“Shouldn’t we be going west, to the coast?” Yllyesh asked. He looked around as if for clues. “I’m almost certain we’re going south.”
“We are going south,” Lee-Lack said.
They had slept at the Stone, where they had arrived late in the evening. The tavern prided itself on being open day and night, every day of the year, and serving food at all hours. Yllyesh had shown an interest in eating something warm before retiring, so they had enjoyed a late evening supper of thick soup with bread and dark ale.
“How can the landlord keep his tavern open day and night?” Yllyesh had wondered.
“He has four sons and five daughters. All in their late teens or early twenties. And a wife. That’s how,” Lee-Lack had explained.
It was late in the morning before they were back on the road because they had slept in.
“Care to explain why we are traveling south where there is no sea? I was under the impression Tarbalainn was a harbor, or did I mishear? Don’t harbors need a sea to be called, well, a harbor? By rights?”
“We’re traveling around Mirkadesh, not through it. I want to avoid unpleasant encounters.”
“And another thing. I thought people wouldn’t recognize you without your disguise. Didn’t you tell me that man who assaulted you with his companions used to be a member of the Renuvian Plains Robbers? And he didn’t recognize you, did he?”
“No, not until I spoke in the voice I’d used as chief of the robbers. Even then it took him a few moments before he trusted his eyes.”
“Better safe than sorry. It may have taken him a while, but eventually he did recognize me. Others may too, and I’d rather not have it known that the chief of the Renuvian Plains Robbers is traveling through Mirkadesh. The warlord’s military governor and his soldiers might be harder to defeat than some would-be robbers.”
“There could be a price on your head,” Yllyesh said. “You never know what gold does to a man until he is actually blinded by the yellow shine of the metal.”
Lee-Lack’s eyes flickered for a moment. He agreed. It was one of the first lessons he had learned as a young member of the robber gang. He felt suddenly more at ease. Against all expectations, he and his Mukthar companion appeared to have a similar outlook on life and mankind.
“The general opinion seems to be that I’m dead,” he said. “You are right, though. Just the information that I’m alive and kicking might be worth several rioghal to the military governor.”
“You’ve probably considered it already… but how did the impostor react when you made yourself known to him?”
“I told you, didn’t I? With disbelief. Why? What’s the problem?”
“Maybe the danger isn’t so much that you will be recognized, but that you won’t be.”
“For years your fellow-robbers have only known you in disguise,” Yllyesh continued. “You told me you applied ointments to your skin to make it look older and blemished. You even colored your teeth so they would look on the verge of decay. Most of your face was hidden behind a beard and hair of another color. Will they recognize their former chief in this attractive man?”
Lee-Lack needed a few moments to formulate an answer.
“Ereon recognized me by my voice. I had used a lower, rumbling tone as chief of the robbers. People who know you won’t be fooled by a disguise, or the absence of it.”
“Will you be able to convince them, though?”
“I have a trick that can’t fail, Yllyesh,” Lee-Lack said with a smirk.
The Mukthar raised an eyebrow.
“Careful. I doubt fail-safe tricks even exist.”
“You know what persuaded Ereon I was indeed who I said I was? When I stuck my sword between his ribs. Well, anyway he stopped arguing after that.”
“As tricks go it’s not a bad one, but let’s hope you won’t need it,” he said.
“On my own I never would have dared penetrate so deep into Ximerionian territory,” Yllyesh said. “I have to admit, though, that I’m somewhat disappointed.”
“Disappointed?” Lee-Lack asked.
“I was not yet ten when our warriors returned from an expedition against Ximerion.”
“The sack of Dermolhea twelve years ago, you mean?”
“I suppose so. Our men came home laden with riches and full of stories. I imagined in this country great cities would vie for room with mighty fortresses, one next to the other.”
“And now you’re disappointed because the land doesn’t live up to your youthful imagination of cities of marble and gold.”
“Something like that, yes.”
”I’m afraid this is one of the poorer regions in the kingdom. The kings in Ormidon haven’t shown much interest in the Highlands.”
“They were interested enough to conquer them.”
“Ah, true enough. And do you know why?”
“No, but you’re about to tell me, aren’t you?”
“In the times before High King Herruwold the Bold, and for some time after him, there were several tribes in the Highlands. Not much of the land was used for agriculture, and only some emerging cities manufactured goods and traded in them.”
“Oh, oh, oh, I think I know where you’re going with this. Tribes living in a poor, undeveloped region need to supplement their income, like—”
“Like Mukthars need to do.”
Lee-Lack smiled at Yllyesh.
“You see? Neither you Mukthars nor we Mirkadeshi have invented this robbing and plundering business.”
“So the Ximerionian quedash conquered the Highlands just to be rid of their raids on his dominions?”
“In a nutshell, yes. It took centuries, though. Eventually Herruwold the Bold broke the last Highlander resistance at the Battle of Lake Athermore.”
Yllyesh mulled over what Lee-Lack had told him.
“Did they ever look upon the Highlands as a part of their kingdom?” the Mukthar asked after a few minutes.
“Who’s to say? The Duchy of Landemere retained much of its independence. The dukes had never firmly declared for the Highlands or for Ximerion, but the high kings needed their support all the same. The cities kept fighting to avoid being controlled by the nobility, never mind where those nobles hailed from. A few hundred years later Mirkadesh became a self-ruling territory under an elected council. The last count wanted it thus, and another Herruwold, Herruwold Long-Sword, indulged him. At the time the high king needed money and Mirkadesh paid a hefty price for its charter.”
“And the rest of the region?”
“The rest is called the Province of Amiratha by the Royal Administration. Amiratha being Ancient Baltoc for Highlands.”
“They rule from Ormidon?”
“Usually the king appoints a lord-governor to rule in his stead. The position is often a sort of honorable banishment from court, so it was somewhat of a surprise when the high king appointed his two youngest sons as lord-governors.”
“There are two?”
“Yes, but only one of them is warlord. Don’t ask me why or how it happened, but after a few months one of the princes retired from public life.”
Yllyesh shook his head, trying to take in what Lee-Lack had told him.
“Still, I could swear, looking around, that this part of the country is uninhabited.”
“It’s why I chose this road. There’s a reason why the border of Mirkadesh is about ten miles to the north of us. This land belongs to the county of Ballydale. There used to be two villages in these parts, but they’re deserted now. Slowly the woods are reconquering the land that used to be cultivated and the counts of Ballydale are letting it. They use the forest for hunting.”
“Did the Renuvian Plains Robbers have anything to do with the villages being abandoned?” Yllyesh asked.
“It was long before my time, but yes, that’s what I was told. There were unceasing quarrels about where exactly the border between Ballydale and Mirkadesh was. The counts wanted to solve the dispute by annexing Mirkadesh. They even went so far as calling themselves counts of Ballydale and Mirkadesh for some time. We made sure that nobody could live close to our border. Apparently we raided the villages and destroyed their crops. The inhabitants called on their count for protection. Mirkadesh appealed to the then lord-governor to uphold the charter that had been granted by the sixth Herruwold, and denied all knowledge of and involvement in the raids by the robber gang. For good measure they set fire to a few of their own fields and blamed the robbers. The conflict fizzled out after that. No Highlander lord wanted to invite the scrutiny of the representative of the high king, and the count of Ballydale was no exception.”
“I like stories about the little guy beating the big brute by sheer cunning,” Yllyesh said.
“Yeah, so do I. Except, someone else was the little guy a few months ago. Mirkadesh didn’t win.”
After that they rode on in silence.