The next day, life continued as normal in the sleepy village of Caerwyn’s Mill, if it could even be called a village. It consisted of a single road coming from the village of Bonn, a two day cart ride south down the mountain, which ended at the lumber yard. Several small homes were clustered around the entrance to the yard, but most were empty now that they were in the winter season. Only two other buildings stood aside from the road: Dixie’s General Store and The Sawdust Tavern & Inn. It was Dixie’s shop that Cedwyn found himself headed to as part of his morning chores. His shoes crunched through the thick layer of fresh snow covering the ground, leaving clear tracks on the dirt path from his home to the village center. He shook the snow off his boots as he stepped up to the shop door, giving it a tentative push, then following through when he confirmed it was open.
“Mornin’ Cedwyn!” Dixie shouted from behind the short counter. “A nice little storm we had last night wasn’t it?”
Inside his head, Cedwyn sighed. Dixie always talked about one of three things: her old bones, how tall he was getting, and the weather. He wondered if she would manage to get all three worked into the conversation before he wrapped up his business and left. It wasn’t that she was unpleasant to talk to, but after 10 months of the same conversations over and over and over again, he was growing weary of it.
“Yeah Dixie, I could feel a chill in the air when I turned in for the night. To be honest though, I was expecting more snow than we got.” Cedwyn held out his hands, a list in one and a canvas bag in the other. ”My Dad put this list together, I think you’ll have everything on it. Can you help me get these things together?”
Grabbing the items, Dixie winked. “Oh anything for you, dear. Now let me see here…” she mumbled as she scanned the list. With that, the old gnome began scurrying around the store to find the items, utilizing a wooden wheeled ladder to reach objects on the taller shelves. One of the first things Dixie had said to him, other than her condolences for his loss, was that his mother had made her the ladder. Cedwyn had long suspected that the gnome had complained even in those days about her old bones, and the ceaseless moaning had driven his mother to improve upon the stool that Dixie had dragged around the shop. Not only had she installed wheels on the bottoms of the legs, but a latch had been placed on the underside that connected to a railing on the shelves, keeping it in place as it was climbed. After all, it wouldn’t do to have it roll out from under you when you were trying to carry something down. The most astonishing accomplishment to his mind, however, was the railing across the top of the shop. The top end of the ladder was bent so that it formed two rounded hooks, which then wrapped around the curved railing so that you could ride it from one spot all the way around until you made a complete circle.
“Well, that should just about do it for the list.”
Cedwyn started as Dixie’s voice broke through his thoughts. Cedwyn wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, cleared his throat, and turned to face her. He tried to speak, but when nothing came out he just gave a quick smile and reached for the package. Instead of coarse cloth and twine, he felt his hand brush against Dixie’s gnarled hand as she grabbed for him.
A knowing look came over Dixie’s face as she spoke. “You were thinking about your mother weren’t you? Oh, poor Eirwen, the world really is a bit dimmer without her in it. I know these months since she died must have been hard on you, I’m no stranger to loss myself. But you know what always brings a smile to my face when I’m feeling down? Gossip! And by Bashan do I have a hot and juicy piece of it for you!” She leaned in conspiratorially and continued. “Old Thom has some visitors, two of them, that came in late last night, just before the worst of the storm hit. I was up of course, on account of my old bones, when I heard them banging on the door of The Sawdust. I looked outside and saw two cloaked men, and I could see the larger one had on metal armor. I got a better look at them after Thom opened the door, and the smaller one looked young, just a few years older than you I reckon, though I think you’ll end up taller than him by the time you reach that age.”
Dixie winked, a mirthful grin growing on her face. Cedwyn stifled a groan.
“I think they might be Knights! In all my years in this village, I can’t recall ever having seen Knights of the Council out here. There have been fights on occasion between some of the loggers, but nothing serious enough to warrant calling for a Knight. Why do you think they’re here?”
Cedwyn blinked, taken aback by the news. Knights? Here? The idea was exciting, if a little perplexing. He had seen his fair share of Knights back in Harkport, but they were always on business. He had tried to talk to one once but his father had grabbed his hand and hurried him away, so he had never gotten to ask any of the million questions bouncing around in his head. What was it like being a Knight? Was it fun to roam the countryside apprehending criminals and bringing them to justice? Was it scary? Difficult? What was the difference between the different Orders of Knights? Why was the Order of Bashan considered the greatest of them? Did they truly have the blessings of the Divine Host? His thoughts began to race with question after burning question so quickly that he couldn’t keep up. With more willpower than he had ever had to muster before, he turned his thoughts away from the questions and back to the old gnome in front of him. Dixie had let go of his hand and was holding out the package for him to take it. After he took the package, she reached for another, smaller one and held it out to him.
“Cedwyn, would you mind doing an old woman a favor and taking these spices over to Thom? I’m afraid I’m much too busy to take it there myself, so many customers to tend to and shelves to restock. Who knows, you might even catch a glimpse of Thom’s customers…”
It was Cedwyn’s turn to grin now, as he realized what she was doing. Thom was a gruff fellow, and didn’t take kindly to people walking into his shop without a reason to do so. As Cedwyn was only fifteen he was too young to drink, and he certainly didn’t need lodging as his home sat a mere hundred meters away, which left him without an excuse to explain his presence to Thom. If he was making a delivery, however, he would have all the reason he needed to walk through those doors. And if he just so happened to see the strangers, well it would be downright rude of him not to introduce himself. He couldn’t fail!
Cedwyn took the second package and raced outside, shouting a word of thanks as he left. Dixie’s laughter followed him out the door before the wind slammed it shut behind him. He continued sprinting across the road towards the tavern before pivoting mid stride to head towards his house. He didn’t slow as he burst into his home, set the larger package down, kissed his father on the cheek, and shouted an incoherent explanation of his new errand. He caught a glimpse of his father’s confused face, a chuckle emitting from it as he hurried back down the road. Cedwyn’s boots scraped across the ground as he slowed to a stop, his chest rising and falling rapidly as he tried to catch his breath. He took in one final lungful of cold winter air, exhaled slowly, and pushed open the large oak door to The Sawdust.
The tavern was sparsely decorated with wooden furniture, which was just how Thom liked it. No one could accuse the man of being gaudy, but Cedwyn imagined the loggers who frequented it weren’t the type of people who appreciated much in the way of ornamentation. The Sawdust had everything they could want, plenty of seating and plenty of ale. The room was dominated by a long feast table in the middle, with benches on either of the long sides. The benches were made from two halves of the same tree, as if the crafter had simply split a tree down the middle and set each half on some short stands. There was more seating around the edge of the room, tree stump chairs orbiting small, round tables. It was at one of these tables that he spied the travelers. They were near the fire, of course, and appeared to be finishing up their breakfast.
“What do you want, boy?” Thom growled at him from across the bar.
Cedwyn hurried towards the grizzly, old bartender, unable to contain his excitement. “I have a delivery for you, from Dixie. She said it was some spices that you needed for brewing.”
“Oh, well in that case bring them here, quickly now.”
Cedwyn was surprised to see a smile break across the man’s face, the first smile he could ever remember seeing on it. He guessed that the spices must be something special to bring about such a drastic change. Well, whatever the reason, Thom was happy, and it didn’t do him any good to think too much about it. He took out the small package and handed it over. Thom snapped it up and headed to the back, leaving Cedwyn alone with the strangers. He took a moment to calm himself before turning around and heading toward them.
As he covered the dozen or so feet between them, he was able to get a much better look at the travelers. The one closer to the fire was indeed the older of the pair, with a hefty amount of grey in the black of his beard and his unkempt, shoulder-length hair tied back in a loose ponytail. He had on some a dull brown shirt and mismatched green pants, clothes clearly chosen for their durability and not their flair. His companion, on the other hand, wore an elegant black shirt with a leaf pattern embroidered in gold thread, along with pants patterned in a similar style. A long, narrow blade hung from each of their waists, though Cedwyn imagined there was more weaponry stowed away in their rooms. The differences between the two men was striking. Where the younger one was prim and proper, eating his breakfast in a careful, dignified manner, the older one was like a wild animal, with several stains showing on his shirt, some fresh from dropping food as he shoved it into his mouth.
“Hello there, my name is Cedwyn. We don’t get many travelers around here. Are you really Knights?” He cursed inwardly at himself, appalled by his opening line. These men have likely traveled all over the continent, and the most interesting thing he could think to say is how boring his little village is? Not to mention that he had blurted out his question like a three-year old!
The older one looked up at him, grinning and showing that some of his breakfast was still in his teeth. “Morning Cedwyn, the name’s Rufus Basker, but you can just call me Basker. Aye, we are indeed Knights of the Council, of the Order of Bashan. Although, if you want to get technical about it, I’m a Knight and my companion here is still a Novice, though not for much longer. We’re on his Knighthood Quest you see, so once its completed he’ll join the Order as a full-fledged Knight.” He laughed, clapping his associate on the shoulder. “I imagine you’re right about not getting many visitors out this way, it's been quite a journey hasn’t it, and to be honest your village ain’t much to look at.” He turned to the man sitting across from him. “Go on, don’t be rude, introduce yourself to the lad.”
The younger man, who had been staring at his partner with an ever growing scowl on his face, turned to Cedwyn and sighed. “Fine. My name is Victor Favinius. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve lost my appetite for this…” he paused, gesturing to the plate in front of him. “... food” he finished with more than a hint of disgust in his voice. He got up and walked towards the door that Cedwyn assumed must lead to the rooms, though he’d never seen them himself.
“Well, that went about as well as I expected. Sorry about that, lad.” Basker gestured for Cedwyn to take Vincent’s seat. “Now I can tell that you’re just brimming with questions, aren’t you?” Cedwyn nodded excitedly and was about to speak when Basker held his hand up. “I have a proposal for you. I’ll answer one of your questions if you’ll answer one of mine. We can continue this little exchange until I’ve run out of questions, as I imagine that will happen first. Sound fair?”
“Yes of course! Now that I’ve answered one of your questions, it's your turn to answer mine correct?”
The bearded man looked at him quizzically, letting out a loud, barking laugh as realization dawned on him. “Aye lad, that would be correct, of course now that I’ve answered that question, it's back to me. You’ve got a sharp mind, but you’ve outplayed yourself. Now for my first real question I’ll ask this. Who is the person in town with the most knowledge of the surrounding area?”
Cedwyn leaned back, thinking for a moment. Dixie and Thom never stepped outside of town, and his father and sister had no interest in the land. He had done his fair share of exploring during the summer, but it was nothing compared to the amount of ground the trappers and loggers covered each year. But the question wasn’t who has the most knowledge of the land, it was who in town has the most knowledge of the land. Though when he thought about it for more than a half a second he realized that even with this caveat, he wasn’t close to the person with the most experience roaming the area. Having made his decision, he leaned forward and said, “I wish I could say it was myself, but the person who knows this area best is definitely my Uncle Aiden, he’s lived and logged in these parts his whole life. Now it’s my turn to ask a question.” He paused, swallowing hard, anticipating and dreading the answer at the same time. “How do I become a Knight?” Much to his surprise, instead of laughing at him or erupting in fury at the idea, a stillness came over Basker after the question escaped his lips. The veteran Knight slowly drank from his cup, staring at Cedwyn the whole time, as if taking his measure for the first time.
“Well, there’s a short answer and a long answer to your question. The short answer is that you get sponsored by a Knight to take the Novice’s Trials. If you pass, you become a Novice, which is the first step towards Knighthood. After a year as a Novice you head out on a Knight’s Quest, upon completion of which you become a Knight in full. The longer answer, the better answer, is that you have a lot of work ahead of you before you can make that dream a reality. The Novice’s Trial is not for the faint of heart nor the faint of arm. I can tell you’ve got a measure of courage, you asking me this so boldly, but from what I can see of your physique I think you’ve got a ways to go regarding the physical aspect. I’m not saying you need to become a twig like Victor, some of the strongest Knights are among the biggest, but you’ll definitely need to shed a fair few pounds and put it back on in muscle. Most Novice candidates are connected to the Knighthood already through family ties or political connections, and have been training most of their lives for the Trials. In order for someone like you, unconnected and unprepared, to take the trials, you would have to find a Knight and impress them so greatly that they decide to take you under their wing and train you.” The man took another long drink and added, “So impress me.”
Cedwyn just sat there, shocked into silence. Impress him? Here and now? But… how? He had no idea what to do or what to say. Panic began stirring to life in his chest, an aching fire eating away at his confidence. He could feel beads of sweat begin sliding their way down his back as he stared at Basker, frozen in fear and doubt.
With a slight frown, Basker set down his cup. “Well, I believe the question is mine again. I’m looking for a particular cave, one that looks like a snake’s open jaw, with two large stalactites jutting out from the roof and several smaller stalactites and stalagmites around the rest of it. Do you know of a cave like that around here?”
Freed from the dark spell of fear that had gripped him, Cedwyn began to breathe normally again. He did in fact know this cave, considering he had gotten himself lost in it not 6 months prior. He had been accompanying his Uncle on a logging trip when he had gone exploring in his free time and stumbled upon the appropriately named Serpent Head Cavern. He made a makeshift torch out of a log and some tinder that was lying around, and had set off to explore the cave. Unfortunately, his torch making skills were not the greatest, and his only light source soon expired. Lost in the pitch black of the cave, it had taken him several hours to find his way out, by which time his very worried Uncle had mobilized the other loggers to look for him. He got an earful that night and for many nights after, but he was also treated to some spooky stories about the cave. Apparently it had a reputation among the loggers as being haunted, as far back as his Grandfather’s days. The fact that Knight was asking for its location made Cedwyn infinitely curious about their quest.
“I know of it, I stumbled upon it about 6 months back. It lies about a three day trek north of here. It’s called Serpent’s Head Cavern.”
“Ah thats wonderful news! We’ve been searching for it for months, you see. The Oracle was very specific about what the cave entrance looked like, but couldn’t narrow down where it was located any further than ‘North of the Divide’. You do know what an Oracle is, don’t you lad?”
“Of course I do,” Cedwyn lied. “That’s two questions in a row for you, but I’ll let the last one slide.”
“Ah listen to you, your tongues as sharp as any. You sure you wouldn’t rather be a politician than a Knight?” asked Basker.
“And that’s three,” Cedwyn smirked. “Now it’s my turn.”
Basker laughed his barking laugh again, and drained his cup. “Can you bring a pitcher of ale Thom, sounds like I’ll be here a while.”
They spent the next several hours this way, with Cedwyn answering questions about the surrounding area, and Basker regaling him with stories of fights against demons, bandits, and monsters of all kinds.
“Ced! There you are, you rascal. What are you doing in The Sawdust?”
Cedwyn nearly fell out of his chair, he was so startled at the sound of his father’s voice. He turned around as his father positioned his wheelchair between him and the Knight.
“Oh hey Dad… sorry I haven’t been back yet, I guess time just ran away from me. This is Rufus Basker, he’s a Knight of Bashan and he has been telling me all sorts of stories in exchange for me giving him the lay of the land around here.”
He saw his father stiffen at the mention of the Knighthood, and Cedwyn knew he had made a terrible mistake.
“Hello Mr. Basker, my name is Rhys Murray. I hope you’ve found our little village to your liking. Are you staying here long?”
“Oh no, not long at all. In fact, I was just thinking it was about time I got myself and my companion ready for the next leg of our journey. Thank you for lending me your boy, he was immensely helpful. He’ll make a fine Knight one day if he trains hard.”
“He won’t if I have anything to say about it!” Rhys snapped. “Come on Cedwyn, we’re going home, you have chores to do.”
Rhys pivoted toward the door and started furiously wheeling himself along, clearly expecting Cedwyn to follow. With one last, pained glance at Basker, he did as he was told.