Ari paused at the edge of the grove and peered at the sky. The sun stood just beyond midday. Stay or go? If he pushed the burros, he could reach Rosti just as the sun set. Should he take the chance? The rocky plain between the grove and the hamlet was home to the lopestas that emerged to hunt after the sun set. One stumble on the rocks could turn a profitable season into a disaster. Tomorrow would be soon enough to head for Rosti. He would have a ten-day to sell the fyrestones and depart before the solstice began.
He staked the burros and lifted the near empty panniers from their backs. He piled digging tools and the tent beside the wicker baskets. Beads of sweat collected on his forehead.
The scarlet fyrestone he’d worn on the day the pair of stone seekers had found him pulsed. He pressed his hand against the lump beneath his tunic. What did it mean? He stared toward the distant walls of the hamlet. His eyes widened. A plume of fire rose toward the sun. What were the priestesses attempting? Had one of their fires escaped from their control?
Not his business. The only traffic he had with the temple was for the sale of the opaline crystals he carried in his haversack. With the fyrestones he’d found, he would have enough coins for supplies and to buy some answers to the questions that had bothered him for years. Who was he and why had he been abandoned in the grove? Which hamlet had been his birthplace?
He started a fire and ate the remainder of the lopear he’d snared that morning. After setting several snares, he dozed until sunset. He checked his snares and cooked two grass hens, ate one and slept.
When pre-dawn lightened the sky, he loaded the burros. He set off across the rocky plain, taking care to avoid large piles of rocks where the lopestas burrowed during the day.
At the gate into Rosti, he paused to pay the entrance fee. “You’re in early,” the guard said. “Any luck?”
Ari nodded. At least the guard asked out of curiosity, and not the prying questions asked when a man left the hamlet. Ari often wondered if there were bonds between the guards and the thieves who preyed on solitary stone seekers.
“A bit,” he said. “Found whites and a pair of yellows before the site played out.” That had been the first of his finds, but he wouldn’t mention the others. “
Sale will bring me enough
for supplies and a few nights at an inn.”
The man stepped closer. “You’re the first stone seeker to arrive. With crystals in your pack, the priestesses will welcome you. Did you see the flame yesterday at midday, the one that rose above the temple? Heard one of the priestesses tried to kill Malera. Someone said all but the white fyrestones turned black and have no power.
Ari laughed. “Then mine should bring a good price.”
The guard nodded. “Might reward you with more than coins. Could offer a night with one of the priestesses. Or you could be chosen to join them for the solstice celebration. Hear they like the things a man does.”
Ari forced a grin. That was one reward he had no intention of collecting. If he gave a priestess too much pleasure, he could become a prisoner in the harras.
He led the burros past the guard and turned into the first lane where stables abounded. He stopped at the one Jorg had always used. His thoughts turned to his dead partner, and once more, he regretted being unable to save the old man’s life. Jorg had clutched his chest and fallen to the ground. Ari hadn’t known what to do.
The stableman accepted enough coins for a ten-day. Once again, Ari thanked Jorg for teaching him to keep a secret stash of coins. Ari led the burros into a stall. He draped the blanket roll over the gate and hung the tent beside it. He hung the panniers on hooks and set the digging tools on a ledge. The stableman lifted a stone block and the trough filled with water. While the man brought hay and grain, Ari curried the burros. Once he finished, he hoisted his haversack and lifted a sack of dirty clothes.
After leaving the stable, he sought an inn. In the choosing, he heeded Jorg’s advice. Never stay at the same one you used the last time. Always seek one with a ground floor chamber and a private bathing room.
The second one he visited met his requirements. “You’re in luck,” the skinny innkeeper said. “In a few days, the place will be crowded with folks arriving for the summer solstice. Five coppers a day for the room. Meals are extra. For one silver, the laundress will see to your clothes.”
Ari nodded. He counted out the coins for the room and laundry. Though he had no intention of remaining for the solstice, he paid for a ten-day, two beyond the festival. Once he sold the fyrestones and bought supplies, he would seek Jorg’s old partner. Besides the twenty coppers Ari gave the old man on each visit to Rosti, this time Ari was determined to purchase information. Once he knew all the particulars of the rescue, he would leave the hamlet. Being near the temple during the twice-yearly rites made him uncomfortable. The scarlet crystal, his heritage, always reacted. He feared one day, the stone would raise a flame and consume him.
He followed the innkeeper down a narrow hall and noticed two exits he could use to come and go without crossing the common room. The thin man opened a door at the end of the hall. Ari noted the heavy bar he could use to keep people out. He nodded. “This will do.” He dropped the sack of dirty clothes in the hall. “Have these washed. I’ll add others after I’ve been to the temple.”
“She’ll have most ready by morning. Will you take your meals in the common room or have them brought here?”
“I’ll have the evening meal brought, but I’ll decide when later.”
“Will you need a companion? I’ve a connection to one of the pleasure houses.”
“Perhaps. First, I have business to conduct.”
Once the innkeeper left, Ari barred the door. He dropped the haversack on the bench beneath the window and secured the shutters. He opened the pack, and one by one, extracted the fyrestones from the pack’s false bottom. As he touched each stone, the core color flickered. He placed each of the colors in a separate pouch and placed them in the large leather one he hung from his belt.
When he left the inn, he strode down the cobbled lane to the market square. He noticed his mentor’s aged and crippled partner beside one of the food stalls. Though Ari wanted to question the man, he knew he couldn’t until after the crystals had been sold.
What would Bil tell him? The man had been Jorg’s partner when they’d stumbled across the small boy near the edge of the grove. The scarlet fyrestone and the copper necklace had been the only clue to Ari’s identity, a clue he didn’t think the men had pursued.
Ari’s hands clenched. Who had left him there? Who had given him the stone? He’d never heard of a man being able to use any of the fyrestones except the white. Though several times, he’d dreamed Jorg had used one, Ari couldn’t remember finding one when the old man died.
The savory aroma of meat pies made his stomach growl. He purchased one and a mug of ale. The nutty flavor of the beverage soothed the fiery spices of the pies. Around him, conversations flowed. He ate quickly. Once the stones were sold, he would order a feast and a woman from one of the pleasure houses to share the food and attend to his needs. He’d been without a woman’s company since the week before the winter solstice. As he sauntered toward the temple, snippets of words reached him.
“Flame near touched the sun.”
“Saw that. Could have ended the world.”
“Heard the priestesses took sick. They’re not hearing petitions.”
“After the solstice when the rites are changed.”
Ari reached the edge of the square and followed the fyrethorn hedge to the arched entrance to the temple lane. The hedge lined both sides of the wide cobble-paved path. The brilliant scarlet blooms on the bushes hid deadly red thorns. Ari frowned. The odd thing was nowhere but here near the temple had he ever seen fyrethorn growing. He often wondered why.