12. The Mob

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Kadav approached the pair of god trees for what he expected to be the last time. As the twin pillars emerged from the gray-green shadows, he was filled with a powerful sense of loss. He could picture it in his mind: the steel-edged apparatus suspended fifty feet in the air like a divine razor of judgment. It would truly have been a sight to behold.

He was surprised to hear a chok-ing noise sounding out at slow intervals from one of the god trees. What few workers had not abandoned him after the falling out with Hrago would certainly have done so after news of his failed parley with the priest began to circulate. Yet there they were anyway, a pair of solitary figures atop the northernmost platform. One dangled his legs over the edge, holding a jug. Bert. The other, who was doing all the chopping, he couldn't make out.

"You can leave off!" Kadav shouted up to them. "The work's over!"

"Wot? Leaves off, you say?" replied a dry, crackling voice. "Tain't no leaves up here!"

Kadav cupped his hands into a cone over his mouth. "You can come down! Work's over!"

"Wot?"

"Four-clover," Bert translated for his companion. "I think he wants us to come down and see it."

"A four-clover, wot?"

Exasperated, Kadav climbed the ladder to deliver the message in person. The second man turned out to be Hrammor, the carpenter's grandfather and the oldest man in Manfred's Mill with the exception of the hill-wandering hermit who could hardly be counted as an inhabitant. Despite his advanced years and dull hearing, Hrammor still chopped his own firewood and fetched his own water from the well.

"What are you still doing here?" Kadav asked.

Hrammor turned his half-good ear toward the mayor. "Why, keepin' my oath, sonny."

"I don't remember you swearing an oath."

"Good as. Young Hras, he done. Being his grand-sire, I figure I got a responsibility to see it through."

"Well, the work's over," Kadav said. "You and your grandson are hereby released from your oaths."

"Suit yourself, son," the old man replied. "If it's all the same to you, I'll keep at it awhile longer. Good for the spirit, work is."

They seemed to be having a pleasant enough time of it, so Kadav left them to their labors. He was just stepping off the ladder when a large hand clamped him on the shoulder, giving him a startle. It was Argon, the smith.

"I got what you asked for. One of 'em, anyway." The smith held up a three-foot by six-inch length of steel. "Hold it this way," he cautioned. "That end's mighty sharp, see." He showed him his other hand which was bandaged across the palm.

The steel slab was heavier than it looked. Afraid he might shorten his feet by a few toes if he dropped it, Kadav gingerly lowered it to the ground. It resembled a large, toothless saw blade, nearly two inches wide at the base, tapering to a gleaming, razor edge.

"You made this?" Kadav said in amazement.

"Me and Tumbock. Got two more at the forging place, coolin'."

"Tumbock's here?"

The smith nodded. "He got powerful bored. No smithy means no work for him."

"It's a fine piece of work," Kadav remarked. There was no point in telling the smith that it was all for naught. "A man could take his head off with one of these."

"Now why would someone want to do that?" the smith asked.

"Oh, I can think of a few reasons."

* * * * *

The last two workers left at twilight, leaving Kadav alone among the god trees. Draping a blanket over his shoulders, he settled into a wishbone formed by two roots and stared off into the deepening gloom. A nearby stream babbled away like a madman lost in conversation with itself. Night fell, and the edges of his vision closed in. The moon had yet to rise, and the high canopy blotted out all trace of the stars.

Kadav felt utterly alone then. In the tavern, there had always been company late into the night, men saying things that could only be said in the company of ale and other men. Why had he ever aspired to the onerous and thankless mantle of governance? He had striven with all his might to bring prosperity to this backwoods settlement but, like a dead old stump, the sunlight beat down on it in vain.

From now on, Kadav would look after himself. A fresh start was just what he needed. Tomorrow he would strike out for Alvaron, the seat of imperial power. With what was left of his fortune from his brigand days, he would set up a drinking establishment in the heart of the city. He would acquire the finest in spirits from across the Seven Kingdoms: burgundy wines from Sibu, sparkling whites from Roulan, dark Kraschel ales, and Corelian rums that were as smooth and warm as a woman's caress, served up in crystal chalices and chilled by ice floated down from the Frozen Isles. The serving wenches would be spry and attentive, his own private harem of sorts. As the proprietor of such an establishment, he would not have to seek out power; it would come to him. And the profits of vice were so very sweet.

A light flickered deep in the forest. He stared at the spot, hoping to catch another glimpse, but it was gone now, leaving him in a darkness so complete he couldn't even see his hand in front of his face. A full minute passed, long enough to convince himself it was just a trick of the eyes, when the flicker came again, jittery and faint, a pinprick of ruddy light. One by one, more points gradually emerged, guttering in and out in a loose swarm. Firebugs perhaps? No, there was something intentional about the way it moved, holding formation as it steadily advanced in his direction.

Torches! Kadav realized in alarm. It was hard to tell just how many. Their numbers continued to multiply as grim faces materialized beneath them. There were dozens—no, scores—he noted in amazement. He must be dreaming. There were hardly that many men in Manfred's Mill.

Kadav rose shakily to his feet. If this was a dream, he had better wake up soon. He had seen torchlit mobs in action before, even organized a few himself. In his experience, they seldom boded well for the person they set their attentions upon. This mob was as ominously quiet and plodding as a funeral procession. Perhaps it was for his own funeral, he thought darkly.

A figure stepped forward, its face covered in dark streaks and splotches like war paint. In the torchlight, the ring of hair atop its head glowed like a crimson halo.

Kadav's heart yammered in his chest. Wiping his sweaty palms on his shirt, he fought to keep the quaver out of his voice. "What brings you out so late, holy man? And why all the company? Have you come to hold a midnight prayer vigil?"

"I hear tell thesemen swore a binding oath to you," the priest replied in a wheezy rumble. "I'vecome to see that they fulfill it."

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