Aafrin Trindi followed his guide through the thick brush. It had been two weeks since the council had found him guilty. Over a week since his sentence had been passed. Exile. He supposed it could have been worse. Perhaps Leevan had felt some guilt in convincing the Council that an innocent man had committed treason.
Aafrin sighed inwardly at the thought. That would teach him to confront a politician as experienced as Leevan without evidence, or at least some form of safetynet. He was lucky the sentence had not been death. He wished he had taken a recording glass. Then he could have proven to the council. Proven that he had overheard the man conspiring. He shivered at the memory of the conversation.
His friendship with the older man had given him pause. He had not believed Leevan capable of such a thing. And now he would pay for his naivety. Five years. Five years in the middle of nowhere. No letters out. No word of the country would reach him. For a politician such as himself, it was the next best thing to a death sentence. His family name was probably the only thing that had saved him from that. Even with its few blemishes, the Trindi name still carried weight. Less now, of course.
The guide stopped and raised a hand for Aafrin to do the same. The small train of servants stopped with audible relief and several removed heavy bags from shoulders.
“Midday meal already?” Aafrin asked. It couldn’t be noon yet. They had only been on the road a few hours. He had learned the schedule fairly well after his week in the woods. Up before the sun. March until noon. Hour break, and then march until sundown. All with no trail to follow.
“No,” the gruff man said, “This is as far as they go,” he pointed at the servants.
A few of the men went so far as to cheer at that statement. The guide’s glare choked those before they could reach full volume.
“The manor is just a mile from here. I will lead you there. You and Erun will be responsible for getting your things the rest of the way.”
This was the most Aafrin had heard the guide say in the week he’d known him. He had mostly communicated through hand signals and grunts. “Erun?” he asked.
“Didn’t expect someone of your station to live without a manservant, did you?” The disdain in the man’s voice was easy to catch, “Follow me. You idiots don’t move till I get back. I get paid less if I lose anyone.”
He had said that before. Apparently the woods were less than friendly.
Aafrin followed the guide the final mile. He was surprised to see the perfectly manicured hedges that ran around the manor. The manor itself was much nicer than Aafrin had expected. A modest two stories with a large porch wrapping around the building’s first floor and several balconies on the second. There was even a tall steel gate between an opening in the hedges. The guide stepped up to the gate and rang a bell hanging from the center of the steel work.
“Coming, coming,” came a quiet voice. From a small, one room cabin a short, skinny man appeared. He had a thick, black mustache and hair to match. His dress coat had once been of a fine cut, but it had most likely belonged to someone a few sizes larger than this man.
“Erun,” The guide said, his voice marginally more companionable than Aafrin had heard it.
“How are you, you old stone fart?”
“Getting paid better than you.”
“Hm,” the small man said, his face impassive as he pulled a ring of keys out of his coat pocket and unlocked the gate, “but I get to spend the next year away from my wife, so I think I’m winning,”
“Maybe, but you’re spending it with a...”
Erun cut him off, “Don’t need to know what he is,” he looked Aafrin up and down, “Spoiled politician, I’m guessing. Either way, he wins. Five years without his wife, as I hear it.”
“You heard correct,” Aafrin said.
The man nodded, “Lucky bastard.”
“Well, my job is done. Did you have a list for me?” The guide asked.
“Mm,” Erun said, pulling a folded piece of paper out of his pocket, “I brought enough for the next six months. That’s what I’ll be needing before we hit seven.”
The guide accepted the list, “See you in six months then.”
He ignored Aafrin as he turned away, he waved without looking back and returned the way they had come.
“And what was your name again?” Erun asked.
“I am Aafrin Trindi,” Aafrin extended a hand, “It’s good to meet you, Erun.”
The servant accepted the hand, “if you say so. Trust me, after a few days of seeing only my ugly face, you’re not going to believe that.”
“I doubt it would matter whose face I was stuck with,” Aafrin said.
“Probably, but they only really give this job to ugly bastards,” Erun said, “Come on, then. We should get to your things before anything else finds them.”
He walked back through the gate and returned a moment later pulling a large handcart, “If you’re anything like the last few, you probably have more than you’ll need,” He stopped after pulling the cart through the opening. He pulled the gate closed and locked it. He then untied a strap from next to the bell on the gate. Aafrin had not noticed it before. It was a small work of silver. It looked to be a symbol for fire. Erun put his head through the looped strap, the symbol resting on his chest.
“Religious, I take it,” Aafrin said.
“Not in the slightest,” Erun said, pulling the cart towards where Aafrin had been forced to leave his belongings.
“I see,” Aafrin said, looking at the obviously religious symbol hanging from the man’s neck, “so I assume there is a reason my things were just left in the woods.”
“Yeah. No one’s supposed to know the exact location of the manor. Most men willing to earn a few coins for a weeks worth of trudging through the woods are not usually able to keep a secret.”
“But you are?”
“I have no choice,” the man almost sounded bitter.
“What of those that have finished their exile? What’s to keep me from telling everyone where the manor is?”
Erun looked at him, a grin spreading under his mustache, “be honest. Do you even know where you are right now?”
Aafrin opened his mouth and stopped himself. He was north of Mertencia’s capital. He knew that. But he had been in a carriage for the two days on the road, there had been no window. Then it had been a day on horse with only what appeared to be game trails. Then a week on foot through the woods. “Well, I’m guessing we’re in the woods bordering Sohl'gain. But I take your meaning. There is no real way for me to reliably recreate the journey.”
“Wow, you actually guessed the correct forest. Better than the last guy. He thought it was some fancy forest in Nativity.”
“The Traveller’s Wood? Seriously?” Erun nodded, “But Nativity would have been at least a two week trip by road,” Aafrin searched his memory and then laughed, “Oh, Fire and Stone, don’t tell me you were forced to spend two years with Cheltior Breacha.”
“You know him?”
“We’re acquainted. He fancied himself a bard. Insisted on playing at every Council event of merit. He was sentenced to exile at the end of my first year on the Council.”
“Yeah, he wasn’t bad with that, whatever he called it.”
“Tonkoori?” Aafrin ventured, “he learned to play in Sohl'gain if I remember correctly.”
“Sure, let’s go with that. My memory’s not what it used to be.”
“Well, now I have to admit, my punishment seems worse than I had originally thought.”
Erun arched an eyebrow, “Oh? Because you’re forced to follow in Twiddle fingers’ footsteps?”
“No, because as soon as he returned home he turned down the chance to retake his seat on the council. It had been left vacant for him. And instead he left the capital. No one really knows where he went.”
“I have a guess,” the small man said quietly. Aafrin got the sense he hadn't been supposed to hear.
“Then there was his scar.” Aafrin said, he looked at Erun, his expression grew serious, “may I ask where he gained that?”
Erun looked at him, “Wasn’t me, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Of course not,” Aafrin said, holding his hands up in a placating gesture.
“Good,” the man released the handcart with one hand and absently touched the amulet at his chest.
They walked in silence for a while. Erun would occasionally point out different birds or forest creatures. Usually followed by a grumbling complaint about how they would interfere with his garden given the chance.
They arrived at the unorganized pile of bags and trunks. Aafrin was not surprised to find several of his bags open, articles of clothing piled around them. There was an open trunk, books were scattered at its base. One lay open, its spine broken. He reigned in his anger. He took a deep breath and knelt down. He systematically began to return everything to its proper container. He was missing several shirts, only one he knew he would miss. It had been a gift from his wife. He’d also had a dress dagger in the trunk of books. That was missing. He doubted any of those men had any occasion to ever wear something that extravagant, but then he realized he’d never really had any real reason to pack the thing. Old habits, he supposed.
As he repacked the rifled through items Erun began loading the cart. He picked up the trunk of books and threw it into the cart as though it had weighed nothing. After everything was loaded Erun picked up both handles and began to pull the cart. Aafrin tried to take one, but the other man waved him off. They trudged back towards the Manor.
“Well,” Erun said, “at least you brought less than Breacha.”
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