north, and the ruined realm of Therrea to the east. It had been twenty years since the Trog Wars, so the Therrean frontier was generally quiet. The Seven Tribes allowed no intrusion north into their plains, but they valued trade with the Empire and lived in peace with Garst for the most part. Sargon was a different story. The Gurakali were expanding their territories and sending their mutant armies to conquer the mainland. Sedoba, Asut, and Jebba had fallen already. Gurakali armies of Gelmers and Helmers and a vast horde of Rejects now flowed through Jebba into doomed Sargon. There was little doubt that Garst would be the next to be threatened.
But in the northeastern corner of Garst, there was peace. Lord Rosk’s estate lay just south of the Silver River, which flowed south and then east from the Kalipac mountains. Squirrel and Lowgrowler had come from the mountains and knew nothing of the south. Derdim was a Garst man through and through, born in Maestag and then serving in the Trefawl garrison before ranging east, trading his way through the wilderness west of Chirk. After trading with the Grefftarr tribe, he worked his way south, stopping for the summer at Lord Rosk’s estate in hopes of wooing one of the fat farm maids, but his aversion to bathing and his work as a mucker had limited his success. He was ready to leave.
Where Garst was concerned, Derdim considered himself an expert, and Tom appraised that expertise too highly as they headed south. The two headed due southwest, cross-country toward Bilberry. The walled town was not more than a three day overland walk from Rosk’s estate, but the area between was covered with forest and marsh and brambles. There were trails to Bilberry through either Chirk or Rye, but either trip would have taken more than a week and Derdim had acquired a powerful thirst for the boons of civilization (namely women and beer) while at Rosk’s quiet country estate.
By the end of the first day, Tom realized that Derdim did not have much experience in the woods. The older man tripped on tree roots, rashly ventured into bogs, and tore his clothes forcing his way through brambles. For Derdim, the hike was exhilarating, the exploration of new territories intriguing, and the scratches he received were badges of honor. He felt fully masculine again, once more a brave hero. The palfreys were exhausted and Tom was exasperated at the waste of energy and the ridiculous retracing of steps that they were forced to make as Derdim again and again led them into one insurmountable obstacle after another.
On the second day, Tom took over navigation on the second day as unobtrusively as possible, shepherding Derdim skillfully through the forest and around the worst of the obstacles, which he anticipated with some surreptitious help from Lowgrowler. Derdim took an occasional side trip, but as the day progressed, he trusted more and more to the youth’s judgment. The palfreys were much relieved.
As a result of Tom’s leadership, the three day trip took only four days, and the two companions found themselves in the field surrounding the walled town of Bilberry. It was a welcome sight.
The town’s focus was the keep on the hill at the north end of the settlement. A raven standard flew from the tower and a sixty foot wall of smooth stone surrounded the keep. A second wall, twenty feet in height, extended southwards from the keep, travelling down the southern slope where it surrounded a grouping of about eighty houses and shops. Another fifty cottages or so lay outside the southern gates, with four roads radiating outward from southern gate. Wide dirt roads led west to Chirk, southwest to Sweetwater, and southeast to Retyn. A much smaller trail led northwest to Rye.
“Look at that wall,” said Derdim. “Wizard-shaped by its look and right strong.” He smiled his approval. “Civilization at last!”
Lowgrowler settled down on the edge of the forest while Tom and Derdim foundered around the edge of the fields and then south the outer wall until they reached the cottages. One lean old woman watched their passage as she churned butter outside her kitchen. A more buxom goodwife was busy shoving a dun cow out of the house and off to pasture. The two women frowned at the tattered clothing and weapons of the strangers and exchanged knowing looks with each other. Their disapproval was obvious.
Tom grew apprehensive as they approached the southern gate. No one here was friendly except Derdim, who loudly hailed the guards at the gate. “What news, my friends?” he shouted, “And where can a man get a meal?”
“The Bumpy Lantern is the best place in town,” said one, “Take the first left and you can’t miss it.”
“Thank you, thank you!” replied Derdim, “I can hardly wait! It’s been far too long for me.” The guards did not brighten. “And,” he continued, “Where might a weary traveler find comfort? And perhaps…. companionship?” He winked solicitously.
“Hrumph,” opined the second guard. “The sign of the Fat Merchant,” said the first, “straight up the hill. And tell them that Cass sent you.” He ventured a wink in return.
“Thank you, thank you!” replied Derdim. “May Faedir always look over you!”
Leading their horses, Tom and Derdim passed through the gate into the inner town. Two story buildings lined each street. Tom went to the left, Derdim to the right. Tom stopped, held out his hand for the lead of Derdim’s palfrey, and then led the two horses to the Bumpy Lantern. Derdim smiled broadly at his friend and walked quickly up the hill, looking for the sign of the Fat Merchant.