First: Running in the Bear Empire
Pallar kept a map behind her bar.
It was a broad, big map, taking up most of the space behind the bar, a portion of it turning around the corner to show all of the mountains in their glory. And it had a scale, carefully listed in both the Imperial shede and Haloran fetter. From the looks of things, they were half a day from the capital the way the two of them would walk, or a little over a day the way they traveled with their little train of people.
Looking at it, feeling how close they were, Deline wanted to get moving as soon as the weather cleared. But the storm kept coming. For a while, people would trickle in to Pallar’s bar, and then there would be a period where nobody dared risk the weather, and then there would be one or more people, and then again, quiet.
They’d sit around — all the prisoners who were able to move that much, and Deline and Carrone, and anyone who was now trapped in the inn with them — and they’d drink Pallar’s beer and her whisky and her imported rum and, of course, her vodka, and they’d talk.
One of the other travelers started the first story. It was a convoluted thing about finding a fox in a snowstorm, trapped by an avalanche, and helping the fox out. The fox led the traveler, in this tale, to an abandoned building, and there the traveler and the fox stayed while the snow kept falling.
I get a feeling, Carrone had muttered to her, that a lot of your stories involve “and the snow kept falling.”
Almost all of them, she’d whispered back.
When the snow had stopped, the traveler had dug them out, but the fox had refused to leave. She’d curled up in the single chair and made it clear that was her place.
So the traveler had lit one last fire, made sure it would stay in the fireplace and not endanger the house, and fixed that one drip in the roof that had been bothering both traveler and fox during the whole storm. They’d stacked wood in the back and left one door, the most sheltered one, open just enough for the fox to get in and out.
Nobody questioned this, although the Deklegion and Haloren guests looked, Deline thought, slightly curious.
“I went back the next late Spring – it was on my route, still is-” the traveler finished “-and the fox was still there, with her litter of kits. The house looked better than it had when I’d left, so I cut her some more firewood and cleaned out the loft a bit for her. And let me tell you, I slept better in that loft than in the finest house in the finest bed in the Empire.”
“Thank you Mother Fox,” the imperial citizens murmured as one.
“Thank you, Mother Fox,” the traveler echoed.
After a few more stories, Ranger Learone told her own.
“My first year as a Ranger, I was stationed on the Haloran border in a small village — Telshgen. I don’t expect any of you have heard of it, because when I say ‘small village,’ I mean a single yageran — gathering? — of people and their farm. Six houses, eight barns, and the border crossing sat in the middle of their bow pasture.
“I do mean middle, too; when the border was redrawn, back in the age of Queen Heloranne, their farm had been one of those bisected. They’d considered themselves ‘mostly Deklegion’ before — so they told me — so they figured now they were still Deklegion, just with some cows and sheep that were sometimes Haloran.”
She paused for the laughter, smiling.
“Needless to say, it wasn’t a very active border crossing. But there was this once…”
She closed her eyes; a few of her audience leaned forward. “There was a bounty hunter. Not all that uncommon, obviously. But she… she was asking some interesting questions about her target.
“Now, the people of Telshgen didn’t have an inn, of course; they barely had a store, and that was almost entirely aimed at those few who crossed the border. But they did have Grandma’s House, as they called it, the smallest house of their yageran which was currently uninhabited. Well, except for me, since the lodgings at the border post itself were — how did they put it? — ‘We wouldn’t put a sheep we didn’t like to sleep in there, not on a cold night or a hot one.’ So I ended up sharing a house with this Haloran bounty hunter.”
Learone’s eyes never actually aimed at Carrone, but Deline couldn’t miss the way he shifted at Haloran Bounty Hunter. What was the Ranger doing?
“She was just going to spend the night, as things go, but then, as I said, she started asking questions.” Ranger Learone leaned back and sipped her drink. “She asked ‘how had this person been acting when she came through’ and she asked ‘what had then been carrying’ and then she asked ‘how did they treat the dog?’ And she kept going after that. It was three days of questions, some of which the people of Telshegen were happy to answer and some of which – like ‘which way did she go?’ – they lied about and some of which they weren’t quite sure on, three days when I would come up with a story one day and the truth the next, because the bounty hunter’s quarry hadn’t been in Telshegen for long, after all, and because I was, to put it bluntly, bored.
“And eventually, a day came where the bounty hunter didn’t ask any questions but one: ‘how do I become a farmer?'”
Ranger Learone leaned back and smiled – no, smirked. “And that was a good day.” She winked at Carrone.Want more?