They reached the town as the sun hit zenith, baking dusty streets that bustled with noisy activity.
Kheri threaded through the commotion, turning down a small side road not too far from the town entrance. He led the way past several shops and finally paused in front of a large wooden building from which echoed the ringing sounds of a hammer hitting an anvil. He secured his horse to the rail and dusted his hands on his pants. “This is Jhopar’s shop.” He ducked inside, left Dale standing in the middle of the shop, and headed out to the back. Stepping out into the yard, he cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted. His voice was lost in the clang of the hammer. He shouted again with no effect, gave up, and walked over to the burly man. “Jhopar!”
The blacksmith stopped pounding. His face twisted into a black scowl and he hefted the hammer. “Get lost, punk. I ain’t got nothing to say to the likes of you.”
Kheri stepped on a retort and pointed toward the shop. “I brought you a customer. One with money this time.”
“Likely story,” Jhopar grunted, but he put the hammer down and wiped his hands on a towel. “I find out you’re tryin’ t’ scam me runt…”
Kheri raised his hands and backed away, shaking his head. “I’m not. He’s inside.” The blacksmith glared at him and strode toward the shop.
Dale glanced up as the blacksmith entered and turned toward him. “You must be Jhopar.”
“Yeah, that’s me. And you are?”
Dale smiled and held out his hand. “Dale. Paw Tucker said you might have some tack to sell.”
A smile creased the blacksmith’s face and he reached for Dale’s hand. “Ah. Well that’s all right, then. Paw’s a good man.” He grasped the hand in an iron grip and pumped it vigorously. “I’ve got some tack. What did you need?”
Dale pulled his hand free of the blacksmith’s grip and shrugged while rubbing the feeling back into it. “I guess everything. I’ve got two horses, but Paw only had a couple halters.”
“We’ll have to take a walk over next door. The leather stuff’s over there.” Jhopar turned and glared at Kheri. “You can take off now runt; I ain’t paying you for this.”
“He’s with me,” Dale interrupted before Kheri could speak.
The blacksmith narrowed his eyes and flung a scowl at Kheri. “All right, but if he causes me any trouble…”
“We’ll see.” The blacksmith pointed a finger at Kheri. “You get outta line punk, and I’ll use your head for a hammer, got it?” His finger found Kheri’s chest and poked harder than necessary.
Kheri nodded and stepped behind Dale.
The blacksmith turned back to Dale, motioning toward the door. “This way.”
They walked around the forge to a small building nestled in the back. Jhopar unlocked a massive lock threaded through two links of a heavy chain and pulled the door open, allowing a cloud of dust to escape. A pile of worn saddles took up one corner and various leather objects hung from hooks on the walls. He walked over to a saddle and hefted it. “Were those your horses out front?”
Jhopar handed him the saddle. “Here, take this.” He picked up a second one, threw another scowl at Kheri, and jerked his head. “Get the reins and blankets, and make it fast.”
Anger flickered through Kheri’s eyes but he moved to obey, gathering up two blankets from a pile next to the saddles. A mouse that had made her home in the pile squeaked in fright and dashed for safety. He jumped backward and crashed against the wall, knocking a number of the reins loose from their hooks. They cascaded down on top of him with a loud clatter.
Dale snickered and forced himself not to laugh at the sight of Kheri standing in the shed, hands over his head, draped in leather straps. “You okay?”
Kheri rubbed his head where the metal bit of a bridle had smacked him, nodded, and untangled himself from the straps.
The tack was used, but still in good condition, and after a short while both horses were outfitted properly. The blacksmith threw in a set of saddlebags and inspected the horses. “Horses need shoeing. Give me sixty minigills and I’ll throw that in as well.”
Dale cast a glance up at the sun. “How long will that take?”
“About an hour. Not long. Save you a lot of trouble down the road.”
Dale winced. “All right.”
The blacksmith untied the horses, took them by the reins, and led them around to the back of his shop, leaving Dale and Kheri standing under the awning in front.
Dale reached into his pocket and pulled out the money Matilda had given him. “Your aunt gave me this,” he said, holding the bills out where Kheri could see them. “How much are they worth?”
Kheri pointed to one. “This is a minigill. That one’s a moll. It’s worth ten minigills. That one’s worth five, it’s called a doll.” He stopped, his attention suddenly focused on the street. “Put it away,” he hissed. “We’ve got company.”
Dale shoved the money back into his pocket and followed Kheri’s gaze. A pair of shifty characters were walking down the street toward the blacksmith’s shop, chatting. He rested his hands on his hips, watching them. “Someone you know?”
“Yeah, you could say that,” Kheri’s voice was low, his expression blank, but something dangerous flashed in his eyes.
Dale activated the force field control on his belt, stepped out into the street, and confronted the men.
They exchanged glances, and then one tipped his hat. “Afternoon.”
“Yes,” said the other. “Afternoon. Doing a little business with the blacksmith today?”
“Perhaps. If it’s any of your business.”
The first man held his hands up. “No need to get testy. Just being polite and all.”
The second man’s eyes darted behind Dale to where Kheri stood on the walk and he forced a smile. “We just have a bit of business to conduct here, ourselves.”
“Do you now?” Dale uncrossed his arms and gestured toward the shop. “Well then, don’t let me stop you.”
“You know,” the first one glanced at his companion. “Perhaps we’ll just come back later.”
The second man bobbed his head. “Yes. Perhaps later. Have a good afternoon, will you?”
They exchanged looks, turned and began to walk away.
“Duck!” Kheri shouted.
The two men took another step, turned back in tandem, and threw their daggers.
Dale’s time slowed to a crawl as his suit’s protective functions kicked in, speeding up his personal time. The daggers sailed towards him in slow motion. He stepped forward and knocked them both out of the air. Deactivate timestop. As his time returned to normal, the daggers clattered to the ground at his feet. He narrowed his eyes and took a step toward the two would-be thieves.
They stared at him, backed-up a step, and ran.
He watched them until they turned a corner and vanished from sight then bent down and picked up the daggers.
Kheri burst out laughing, watching the thieves flee. “Now that’s a beautiful sight.”
Dale chuckled as he handed the daggers to Kheri. “Here, you have more use for those than I do.”
Kheri accepted the daggers and stowed them away. “Thanks. Teach me how to do that?”
Dale looked at him innocently. “Do what?”
Kheri made a face at him in response. “Move like that.”
Dale grinned. “We’ll see. Now. We still need to find food and supplies.”
“The general store will have that stuff.”
“How far is it?”
Kheri gestured in the direction of the main street. “Not very far. We’ve got time before the horses are done.”
Dale opened the door to the general store and stepped inside, followed closely by Kheri. He stopped and looked around, trying to make sense of things. Floor to ceiling shelves crammed with a bewildering array of goods lined the walls, customers wandered among a random assortment of partly opened crates while shouting orders at the harried shopkeeper and his assistants, stacks of wooden barrels teetered dangerously in the corners, and large display cases sprouted from the floor in inconvenient locations.
Kheri pushed past and walked into the center of the store where he grabbed the sleeve of an assistant who was wrestling with a ladder, and started gesturing around the shop.
The assistant watched him for a moment, nodding every few seconds and pointing around at different spots in the store, then left the ladder leaning on a wall and accompanied him back to where Dale was standing. He favored Dale with a lopsided grin and held out his hand. “Welcome to Harrison’s Dry Goods. What can I get for you?”
Dale took the assistant’s hand and shook it firmly. “We need some basic supplies for a long trip.”
The assistant nodded as he wiped his hands on his apron, and then furrowed his brow. “Hard tack then, beans too. And jerky. You got pans?”
Dale shook his head.
“I’ve got a couple pans in decent shape. A bit beat up, but no holes in ‘em. Wait here.” The man scurried around the shop, pulling things off shelves and out of crates. He paused several minutes later, standing beside a large pile of goods that had taken shape on the counter, and turned to Dale. “Got bags?”
Dale thought about the saddlebags Jhopar had sold them and shook his head. “Not big enough for all of that.”
“You’ll need blankets, too,” the assistant decided, and set off again. He returned quickly, adding the rest of the items to the pile. “There, that should do it.” He cast a practiced glance over the items and rattled them off. “Blankets, rope, food that’ll keep, some sacks, a couple tinderboxes and extra flint. Ponchos for rain, a mallet, some wooden pegs, rope and a tarp in case you need to make a tent. Think that’s everything. You’ll have to get knives or hatchets elsewhere.”
“All right, how much do I owe you?” Dale asked, fishing in his pocket.
The shopkeeper frowned at the pile, scribbled rapidly on a piece of paper, and handed it to him. “Two dolls and three minigills.”
Dale paid him and started shoving stuff into sacks.
The smith was done by the time they returned. Dale left Kheri outside with the horses and supplies, and accompanied the blacksmith into the shop. He paid for the shoeing, and then glanced at the walls. “Do you happen to have a hatchet?”
The blacksmith stroked his chin while scanning about the shop. “Might. You fixing to travel for a spell?”
“Fairly long trip?”
“Got a couple that might do you. Wait here.” He strode across the shop and disappeared into another room.
Dale returned as Kheri finished loading the horses. “Here.” He handed the younger man a hatchet and a hunting knife. “He had several, so I got us both a set.”
“Thanks.” Kheri accepted the items and stowed them in the saddlebags. “Anything else we need?”
Dale shrugged and eyed his horse. “Probably. But I can’t think of anything.”
“Then can we leave, please?”
Dale stood staring up at his horse, his hands on his hips. “Yes. Provided I can figure out how to get up on that saddle.”
Kheri chuckled. “Here, I’ll show you. First, always mount from the horse’s left side.” He walked over to Dale’s horse, stuck a foot in the stirrup, and swung up into the saddle. “Like that, see?”
“Somehow I don’t think it’s long enough for my legs.”
“Probably not.” Kheri dismounted and lifted the stirrup. “They’re adjustable though. See the straps?” He let the stirrups down and stepped aside. “Go on and mount.”
Dale keyed the playback and managed to scramble up onto the back of the horse, ignoring both the grin that spread across Kheri’s face and the younger man’s poorly disguised chuckle. He stuck both feet in the stirrups and shook his head. “They’re still too short.”
“I’ll let ‘em out the rest of the way. But you don’t want ‘em too long. Your foot’ll slip out and you’ll fall off.”
“Which you are just waiting to see me do, aren’t you?”
Kheri snickered audibly, and then tried to appear innocent. “Who, me?” He concentrated on letting the stirrups out all the way. “There, how’s that?”
Dale moved around in the saddle and nodded. “That feels ok… I think.”
Kheri gathered the reins and handed them up to Dale. “You use these to tell the horse what to do. It’s not that hard, but your horse probably knows you don’t have any experience. It might not do what you want. Watch me and you should get the hang of it pretty quickly.” He swung up onto his horse and looked over at Dale. “The horse will go where its head’s pointed. That’s all there is to it. You put his head where you want him to go and he goes.” He pulled gently on the reins and his horse obediently turned to the right. “Like that. Pull back if you want him to stop.”
Dale keyed the playback and watched Kheri’s motions then tried turning his horse. She ignored him, and flicked a fly off her flank with her tail.
“Try again and this time, kick her in the ribs,” Kheri suggested, nudging his horse with his heel. “You have to teach her who’s boss or she’ll never do what you say.”
Dale frowned, pulled harder on the reins, and tried a sharp kick. The horse snorted and put her ears back, but turned and took a couple steps in the right direction.
Kheri nodded in approval. “Yeah, like that. Ok, so where do you want to go?”
Dale thought for a second. “We need to get away from your aunt’s house, and we should get away from this town as well as the Tucker farm.”
All trace of mirth vanished from Kheri’s face and he looked Dale in the eye. “The road’s dangerous, but once we’re out of the Barony, no where’s safe. We really should have swords.”
“Do you know how to use one?”
Kheri’s face lit up in eager anticipation. “Well, no. But I can learn.”
I haven’t used a sword in years and you don’t even know how to hold one, Dale thought, watching the excitement dancing in Kheri’s eyes. I’m not sure I like this idea. Still… we do need better weapons than a hatchet. Or a knife. Images of several high-tech options ran through his mind. He grinned then shook them away. Daydreaming isn’t getting us on the road. Time for that later after we’re relatively safe. He nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right. Any idea where to get one?”
Kheri jerked his head at the blacksmith’s shop. “I don’t suppose he had any?”
“Not that I saw.”
“Then we go to a city. That’s the only place I can think of that might have them.”
“All right. Which way to the nearest city?”
Kheri ran his hand through his hair and thought aloud. “There’s Marshbow. It’s about three weeks ride to the south.” He brightened and looked at Dale, his eyes sparkling. “We could always go east to Villenspell.”
“What is Villenspell?”
“It’s sort of a city. Well mostly. It’s where the wizard’s college is. The city kind of grew up around the college. It’s said you can find everything there!”
“How far is it?”
“I’m not sure, but I don’t think it’s much farther than Marshbow.”
Dale sat for a few seconds, watching Kheri and thinking. Probably not nearly as interesting as he seems to think, but it might have some useful items. And when the Gorg come back, there could be worse places to be than in a city full of wizards. Providing they aren’t just a local legend.
Kheri opened his hands in an unspoken question.
Dale gave in and nodded. “All right. We’ll head that way.”
Kheri grinned, then turned his horse and headed away from the blacksmith’s shop.
Dale kicked his horse in the ribs again and tried to follow.