The strangers wore well oiled leather, chain, and plate armor, in various combinations. From the entrance they looked to be three men and one woman, but Nevvic knew that such assessments could shift when a boy got closer. He looked around to see if he could see any excuse to talk to the strangers. Gripper wasn't in sight and the regular morning folk were circled around a dice and cup game. From appearances, it was a rare contest. Not a glance was spared for the unknown foursome.
"Ho, boy! You from the woods?"
That was a surprise. No need to consider tactics, now.
"Yes, good traveler. My folk make charcoal in the woods."
"See, Arthetor. All we needed to do was stop hurrying. Come, boy and sit. We have some questions. We travel in search of dragons."
The speaker kicked a stool out from under the table and nodded toward it. He was tall and rangy, his armor was hardened leather plates, each the size of a hand or larger, the plates grommeted with metal and bound together with chains. He wore a metal cap helm, tied under his chin with leather, and a bearskin cape. His hair and beard were clean and blond and intricately braided, but his feet were protected by nothing more than old rope sandals.
Navvic hurried to sit before the man could change his mind, before his companions could object.
"I'm afraid we have no dragons in the woods, farer. Or, rather, I'm not afraid in the woods because there are no dragons there.
The leaves are dense and the beasts can't see through. The branches reach wide and intertangle. Certain, one could get through, if it had a reason, but none has fixed on a reason for as long as my uncle has lived and longer."
"None has landed near the edge and galloped through, under the branches?" Brennus pushed a dish with sections of grilled sausage toward Nevvic. Nevvic nodded and took one, gratefully. Sausage was a rare treat.
"At the edges, where the trees are scant, there are thick brambles. Perhaps they cannot pierce a dragon's hide, but they block sight as well as the leaves of the treetops.
Oh, and my folk, when they build a mound, making charcoal, they remind each other not to stay close to the mound longer than necessary, once the fire is going. Mayhap past dragons have dived through treetops and mound crown, following the smell of fire, and gotten naught but buried, banked fire for their efforts."
There were other things that Nevvic's folk did to avoid drawing dragons, but this portion he was allowed to tell. For it was a rumor and a guess, and not something known certain.
"Do you stay always in the woods, boy?" Said the one called Arthetor. This one was coiffed so that only the cloth-wrapped tail of his hair could be seen, running a small way down his back. His armor was plate, and well pieced. His helm, on the table, was more elaborate than Nevvic had ever seen. A glance down showed that his boots were thick leather with strips of metal riveted on in rising stripes.
It was hard to guess the true size of his body under it all. But he was obviously bigger than most men.
"No, farer. Today I'll be ranging upslope, to see if salmon have started in any of the streams."
"They come up this far?" This man was short and slim. His wiry, greying hair had been cropped off in a flat line just above his chin. His wispy beard had been similarly cropped just below his chin. There was a thick leather cap with ear flaps on the table near him. He wore a red leather vest and robes that obscured his feet and hands. He made a gesture showing that Nevvic could finish the sausage, if he wished.
"Oh, yes, farer. The ones that spawn near flat places draw bears, but the ones that leap the falls into narrow breaks in the cliffs can be harvested safely."
"The cliffs up ahead? They go as far as that?"
"Not every year, farer, but most. Whether any can top the cliffs and go beyond is a thing argued about constantly. Some farers have spoken of fish like salmon, but striped, that live in lakes high up the mountain. But the lakes have no leaving streams, so if they are salmon, they can nevermore reach the sea."
"We are being rude," said the woman. She wore chain to her knees, with plate strapped to her forearms, neck, and shins. Strapped to her chest by chain around her neck and back was . . . Something round that glowed. She, also, had a helm on the table and her hair was loose and pale brown around her shoulders. "My name is Sechlainn, follower or Cardijahn, she who blesses mortals and strengthens them to slay dragons. Her aim is to free the land of their terror.
"This clansman," she indicated the tall, blond man, "is Brennus Conchobar. The second name is his clan name.
You heard Arthetor's name. He is from the spire. That is Limmidocious. He's a wizard. His sort usually don't travel with my sort. I see his pledge to our quest as a milestone and a turning point. Men have long cooperated against dragons. We have successfully protected our homes and fields and flocks. Now we are joining to take the worms' nests."
Nevvic looked down at the table, reddening. Limmidocious spoke.
"Folk in these mountains think it unlucky to give their birth names to . . . Well, to anyone not close family. He'll have a cognomen, a thing that he's called by folk in general.
We won't be angered if you give us that, boy. Custom is custom."
"I'm called Charnevvic, farers."
"Nevvic being local for nephew. Is char associated with making charcoal?"
"Yes, farer. I live with my uncle, and he's called Char, for the charcoal."
"And do you have any further information about dragons, Charnevvic? Beyond the news that they leave the woods alone and that they leave the salmon to the bears?"
"Well, one will take a bear from time to time, when the bears come into the flat to swat salmon. And there's a rumor that they come and scratch their backs on the side or the edge of the cliff."
He fished into his pouch, fumbling out a ragged, translucent curve of something. He handed it to Sechlainn.
"Folk call those dragon scales. That's not a good one. Good ones look like they're maybe a scale. Folk make combs of them.
It may be just a story, of course. No one here goes looking for dragons. Maybe you know. . .?"
Sechlainn handed the flat lump to Limmidocious. He examined it with a show of thought and care.
"I can't swear on relics, but I don't know what else it could be. This has tumbled in a stream, hasn't it?"
"Yes, farer. The closest to the cliff these are found, the nicer they usually are. But they're found in all the streams. If they were only found in a few, we'd have sent word to the sages and mayors, asking if that meant there was a nest or lair up in the cliffs.
If they were found often, we'd have sent to ask if there were many dragons laired up beyond the cliffs. But they only get found a few a year, and they come from every stream. So maybe two fought, up over the cliff, and they raked scales off of each other, and those work their way down with the rains. Or maybe one dragon died and animals fought over the carcass, spreading bits around. Or maybe something big ate it, or many big things did, and they couldn't digest the scales, so . . ."
Brennus cut the speculation short with heartfelt laughter. He slapped the table and wiped a tear from his eye. The others were pulled by his joy to chuckle, or at least smile, along with him.
"Limmoc, he ponders just like you do. Crap sprayed on cliffs with dragon scales in it like corn in a road apple?" He threw back his head and roared his delight.
"That would make quite a learned dissertation,"said Arthetor, with forced solemnity. "The plebes of all the orders would pack the halls."
"You speak truly, Arth, though you jest. It would be a significant knowing if I could prove it. I would be duty bound to report it as widely as possible.
Although for the first declamation in hall, I'd use obscure enough language that the plebes wouldn't know I was talking about scat . . .
. . . So the hall would be packed with journeymuni, instead."
At that all three men laughed. Sechlainn shook her head, one hand tracing a design inside the glow on her chest. She was smiling, but Nevvic got the feeling that she was seeking after something besides the gathering of information about how dragons fit into the world. She wanted only their location, and she felt this could be found best by questing and heeding her glow.
"Is it true that Cardejahn is a new goddess?" Nevvic was surprised to find that he'd asked the question. A person's god was more personal than a person's name.
"She is not new, but her power has increased and her purpose has changed and hardened recently. The land suffers from dragons. People are willing to pledge themselves to be her hand as she strikes them."
Now the three men looked at the table. Sechlainn plainly wished to say more, but forbore. Continuing would not be courteous to her fellow farers. Nevvic asked no more. The folk at the other table did not appear to be listening. That made this news his. He could maybe get a cup of ale, some other day, telling about the armored strangers.