Chapter no 73: Pegs

The Name of the Wind

NOT LONG AFTER THE apple was gone, Denna and I pulled our feet out of the water and gathered ourselves to leave. I considered leaving off my boots, as feet that can run bare over Tarbean’s rooftops are in no danger of being hurt by the roughest forest floor. But I didn’t want to appear uncivilized, so I pulled on my socks despite the fact that they were damp and clammy with sweat.

I was lacing up my boot when I heard a faint noise off in the forest, out of sight behind a stand of thick pine trees.

Quietly, I reached out to Denna, touched her shoulder lightly to get her attention, and held my finger to my lips.

What? She mouthed silently.

I moved closer, stepping carefully to make as little sound as possible. “I think I hear something,” I said, my head close to hers. “I’m going to go have a look.”

“Like hell you are,” she whispered, her face pale in the shadow of the pines. “That’s exactly what Ash said before he left last night. I’ll be damned if you’re going to disappear on me too.”

Before I could reply, I heard more movement through the trees. Brush rustling, the sharp snap of a dry pine branch. As the noises got louder, I could pick out the sound of something big breathing heavily. Then a low, animal grunt.

Not human. Not the Chandrian. My relief was short-lived as I heard another grunt and some snuffling. A wild boar, probably heading for the river. “Get behind me,” I said to Denna. Most people don’t realize how dangerous wild boars are, especially in the fall, when the males are fighting for dominance. Sympathy wouldn’t be any good. I had no source, no link. I didn’t have so much as a stout stick. Would it be distracted by the few apples

I had left?

The boar shouldered aside the low hanging boughs of the nearby pine, snuffling and huffing. It probably weighed twice as much as me. It gave a great guttural grunt as it looked up and saw us. It lifted its head, nose wriggling, trying to catch our scent.

“Don’t run or it’ll chase you,” I said softly, stepping slowly in front of Denna. At a loss for anything better, I brought out my folding knife and worked it open with my thumb. “Just back up and get into the river. They aren’t good swimmers.”

“I don’t think she’s dangerous,” Denna said in a normal tone behind me. “She looks more curious than angry.” She paused. “Not that I don’t appreciate your noble urges and all.”

At second glance I saw Denna was right. It was a sow, not a boar, and under a patina of mud it was the pink of a domestic pig, not the brown bristle of a wild one. Bored, it lowered its head and began to root around among the shrubbery below the pines.

Only then did I realize I was poised in a sort of half-crouch, one hand out like a wrestler. In the other hand I held my pitiful folding knife, so small it needed several runs at halving a good-sized apple. Worst of all I was only wearing one boot. I looked ridiculous: crazy as Elodin on his worst day.

My face flushed hot and I knew I must be red as a beet. “Merciful Tehlu, I feel like an idiot.”

“It’s rather flattering, actually,” Denna said. “With the exception of some rather irritating posturing in bars, I don’t know if I’ve ever had anyone actually leap to my defense before.”

“Yes of course.” I kept my eyes down as I tugged on my other sock and boot, too embarrassed to look her in the eye. “It’s every girl’s dream to be rescued from someone’s pet pig.”

“I’m serious.” I looked up and saw some gentle amusement in her face, but no mocking. “You looked…fierce. Like a wolf with all its hackles up,” she stopped, looking up at my head. “Or a fox, I suppose. You’re too red for a wolf.”

I relaxed a bit. A bristling fox is better than a deranged, half-shod idiot. “You’re holding your knife wrong though,” she said matter-of-factly,

nodding toward my hand. “If you actually stabbed anyone, your grip would slip and you’d cut your own thumb.” Reaching out, she took hold of my fingers and moved them slightly. “If you hold it like this, your thumb is safe. The down side is that you lose a lot of the mobility in your wrist.”

“Been in a lot of knife fights, have you?” I asked, bemused.

“Not as many as you might think,” she said with a sly smile. “It’s another page out of that worn book you men are so fond of using to court us.” She rolled her eyes, exasperated. “I can’t count the men who have tried to seduce me away from my virtue by teaching me how to defend it.”

“I’ve never seen you wearing a knife,” I pointed out. “Why is that?” “Why would I wear a knife?” Denna asked. “I am a delicate blossom and

all that. A woman who goes around wearing a knife is obviously looking for trouble.” She reached deep into her pocket and brought out a long, slender

piece of metal, glittering all along one edge. “However a woman who carries a knife is ready for trouble. Generally speaking, it’s easier to appear harmless. It’s less trouble all around.”

Only the fact that she was so matter-of-fact kept me from being startled. Her knife wasn’t much larger than mine, but hers wasn’t a folding knife. It was a straight piece of metal, with thin leather wrapping the grip. It clearly wasn’t designed for eating or performing odd jobs around the campfire. It looked more like one of the razor-sharp surgical knives from the Medica. “How do you keep that in your pocket without cutting yourself to shreds?” I asked.

Denna turned sideways so show me. “My pocket is slit all along the inside. It straps to my leg. That’s why it’s so flat. So you can’t see I’m wearing it.” She gripped the leather handle and held her knife in front of her for me to see. “Like this. You want to keep your thumb along the flat.”

“Are you trying to seduce me away from my virtue by teaching me how to defend it?” I asked.

“Like you have any virtue,” she laughed. “I’m trying to keep you from cutting up your pretty hands the next time you have to save a girl from a pig.” She cocked her head to the side. “Speaking of. Did you know that when you’re angry your eyes—”

“Loo pegs!” A voice came through the trees accompanied by the dull clank of a bell. “Peg peg peg…

The great sow perked up and trotted back through the brush toward the sound of the voice. Denna took a moment to replace her knife while I picked up my travelsack. Following the pig through the trees, we spotted a man downstream with a half dozen large sows milling around him. There was an old bristling boar too, and a score of assorted piglets scampering underfoot.

The swineherd eyed us suspiciously. “Hulloo!” he shouted. “Dain’t be afeerd. Tae wain’t baet.”

He was lean and leathery from the sun, with a scraggling beard. His long stick had a crude bronze bell hanging from it, and he wore a tattered bag over one shoulder. He smelled better than you’d probably expect, as ranging pigs keep themselves cleaner than those kept penned. Even if he had smelled like a penned pig, I couldn’t really hold it against him, as I had no doubt smelled worse at various points in my life.

“Oi taut Oi heard sommat daen tae water aways,” he said, his accent so thick and oily you could almost taste it. My mother referred to it as a deep valley accent since you only found them in towns that didn’t have much contact with the outside world. Even in small rural towns like Trebon, folk didn’t have much of an accent these days. Living in Tarbean and Imre for so long, I hadn’t heard a dialect this thick in years. The fellow must have grown up in a truly remote location, probably tucked far back into the mountains.

He came up to where we stood, his weathered face grim as he squinted at us. “Wat are the tae o’ yeh daen oot here?” he said suspiciously. “Oi taut Oi heard sengen.”

“At twere meh coosin,” I said, making a nod toward Denna. “Shae dae have a loovlie voice far scirlin, dain’t shae?” I held out my hand. “Oi’m greet glad tae meet ye, sar. Y’clep me Kowthe.”

He looked taken aback when he heard me speak, and a good portion of the grim suspicion faded from his expression. “Pleased Oi’m certain, Marster Kowthe,” he said, shaking my hand. “Et’s a rare troit tae meet a fella who speks propper. Grummers round these ports sound loik tae’ve got a mouth fulla wool.”

I laughed. “Moi faether used tae sae: ‘Wool en tae mouth and wool en tae head.’”

He grinned and shook my hand. “Moi name es Skoivan Schiemmelpfenneg.”

“Yeh’ve got name enough far a keng,” I said. “Would yeh be turible offenced if’n Oi pared et down tae Schiem?”

“All moi friends dae,” he grinned at me, clapping me on the back. “Schiem’ll do foin fur loovlie young folk loik yusselfs.” He looked back and forth between Denna and myself.

Denna, much to her credit, hadn’t so much as batted an eye at my sudden change in dialect. “Fargive meh,” I said making a gesture in her direction. “Schiem, thas es moi most favorite coosin.”

“Dinnaeh,” Denna said.

I dropped my voice to a stage whisper. “A swee lass, but shae es turible shy. Yeh woon’t be heeren mekel out o’ her, Oi’m afeerd….”

Denna picked up her part without the least hesitation, looking down at her feet and twining her fingers together nervously. She glanced up long enough to smile at the swineherd, then dropped her eyes again, making such a picture of awkward bashfulness that I was almost fooled myself.

Schiem touched his forehead politely and nodded, “Pleased tae meet yeh, Dinnaeh. Oi hain’t naever heard a voice sae loovlie in awl moi loif,” he said, pushing his shapeless hat back onto his head a bit. When Denna still wouldn’t meet his eye, he turned back to me.

“Foin looken herd.” I nodded in the direction of the scattered pigs that were meandering through the trees.

He shook his head, chuckling. “Nae a herd. Shep an’ cows mak a herd.

Pegs make a sounder.”

“Es at soo?” I said. “Es there a chance, friend Schiem, that Oi moit buy a foin wee peg from yeh? Moi coosin and Oi messed our danner today….”

“Might do,” he said cautiously, his eyes flickering to my purse.

“If yeh dress et for us, Oi’ll gie ye four jots,” I said, knowing it to be a

generous price. “But that’s only if yeh’ll do us the faivor o setten doon and sharin’ a bite wit us.”

It was a casual testing of the waters. People in solitary jobs like shepherds or swineherds tend to either enjoy their own company, or be starved for conversation. I hoped Schiem was the latter. I needed information about the wedding and none of the people in town seemed likely to talk.

I gave him a sly grin and dipped my hand into my travelsack, bringing out the bottle of brand I’d bought from the tinker. “Oi’ve even got a dram o’ somethin’ tae season et. Ef yeh’re not opposed tae taking a drop wit a couple o’ strangers sae early in tae day….”

Denna caught her cue and glanced up in time to catch Schiem’s eye, smile shyly, then look down again.

“Weel moi moither raised me propper,” the swineherd said piously, laying a hand flat on his chest. “Oi dan’t drenk but when Oi’m tharsty or when the wind’s blowin.’” He tipped his shapeless hat dramatically off his head and made a half-bow to us. “Yeh seem tae be good folk. Oi’d love tae share a bit of danner wit ye.”

Schiem collared a young pig and carried it off a ways, where he killed and dressed it using a long knife from his bag. I cleared away leaves and stacked some rocks to make a quick firepit.

After a minute, Denna came over with an armload of dry wood. “I assume we’re pumping this fellow for every scrap of information we can get?” she said quietly over my shoulder.

I nodded. “Sorry about the shy cousin bit, but…”

“No, it was good thinking. I don’t speak fluent bumpkin and he’ll be more likely to open up to someone who does.” Her eyes flickered behind me. “He’s almost done.” She wandered away toward the river.

I covertly used some sympathy to start the fire while Denna cobbled together a couple cooking skewers out of forked willow branches. Scheim returned with the piglet neatly quartered.

I passed around the bottle of brand while the pig cooked over the fire, smoking and dripping fat onto the coals. I made a show of drinking, just raising the bottle and wetting my mouth. Denna tipped it when it passed her by as well, and there was some rosy color in her cheeks afterward. Schiem was as good as his word, and since the wind was blowing, it wasn’t too long before his nose was comfortably red.

Schiem and I chatted about nothing in particular until the pig was crispy and crackling on the outside. The more I listened, the more Schiem’s accent faded into the back of my awareness and I didn’t need to concentrate so much on maintaining my own. By the time the pig was done, I was hardly aware of

it at all.

“You’re roight handy wit a knife,” I complimented Schiem. “But Oi’m surprised you’d gut the little fella roit here with tae pegs close by….”

He shook his head. “Pegs is vicious bastards.” He pointed to one of the sows trotting over to the patch of ground where he’d dressed the pig. “See? Shae’s after this little one’s lights. Pegs is clever, but tae hain’t a touch sentimental.”

Declaring the pig nearly done, Schiem brought out a round farmer’s loaf and shared it three ways. “Mutton,” he grumbled to himself. “Who wants mutton when yeh can hae a nice piece o’ bacon?” He got to his feet and began to carve the pig with his long knife. “Wot would you loik, little lady?” Schiem said to Denna.

“Oi’m nae partial, mesself,” she said. “Oi’ll take whateer yeh have handy there.”

I was glad Schiem wasn’t looking at me when she spoke. Her accent wasn’t perfect, a little too long on the ohs and too tight in the back of the throat, but it was really quite good.

“Nae need tae be shy aboot it,” Schiem said. “There’ll be plenty and tae spare.”

“Oi’ve always had a likin’ for tae hinder parts, mesself,” Denna said, then flushed in embarrassment and looked down. Her ohs were better this time.

Schiem showed his true gentlemanly nature by refraining from any crude comments as he lay a thick slice of steaming meat atop her piece of bread. “Moind yer fingers. Give’t a minute tae cool.”

Everyone set to, Schiem served up seconds, then thirds. Before too long we were licking the grease from our fingers and filling in the corners. I decided to get to business. If Scheim wasn’t ready for some gossip now, he never would be.

“Oi’m surprised tae see yeh out and aboot wit all tae bad business lately.” “Wot business is that?” he asked.

He didn’t know about the wedding massacre yet. Perfect. While he couldn’t give me particulars about the attack itself, it meant he would be more willing to talk about the events leading up to the wedding. Even if everyone in town wasn’t scared to death, I doubted I’d be able to find anyone willing to speak with frank honesty about the dead.

“Oi heard they had some trouble up on Mauthen farm,” I said, keeping my information as vague and inoffensive as possible.

He snorted. “Can’t say as Oi find that startlen in the leest.” “How’s that?”

Schiem spat to the side. “Mauthens are a right lot o’ bastards, an’ no better than they should be.” He shook his head again. “I keep off Borrorill cause Oi’ve got one lick o’ good sense me mum beat into me. Mauthen dain’t even

have that.”

It wasn’t until I heard Schiem say the name of the place in his thick accent that I heard it properly. It wasn’t borro-rill. It had nothing to do with a rill. It was barrow-hill.

“Oi don’t even graze my pegs there, but that daft bastard builds a house….” He shook his head, disgusted.

“Didn’t folk troi an’ stop ’em?” Denna prompted.

The swineherd made a rude noise. “Mauthen ain’t much for listenen.

Nothin’ plugs a man’s ears like money.”

“Still, et’s just a house,” I said dismissively. “Nae much harm in that.” “Man wants his daughter tae have a fine house wit a view, that’s all tae

the good,” Schiem conceded. “But when ye’re diggen the foundation an’ yeh find bones an’ such, an’ yeh don’t stop…that’s a whole new type of stupid.”

“He didn’t!” Denna said, aghast.

Schiem nodded, leaning forward. “An that weren’t the worst o’ it. He keeps diggen, an’ he hits stones. Then does he stop?” He sniffed. “He starts pullen ’em up, looken for more so he can use them for the house!”

“Why wouldn’t he want tae use the stones he found?” I asked.

Schiem looked at me like I was daft. “Would’e build a house wit barrow stones? Would yeh dig something out o’ a barrow an’ give it to your daughter as a wedding present?”

“He found something? What was it?” I passed him the bottle.

“Well that’s the greet damn secret, hain’t it?” Schiem said bitterly, taking another drink. “From wot I hear, he was out there, diggen the house foundation, an’ pullen up stones. Then he finds a little stone room all sealed up toight. But he makes everybody keep mum about what he finds there on account he wants et tae be this greet surprise at the wedding.”

“Some sort o’ treasure?” I asked.

“Nae money.” He shook his head. “Mauthen’s never been quiet aboot that. Et were probably some sort o’…” his mouth opened and closed a bit, searching for a word, “…what de ye call something old that rich folk put on a shelf tae impress all their grummer friends?”

I gave a helpless shrug.

“An heirloom?” Denna said.

Schiem laid his finger alongside his nose and then pointed to her, smiling. “That’s et. Some flash thing tae impress folk. He’s a showy bastard, Mauthen is.”

“So nobody knew what et was?” I asked.

Schiem nodded. “There was only the handful that knew. Mauthen and his brother, two o’ the sons, an’ mebbe his woife. The lot o’ them been lording the big secret over folk for half a year, smug as pontiffs.”

This cast everything in a new light. I needed to get back up to the farm

and look at things again.

“’Ave yeh seen anyone around these parts today?” Denna asked. “We’re looken for moi uncle.”

Schiem shook his head. “Can’t say as Oi’ve had the pleasure.” “Oi’m really worried about him,” she pressed.

“Oi won’t lie tae yeh, dearie,” he said. “Yeh’ve got reason tae be worried ef he’s alone in these woods.”

“Are there bad folk around?” I asked.

“Nae like yeh’re thinkin’,” he said. “I dan’t get down here but once a year in the fall. Forage for the hogs makes it worth moi while, but only just. There’s strange things in these woods. Especial off tae the north.” He looked at Denna, then down at his feet, obviously unsure as to whether or not he should continue.

This is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to know about, so I waved his comment away, hoping to provoke him. “Dan’t go telling us faerie stories, Schiem.”

Schiem frowned. “Two nights ago, when I got up tae—” he hesitated, glancing at Denna, “—attend tae moi personals, I saw lights off tae the north. A big wash o’ blue flame. Big as a bonfire, but all o’ a sudden.” He snapped his fingers. “Then nothing. Happened three times. Sent a chill roight down the middle of my back.”

Two nights ago?” I asked. The wedding had only been last night.

“Oi said two nights, din’t Oi?” Schiem said. “Oi’ve been making my way south ever since. Oi want nae part of whatever it es making blue fire in the night up there.”

“Schiem, really. Blue fire?”

“Oi’m not some lying Ruh, spinning stories to scare yeh out o’ pennies, boy,” he said, plainly irritated. “I spent moi loife in these hills. Everyone knows that there’s somethen out in the north bluffs. There’s a reason folk stay away from there.”

“Aren’t there any farms out there?” I asked.

“There’s no place tae farm on the bluffs, unless yoor growen rocks,” he said hotly. “Yeh think Oi dan’t know a candle or a campfire when I see one? Et was blue, Oi tell ye. Greet billows o’ et,” he made an expansive gesture with his arms. “Loik when yeh pour liquor on a fire.”

I let it go, and turned the conversation elsewhere. Before too long Sheim gave a deep sigh and got to his feet. “The pegs’ll have picked this place clean by now,” he said, picking up his walking stick and shaking it so the crude bell clanked loudly. Pigs came trotting up obediently from all directions. “Loo pegs!” He shouted. “Pegs pegs pegs! C’man ye counts!”

I wrapped up the remains of the cooked pig in a piece of sackcloth, and Denna made a few trips with the water bottle and doused the fire. By the time

we were finished, Schiem had his sounder in order. It was larger than I’d thought. More than two dozen full-grown sows, plus the young pigs and the boar with the grey, bristling back. He gave a brief wave, and without any further word headed off, the bell on his walking stick clanking as he walked and his pigs trailing in a loose mob behind him.

“Well that wasn’t terribly subtle,” Denna said.

“I had to push him a bit,” I said. “Superstitious folk don’t like to talk about things they’re afraid of. He was about to clam up, and I needed to know what he’d seen in the forest.”

“I could have gotten it out of him,” she said. “More flies with honey and all that.”

“You probably could have,” I admitted as I shouldered my travelsack and began to walk. “I thought you said you didn’t speak bumpkin.”

“I’ve got a mimic’s ear,” she said with an indifferent shrug. “I pick up things like that pretty quickly.”

“Surprised the hell out of moi…” I spat. “Damn. I’m going to be a whole span of days getting rid of that accent. Like a piece of gristle in my teeth.”

Denna was eyeing the surrounding landscape despondently. “I guess we should get back to beating the bushes, then. Find my patron and find you some answers.”

“No point, really,” I said.

“I know, but I can’t give up without at least trying.”

“That’s not what I mean. Look…” I pointed to where the pigs had rooted around in the dirt and leaves, going after some choice morsel. “He’s been letting his pigs graze all over. Even if there is a trail, we’d never find it.”

She drew a long breath and let it out in a tired sigh. “Is there anything left in that bottle?” she asked wearily. “My head still aches.”

“I’m an idiot,” I said, looking around. “I wish you’d mentioned it was bothering you sooner.” I walked over to a young birch tree, cut off several long strips of bark, and brought them back to her. “The inside of the bark is a good painkiller.”

“You’re a handy fellow to have around.” She peeled some off with a fingernail and put it in her mouth. She wrinkled her nose. “Bitter.”

“That’s how you know it’s real medicine,” I said. “If it tasted good it would be candy.”

“Isn’t that the way of the world?” she said. “We want the sweet things, but we need the unpleasant ones.” She smiled when she said it, but only with her mouth. “Speaking of,” she said, “how am I going to find my patron? I’m open to suggestions.”

“I have an idea,” I said, shouldering my travelsack. “But first we have to head back up to the farm. There’s something I need to take a second look at.”

We made our way back to the top of Barrow Hill, and I saw how it had come by its name. Odd, irregular lumps rose and fell despite the fact that there weren’t any other rocks nearby. Now that I was looking for them, they were impossible to miss.

“What is it you needed to look at?” Denna said. “Realize that if you attempt to go inside the house I might be forced to physically restrain you.”

“Look at the house,” I said. “Now look at the bluff that’s sticking out of the trees behind it.” I pointed. “The rock around here is dark…”

“…and the stones of the house are grey,” she finished. I nodded.

She continued to look at me expectantly. “And that means what, exactly?

Like he said, they found barrow stones.”

“There aren’t any barrows around here,” I said. “People build barrows in Vintas, where it’s traditional, or in low, marshy places where you can’t dig a grave. We’re probably five hundred miles away from a real barrow.”

I walked closer to the farmhouse. “Besides, you don’t use stones to build barrows. Even if you did, you wouldn’t use quarried, finished stone like this. This was brought from a long ways off.” I ran a hand over the smooth grey stones of the wall. “Because someone wanted to build something that would last. Something solid.” I turned back to face Denna. “I think there’s an old hill fort buried here.”

Denna thought about it for a moment. “Why would they call it barrow hill if there weren’t real barrows?”

“Probably because folk around here haven’t ever seen a real barrow, just heard about them in stories. When they find a hill with big mounds on it…” I pointed out the oddly shaped hillocks. “Barrow Hill.”

“But this is nowhere.” She looked around aimlessly. “This is the outside edge of nowhere….”

“Now it is,” I agreed. “But back when this was built?” I gestured to a break in the trees to the north of the burned farmhouse. “Come over here for a second. I want to look at something else.”

Walking past the trees on the northern ridge of the hill gave a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside. The red and yellow of autumn leaves were breathtaking. I could see a few houses and barns scattered about, surrounded by golden fields, or pale green pieces of pasture with dots of white sheep. I could see the stream where Denna and I had dandled our feet.

Looking north, I could see the bluffs Schiem had mentioned. The land looked rougher there.

I nodded mostly to myself. “You can see thirty miles in every direction here. The only hill with a better view is that one.” I pointed to a tall hill

obscuring my view of the northern bluffs. “And that one practically comes to a point. It’s too narrow on top for any decent sized fortification.”

She looked around thoughtfully, then nodded. “Fair enough, you’ve sold me. There was a hill fort here. What now?”

“Well, I’d like to make it to the top of that hill before we set camp tonight.” I pointed at the tall narrow hill that was currently hiding part of the bluffs from our sight. “It’s only a mile or two, and if there’s anything strange going on in the north bluffs, we’ll have a clear view of it from there.” I thought for a moment. “Plus, if Ash is anywhere within twenty miles he could see our fire and come to us. If he’s trying to keep a low profile and doesn’t want to go into town, he might still approach a campfire.”

Denna nodded. “That certainly beats the hell out of stumbling around in the brush.”

“I have my moments,” I said, making a grand gesture down the hill. “Please, ladies first.”

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