S AYING MY FAREWELLS IN Haert took an entire day. I shared a meal with Vashet and Tempi and let both of them give me more advice than I needed or desired. Celean cried a bit, and told me she would come visit me when she finally took the red. We bouted one final time, and I suspect she let me win.
Lastly, I spent a pleasant evening with Penthe that turned into a pleasant night and, eventually, into a pleasant late night. I did manage to catch a few hours of sleep in the pale hours before dawn.
I grew up among the Ruh, so I am endlessly amazed how quickly a person can put down roots in a place. Though I had been in Haert less than two months, it was hard to leave.
Still, it felt good to be back on the road again, heading toward Alveron and Denna. It was time I collected my reward for a job well done and delivered an earnest and rather belated apology.
* * *
Five days later I was walking one of those long, lonely stretches of road you only find in the low hills of eastern Vintas. I was, as my father used to say, on the edge of the map.
I had only passed one or two travelers all day and not a single inn. The thought of sleeping outdoors wasn’t particularly troubling, but I had been eating from my pockets for a couple days, and a warm meal would have been a welcome thing.
Night had nearly fallen, and I had given up hope of something decent in my stomach when I spotted a line of white smoke trailing into the twilight sky ahead of me. I took it for a farmhouse at first. Then I heard a faint strain of music and my hopes for a bed and a hearth-hot meal began to rise.
But as I came around a curve in the road, I, found a surprise better than any roadside inn.Through the trees I saw a tall campfire flickering between two achingly familiar wagons. Men and women lounged about, talking. One strummed a lute, while another tapped a small tabor idly against his leg. Others were pitching a tent between two trees while an older woman set a tripod over the fire.
Troupers. What’s better, I recognized familiar markings on the side of one of the wagons. To me they stood out more brightly than the fire. Those signs meant these were true troupers. My family, the Edema Ruh.
As I stepped from the trees, one of the men gave a shout, and before I could draw breath to speak there were three swords pointing at me. The sudden stillness after the music and chatter was more than slightly unnerving.
A handsome man with a black beard and a silver earring took a slow step forward, never taking the tip of his sword off my eye. “Otto!” he shouted into the woods behind me. “If you’re napping I swear on my mother’s milk I’ll gut you. Who the hell are you?”
The last was directed at me. But before I could respond, a voice came out of the trees. “I’m right here, Alleg, as . . . Who’s that? How in the God’s name did he get past me?”
When they’d drawn their swords on me, I’d raised my hands. It’s a good habit to have when anyone points something sharp at you. Nevertheless I was smiling as I spoke. “Sorry to startle you, Alleg.”
“Save it,” he said coldly. “You have one breath left to tell me why you were sneaking around our camp.”
I had no need to talk, and instead turned so everyone by the fire could see the lute case slung across my back.
The change in Alleg’s attitude was immediate. He relaxed and sheathed his sword. The others followed suit as he smiled and approached me, laughing.
I laughed too. “One family.”
“One family.” He shook my hand and turned toward the fire, shouting, “Best behavior everyone. We have a guest tonight!” There was a low cheer, and everyone went busily back to whatever they had been doing before I arrived.
A thick-bodied man wearing a sword stomped out of the trees. “I’ll be damned if he came past me, Alleg. He’s probably from ...”
“He’s from our family,” Alleg interjected smoothly.
“Oh,” Otto said, obviously taken aback. He looked at my lute. “Welcome then.”
“I didn’t go past, actually,” I lied. When it was dark, my shaed made me very difficult to see. But that wasn’t his fault, and I didn’t want to get him in trouble. “I heard the music and circled around. I thought you might be a different troupe, and I was going to surprise them.”
Otto gave Alleg a pointed look, then turned and stomped back into the woods.
Alleg put his arm around my shoulders. “Might I offer you a drink?”
“A little water, if you can spare it.”
“No guest drinks water by our fire,” he protested. “Only our best wine will touch your lips.”
“The water of the Edema is sweeter than wine to those who have been upon the road.” I smiled at him.
“Then have water and wine, each to your desire.” He led me to one of the wagons, where there was a water barrel.
Following a tradition older than time, I drank a ladle of water and used a second to wash my hands and face. Patting my face dry with the sleeve of my shirt, I looked up at him and smiled. “It’s good to be home again.”
He clapped me on the back. “Come. Let me introduce you to the rest of your family.”
First were two men of about twenty, both with scruffy beards. “Fren and Josh are our two best singers, excepting myself of course.” I shook their hands.
Next were the two men playing instruments around the fire. “Gaskin plays lute. Laren does pipes and tabor.” They smiled at me. Laren struck the head of the tabor with his thumb, and the drum made a mellow tum.
“There’s Tim.” Alleg pointed across the fire to a tall, grim man oiling a sword. “And you’ve already met Otto. They keep us from falling into danger on the road.” Tim nodded, looking up briefly from his sword.
“This is Anne.” Alleg gestured to an older woman with a pinched expression and grey hair pulled back in a bun. “She keeps us fed and plays mother to us all.” Anne continued to cut carrots, ignoring both of us.
“And far from last is our own sweet Kete, who holds the key to all our hearts.” Kete had hard eyes and a mouth like a thin line, but her expression softened a little when I kissed her hand.
“And that’s everyone,” Alleg said with a smile and a little bow. “Your name is?”
“Welcome, Kvothe. Rest yourself and be at your ease. Is there anything we can do for you?”
“A bit of that wine you mentioned earlier?” I smiled.
He touched the heel of his hand to his forehead. “Of course! Or would you prefer ale?”
I nodded, and he fetched me a mug.
“Excellent,” I said after tasting it, seating myself on a convenient stump.
He tipped an imaginary hat. “Thank you. We were lucky enough to nick it on our way through Levinshir a couple days ago. How has the road been treating you of late?”
I stretched backward and sighed. “Not bad for a lone minstrel.” I shrugged. “I take advantage of what opportunities present themselves. I have to be careful since I’m alone.”
Alleg nodded wisely. “The only safety we have is in numbers,” he admitted, then nodded to my lute. “Would you favor us with a bit of a song while we’re waiting for Anne to finish dinner?”
“Certainly,” I said, setting down my drink. “What would you like to hear?”
“Can you play ‘Leave the Town, Tinker’?”
“Can I?You tell me.” I lifted my lute from its case and began to play. By the chorus, everyone had stopped what they were doing to listen. I even caught sight of Otto near the edge of the trees as he left his lookout to peer toward the fire.
When I was done, everyone applauded enthusiastically. “You can play it,” Alleg laughed. Then his expression became serious, and he tapped a finger to his mouth. “How would you like to walk the road with us for a while?” he asked after a moment. “We could use another player.”
I took a moment to consider it. “Which way are you heading?”
“Easterly,” he said.
“I’m bound for Severen,” I said.
Alleg shrugged. “We can make it to Severen,” he said. “So long as you don’t mind taking the long way around.”
“I have been away from the family for a long time,” I admitted, looking at the familiar sights around the fire.
“One is a bad number for an Edema on the road,” Alleg said persuasively, running a finger along the edge of his dark beard.
I sighed. “Ask me again in the morning.”
He slapped my knee, grinning. “Good! That means we have all night to convince you.”
I replaced my lute and excused myself for a call of nature. Coming back, I knelt next to Anne where she sat near the fire. “What are you making for us, mother?” I asked.
“Stew,” she said shortly.
I smiled. “What’s in it?”
Anne squinted at me. “Lamb,” she said, as if daring me to challenge the fact.
“It’s been a long while since I’ve had lamb, mother. Could I have a taste?”
“You’ll wait, same as everyone else,” she said sharply.
“Not even a small taste?” I wheedled, giving her my best ingratiating smile.
The old woman drew a breath, then shrugged it away. “Fine,” she said. “But it won’t be my fault if your stomach sets to aching.”
I laughed. “No, mother. It won’t be your fault.” I reached for the longhandled wooden spoon and drew it out. After blowing on it, I took a bite. “Mother!” I exclaimed. “This is the best thing to touch my lips in a full year.”
“Hmph,” she said, squinting at me.
“It’s the first truth, mother,” I said earnestly. “Anyone who does not enjoy this fine stew is hardly one of the Ruh in my opinion.”
Anne turned back to stir the pot and shooed me away, but her expression wasn’t as sharp as it had been before.
After stopping by the keg to refill my mug, I returned to my seat. Gaskin leaned forward. “You’ve given us a song. Is there anything you’d like to hear?”
“How about ‘Piper Wit’?” I asked.
His brow furrowed. “I don’t recognize that one.”
“It’s about a clever Ruh who outwits a farmer.”
Gaskin shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
I bent to pick up my lute. “Let me. It’s a song every one of us should know.”
“Pick something else,” Laren protested. “I’ll play you something on the pipes. You’ve played for us once already tonight.”
I smiled at him. “I forgot you piped. You’ll like this one,” I assured him, “Piper’s the hero. Besides, you’re feeding my belly, I’ll feed your ears.” Before they could raise any more objections, I started to play, quick and light.
They laughed through the whole thing. From the beginning when Piper kills the farmer, to the end when he seduces the dead man’s wife and daughter. I left off the last two verses where the townsfolk kill Piper.
Laren wiped his eyes after I was done. “Heh.You’re right, Kvothe. I’m better off knowing that one. Besides . . .” He shot a look at Kete where she sat across the fire. “It’s an honest song. Women can’t keep their hands off a piper.”
Kete snorted derisively and rolled her eyes.
We talked of small things until Anne announced the stew was done. Everyone fell to, breaking the silence only to compliment Anne on her cooking.
“Honestly, Anne,” Alleg asked after his second bowl. “Did you lift a little pepper back in Levinshir?”
Anne looked smug. “We all need our secrets, dear,” she said. “Don’t press a lady.”
I asked Alleg, “Have times been good for you and yours?”
“Oh certainly,” he said between mouthfuls. “Three days ago Levinshir was especially good to us.” He winked. “You’ll see how good later.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“In fact.” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “We’ve done so well that I feel quite generous. Generous enough to offer you anything you’d like. Anything at all. Ask and it is yours.” He leaned closer and said in a stage whisper, “I want you to know this is a blatant attempt to bribe you into staying on with us. We would make a thick purse off that lovely voice of yours.”
“Not to mention the songs he could teach us,” Gaskin chimed in.
Alleg gave a mock snarl. “Don’t help him bargain, boy. I have the feeling this is going to be hard enough as it is.”
I gave it a little thought. “I suppose I could stay. . . .” I let myself trail off uncertainly.
Alleg gave a knowing smile. “But ...”
“But I would ask for three things.”
“Hmm, three things.” He looked me up and down. “Just like in one of the stories.”
“It only seems right,” I urged.
He gave a hesitant nod. “I suppose it does. And how long would you travel with us?”
“Until no one objects to my leaving.”
“Does anyone have any problem with this?” Alleg looked around.
“What if he asks for one of the wagons?” Tim asked. His voice startled me, harsh and rasping like two bricks grating together.
“It won’t matter, as he’ll be traveling with us,” Alleg argued. “They belong to all of us anyway. And since he can’t leave unless we say so. . . .”
There were no objections. Alleg and I shook hands and there was a small cheer.
Kete held up her mug. “To Kvothe and his songs!” she said. “I have a feeling he’ll be worth whatever he costs us.”
Everyone drank, and I held up my own glass. “I swear on my mother’s milk, none of you will ever make a better deal than the one you made with me tonight.” This evoked a more enthusiastic cheer and everyone drank again.
Wiping his mouth, Alleg looked me in the eye. “So, what is the first thing you want from us?”
I lowered my head. “It’s a little thing really. I don’t have a tent of my own. If I’m going to be traveling with my family . . .”
“Say no more!” Alleg waved his wooden mug like a king granting a boon. “You’ll have my own tent, piled with furs and blankets a foot deep!” He made a gesture over the fire to where Fren and Josh sat. “Go set it up for him.”
“That’s all right,” I protested. “I can manage it myself.”
“Hush, it’s good for them. Makes them feel useful. Speaking of which . . .” He made another gesture at Tim. “Bring them out, would you?”
Tim stood and pressed a hand to his stomach. “I’ll do it in a quick minute. I’ll be right back.” He turned to walk off into the woods. “I don’t feel very good.”
“That’s what you get for eatin’ like you’re at a trough!” Otto called after him. He turned back to the rest of us. “Someday he’ll realize he can’t eat more’n me and not feel sick afterward.”
“Since Tim’s busy painting a tree, I’ll go get them,” Laren said with thinly veiled eagerness.
“I’m on guard tonight,” Otto said. “I’ll do it.”
“I’ll get them,” Kete said, exasperated. She stared the other two back into their seats and walked behind the wagon on my left.
Josh and Fren came out of the other wagon with a tent, ropes, and stakes. “Where do you want it?” Josh asked.
“That’s not a question you usually have to ask a man, is it, Josh?” Fren joked, nudging his friend with an elbow.
“I tend to snore,” I warned them. “You’ll probably want me a little away from everyone else.” I pointed. “Over between those two trees would be fine.”
“I mean, with a man, you normally know where they want it, don’t you, Josh?” Fren continued as they wandered off and began to string up the tent.
Kete returned a minute later, leading a pair of lovely young girls. One had a lean body and face, with straight, black hair cut short like a boy’s. The other was more generously rounded, with curling golden hair. Both wore hopeless expressions and looked to be about sixteen.
“Meet Krin and Ellie,” Kete said, gesturing to the girls.
Alleg smiled. “They are one of the ways in which Levinshir was generous to us. Tonight, one of them will be keeping you warm. My gift to you, as the new member in our family.” He made a show of looking them over. “Which one would you like?”
I looked from one to the other. “That’s a hard choice. Let me think on it a little while.”
Kete sat them near the edge of the fire and put a bowl of stew in each of their hands. The girl with the golden hair, Ellie, ate woodenly for a few bites, then slowed to a stop like a toy winding down. Her eyes looked almost blind, as if she were watching something none of us could see. Krin’s eyes, on the other hand, were focused fiercely into the fire. She sat stiffly with her bowl in her lap.
“Girls,” Alleg chided. “Don’t you know that things will get better as soon as you start cooperating?” Ellie took another slow bite, then stopped. Krin stared into the fire, her back stiff, her expression hard.
From where she sat by the fire, Anne prodded at them with her wooden spoon. “Eat!” The response was the same as before. One slow bite. One tense rebellion. Scowling, Anne leaned closer and gripped the dark-haired girl firmly by the chin, her other hand reaching for the bowl of stew.
“Don’t,” I urged. “They’ll eat when they get hungry enough. ”Alleg looked up at me curiously. “I know what I’m talking about. Give them something to drink instead.”
The old woman looked for a moment as if she might continue anyway, then shrugged and let go of Krin’s jaw. “Fine. I’m sick of force-feeding this one anyway. She’s been nothing but trouble.”
Kete sniffed in agreement. “Little bitch came at me when I untied her for her bath,” she said, brushing her hair away from the side of her face to reveal scratch marks. “Almost took out my damn eye.”
“Did a runner, too,” Anne said, still scowling. “I’ve had to start doping her at night.” She made a disgusted gesture. “Let her starve if she wants.”
Laren came back to the fire with two mugs, setting them in the girl’s unresisting hands.
“Water?” I asked.
“Ale,” he said. “It’ll be better for them if they aren’t eating.”
I stifled my protest. Ellie drank in the same vacant manner in which she had eaten. Krin moved her eyes from the fire, to the cup, to me. I felt an almost physical shock at her resemblance to Denna. Still looking at me, she drank. Her hard eyes gave away nothing of what was happening inside her head.
“Bring them over to sit by me,” I said. “It might help me to make up my mind.”
Kete brought them over. Ellie was docile. Krin was stiff.
“Be careful with this one,” Kete said, nodding to the dark-haired girl. “She’s a scratcher.”
Tim came back looking a little pale. He sat by the fire where Otto nudged him with an elbow. “Want some more stew?” he asked maliciously.
“Sod off,”Tim rasped weakly.
“A little ale might settle your stomach,” I advised.
He nodded, seeming eager for anything that might help him. Kete fetched him a fresh mugful.
By this time the girls were sitting on either side of me, facing the fire. Closer, I saw things I had missed before. There was a dark bruise on the back of Krin’s neck. The blonde girl’s wrists were merely chafed from being tied, but Krin’s were raw and scabbed. For all that, they smelled clean. Their hair was brushed and their clothes had been washed recently. Kete had been tending to them.
They were also much more lovely up close. I reached out to touch their shoulders. Krin flinched, then stiffened. Ellie didn’t react at all.
From off in the direction of the trees Fren called out, “It’s done. Do you want us to light a lamp for you?”
“Yes, please,” I called back. I looked from one girl to the other and then to Alleg. “I cannot decide between the two,” I told him honestly. “So I will have both.”
Alleg laughed incredulously. Then, seeing I was serious, he protested, “Oh come now. That’s hardly fair to the rest of us. Besides, you can’t possibly. . . .”
I gave him a frank look.
“Well,” he hedged, “Even if you can, it . . .”
“This is the second thing I ask for,” I said formally. “Both of them.”
Otto made a cry of protest that was echoed in the expressions of Gaskin and Laren.
I smiled reassuringly at them. “Only for tonight.”
Fren and Josh came back from setting up my tent. “Be thankful he didn’t ask for you, Otto,” Fren said to the big man. “That’s what Josh would have asked for, isn’t it Josh?”
“Shut your hole, Fren,” Otto said, exasperated. “Now I feel ill.”
I stood and slung my lute over one shoulder. Then I led both lovely girls, one golden and one dark, toward my tent.