Silver Ashes

Part I: Unexpected Friendship

The village had been built on both sides of the road,  very clearly mostly for the accomodation of those who travelled along it.

The lone traveller in his green cloak sighed with relief as he approached the village. It had been a long day in the saddle, and, he reflected, probably one too many. There'd be plenty more, though, and that was why he was glad for the chance of a bed not on hard ground and under the stars.

The last time he had been this way, this had been a trade route, and apparently that hadn't changed much, judging by the carts, wagons and vans that were parked around the large village inn.

He directed his horse towards the stable of the inn. The poor beast didn't need much direction however; it was so tired and exhausted that not even ten other horse would have been able to make it go any other direction than the stables.

The traveller dismounted, grunting as stiff and painful muscles protested. Inside the stables one lamp was lit and by the light of it a stable boy was grooming one of the horses. When he caught sight of the traveller, he abandoned his task to embrace this new one eagerly. The traveller tossed him the reigns and removed his saddlebags.

'Take care of him,' he said and threw the boy some coin. The kid seemed pleased with them.

'Of course, sir,' the boy said. 'By morning, he'll be fit as he's never been before.'

'If he is, I'll give you more of these,' the traveller said, pointing at the coins the boy held clutched in his hands, and left the stables to find the entrance to the inn.

Outside, light flowed out of the inn's windows and the noises of many people filled the air. Over the door hung a sign that was just barely lit enough to be able to read it: Trader's Nest.

Inside, the inn was filled with people, about two thirds of them traders and one third village people, he estimated. Though full, the inn wasn't crowded, and there was still an empty table in one corner.

As he sat down, and placed his bags by his feet, a young fair-haired girl approached him.

'Good evening, sir,' she said. 'How may I help you?'

'Do you have any Tomelean whine?' he asked. The girl nodded, but with a look on her face that said, 'I doubt you'd be able to afford it.'

'I'll have a bottle please,' he said, irgnoring the eyebrow she raised at this.

'One bottle of Tomelean wine, it is,' she said. 'Anything else?'

'Whatever you have for dinner will be fine.' The girl nodded; she probably understood a traveller's need of a good warm meal at the end of the day, regardless of how it tasted.

Í'll bring your wine right away, sir,' she said. 'The meal might take a little longer.' She waved at the other guests at the inn, indicating that his specific order was a popular one, tonight, and left.

He sat back a little, relaxed slightly, and looked around. The room was large and brightly lit, the grey stones glowing yellowy in the light of the lamps on the wall. At the east wall, a huge hearth was situated, and around it sat a large group of both merchants and villagers. Almost every other table was also occupied, with traders, merchants and their guards, in ever shape and colour. Amongst them were little groups of villagers, listening or telling stories, exchanging news and gossip. He closed his eyes, let the warmth and the amiable voices flow over him, allowing himself to enjoy this moment of peace.

But someone was watching him.

Once, he would have jumped up immediately, scanning the corwd and getting away as fast as possible once he'd identified the threat.

Experience and many years had taught him to stay still. It was probably nothing, in any case, he told himself. He was sure he had lost them weeks ago, why would they have thought he'd be here, tonight? And he knew by now that people sometimes just stared at him, just watched him, if only for the sake of watching. He had realised, and been told often, that he was something special to look at.

He let his eyes drift open again, as if he'd much rather keep them shut and get some rest but knew he would have to eat and drink first. Slowly, he let his gaze float across the room, deliberately never looking at someone in particular, not even when he noticed a boy in the group by the hearth staring directly at him. It was probably just curiosity, he said to himself. Nothing more.

He watched the boy cautiously, and a good deal less obvious than the boy was watching him. And he realised that the boy might not even be a boy; he probably just looked very young, with his smooth and untroubled face, surrounded by shoulderlength dark brown hair. He might be eighteen, or twenty-eight.

He relaxed as the boy averted his face and started talking to the man next to him. Surely, just curiosity.

The waitress appeared again, with his wine.

'Here you go, sir,' she said and placed the bottle on the table.

'Thank you. Are there any rooms left for the night?' he asked her, but her face showed him all he needed to know.

'No,' she said. 'But… I believe we have a spare bed, somewhere. You'll have to share rooms, if you don't mind.'

'It will do,' he said, and she nodded.

'I'll show you to your room when you've finished your meal, is that all right?'

'Perfect,' he said. 'Thank you.' He smiled slightly at her, and she smiled back, before turning away again.

He sat drinking his wine and listening to the talk for a while, until the waitress brought his dinner and then left to approach the group around the hearth. He saw her talk to them, and at one point gesture in his direction, upon which they all looked up. He'd bet anything that that was the trader's group he would have to share rooms with.

Well, at least it might give Mr Curiosity a chance to stare at him some more.

He bent down over his dinner, but looked up again when a shadow fell over it.

'Hello,' someone said, 'mind if I sit down?'

Without waiting for an answer, the curious young man sat down across the table.

'Actually, I'm rather busy eating,' he said.

'Oh, come on,' the boy said. 'I just heard from Deiny that you'll be taking our spare bed, and thought I'd introduce myself.' He offered his hand. 'Mahon. Daran Silber Mahon.'

'Daran Silber Mahon?' he repeated. 'You're Gerneian?' Mahon blinked.

'No, I'm from Holan... But we're originally from Gerny, yes,' he said. 'Why?'

'Silber Mahon is ancient Gerneian for silver man.'

'Is it? Well, you're never too old to learn, they say. What did you say your name was?'

'I didn't,' he said, but sighed when Mahon just looked at him expecantly. 'Ashen,' he admitted.

'That's an interesting name,' Mahon said.

'So is Silber.'

'Touché,' Mahon admitted. 'So... what do you do for a living?' Ashen gave him a warning look, not to go too deep, but Mahon didn't seem to notice.

'I travel,' he said reluctantly.

'Just travel?'

'You wanted to hear something else?'

'Well... I just don't know many people that are rich enough to live their lives travelling without doing other things that bring in more money.'

'All right, I've done other things, occasionnaly,' Ashen admitted. 'Happy now? And what business is it of you, anyway?' He tried to sound cross, but felt it didn't come out entirely as he planned it.

'None, of course,' said Mahon, with a smile. 'I was just making small talk.' He got up. 'Anyway, my lads and I will be turning in early tnought. I don't know what your plans are, but we'll keep the door unlocked. And we'll try not to wake you when we leave tomorrow.'

'Thank you,' Ashen said, surprised to find he genuinely appreciated it.

'Good night,' Mahon said, inclining his head politely, and just a bit regally and old-fashionedly.

'Good night, silver man,' Ashen  said, which made Mahon laugh and Ashed realised he hadn't made someone genuinely laugh in years, nor enjoyed it himself. How did Mahon do that, to bring back a part of his old, cheerful, flirting self, buried away so long ago? In just a few minutes?

He watched the man as he made his way back to the hearth; Mahon couldn't be just a boy, his eyes and manners were too old for that. And he had referred to the traders around him as his 'lads', did that mean he was their leader?

He ate the rest of his meal absentmindedly, not ignoring the irony that now it was him who was staring at Mahon.

Before long, Mahon and his traders left for their rooms, and Ashen decided to remain downsteairs for a while longer, even though he felt like he could fall asleep right there, right then.

Gradually, the inn's main room emptied, and when the waitress, Deiny, turned down several of the lights, he decided it was time to go to bed.

Deiny showed him to his room, which turned out to have eight beds, seven of which occupied. A gentle snore filled the room, from at least two or three people in it. He couldn't make out any faces, even thought they had let a lamp burning by the one unoccupied bed, but he thought the man in the bed closest to the door had dark brown hair. He undressed partly, put his bags under his bed and extinguished the lamp. While he did that, his medallion slid out from under his shirt, and he sat holding it and staring at it for a while in the dark. He didn't need light to see the face on the miniature painting; every inch of it was engraved in his mind forever.

Caeli...When am I going to stop missing you?

He sighed and put the medallion back where it belonged. But tired as he was, he found it difficult to sleep right away. The evening's events kept spinning through his head; Daran Silber Mahon - he smiled at the name and wondered if the man really hadn't known what it meant -, his fear that Calvin's people might still be on his trail. Was it wise to stay on this road tomorrow? The last time he'd seen anything from them had been still in Feranza, and he had crossed Beluge, Holan and part of Gerny since. There was no way they knew where he was.

At least, he fervently hoped so. Because if they were still after him, he'd probably be in trouble soon.

Aren't I always? he asked himself, but didn't find time to answer as he, finally, gently drifted off to sleep.

The room was deserted the next morning when he woke up, even though it was still barely past sunrise. Mahon and his people apparently had to be somewhere, soon, if they were on such a slave-driver's schedule.

In fact, most of the travellers and traders that had spent the night had already left, he learned when he came downstairs. Once he paid for his meal and room, Deiny decided she liked him a whole lot better.

'Oh, I'm sure you've met traders before, sir,' she said when she brought him his breakfast. 'Always gettin' up before dawn, always trying to reach their destination yesterday. But we're used to it, it isn't like we get much else than traders anyway.'

'This Mahon and his men.... does he come here often?' Ashen asked, not really knowing why himself.

'Oh, twice every year, sir,' Deiny said. 'Each year he travels all the way from Asternann to Berlia and back. And he wonders why his sisters keep complaining he isn't home often enough!' She rolled her eyes. 'It isn't like they need the money, or can't find someone else to do the travelling. I suppose he just likes it. Can I get you anything else?'

'No thanks,' Ashen said and returned her smile as she walked away.

Why did Mahon intrigue him so much? he wondered. After all, it wasn't like he was likely to ever see the man again.

His horse had rested well during the night and greeted him cheerfully when he entered the stables.

'Sleep well, did you?' he asked it. 'Well, you won't be so lively by the end of the day, I can tell you that.'

He gave the stable boy some more money for looking after his horse and left, realising that, like his horse, he felt remarkably refreshed and cheerful.

Must be the inn, he thought. He'd have to remind himself to visit it the next time he came this way. If it's still here, by then.

The road was quiet, the surroundings bustling with activity of an approaching summer. It had been late winter when he left Feranza, and some how he had missed most of spring.

Probably because I was running for my life.

In any case, he found he was enjoying the lovely weather, and didn't even try to hide away in his cloak every time he passed by another traveller.

At least, not until he came across a caravan, around noon, that was preparing to continue their journey after a short break, and recognised the man on the front cart as Daran Mahon.

He hesitated, comtemplating trying to get past them unnoticed, but then one of the cart drivers shouted something at Mahon. Mahon turned around and saw him. And waved briefly.

Awkwardly, Ashen waved back, feeling a bit confused. On the one hand, he wanted to get the caravan and mahon behind him, as far as possible, but on the other hand, he felt he couldn't do that, either because it would very rude or that he wanted to stay. Or maybe even both.

While he was trying to figure out what it was he wanted, he had ridden past the caravan, and on an impulse, he dismounted and pretended to adjust something around his saddlebags. He decided to get rid of his coat while he was at it; it was getting warmer than he had thought it would be. By the time he had finished and was back in the saddle, he was riding right next to Mahon's cart.

'Good morning,' Mahon greeted him.

'Morning,' Ashen returned the greeting.

'Did you sleep well?'

'Well enough.' And because there'd be probably no way he was getting out of it, he added, 'And you?'

'Like a rock,' Mahon assured him. 'That inn is the best in miles.'

'It's the only one within miles,' Ashen said, but Mahon waved away his words.

'That's beside the point,' he said. 'But you have to admit, it's a very good inn.'

'It is,' Ashen heard himself agree and to hide his embarrassment with the fact he was agreeing with a man he was trying to dislike, he looked behind him, at the carts following them.

'So... what do you carry?' he asked.

'Hmmh?' Mahon responded.

'What do you trade?'

'Oh, fine cloth and the like,' Mahon shrugged. 'Some of the most important people on Eúron wear clothes made from our fabrics.' He shot a glance at Ashen. 'Speaking of which, your clothes look like they were not designed for heavy travelling but had to adapt anyway.'

'I had to depart very suddenly,' Ashen said as curtly as he dared, which was amiable compared to the curtness he'd been able to produce in the past.

'I could get you some new ones,' Mahon said. 'We've sure got enough fabric. And I'm a kind of a dab hand with a needle, if I may say so myself.'

'No thank you. I've got other clothes.'

'Oh, so that's why you're still wearing these worn-out rags you were wearing yesterday as well?' Mahon said, but with a smile in his eyes that Ashen didn't miss. He said nothing.

'All right, if you don't want to talk about it, I won't,' Mahon said with a curious look towards Ashen. 'Just for the record, that doesn't mean I'm not curious.'

'Yes, I noticed that,' Ashen said. Mahon grunted.

'Am I that obvious?'

'You were last night,' Ashen pointed out. 'To be honest, I don't think I've ever really felt someone watch me that obviously.'

'You felt me watching you?' Mahon said, seemingly more disturbed by the fact he had been more than obvious about it, than ashamed that he had been watching Ashen.

'Yes,' Ashen said. 'Don't you? You never get the feeling someone is watching you, and when you turn around, they are?'

'Not that often, no,' Mahon said. 'Of course, the servants at home always watch us, I mean, gossip is their life, and you can't get any gossip if you aren't watching the persons concerned at least twenty four hours a day. I guess I'm used to it.'

'You'd think I was, too, by now,' Ashen said to himself.

'What did you say?'

'Oh, nothing,' Ashen assured him. 'I just don't like people staring after me too much.'

'I suppose no one does,' Mahon said. 'Although I must say, and I hope you don't take this the wrong way, you are highly enjoyable to look at.'

'Yes, I've heard that before,' Ashen said, and was surprised to find a blush creeping up his face. It had never made him blush before, except when Caeli had said it, so why would it now?

To his surprise, he felt strangely and increasingly reluctant to leave Mahon's company as the day went on, and it was amazingly easy to stay close to his caravan. All he had to do was keep going in the same pace, and decide to stop whenever they did. Which was not often, but he did not object to that.

Maybe it was just that he had been alone for so long. Or rather, alone amongst many unfriendly people. Mahon's earnest, definitely non-hostile interest in him was refreshing. It seemed Mahon loved to talk, just for the sake of talking, of exchanging thoughts, ideas and wits, instead of filing every bit of information away, to be used against him, one day. As he'd been used to for a very long time.

And more and more, he felt himself open up under Mahon's relentless curiosity. As much as the man seemed to love to talk about himself, he wanted to know about Ashen, and Ashen found it increasingly difficult to keep his distance and avoid Mahon's questions. By the time the sunset gave eveything around them a reddish glow, he wondered if that was because, secretly, deep inside, he wanted to talk about himself, wanted someone to know him like no one had, for a long time. Not since Caeli...

At nightfall, Mahon's caravan had found a decent campsite, but when Ashen went to make his own a few yards away, Mahon stopped him.

'Oh, come on, Ashen,' he said. 'You've been travelling with us all day, why not just join us now, as well?' He grinned widely. 'Besides, it saves you having to make a fire.'

Ashen gave in and moved his things to their fire. He had rather expected Mahon's men to look disgruntled or disapproving at this, but they welcomed him heartily amongst them, and one of them, a broad, black-haired man with a sturdy face and a hooked nose, who had been driving the cart directly behind Mahon, offered him some wine.

'I wouldn't drink that if I were you,' Mahon warned him. 'That's his special flask. Deviously strong stuff.' The man laughed.

'No, you're just a weak little aristocrat, not used to the right stuff,' he said and nudged the flask towards Ashen. 'Go on, drink!'

With a look at Mahon, who was barely able to keep from grinning widely, Ashen took the flask and drunk. it was strong all right, and it stinged his throat, but it tasted good, too, and he swallowed easily. He gave the flask back to the driver, who looked disappointed, while the rest of the traders laughed loudly.

'Too bad, Grad,' Mahon said. 'Looks like you found a match.' Grad looked foully at his leader and turned back to Ashen.

'Care for a drinking contest?' he asked. Ashen shook his head, smiling in spite of himself.

'Another time, maybe,' he said, and Grad shrugged.

'I'll hold you up to that, then.'

And so he shared their meal, and spent the night at their fire, Mahon and his traders telling stories of many of their trips, until the moon rose above the trees around them, and one by one they retreated into their blankets and into sleep.