I know it seems a bit soon to jump into another longish story but Sometimes that is just the way things work. Patreon subscribers who subscribe at the highest level will recognize this story coming in as one they have already experienced. OF course, they have the advantage that they were able to read it all at once. Non subscribers will have to bear with the longer process of reading the story a piece at a time.
You can find the Conclusion at the following link: Conclusion
Dance of the Shadow Wizard (pt1)
The horse snorted as it passed the man at the side of the road, in and of itself not a big deal. The coach that followed and the wheel attached to the coach that splashed the mud puddle into his face and soaked his cloak, well that was something else entirely. Braken wiped the mud from his eyes then watched the coach disappear behind the tree line down the road.
“Something should be down,” he grumbled. “Getting to be a man can’t walk safe through the woods no more.” The hoof clomp of the horse behind him nearly drove him from his skin. He jumped to the side while the puddle missed him by inches. “Damn coaches.”
He stood and wiped the mud as best he could from his britches. “Maud’s gonna have a time getting these presentable again.” He adjusted the pack he carried on his back then trudged forward, eyes pointed to the ground.
The third time, he was ready. He stepped to the side away from the muddy roadway. But the coach slowed then stopped in the road across from where he watched from the tree line. “Excuse me,” the driver called out into the woods. “Sir, are you there?”
Braken looked to his left then right, then stepped to the edge of the tree line. “What say you?”
“Sir, my master wonders,” he said. “Where do you travel today?” The man’s expression, flat, sterile, suggested no malice.
“If you must know, I am on my way home. Further down the lane, past the bend.”
“I offer you transport, all I ask in exchange is a meal.” The man stepped out of the carriage.
Fine, clean, britches and a fancy coat no less, thought Braken. “My table is humble sir, I would not wish to offend you with naught but a meager offering.”
The man crossed over the dirt and mud to stand at the edge of the wood with Braken. “Nonsense. It has been ages since I have had a decent meal,” he said. “Your Maude, she makes lovely dumplings.”
“Yes, yes she does,” Braken said. He knows my Maude… Who is this man? The thoughts rushed through his head as he examined the man in front of him.
“Come, ride in my coach the last miles,” the man said. “You will find warmth and maybe you will dry out from this dreadful weather.”
The coach, Braken had never experienced the like. Soft pillows graced the wooden benches, a comfort he felt unprepared for. The man, Jadan was the only name he gave him, engaged him in conversation. Talk of his home and the land surrounding it. Braken answered his questions without thought; his mind lost to the reaction his wife would have to an uninvited guest.
“Tell me of the hunting, are there many beasts in the woods around your home?”
Pointed questions, others similar to this, what was it this man sought in his queries, Braken thought. “We have a modest garden,” he said. “It gives us enough for our needs and my Maude, she has been able to store more for the winters.” He licked his lips, Maude’s split pea soup would be welcome after the cold and the wet of his day’s travel. “Do you hunt?”
“Me, no no no, I have never engaged in the like,” Jadan said. “Never really saw the need for it myself.” His smile sparkled and burned in its brightness. “I merely wondered if it was something you engaged in for food or maybe for sport.”
The coach turned down a side path, a path Braken recognized. “Your driver knows the paths to my home?”
“Not to worry, good sir,” he said. “Everything is taken care of. Sit back, enjoy this moment of, leisure.”
The pause at the end, Braken’s ears perked at the inflection. Did he hear it? Or maybe the nature of his host put him on edge. He pushed the curtain open further and looked out into the land passing the window. “Have you been out this way before?”
The smile fell as Jadan looked at the wall behind Braken. “It has been sometime since I was last out this way. But I still remember the area, still know much of the roadways.”
“You have me at a disadvantage sir,” Braken said. “I feel that maybe I should know you already but I cannot quite place you.” He studied the man’s hairline, watched as his hair fell forward to drape down to the edge of his vision.
Jadan turned to the window, silent for a time. When he spoke again, his voice broke through a stillness between them that Braken had not noticed till then. “I don’t think we ever had the pleasure of an acquaintance. No, not in a way you might be accustomed to.”
The coach stopped on a hill that overlooked a small valley. Braken looked out to find his home at the base of the valley, a smoke plume rose from the chimney. The site of his home from the top of the hill, his favorite at the end of a journey. Though he saw no movement, he knew she would be inside preparing the split pea soup.
He had yet to discover how, but she always knew when to prepare for his homecoming. These trips he took grew more frequent the closer they came to fall and harvest time. The vines did what they must whether he was present or not. Sometimes he felt they did all their work without him. The vineyard grew up the hill on the far side of the valley. They grew in the best summer sun for sweetness.
As he walked down the hill, he felt a chill in the air. Something he learned to expect around this time of year. Fall was just around the corner. Soon his world would be filled with the harvest and then the crush of the grapes. This last trip, to recruit the laborers they would need to help with the harvest. He and Maude did much of the work throughout the summer. A small vineyard with a modest harvest, he smiled as he thought of the feel of the dirt under his nails.
“The vines, they weren’t always yours,” Jadan said.
His voice dug deep into the hackles of Braken’s heart. He cringed at the sound of it. “Forgive me, I forgot you were with me still.” A glance in the man’s direction, and he did a double take. To the finery that draped his small frame the man had added a cane. A solid black cane with a silver acorn handle, tapped into the earth as he walked beside Braken. “You don’t come out to the countryside often, do you?”
“Not often,” he said. “My business rarely takes me from the city, my home of choice.” The cane tapped and tapped again, a sound that did not match the soft earth it poked into as he walked. “Who did your grapes belong to before you?”
Braken stopped and took a deep breath, a moment of his senses filling with the smells of his valley home. “My Maude, they have been a part of her family for ages now. My home is first her home.” He looked Jadan up and down then opened his mouth to say something, closed it. His eyes focused on him, then the tip of the cane, then past him to a further point in the valley. “You never told me your business.”
The smile again, it filled Braken with an unexpected warmth. “My business,” Jadan said. “Well, my business is of no consequence really. I find your work amongst your vines and in your winery most fascinating really.”
“The grapes are growing fat with juice,” Braken said. “Should be a good harvest this year.” His home passed through his vision again as he scanned away from Jadan. He started walking without another word. The remainder of their walk through the valley was in silence.