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Eldest: Chapter 52

JEOD LONGSHANKS

If Roran had known how to read, he might have been more impressed by the treasure trove of books that lined the study walls. As it was, he reserved his attention for the tall man with graying hair who stood behind an oval writing desk. The man—who Roran assumed was Jeod—looked about as tired as Roran felt. His face was lined, careworn, and sad, and when he turned toward them, a nasty scar gleamed white from his scalp to his left temple. To Roran, it bespoke steel in the man. Long and buried, perhaps, but steel nevertheless.

“Do sit,” said Jeod. “I won’t stand on ceremony in my own house.” He watched them with curious eyes as they settled in the soft leather armchairs. “May I offer you pastries and a glass of apricot brandy? I cannot talk for long, but I see you’ve been on the road for many a week, and I well remember how dusty my throat was after such journeys.”

Loring grinned. “Aye. A touch of brandy would be welcome indeed. You’re most generous, sir.”

“Only a glass of milk for my boy,” said Birgit.

“Of course, madam.” Jeod rang for the butler, delivered his instructions, then leaned back in his chair. “I am at a disadvantage. I believe you have my name, but I don’t have yours.”

“Stronghammer, at your service,” said Roran.

“Mardra, at your service,” said Birgit.

“Kell, at your service,” said Nolfavrell.

“And I’d be Wally, at your service,” finished Loring.

“And I at yours,” responded Jeod. “Now, Rolf mentioned that you wished to do business with me. It’s only fair that you know I’m in no position to buy or sell goods, nor have I gold for investing, nor proud ships to carry wool and food, gems and spices across the restless sea. What, then, can I do for you?”

Roran rested his elbows on his knees, then knitted his fingers together and stared between them as he marshaled his thoughts. A slip of the tongue could kill us here, he reminded himself. “To put it simply, sir, we represent a certain group of people who—for various reasons—must purchase a large amount of supplies with very little money. We know that your belongings will be auctioned off day after tomorrow to repay your debts, and we would like to offer a bid now on those items we need. We would have waited until the auction, but circumstances press us and we cannot tarry another two days. If we are to strike a bargain, it must be tonight or tomorrow, no later.”

“What manner of supplies do you need?” asked Jeod.

“Food and whatever else is required to outfit a ship or other vessel for a long voyage at sea.”

A spark of interest gleamed in Jeod’s weary face. “Do you have a certain ship in mind? For I know every craft that’s plied these waters in the last twenty years.”

“We’ve yet to decide.”

Jeod accepted that without question. “I understand now why you thought to come to me, but I fear you labor under a misapprehension.” He spread his gray hands, indicating the room. “Everything you see here no longer belongs to me, but to my creditors. I have no authority to sell my possessions, and if I did so without permission, I would likely be imprisoned for cheating my creditors out of the money I owe them.”

He paused as Rolf backed into the study, carrying a large silver tray dotted with pastries, cut-crystal goblets, a glass of milk, and a decanter of brandy. The butler placed the tray on a padded footstool and then proceeded to serve the refreshments. Roran took his goblet and sipped the mellow brandy, wondering how soon courtesy would allow the four of them to excuse themselves and resume their quest.

When Rolf left the room, Jeod drained his goblet with a single draught, then said, “I may be of no use to you, but I do know a number of people in my profession who might … might … be able to help. If you can give me a bit more detail about what you want to buy, then I’d have a better idea of who to recommend.”

Roran saw no harm in that, so he began to recite a list of items the villagers had to have, things they might need, and things they wanted but would never be able to afford unless fortune smiled greatly upon them. Now and then Birgit or Loring mentioned something Roran had forgotten—like lamp oil—and Jeod would glance at them for a moment before returning his hooded gaze to Roran, where it remained with growing intensity. Jeod’s interest concerned Roran; it was as if the merchant knew, or suspected, what he was hiding.

“It seems to me,” said Jeod at the completion of Roran’s inventory, “that this would be enough provisions to transport several hundred people to Feinster or Aroughs … or beyond. Admittedly, I’ve been rather occupied for the past few weeks, but I’ve heard of no such host in this area, nor can I imagine where one might have come from.”

His face blank, Roran met Jeod’s stare and said nothing. On the inside, he seethed with self-contempt for allowing Jeod to amass enough information to reach that conclusion.

Jeod shrugged. “Well, be as it may, that’s your own concern. I’d suggest that you see Galton on Market Street about your food and old Hamill by the docks for all else. They’re both honest men and will treat you true and fair.” Reaching over, he plucked a pastry from the tray, took a bite, and then, when he finished chewing, asked Nolfavrell, “So, young Kell, have you enjoyed your stay in Teirm?”

“Yes, sir,” said Nolfavrell, and grinned. “I’ve never seen anything quite so large, sir.”

“Is that so?”

“Yes, sir. I—”

Feeling that they were in dangerous territory, Roran interrupted: “I’m curious, sir, as to the nature of the shop next to your house. It seems odd to have such a humble store among all these grand buildings.”

For the first time, a smile, if only a small one, brightened Jeod’s expression, erasing years from his appearance. “Well, it was owned by a woman who was a bit odd herself: Angela the herbalist, one of the best healers I’ve ever met. She tended that store for twenty-some years and then, only a few months ago, up and sold it and left for parts unknown.” He sighed. “It’s a pity, for she made an interesting neighbor.”

“That’s who Gertrude wanted to meet, isn’t it?” asked Nolfavrell, and looked up at his mother.

Roran suppressed a snarl and flashed a warning glance strong enough to make Nolfavrell quail in his chair. The name would mean nothing to Jeod, but unless Nolfavrell guarded his tongue better, he was liable to blurt out something far more damaging. Time to go, thought Roran. He put down his goblet.

It was then that he saw the name did mean something to Jeod. The merchant’s eyes widened with surprise, and he gripped the arms of his chair until the tips of his fingers turned bone white. “It can’t be!” Jeod focused on Roran, studying his face as if trying to see past the beard, and then breathed, “Roran … Roran Garrowsson.”


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