The Arms of Tarbalainn
Asgall arrived early the next morning, while Lee-Lack and Yllyesh were still at the breakfast table. Looking through the window, the Mukthar saw how the young man got off his horse and remained standing next to the animal about ten yards from the door. The color of his hair wasn’t obvious due to its extreme shortness, but Yllyesh guessed it had to be very light brown. Or blond. His round face was expressionless. As Lee-Lack had mentioned, the new arrival was sturdy though. His body was of a compact build that nevertheless didn’t appear to be thickset but exuded strength. He stood firmly on two stout legs, planted slightly apart.
“Isn’t he coming inside?” Yllyesh asked.
“Not as long as he isn’t invited in.”
“Oh, for crying out loud,” the Mukthar said and he got up.
He opened the door.
“Welcome, eh… welcome. The stable is there, right beside the house. Take care of your horse and join us.”
Asgall nodded and without a word guided his horse to the stable. A few minutes later he entered the house.
“Chief,” he said. He made a slight bow toward Lee-Lack. “Sir,” he added and he gave Yllyesh a nod.
“He’s one of those guys who takes everything serious,” Yllyesh thought. “I wonder if he ever laughs. Or smiles, even.”
Asgall scratched his head.
“You’re a Mukthar,” he said to Yllyesh. It wasn’t an accusation and neither did it sound particularly worried or curious. “One of our Mukthars?”
“Yes, he is,” Lee-Lack lied. “He’ll be traveling with me.”
Asgall looked around the room. He seemed to have forgotten all about Yllyesh and Mukthars in general.
“I won’t get bored,” he said in the same monotonous, joyless tone that apparently was his standard mode of communication.
“What do you mean?” Lee-Lack asked.
“Mother knows I get bored easily. She told me to make myself useful while I was minding the house. Oh, if you have no objections, of course. I’m good with my hands.”
“I get bored easily too,” Yllyesh said. “Keeping busy is the cure.”
“Exactly, Sir,” Asgall replied without the least trace of irony. “This whole room needs to be cleaned thoroughly. In fact, I guess the whole house could stand a meticulous cleaning while I am at it. I doubt it has even been aired out in a few years.”
“Ten, at least,” Lee-Lack said. “Grandmother was old and she never was one for household chores.”
“Understandable, Chief. Not to worry. I’ll take care of it. The furniture can be stored in the stable. It’s better the whole house is empty. Much easier to clean.”
“Where will you live meanwhile?” the robber asked.
“Oh, here and there. Weather permitting, I’ll sleep outside. I expect to be done within the week anyway. Again, provided you don’t mind that is.”
“No, I don’t. Won’t you get lonely? This place is rather in the middle of nowhere.”
“Every week one of my brothers will come to bring supplies. They’ll keep me current on what’s happening at home. Besides, I like it quiet. People talk too much.”
“Well, that’s settled then,” ~Lee-lack said, slightly taken aback by the resolute demeanor of the young man.
“The vegetable patch behind the house could be made larger. My brothers could bring everything here, but I don’t want to deplete the supplies at home as long as I have time enough to grow my own. The stable has a few beams that are moldering away, and the well is missing two stones. I’ll see what I can do about that.”
“If you are going to do odd jobs while you’re here, maybe I ought to pay you something for it. Let’s see…” Lee-Lack said.
“With respect, Chief, thank you, but that won’t be necessary. In fact, Mother said you might offer to pay me and she forbade me expressly to accept anything from you. And I agree. I know what you did for us, and we’ll never be able to repay you as it is.”
Lee-Lack opened his mouth as if to protest, but Yllyesh interrupted him.
“Leave it be, Lee-Lash. For the young man and his mother this is an honor debt. You should respect that and gracefully accept their service.”
“Because Mukthar honor demands it?”
“Yes, and so does common decency.”
Not a muscle moved in Asgall’s face.
“A nice young man. Very determined,” Yllyesh said.
They had been on the road for over three hours and had left Dullcarry behind them.
“Yes,” Lee-Lack agreed. “The house is old and not very well maintained. Whatever he does to it, save burning it down, should be an improvement.”
Yllyesh snickered softly.
“What?” the robber asked, irked.
“I just remembered that you tried to offer him money for his services and how he refused you.”
“So? He seems to think he’s in my debt. You yourself told me to respect that.”
“Yes, but that’s not what I mean. How were you ever a robber chief? I thought robbers didn’t go around offering people money, but, well, robbing it.”
“It wasn’t exactly like that. Mind you, we weren’t getting poorer. Each of us was moderately well-to-do. My adjutants more than the rank and file. I more than my adjutants. A lot more. On the other hand, it was understood that the money we collected was to benefit the whole population of Mirkadesh. And it did. Almost every family had a member in the Renuvian Plains Robbers. Large donations in cash enhanced the joy of every marriage and every birth in the county. A financial contribution made every death in Mirkadesh somewhat easier to cope with.”
“And yet, after all those expenditures enough remained to call it a treasure?”
“Oh yes. The merchants liked to use the Renuvian Plains for their caravans to Zyntrea and the independent city states. Not only was the journey shorter, it was also safer. Thanks to us.”
“Provided they made a generous contribution to your coffers,” Yllyesh said. He didn’t sound disapproving.
“Of course. Even so, it was far cheaper to pay us than taking the longer route and having to hire armed men for protection.”
“Would you have used the treasure for something, eventually?” Yllyesh asked.
Lee-Lack felt some irritation at having to justify the actions of a group that was — had been — much, much older than the two of them put together, but he soon decided that he wanted the Mukthar to know.
“Who knows? Mirkadesh is a small county and it is, or was, an anomaly ever since Count Mandihar gave it its charter of self-rule. We were lucky that at the time and for long after, the nobility was embroiled in internecine fights and disputes — often armed ones — with the cities and towns of the province of Amiratha. Mirkadesh isn’t exactly Landemere. The duchy has always been powerful and rich enough to follow its own destiny. There was this one period all of the Highlands expected the House of Landemere to mount the throne of Ximerion. Nothing came of it and instead we got the Tanahkos dynasty. They still rule the country. Anyway, Mirkadesh managed to avoid all conflicts with its neighbors. More by luck than judgment, I suppose.”
“Ah, but you felt the need to be able to protect yourself should the need arise.”
“Yes, and that’s why, over time, the Renuvian Plains Robbers became the unofficial army of Mirkadesh. More a task force, actually. There is a tenacious rumor that long ago the Robbers ambushed the then Lord Mayor of Dermolhea and his retinue while they were on a hunting party. They killed the lot.”
“The Lord Mayor and the merchants of the city of Dermolhea had some sort of long-running disagreement with the counts of Ballydale. The Council of Dermolhea proposed to give the counts a free hand in trying to conquer Mirkadesh if only they relinquished any and all claims on overlordship over their city. Claims which were tenuous at best and which had by that time become purely theoretical anyway.”
“That should have taught them a lesson,” Yllyesh said in an approving tone.
“Oh, it did. The City Council was in complete disarray and there was a bitter struggle for the mayoralty. Two months later the then count of Ballydale also fell into a trap while traveling in his demesne. His only son and successor was an eight-year-old boy. And that wasn’t the end of it. For five years every Dermolhean trade caravan, whether it used the Renuvian Plains or the Northern Highway was raided.”
Yllyesh laughed out loud.
“Mukthars would have done the same. I’m sure they left Mirkadesh alone after all those misfortunes.”
Lee-Lack shook his head.
“The connection between the Renuvian Plains Robbers and Mirkadesh was never made. Mirkadesh couldn’t afford a showdown of force. It would have lost a direct conflict with the county of Ballydale or with the city of Dermolhea. No, what the leaders of Mirkadesh wanted to accomplish was a destabilization of their enemies. Ballydale was ruled for more than ten years by the young count’s mother, who was influenced, and not in a good way, by her brothers. The death of the Lord Mayor of Dermolhea gave rise to a struggle for power that effectively put an end to the city meddling in the affairs of its neighbors for years.”
“Eventually the problems of the enemies of Mirkadesh must have been resolved.”
“New accidents happened. Three generations later a count of Ballydale who planned to invade Mirkadesh drowned. Currents in the river were blamed, because nobody had seen him being pulled down. Nobody ever suspected the inhabitants of Mirkadesh had anything to do with those unfortunate incidents, or, for that matter, with the Renuvian Plains Robbers. Everybody remembered, though, that the late count had been planning an outright attack on Mirkadesh and people started to talk. Older incidents were recalled. It was unlucky to make a move against the self-ruling county.”
“And that was enough?”
“You’d be surprised how little it takes. Rumors were started that Mirkadesh was still under protection of the ghost of Mandihar III, its last count. But, all in all, I think people just gave up. After all, both Dermolhea and Ballydale had given it their best and they got nothing but misery and misfortune for their pains. Mirkadesh wasn’t worth the trouble of conquering it. Just a few villages, facing the Renuvian Plains, at the edge of the Highlands. No riches and a sparse population.”
“Yes, rumors can be very powerful. I know that for a fact. Even the most outrageous lies will be accepted for the truth if repeated often enough,” Yllyesh said.
Lee-Lack wanted to ask if Yllyesh spoke of personal experience, but, glancing sideways, he saw the morose face of the Mukthar, his chin sunk onto his chest.
It would keep, the robber decided.
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