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The steerswoman centered her chart on the table and anchored the corners around. A candlestick, a worn leatherbound book, an empty mug, and her own left hand held the curling parchment flat. The lines on the paper seemed to be of varying ages, the ones toward the center drawn with cracked, browning ink, those nearer the edges sharp and black. Extent of detail also showed progression. A large body of water, labeled "Inland Sea," dominated the central portion. The northern shore was depicted with painstaking precision. Farther north and farther east lines became more general, and there was a broad blank space on the right-hand side of the map.
The innkeeper regarded the woman a moment, then turned his attention to the chart. "Ah, look at that, now, all laid out just like we were birds and all." He tilted his head for a better vantage. "Here we are, then." He placed a chubby finger down on the parchment, on a spot north and east of the sea, midway between precision and vagueness. "Here's this very crossroads, see, and the town, and the tavern itself." The last was not depicted. The steerswoman made no comment.
The finger moved northeast, leaving a faint, damp mark. "There, that's where me and my brothers used to live. Right there; I know that river, see."
"And that's where you found the jewel," Rowan the steerswoman said.
"Yes, lady, that's right. Felling trees, these great big ones here." With a sweep of his arm he indicated a vast supporting beam visible in the ceiling of the narrow sitting room. "There we were, cutting these great things down--they did the worst of it, I'm not so strong as my brothers." The innkeeper was an immense square block of a man, of the sort whose padding generally concealed considerable muscle. "So I spot this smaller one, more in my range, like. And I heave back my axe, give it one great bash--and there it was."
Rowan reached across the table and picked up the object that lay there, an irregular lump of wood about the size of her two fists. As she turned it over in her hands, something glinted inside the hollows and depressions carved into its surface: rich colors that fractured and shifted as the light shifted, opalescent--now blue-black, now sky-blue, now a flash of purple, recalling amethyst. The surface was laced with tiny veins of silver. Rowan touched one of the visible faces and found it perfectly smooth, far smoother than a jeweler could have cut it, and with a faintly oily feel.
Putting the object down on the chart, she reached into the neck of her blouse and drew out a small pouch, hung by a leather cord. She slipped the cord over her head, opened the pouch, and slid its contents out onto the table.
The innkeeper smiled. "Ah, you've got one, too, though not so large and fine as mine." He picked up the blue shard, about half the size of the thumb he rubbed across it. "Oh, it's the same, yes." But it seemed less a jewel than a slice of a jewel. It was flat and thin as a knife blade. Only one surface showed, the other sheathed in some rough-textured, silver-colored metal, as if it had been pulled from or broken from a setting.
The steerswoman made a vague gesture. "We can't tell how large yours is, imbedded in wood. All the others I've seen are like my own, small and one-sided. I suspect that what you have is actually several jewels, nestled together." She turned back to the map. "Can you recall which side of the tree it was found in?"
He was surprised. "Side? No side, lady. It was inside like I said."
"Yes, but wasn't it closer to one side than the other?" She tapped the object. "It wasn't directly in the center, or the pattern of the grain would run around it in a circle. It was off-center. I need to know in what direction."
"Ten years back? Who can tell one side of a tree from another, ten years back?"
Rowan leaned back in her chair, contemplating a moment. She was an unprepossessing figure, of average height, and of average build for her height. Her traveling clothes, a rough linen blouse and trousers, were dusty and perhaps a bit tattered. Her hair, cut short for convenience, was the color of dark wet sand, save where the sun had bleached pale streaks. She possessed no outstanding beauty, and yet her face fascinated, not by any great perfection of feature but by its intelligent, constantly shifting expression. It seemed as if the actions of her mind were immediately reflected on her face, giving her a strange air, part vulnerability, part arrogance. One could not tell if she was helplessly incapable of guile, or if she simply considered it beneath her.
"The jewel showed at the first strike of your axe?" she asked the innkeeper.
"Which way were you facing? Were there landmarks about? What did you see?"
"See?" He was blank a moment, searching his memory; then his face lit up. "I saw the Eastern Guidestar. The sun was just setting, see, the stars just showing, and as I get ready to swing, I look up and see the Eastern Guidestar shining through the branches like an omen. I remember thinking that."
Rowan laughed, slapped her hand down on the table, and rose.
"Does that tell you something, lady?"
"Indeed it does." She had gone to where her pack lay against an armchair, and was opening her tubular map case. She pulled out another chart, smaller than the first, and brought it back to the table. "Here." She pushed the lump to one side and spread the new chart on top of the first. "Do you see that this is a more detailed map of this small area?" She indicated the land around his finger-smudge.
"Yes . . ."
She nodded. "Here's the river, as you said, and it must have been around here that you felled the tree."
He squinted along her finger. "Could be, yes . . ."
"Were there any other landmarks? What did you pass on the way there?"
"We crossed a brook. . . ."
"Could it be this one?" With a series of questions she narrowed the possibilities until both she and the innkeeper were satisfied. She marked the position with a small star. Next she questioned him closely about the terrain and the other types of vegetation nearby, adding symbols and notes. At last she said, "And you were facing the Eastern Guidestar, which is southeast from there," and drew a small arrow by the star, pointing southeast. The innkeeper saw that there were perhaps a dozen such stars on the map, three of them accompanied by arrows. All the arrows pointed southeast.
The steerswoman picked up the wooden shape again, giving her attention not to the jewels but to the wood itself. She ran her fingernail lightly along the grain. "Did you use the tree that held this in constructing any part of this building?"
"Why, yes. The great mantelpiece over the fireplace in the common room."
She tossed the lump to him. "Show me." The terse command was tempered by her evident delight. The innkeeper could not imagine why the prospect of examining a mantelpiece would please her so. He led her down the short paneled corridor, passing a wide-eyed chambermaid who hastened to get out of their way, either out of respect for her master, or for the woman who followed him.
The common room was a wide low chamber that ran the entire length of the inn. In the far corner, a door led to the kitchen and service area, with kegs of various brews and wines nearby. Rowan and the innkeeper entered from another door in the same wall. A massive fieldstone fireplace filled the area between the two doors. The opposite wall held the entrance and a rank of windows, all flung open to admit the weak spring sunlight. As an attempt to dispel the native gloom of the chamber, this was a failure, and only served to offset the dark comradely warmth that prevailed.
The confluence of several bands of travelers had provided the inn with a crowd of surprising size. In one corner, a caravan guide was regaling a merchant who had three lovely young companions--daughters, by the merchant's evident disapproval of their bright-eyed attentiveness. Nearby, some of the other caravan members were conversing with five soldiers in red surcoats, apparently in the service of some or another wizard currently aligned with the Red. Close by the fire, a group of pilgrims were receiving an impromptu lecture from their leader; a local wag stood close behind his chair, parodying the man's pontifical gestures and expressions, while the pilgrims watched in a dumbfounded fascination that the unknowing leader seemed to attribute to his own rhetorical brilliance.
Far to the left of that group, Rowan identified a band of no less than a full dozen Outskirters. War-band size, she realized with some concern. But they seemed, at the moment, cheerful and unthreatening, oblivious to the ring of silent watchfulness around them, a ring that was slowly being frayed by the friendly, the brave, and the simply curious.
Seeing that nothing undue was about to transpire, she turned her attention to the fireplace and the mantelpiece, which was high up, safely out of casual arm-reach. It held a display of oddments and fancy mugs.
Rowan found a tall stool by the fire. She tested it with a fingertip, and it wobbled perceptibly. Seeing her intent, a local farmer leaped up. "Here, lass, I'll give a hand." He moved it to where she indicated and patted the seat, saying, "Up you go, lass, be glad to hold you," with a grin and an overly familiar wink.
"A little respect, man. That's a steerswoman," the innkeeper protested. The farmer backed off in surprise.
"It doesn't mean I couldn't use a hand," Rowan said, half annoyed, half amused. She climbed to the top of the stool while the farmer carefully steadied it, his friends chortling at some expression on his face, invisible to Rowan.
Ignoring them, she turned and carefully examined the squared-off end of the mantel, her face close to the wood, her hands moving over the grain.
The innkeeper watched in perplexity, then eyed the group around the fire, as if debating whether to betray his ignorance with a question. His quandary was solved by a serving girl, who, bustling by, noticed the steerswoman for the first time. "Here, what are you doing?" she called.
Rowan looked down. "Counting rings," she said with a grin, then returned to her work. The innkeeper's flapping gesture sent the girl back to the customers, and then he cleared his throat experimentally. His comment was forestalled by an explosion of loud voices from the near corner, and heads turned in the direction of the Outskirters.
One of the barbarians, a particularly burly specimen with a shaggy red beard, had risen and was leaning across the table to reply to a local who had joined the group. But he spoke with laughter and had leaned forward to pour more wine into the man's cup. "Ha! Stories! We've tales enough, and more than enough. I shouldn't wonder you'd ask, living in these soft lands. Sit in a tavern with good wine and good ale, and hear someone else's miserable adventures."
The band of Outskirters was becoming more infiltrated as surrounding people edged a little nearer at the possibility of a story.
"As for us," the barbarian continued, sitting down, "when we want something unusual we come to small taverns and sit under dry roofs, drink wine, and gawk at the local dullards." He spoke good-naturedly; certainly none of his comrades seemed to find the present company objectionable. One Outskirter woman at the end of the table sat shoulder-to-shoulder with a handsome field hand. He spoke to her in quiet tones; she gave occasional brief replies, a small smile on her face, eyes looking now to the left, now to the right.
"We'll bring a goblin, next time," a second barbarian volunteered, speaking around a mouthful of roast venison. "He'll have stories, or perhaps he'll do a clever dance."
"I've seen the goblins dance," said a farmer with brooding eyes. "I don't care to make closer acquaintance."
"Nasty beasts," the first Outskirter agreed. "Singly and in troops. Only last month our tribe was beset by a troop, and at night, too, the worst time to deal with them. Garryn's pyre, remember?" His friends nodded. "We had to burn him at night. Ha, there's a story--" He received a shove from his comrade. "What!"
"Let Bel tell it."
The man was outraged. "I was there!"
"For only part."
"I never left!"
"Never! Well, yes, with the help of a goblin's cudgel . . ." But the cry had been taken up by the other Outskirters. The woman at the end of the table rocked indecisively a moment, then rolled her eyes and got to her feet. Somewhat shorter than expected, she climbed to stand on her chair so she rose above the listeners, her head up near the low rafters.
She gazed up at the air for a while, as if choosing her words. Though small, she looked strong and able. She kept her balance on the chair easily, feet planted wide in shaggy goatskin boots which were met at the top by leather leggings. Her sleeveless shirt was equally shaggy. Her cloak was made of the unmatched skins of seemingly dozens of very small animals, crudely stitched together. Rowan wondered if she was not too warm.
With a gesture that commanded instant silence, the barbarian began to speak.
"Silence and silence; the battle stilled.
The outcome delivered, foes dispersed:
Garryn's gift. His was the guidance,
Warrior's wisdom, and heart of wildness."
Distracted, Rowan returned to her counting. The innkeeper finally spoke up. "What does it tell you, lady?"
"A moment." She finished, then gestured for him to pass the wooden lump. She placed it on the edge of the mantel and turned it this way and that, comparing it to the beam. "It tells me the age of this tree."
A grizzled elderly local spoke up. "One ring every year, on a tree." He was seated on a stool by the hearth's edge, his hands busy knitting a large square of off-white wool. Beside him, in a deeply cushioned armchair, an even older woman worked at needlepoint, her nearsighted eyes perilously close to the flashing needle. The old man grunted. "Don't need a steerswoman for that. One ring a year." The woman nodded, her work nodding with her.
"You can see the center of the tree, here. I can count all the way out to the edge: forty-three rings." The innkeeper and the farmer peered up. "And this--" She turned the glittering wood object again. "See how close the grain is? It came from about this area. Where the tree is perhaps fifteen years old."