At this point, the youth took a good look at Star. He saw her very expensive-looking cloak (well, it was hand-stitched, one-of-a-kind, princess-wear); her fancy boots and her niftily-tied leggings of the finest Delian leatherwork: soft, buffed to a warm glow) and finally her deadly and costly (it had arabesques worked into the steel) rapier. At that moment the youth felt a bit…underdressed. Embarrassed, even. He realized he was armed with a tiny branch and a small pebble, and he was dressed in (what could only be called, for all intents and purposes) rags. He smiled his smile and let his weapons drop.
“Kind sir, I owe you my life. And it’s manure.”
“Manure? Manure never smelled that bad! In fact, in a stable, in the dead of winter, it’s almost pleasant.”
“It’s all the manure from the Breezy Hill Inn for the past two months,” he said adding, “I’m running away.”
“You’re running away with manure?”
“Well I was supposed to empty the cart about ten miles ago. It’s my job…well…one of my jobs. But I just kept going so I’m pretty sure I’m running away.” After a little inner disputation (which Star could see wrinkled his brow in an alarmingly attractive way) he said, “Yes, I’m sure. I’m running away.”
“I suppose,” said Star, “that you were beaten and mistreated, forced to wear those rags and worked from sun-up till sundown. Even starved, practically?”
“No, actually my parents own the place.” He added, “We always wear rags when we’re dumping the slops.” He added again, “We do get a rush every morning when everyone’s checking in and out. And the evenings can get pretty hectic.”
“My parents want me to take over the Breezy Hill Inn,” said the handsome (well, he was) youth. They’re counting on it, really. They’re dying to retire and move to Delia. Too rural out here, they say. Tired of the day-to-day, they claim. But I want more out of life. I don’t want to just be the proprietor of a little roadside inn, no matter how nicely the balance sheet tots up every month. I want adventure. I want to see the world…”
“Hmmm…” said Star. (Hmmm, a technique you will learn more about.)
“Yes,” said the youth. “So instead of emptying the wagon at the usual spot I just kept going.” He gazed around at the brush, the forest, the hills. And at the Great Highway (at this point only a one-lane wood’s road) and added, “Further from my home than I’ve ever been in my life.” He sighed.
“I, too, am further from my home than I’ve ever been,” said Star. “And I’m planning on going a lot further. Across the Black Mountains,” she said modestly.
“You’re crossing the Black Mountains!” he exclaimed. “I thought that was impossible.”
“No! The whole thing is quite simple, really. You go to the Black Cliffs, up the Black Stairs and through the Black Gate into Terra Incognita. I’m on a Quest. I have to find the Hands of Time and reset them. The prophecy was very specific about that.”
“Oh…the prophecy! A herald came to the inn and read the proclamation but we were having a rush so I didn’t get to hear it. My name is James, by the way.” He held out his hand.
“Uh…I’m…William!” said Star, shaking his hand and saying the first name that came into her head. “William…of…Ossetsia!” (Which made things way more difficult, as Star would soon discover.)
“Ossetsia! Boy, that’s a ways off! We’ve never even had a guest from Ossetsia. What’s it like there?”
“Oh,” said Star. “You know, desert, hot, sand, the odd oasis…”
“What’s the capital?” asked James.
“We have camels!” said Star.
“Can you play the tamboura? What’s a sand storm like?”
“I wonder where that jongleur left his horse,” said Star.
James had a lot more questions about Ossetsia, but Star was already scouting around for the horse. He followed her deeper into the forest. They both kept a sharp eye out for the jongleur because (as Star put it), “If he could disappear, he could re-appear.” They soon found the animal tied to a bush, nibbling some leaves. The horse was a big, black war stallion but he was wearing a simple brown saddle, the kind you could find in any tack supply store in Delia. Princess Star (whose normal saddle was black leather chased with silver and set with a number of large-but-tasteful jewels) said, “I keep seeing these brown saddles everywhere. Imports from Mauria. They’re so blah! I wonder how people can tell them apart!”
“Yes,” said James. “I wonder.” (Actually, James didn’t wonder at all. He’d never thought about it before. He was just being polite.)
Star led the horse back toward the Great Highway. She stopped for her pack and picked up the crossbow. “Here” she said, handing it to the young wagon driver. “Here’s a weapon for you. There’s one quarrel loaded and we might be able to find the other. It went whizzing past your head.”
James took the crossbow and expertly loosened the quarrel. “Wouldn’t want that going off at the wrong moment,” he said, “plus leaving it on stretches the bowstring.”
“How do you know so much about crossbows?”
“Oh, you learn a lot working in a popular inn,” said James. Star noticed a little smile cross his face.
“And how did you know to stop the wagon?” asked Star. “That jongleur almost had you.”
“Oh…everyone in my family has excellent hearing,” said James.
They walked out to the Great Highway to where he’d left his rig. It was a stout conveyance with iron wheels, four-foot high sides (lined with oak by a cooper, but he drank, so they leaked) and covered with a ratty-looking tarp. When the cart moved, it sloshed. The team pulling this monstrosity looked…patient. Well, they’d have to be, thought Star.
“What are you going to do with this thing?”
“The honey wagon?” he said. “I should empty it, I guess. Then I have to return it to the inn. I’ll probably ask the next person we meet to take it back. Someone with an honest face. And then I’ll continue along the Great Highway…just traveling…you know…seeking my fortune…alone…I guess…” He looked at Star with a hopeful glance (which she didn’t notice, being slightly overcome by the stink).
“Great! While you do that, I’ll go look for the other quarrel.”
Star had a good idea of its trajectory. More importantly, it was a long ways off. She climbed aboard her new horse and went skipping gaily into the forest. James sighed and drove his patient team to the side of the road. There was a clever little cranking mechanism which tilted the wagon bed backwards. There was also a shovel with a broken handle wrapped in an old blanket that a normal person would not want to touch. And there was a small rucksack on the seat containing James’ normal clothes and all his worldly possessions (if you didn’t count inheriting the Breezy Hill Inn). So James cranked. Shoveled. And cleaned out the oedeure to the best of his ability (which was “okay-not-great”—since he would probably never see his home again, or at least not for many years, seeking his fortune and all, so who would remember exactly how clean the wagon was; they’d probably just be glad to see him back). Then he changed into his normal clothes and Star reappeared with the quarrel in her hand.
“Found it,” she said. (Actually she’d found it almost immediately, stuck in a tree. She’d spent the rest of the time petting her new horse.)
Star noticed he looked much nicer in his regular clothes: denim pants with runes sewn on the pockets, a hand-knit, vee-neck sweater (the morning was already a little warm for it) and under that a cambric shirt a pirate would give a parrot for. For which a pirate would give a parrot? For which a parrot would be given by a pirate? (Well, you get the idea. It was a nice shirt).
“Did your mother knit that?” Star asked, pointing to the sweater.
“Yes,” said James. For a moment he looked like he was going to cry.
“Would you like to go on this Quest with me?” asked Star.
“Absolutely!” said James, who actually did begin to cry, just a little. “It’s been a trying day,” he said by way of explanation (not wanting her to think he’d be a weepy companion).
“Tell me about it,” said Star. She petted her new horse. “I’ve decided to call him Silver. Hop aboard!” (Not that it matters, but “Silver’s” sire was called Rimsky-Horsokov. His dam was Shiloh Rain. And his regular-horse name was Sparky. The jongleur called him Rabelais.)
Star casually lowered a hand. James put his hand in hers and vaulted up behind her almost pulling her shoulder out of its socket.
“Yeow!” she exclaimed.
“Oh, sorry!” he said. “I’m really sorry.”
James took note of how he (more or less) towered over his new traveling companion. Guys from Ossestia don’t have much upper body strength, he thought. I’d better be careful not to hurt him.
“Wait,” said Star. “What about your wagon?”
“Oh, that,” said James, who had managed to forget about it completely. “I guess we’ll have to bring it along until we find someone to drive it back.”
Star guided Silver over and James grabbed the reins. They set off, the patient team following patiently (and much more happily now that the stinky weight was off). Star surreptitiously rubbed her shoulder while she pondered a few nagging questions: Who was that strange jongleur? How did he vanish into thin air? And why would he want to kill a simple innkeeper’s son?