A tropical island behind him, a vast desert before him…
Beacon Cove was a scenic port with soft reddish brown sand and gently sloping cliffs. The shape of the cliff made it appear as though four massive, rough-hewn pillars of striated stone were holding up the wide, sea-side entrance to the hold.
Residents of Beacon Cove stood atop a natural stone buttress and waved pennants as the Hephaestus pulled into port. People were cheering at the top of their lungs and children jumped up and down. Tanivel wondered if the ship was greeted as well at Sea Cliff.
The Hephastus dropped anchor and two boats were launched. Tanivel was aboard one of them, his gear resting in his lap. He heard Padrig shout, “Clear skies and safe travels!” as the oars hit the water. The two boats turned toward shore and moved swiftly over the waves.
Half a dozen men from the hold helped the sailors bring the boats onto the beach. After all the people and packages were unloaded, they were carried away from the water, out of the reach of high tide. The Captain and his first mate made their way into the hold, probably to meet with whichever holder was in charge.
A stocky man approached Tanivel and asked, “Are you the boy Gronaden sent me?”
Long Turns of toil had robbed him of his youth. The lines etched deeply into his face spoke of both worry and cheer, yet his brown eyes regarded Tanivel with indifference. Like his brother, Borgen’s neck was thick and his arms were muscular. He wore simple, dark-colored clothes and had a tan line on his forearms from work gloves.
When Tanivel introduced himself, Master Borgen simply nodded and said, “C’mon then, the wagon will be leaving as soon as the boxes are loaded from the ship.”
Borgen led the boy on a smooth road that curved around the hold to the loading cavern, where three trader wagons waited in a neat row. A dozen men lingered around the wagons, looking impatient to start the day’s journey.
Though many people were put off by the weathered look and gruff attitude of fishermen, Tanivel grew up around them and thought nothing of it. These traders were a different breed entirely. They had dark skin, not the walnut brown of Captain Trevion but a rich almond color. They wore leather vests over long-sleeved shirts, thick pants, heavy boots, and belt knives. They seemed like hard men, not likely to share stories with a young islander boy.
Fortunately, Master Borgen didn’t seem intimidated by them. He nodded to the eldest trader in greeting and said, “We’re ready.”
Three beasts were kept in a large pen nearby. They looked like huge, shaggy herdbeasts but their horns curved down along the sides of their long, flat heads. They weren’t quite grey or brown, but a dirty-looking mix of the two. They were rather ugly and didn’t smell much better than they looked. They stared at Tanivel with large, glassy eyes as he stowed his pack in the back of a wagon.
The small caravan was underway an hour later. The wagons were laden with goods, along with a sack of letters and small packages. The traders would make a tidy profit once they reached Keroon Hold.
As they sat on the side of a wagon with their legs dangling, Borgen finally introduced himself. “I’m chief mason, which means I won’t have much time for lessons. You’re going to learn on the job. Keroon’s not just a big Hold, it’s the biggest. Don’t go wandering until you learn your way around. Keroon has more guards than a regular Hold, on account of renegades, so don’t get caught exploring where you aren’t allowed. Don’t wander across a holder’s land without permission, either — you’d be lucky to get away with a whoopin’.”
Borgen made sure Tanivel was paying attention before continuing, “Our Lord and Lady are Sandemar and Gwenfora. Steward’s name is Deckitt and our Headwoman’s Agatha. You’ll be takin’ evening classes with one of Harper Jeralan’s apprentices…”
He noticed Tanivel’s confused expression, “We don’t teach none in the morning. Waste of good daylight. Easier to teach the little ones at night when it’s cooler, anyway.”
Master Borgen continued, “Here’s the job — Herder Masters Stanlar and Korbin let us know when a new outbuilding’s gone up, or when someone’s asking to make one bigger. We also hear of it when a bridge goes out, there’s a leak in the Hold, and other such. Most herdbeast farms manage fifty head and Keroon has a few dozen farms, so you do the math.”
After a pause, he asked, “Do you do do math, don’t you, boy?”
Borgen continued to tell Tanivel about the Hold for another half hour, answering a few questions if they seemed important.
The wagon rolled by mile after mile of crossroads. The road to the Hold had many forks leading off toward farms, most of them marked by signs. Each farm name also had a symbol by it, a simple bit of heraldry which was stamped on all the herdbeasts they managed. Even an illiterate worker could find his way by them.
At the top of a high hill, looking out over the land, Tanivel came to understand that Master Borgen wasn’t exaggerating. Keroon’s holdings were vast.
The landscape was breathtaking and frightening at the same time. While Ista Island was a tropical paradise, Keroon was an endless rocky desert interrupted by green river valleys. There were several high buttes on the horizon. Even from a distance, Tanivel could make out curved plateaus of sandstone like waves frozen in time. The rock was russet and umber, carmine and gold in narrow bands of intense color, completely unlike the volcanic island stone. The trees were short and wide, surrounded by prickly shrubs. Tall blades of thick grass grew along both sides of the rivers, waist high to a man. When the wind shifted, Tanivel could hear the undulating drone of veetols and smell the sickly-sweet sap of flowering weeds.
The trader caravan reached the Hold well past dark. It was little more than a towering black silhouette dotted with orange lights. The loading cavern, however, was brightly lit and full of activity. Tanivel was surprised — he thought Sea Cliff fish tenders worked unusually late hours.
Master Borgen lived on the fifth floor of the mesa. His quarters were surprisingly cool, with good air flow and running water. A small balcony offered a scenic view of the southern range. A room had been set aside for Tanivel with basic furnishings. Shelves and a closet were neatly carved into one wall. The floor was covered by a woven rug with a pattern of overlapping brown diamonds. The curtain covering the door had a similar pattern in sunset colors. It was just a little bigger than his bedroom at Sea Cliff.
“We’ll pick you up a few more things at the Gather,” Borgen promised, “So long as you work hard ‘tween now and then.”
The next morning, Tanivel finally got a proper look at his new home. The Hold was built into a wide, rounded mesa. The entrance was cut into a rocky outcropping of grey stone. The base of the mesa had been worn by water in ancient times, forming massive overhangs beneath which animal pens were built. There were smaller overhangs all along the sides of the mesa shading windows and balconies. Tanivel could see dozens of stone barns and work buildings in the surrounding fields, following the course of a deep river that flowed from the north.
Master Borgen gave Tanivel a tour of the important Hold facilities. It was so much bigger than Sea Cliff and the air was impossibly dry. There were people everywhere, speaking with a slight accent and using unfamiliar words. The walls were painted with brightly colored murals in geometric patterns. Tanivel could use them to find his way around.
Finally, Borgen led him outside. “Look up there, at the fireheights,” he instructed. Tanivel could see wisps of black smoke trailing upward in the breeze. “The braziers are lit, day ‘n night. You’ll know which mesa’s home by the smoke. Remember that.”