Chapter Three

Chapter Three

The small command made good time venturing across the southern half of the kingdom, following one of the ancient trade routes left from before the fall. No one knew who had built the great roads, but the McLeod family had invested a great deal of Crown Treasury over the centuries to keep the roads serviceable. Travelers who had ventured to Norland had reported similar roads cris-crossing the northern land as well.

The trip to Bingham had taken most of three weeks. As promised, Cho Feng’s ‘exercises’ had indeed proven to ease the pains of travel on horseback. The soldiers were no longer grumbling about the instructor’s conditioning program. Instead their ire had a new target.

Running.

Two weeks after the basic exercise programs had started, Feng announced that the command would begin running each morning after their stretches and workouts. The soldiers, all cavalrymen, objected instantly.

“We’ve no need of running, Master Feng. We ride into battle.”

“We’re not in the habit of running away from a fight, Master Feng.”

Despite their protests, the men obeyed. And found, to their amazement, that the running was at least as beneficial as the exercises had been. Already they were leaner, harder, and breathed easier than before. And working with the high-spirited mounts favored by all cavalry men was no longer a great and exhausting chore.

“I’d not of believed it,” Nidiad shook his head as he, Parno, Karls Willard, and Cho Feng sat beneath the fly of Parno’s tent. “I feel at least ten years younger. A month ago I was set upon retirement, now I feel like I’m back in the Nasil Lancers.”

“Good exercise can keep one young far longer than without, Colonel,” Feng said. “In my homeland, active soldiers serve in the ranks well into their sixties.”

Sixties?” Willard exclaimed. “Why, that’s incredible!”

“Not at all, Captain,” Feng replied. “When one’s body and spirit are in harmony, one can do much more in his advanced years than those who have not made the necessary training and conditioning a part of their lives.”

**********

The column was approaching an outlying village of Bingham when they heard the shouting.

“What the devil is that?” Willard asked, reigning his horse to a stop, and motioning for the following cavalry to do the same.

“Sounds like a riot, almost,” Nidiad said, ears straining to hear more.

“Or a raid,” Parno said grimly. “Let’s see.”

“Forward!” Willard shouted, and the column, Parno, Nidiad, and Karls Willard in the lead, moved at a gallop into the village.

The village was nearly in a riot, it turned out. Most of the town’s people seemed to be hovering around the town square. A massive bonfire had been erected, but not yet lit. In the middle of that structure, tied to a pole, was a somewhat grizzled man, howling like a banshee.

“What goes on here?” Parno demanded from the nearest man.

“Burning a witch,” the man replied without looking at his questioner. “Warlock or wizard I guess, seeing as he’s a man.”

“Witch? Wizard?” Willard was fighting the urge to laugh, while Nidiad was already laughing.

“A witch!” the old soldier roared in laughter. “Oh, deliver me from the ignorant of the world, even amongst my own!” Parno wasn’t so amused.

“Who’s in charge?” Parno demanded.

“Priest yonder,” the man pointed toward the bonfire. “Him and the constable.”

Parno kicked his horse, pushing him through the crowd. Willard motioned for the soldiers to spread out around the crowd, then he, Feng, and Nidiad, along with five cavalrymen, followed Parno into the crowd.

Parno arrived at the fire just as the priest was finishing his rant, working the crowd into a fevered pitch. The arrival of the horsemen took some of the steam from him, but he looked up defiantly.

“Who are you, and what business do you have interrupting this proceeding?”

“Who are you, sir,” Parno snapped, “that you take it upon yourself to burn another at the stake as if we were ignorant savages?”

“I am the Priest of the local church, young man, fully empowered by the King himself to tend to matters such as this, and have the backing of the constable as well!” The priest shot back, his voice carrying across the crowd. At his words, the crowd once again began shouting.

“You sir, are a liar,” Parno said savagely. “Never has the King authorized any but the King’s Bench, and their subordinates, to dispense justice in the Kingdom of Soulan.” He glanced at the constable. “And you give weight of your office to this travesty, then, constable?”

“You’re overstepping your bounds, young visitor,” the constable grated. “Let’s have no more talk from you, less you want to spend the night in the cells.”

“And who is it that will put me there, constable,” Parno asked with a smile. “Yourself?”

“This is none of your affair, you interloper. Be gone or we’ll . . .” the priest began, but Nidiad moved his horse forward in an instant, cutting him off.

“Mind your tongue, or I’ll have it out right here and now!” Nidiad snarled. “This is Prince Parno Mcleod you’re speaking to!”

That put a whole new light on things. The constable went deathly white, knowing that he was in trouble. The priest too, went pale, realizing that he was trapped in a pit of his own making. He had assured the people that he had the full authority to prosecute and then persecute anyone accused of witchcraft. Now his lies had caught up with him.

“I want the priest and the constable taken into custody,” Parno ordered. “We’ll take them to Bingham for trial before the bench.” Soldiers began to move into the area, still astride their mounts. Parno turned to face the crowd.

“Go home, all of you!” he ordered. “There’ll be no burning here today, nor any other. This is unlawful, and any who remain will face the King’s Justice!”

The crowd melted away in record time. No one doubted that the speaker was, indeed, Prince Parno, though none had ever seen him. But he acted like one, and that’s what mattered.

Satisfied that the crowd was breaking up, Parno dismounted. Easing up to the still howling man, he drew his knife.

“Be still!” Parno snarled, and cut the ropes. The man fell against Parno, nearly in tears.

“Thank you, milord, thank you! Had you not happened along when you did, they’d have burned me alive!”

“I’m afraid that’s likely,” Parno nodded, anger still fresh from the abuse of power he had seen. “Who are you, man? And what have you done to arouse such ire among these people?”

“It was the holy man who did the ire rousing, milord,” the man snarled. “Any he falls afoul of, or threatens his hold over the village, come to no good. I am Roda Finn, milord, late of the King’s University in Bingham.”

“Almost very late,” Nidiad observed. “How come you to be in this fix, Finn?”

“I am smarter than the priest, good sir, that’s how,” Finn said with a sniff. “I retired here to work on my projects, you see. The priest enjoys, or did enjoy, perhaps I should say, a large degree of power. Some of my projects here have aided more than one poor farmer, which in turn led to some small degree of popularity for me. The priest cannot stand for any challenge to his power, so he accused me of sorcery, and convinced the townsfolk, and that witless oaf of a constable, that I should be burned alive for my ‘crimes’.”

“And just what have you done that has aided the poor folk of this community that was so quickly forgotten?” Parno asked with a grin.

“I’ve not aided everyone, milord, only those few who asked. Nor have I charged any monies or goods for my services, before you ask. One small thing I did was erect a windmill on a small ranch not far from here. A simple device that harnesses the power of the wind to pump water from a deep well. The stockman there now has an ample supply of water year around.”

“Sounds reasonable enough,” Nidiad nodded. “We use them in the Tinsee province as well.”

“Of course you do, sir,” Finn snorted. “You are not ignorant savages who, spurred by a power mad priest, see evil in anything that is beyond your simple knowledge. Unfortunately, some areas of the Kingdom are not so enlightened.”

“Was this all you did, then, Roda Finn?” Parno asked.

“No. I also developed a supply of ancient powder to help another man clear stumps from a new field. Used with a length of fuse, one can pour the powder under the stump, light the fuse, and the stump is blown from the ground by the force of the powder exploding. I’m afraid that’s probably what gave the priest the leverage he needed.”

“Exploding?” Parno asked.

“Yes milord,” Finn replied. “The ancient formula was used for many things, including warfare. Mixed in large quantities it has great power. It can also be used to propel objects for great distance. Objects that can also be made to explode when they strike their target.”

“Indeed,” Nidiad muttered softly, glancing at Parno. “Such a thing might well be . . . useful, milord.”

“Indeed it might,” Parno smiled. He turned to the scientist, now trying vainly to straighten his clothing. “Tell me, Roda Finn. Are you interested in pursuing your, ‘work’, elsewhere? North to the Tinsee, perhaps? As a member of my staff?”

“Staff?” Finn said, halting his brushing. “You wish me to work for you?”

“I do,” Parno nodded. “In exchange, I will fund your work.” The scientist’s eyes glowed at that. “But you will need to help me in developing these ideas of yours to military uses. A fair trade?”

Finn said nothing for a moment, clearly considering. After a long moment, he nodded.

“A fair trade, milord,” he said. “I will help you, and you will keep me safe from ignorant savages. One brush with a bonfire is quite enough.”

“Indeed I will,” Parno said with a laugh. “Come then, Master Finn. Let us gather your things.”

**********

Finn, it turned out, had a good bit to gather. The fussy scientist insisted on carrying everything he owned with him, as he planned to ‘never return to this backwards place’. Parno laughed as the former professor supervised the soldiers loading his belongings. His fussing and muttering turned to outright jabbering when it came time to load his ‘laboratory’.

“Mister Finn,” Parno said finally, “might I get a word in private?” Parno could tell that Finn’s constant attention was wearing thin on the soldiers.

“Certainly, milord,” Finn said, coming to Parno’s side.

“Roda, I know you are concerned about your things, and I understand that you must still be shaken by the events of this morning. But my soldiers are not accustomed to dealing with someone of your background. And while they are not, perhaps, the scholars you are accustomed to dealing with, they are intelligent men. Tell them once what to do, and then be silent. If an object needs special care, then point that out, but do not hover over them as a hawk would a chicken. Understand?”

Finn’s face flushed red at the reprimand, but then he looked at the soldiers. In his absence they were still working. He noted they took great care with his equipment, books and parchments, and packed his goods as carefully as they might were they their own. He looked back to Parno rather shame faced.

“I am sorry, milord,” he said contritely. “I am not . . . I am unused to having skilled help. Many of my things are rare, and likely would prove difficult, and expensive, to replace. I’m afraid it is an old habit. One I see I will need to break myself of.”

Parno smiled at that, pleased with Finn’s reaction. He had half expected the professor to respond poorly to criticism, and was pleased to be wrong. He wanted Finn on good terms with the soldiers. If even half of what the man claimed were possible, it would be extremely helpful to the young prince. He reached into his pocket and pulled a handful of coins from his purse.

“Take this,” Parno instructed Finn, placing the coin into Finn’s hand, “and when we reach Bingham, buy a round, or two, for the men who are loading for you. Tell them what a good job they did, and how much you appreciate it.”

“Why?” Finn asked, confused. “They are following your orders are they not? Why is it necessary to buy . . . .” Finn trailed off as Parno raised a hand.

“They are soldiers, Master Finn,” the prince replied, his voice taking on a slightly sharper edge. “In the world you are accustomed to, I know that hirelings do their work because you pay them. But these are fighting men, Roda, not menial servants. They are following my orders, but I will also buy them a drink tonight for doing what they, and I, consider extra duty. If you are to become part of our outfit, you would do well to learn how we do things.”

“And they did help me save your life, after all, if you recall.”

Again Roda Finn blushed red, now from shame. He did recall.

“I’m sorry, milord. You are right, I have much to learn.”

“Not as much as you think, Roda,” Parno smiled. “And not nearly as much as we have to learn from you.”

**********

As the column entered Bingham, several heads turned to follow the soldiers and their captives. Parno inquired of a passing constable of the location of the Justice Hall, and directed the column in that direction. The priest was protesting his treatment, sounding off loud and long for the people on the streets.

The captive constable, however, was quiet. He had allowed himself to be used by the priest, and knew he was about to pay a stiff price. Clan McLeod was founded on law, justice, and equality of all it’s subjects in that law. As a constable, he enjoyed a position of trust, which he had violated. His punishment would be correspondingly more severe.

Willard signaled a halt before the Justice Hall. Parno, Willard, Feng, and Nidiad all dismounted, as did four troopers. These four took possession of the prisoners, guiding them none too gently into the doorway.

Inside, Parno was less than impressed with what he saw. The hall wasn’t unkept, exactly, but was untidy. The desk constable looked up at the new arrivals, frowning at the sight of a constable being held prisoner.

“What the blazes? Who are you, to be holding a constable captive?” The stout constable was on his feet, projecting his voice. Several constables sitting in the hall roused themselves to see what was happening.

“Are you in charge here?” Parno inquired politely. “I’m afraid I have some unpleasant business to attend to. This constable has misused his authority.”

“And who are you to make that determination?” the desk constable snarled. “I’ve a good mind to teach you . . .” The sergeant’s tirade cut off abruptly as both Willard and Nidiad stepped in front of their Prince. Both were in the uniform of the Royal Military, and while neither spoke, their anger was evident.

“My name,” Parno answered agreeably, “is Parno McLeod, constable. And I asked if you were in charge.”

The constable’s face paled, and his fellow constables were studiously seeing to their own affairs suddenly. Licking his dry lips, the desk constable nodded.

“Y-yes, Milord,” he finally croaked. “Constable Sergeant Nevers, sire.”

“Very well, Sergeant Nevers,” Parno smiled. “I wish these men held here for trial. The charges are attempted murder, inciting a riot, and for the constable here you may add dereliction of duty and abuse of office. I will return in the morning to speak with the Chief Constable of the District, and take care of any formalities. Please ensure that the Chief knows that I will call upon him, and ask that he make himself available.”

“Of course, Milord,” the Sergeant replied at once. “Turner, Miller! See to the prisoners. At once!” The last command was bellowed as the two constables detailed to take charge of the prisoners didn’t move fast enough to suit the Sergeant.

“Should the Chief Constable desire to speak to me before morning, Sergeant, he may call for me at the Royal Barracks. Understood?”

“Aye, Milord. I shall so inform the Chief of Constabulary.”

“Thank you, Sergeant. Let’s go,” he added in a quieter tone to his men. As the soldiers filed back outside, the priest could still be heard, yammering constantly.

“What a mess,” Nidiad snorted as the men stepped outside. “I could understand it if we were in a smaller settlement, but this is the Provincial Capital, for Crown’s sake!”

“Judge not,” Parno smiled. “And let us waste no more time with such matters. There’s baths, women, and strong drink awaiting us!”

“Hear, hear!”

The column moved along the street, eager for the promised recreation after over two weeks in the saddle.

**********

“Milord! We were not expecting you! Had we known, proper accommodations would have already been prepared. I assure you, however, that we will . . ..” The barracks officer trailed off as Parno raised a hand.

“Proper accommodation for me is with my men, Captain,” Parno said quietly. “If it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me. I would appreciate it if suitable barracks were made available for my Company to bunk together, however. And if you could have the stables care for our horses? We really are in need of a hot bath and cold beer, preferably with as little delay as possible.”

“Of course, Milord,” the Captain replied with a grin. “I’ll see to it myself. If you and your men will follow me, I’ll get you to your barracks, and then have the stable hands retrieve and care for your animals and wagons.”

“Thank you, Captain.”

“Well, these ain’t bad,” Willard said, as he followed Parno and Nidiad into the transient barracks assigned to the men in Parno’s command.

The barracks were austere, of course, as all such buildings were. As transient barracks the interior lacked the touches of soldiers who called barracks home. There were no soldiers permanently billeted in these quarters, and the walls and desks were empty. The barracks themselves were spotless.

“Whoever runs this place has things right on rail, seems to me,” Nidiad agreed. “This place could stand inspection right now.”

“Well, all I want to inspect is the tub,” Parno said with a grin. “And after that, the nearest good beer.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Willard replied, his own face split by a grin. He turned to address his troops.

“All right, lads! Pick your bunks, by rank, then seniority. I expect every man back here in time for morning assembly. Leave until then.” Cheers erupted from the soldiers at that news. After so many days on the road, they were more than ready for a few days in barracks, along with a few nights in town.

“First round is on me, boys!” Parno called, and the cheering increased. Parno laughed. “Course that means I get first crack at the bath!” General laughter followed that remark, as the men all piled in to shake down into bunk assignments.

Over the last month, Parno McLeod had proven to be most un-prince like, the soldiers had decided. Instead, they regarded the scion of their ruling family as one of them, high praise indeed from combat soldiers. While Parno’s brother, Therron, commanded all the Soulan Armies, he was not considered a true soldier by the men he commanded. The Lord Marshal, as Therron insisted on being called, traveled in comfort wherever he went, and would never dream of sharing a barracks, let alone a campfire, with ‘common’ soldiers.

Parno, on the other hand, held himself no higher, no more deserving of comfort, than the man next to him in the saddle, regardless of what rank that man might hold. Moreover, Prince Parno was by no means trying to convince the soldiers of his own toughness. Indeed, he complained just like the troopers did, of saddle sores, cramped muscles, and long rides. But he endured all these things right along side the soldiers he now commanded.

And that was the difference. While Parno McLeod would never be like them, he was one of them. And that, after all, was all that mattered.

**********

The next morning found the Chief Constable waiting upon the Prince’s pleasure in the office of the barrack’s Captain. He was in a somewhat foul mood, having been kept waiting by a mere captain, and to see a non-entity like Parno Mcleod at that.

Tumar Barone had been Chief Constable of Bingham for many years, and was a fairly powerful man in his own right. He knew that Parno was the least favored of the ruling family, and the King couldn’t stand the sight of him. Still, he was a member of the Royal Family, and despite his knowledge of the relationship between Royal Father and Royal Son, Barone knew it was dangerous to rock the boat.

“Chief Constable?” Barone’s thoughts were interrupted. He turned to see a young man in soldiers garb entering the door.

A damned aide, Barone thought sourly. Come, no doubt, to explain that his Highness is delayed. Probably due to illness, though no doubt the truth is that the whelp is hung over.

“Yes?”

“Parno McLeod,” the young man said, offering his hand. Barone, taken aback by the off-handed way the young prince introduced himself, Barone took the hand without a thought.

“Milord,” Barone nodded.

“I’m sorry to have brought you such a wad of trouble, Chief,” Parno said. “I found the constable and priest I turned over to your men about to burn a man at the stake, alive, for witchcraft, of all things.”

“I read the report, sire,” Barone nodded. “I must confess, I was surprised. Both by the constable’s actions, and the priest. The priest apparently convinced the constable and most of the townsfolk that he had some sort of official authority to practice such devilry.”

“Well, he doesn’t,” Parno assured the Chief Constable. “I’ve made sure, as far as possible, that the people in town know that too. But this cannot be allowed to go unpunished.”

“It won’t, Milord,” Barone replied. “I assure you. Both men will stand trial as charged. It will be necessary for you and your men to be here for that trial, however.”

“Not a problem,” Parno assured him. “I’ll be here for a week, perhaps ten days. That should be enough time for the trial, shouldn’t you think?”

“More than sufficient, Milord,” Barone agreed. “I wasn’t aware you were going to be staying with us so long.”

“Let me know when you need me. If I’m not around, a message left with the barracks Officer will reach me quickly enough,” Parno ordered, ignoring the Constable’s deftly asked non-question. Normally Parno wouldn’t have hesitated to let the Chief Constable of a town he visited know what he was doing, but there was something about Barone that didn’t set well with him.

“As you will, Milord,” Barone responded with a curt bow. He knew a dismissal when he heard it. “By your leave?”

“Good day to you, Chief,” Parno nodded, and the chief left the office, still surly.

“Quite a fellow, aye, Captain?” Parno noted to the Officer of Barracks. The young Captain hesitated for a few seconds, then nodded. “Aye, milord. Quite a fellow indeed.”

Parno was about to ask the Captain about his hesitation when Nidiad opened the door and stepped in.

“Ready when you are, Milord,” the old soldier informed him.

“Very well. Captain, should anyone be looking for me, I shall return here this evening. You might make note that my men and I will occupy the barracks for at least ten days. Also note that we will require the training field at dawn each morning for roughly an hour, and again before dark. If that interferes with anyone else, let me know. We’ll work something out.”

“Aye, Milord.”

“Well then,” Parno told Nidiad, “let’s be off, shall we?”

**********

The ride to the King’s Prison outside Bingham was uneventful. The warden, a fat, red-faced, and effusive man named Brickle, made every effort to please the young prince.

Parno, Nidiad, and Willard spent most of the day interviewing prisoners. A number of the men they spoke to seemed ideal for their unit, while others seemed to try a bit too hard to seem ideal.

By the end of the day, another three dozen men had been added to the rolls of what everyone, save the prince, referred to as ‘Parno’s Company’. The warden assured the prince that the men, and their families, would be in Cove at the appointed time.

As the three men rode back onto town, Parno broached the subject of a name for the proposed regiment.

“Parno’s Company? Who in blazes came up with that?”

“I did, actually,” Willard replied, not the least put off. “The men will need a proper name, for the unit in which they serve. And you are the commander.”

“Darvo is the commander, Karls,” Parno pointed out. “I’m just along to give the project a royal boost. And to keep me as far from my Father as possible, of course,” he added with a wry smile. Parno had never made an effort to hide the problems he had with his family. He had no intention of starting now, least of all with Karls Willard.

“That may be how it came about, milord,” Willard replied, “but my own men have already accepted as fact that you command. There is no grumbling, no murmuring, either. They are proud to serve with you. Whatever they may think of you elsewhere, you have earned the respect of these men. And that’s not something that’s easily done.”

“I agree,” Nidiad spoke for the first time. “The regular soldiers of the King’s Army are not, by and large, easy to impress. Nor is their respect something that is freely given.”

“Look, it’s well and good, in such a small setting, for you, and them, to feel that way,” Parno said. “And I’m honored, to be sure. And, if I’m honest, pleased that I’ve been able to earn that respect. But the fact remains that I’m a figurehead. The only reason I was given this position was to get me out of Nasil.”

“Mission accomplished, then,” Karls grinned. “You are out of Nasil.”

“So I am,” Parno grinned back. “And up a creek.”

The three men shared a laugh at that, and the conversation turned to other matters as they continued back into town. The subject of Parno’s Company was raised no more.

**********

The trial lasted only a half day, a busy morning of testimony and sputtering. The former from Parno and his men, the latter from the priest. The Constable spoke only twice, once to point out that the priest had presented official looking documents supporting his claim of royal authority, and to apologize for his ineptitude.

In the end, the priest was sent to prison for ten years, the charge of attempted murder guaranteeing him a cell for that long. The constable was dismissed, and given a much lighter sentence, two years. All in all, Parno was quite pleased with the outcome of the trial itself. Yet his concern about the root cause of the incident refused to go away.

Was the royal family that out of touch with what was going on in it’s Kingdom? He knew that he hadn’t made much effort to stay on top of events in the kingdom. There hadn’t seemed much point to it. He knew, now, that was an error in judgement.

The problem was one of communication as much as anything else, he knew. Situated in the second most northern province, it took a long time for a message to reach Nasil from the southern part of the kingdom. Even Royal courier relays required ten to twelve days to make the journey from the Sunshine Peninsula, and that was in good weather. If a faster, more reliable method of communication was possible, then such problems as the one he had encountered might be reported long before conditions grew so serious.

Then there was the matter of the Provincial Capital’s own Constabulary. Darvo had been right that the office was a mess. Parno had never had a reason to doubt the validity of Soulan’s Justice system. Now, he had two reasons. First there were the cases of Cho Feng and Brenack Wysin. There had been no justice there, Parno was certain. Now, the apparent lack of concern over a constable who was party to what amounted to a lynching, albeit with fire rather than rope, and the pitiful state of Bingham’s Constabulary. These two events had rocked Parno’s faith in his Kingdom’s justice system. And he didn’t like that feeling.

In the end, there wasn’t much he could do about it, Parno knew. He was able to circumvent things in both cases, but the fact that the incidents occurred at all was troubling in the extreme. And he was powerless to do anything about it.

Parno decided he would lay the problem before Memmnon upon his return to Nasil. He was better placed to investigate such an upheaval, anyway. And his words would carry far greater weight than that of a black sheep prince who would never ascend to the throne.

**********

“So tell me, Roda, how it is that you invented this ‘blasting’ powder of yours.”

Finn looked at Parno. The two had not had much chance to speak since the prince had saved him from being burned alive. Between his work, which somehow involved prisons, and the trial, Parno had been quite busy. Now, as the group headed out of Alma, Parno had eased his horse into position alongside Finn’s wagon.

“I didn’t invent it, milord,” Finn replied, appearing to weigh his words with care. “I simply rediscovered something that the ancients used. Before the Dying.”

“Indeed?” Parno looked a tad surprised, though not shocked. “I didn’t think there was much left of their knowledge.” The world they lived in now was the by-product of a great dying time. Through the generations after that great dying, much of the ancient’s knowledge had been lost. There were simply too few people left in the world at that time who were capable of understanding and preserving it.

True, some things had survived, such as the technology for windmills, and the ability to harness certain element found in nature. But compared to what legend said of the ancient’s once proud world, it wasn’t much.

“There isn’t much in general use, that’s true,” Finn nodded. “The knowledge, at least some of it, remains, however. In books scattered throughout the kingdom. And doubtless throughout the world, for that matter. It’s a matter of finding those bits and pieces that we can still make use of today.”

“And that’s something you do as what? A hobby?” Parno asked. “I remember you saying that you had been a teacher at some point.”

“I was, milord,” Finn nodded again. “I have served on the faculty at three of the King’s Universities, teaching chemistry, mainly. It was only recently that I retired to pursue my studies of the ancient’s knowledge full time.”

“Fascinating,” Parno shook his head. “I had no idea. I would imagine that you have read some very wonderful things, Roda Finn.”

“Very, milord,” Finn smiled.

“How did you come to study these things?” Parno asked, curious. “If so many believe that the knowledge is lost for all time, what made you look there at all?”

Finn looked at Parno for a long moment, weighing his reply. Parno returned his gaze steadily, wondering at the man’s reluctance to speak. Until now, Finn had shown no hint of such reluctance. Interesting.

“Milord,” Finn finally replied. “I will share with you something, if you promise to keep it to yourself. May I be so bold as to ask your word on that?” Parno frowned at that. What could be so secretive as all that? Seeing the frown, and misreading it, Finn hastened to explain.

“It isn’t about. . .it’s not a trust issue, milord, so much as my concern for safety. Some of the things we. . .I, have uncovered. . .well, would you like to see just anyone able to make the gunpowder? The ‘blasting powder’, as you call it?” Parno considered that, and shook his head.

“No, I would not,” he agreed. “But in any case, yes, you have my word. But if you’d prefer not to speak of it, then don’t, Roda. I was asking from simple curiosity.”

“No, I certainly don’t mind speaking to you, milord,” Finn assured him. “It’s just not something I would want to be made common knowledge.” He paused, lips pursed, as he considered how to explain.

“There exists within Soulan a society, a fraternal order, if you will. That society is dedicated to seeking out ancient knowledge, reconstructing the marvels of the time before the Dying, and rebuilding those that would be of benefit to our fellow man. It is a painstaking process, milord, to say the least. Information found in a book in Nasil, for instance, might be useless without information from another book that might be in Jax, or Tallsee, for example. The ancient texts are not always easy to find. Far too often, they are in such poor shape that it takes months, even years, to carefully reconstruct what is in them.”

“But the work is worth it, milord. There exists, in those ancient texts, many wonderful, useful things. Information and knowledge that, properly employed, can make many facets of life easier. Safer.”

“Knowledge of medicines, and health, for instance. Certain diseases, medical afflictions, and whatnot. Treatments that the ancient doctors knew of. Ways to make the same medicines they used themselves.”

“And engineering,” Finn continued, clearing warming to the subject so dear to his heart. “Bridge building, for instance. Building construction. Information about the earth itself. Earthquakes, weather patterns, ways of protecting ourselves against these disasters.”

“And warfare,” Parno said grimly. Finn nodded in agreement.

“Aye, milord,” he said quietly. “The ancients were well versed at warfare. My ‘gunpowder’ is but a trivial thing when stacked against the weapons of the time before the Dying.”

Parno considered that for a moment.

“I admit that I know little of the past,” Parno admitted, almost shame faced. “I never took much time to study it. But if this knowledge still exists, how is it that we don’t use it today? How did it become lost? If lost is the term,” he added with a frown. “What happened?”

“There are a number of reasons, milord,” Finn shrugged. “First and foremost, it seems, is that many of the people who knew how to make use of knowledge in certain areas were lost in the Dying. Some certainly survived, of course,” he acknowledged, “but many did not. Too many, perhaps, for the necessary schools to continue.”

“Another problem was the separation of peoples caused by the Dying. Histories from the time immediately after the Dying indicate that fierce battles were fought amongst the survivors over scraps of technology, and dwindling resources. Leaders of many great cities, including Nasil, knew that once those scraps were gone, or depleted, replacement of them would be difficult or completely impossible. The machines needed to make parts for much of their equipment had no one to operate them. Materials needed for some parts were made in far away places, and there was no longer a way to get them.”

“True, for a while there continued to be some sharing among the various places in the world of what the Ancients called ‘hi-tech’, but gradually their ways were lost to them as the few remaining skilled people in many areas died. In the time they had, they tried to teach their skills to others, but each generation naturally knew less, had less to work with, than the generation before.”

“So the lack of skilled workers resulted in the loss of the marvels of the Ancients,” Parno said.

“To a degree,” Finn nodded. “But in some places, superstition played a role it seems. The Dying was caused by a system a warfare known as Biological War. That means that weapons were derived that attacked our bodily systems. Making us ill,” Finn added at Parno’s frown. “To them, the great technology of the their time had led to the near ruin of the entire world. As such, knowledge of those things became taboo among some races, in many parts of the world.”

“Libraries were destroyed, machines disassembled. Skilled technicians killed. Laws passed that forbade the study of the ‘old ways’. As a result, much was lost needlessly. We try to reconstruct what we can, when we can find it. We here in Soulan are fortunate. The Dynasty of Tyree mandated that all libraries were to be protected, and they were. Your own father continues that even today, milord.”

“The Guild works to restore those histories, and technical ‘manuals’, in order to rebuild at least some of that glory.”

“Who funds all this, Roda?” he asked finally.

“Those of us who search, milord,” Finn shrugged. “We work at one job to support the other. It is often difficult,” he admitted.

“How many of you are there, Roda?” the young prince inquired. “And are you. . .I assume that you are spread all over the kingdom?”

“Yes, we are,” Finn nodded. “As to how many, I have no idea, to be honest. As we find students of rare skill and intelligence, we. . .encourage, I suppose, or foster, their interest in the pursuit. I know many of them, but no one, I daresay, can know them all.”

Parno pondered all this in silence. Finn noted the look on his face.

“What are you thinking, milord?” he asked, not without some concern. He had taken a large chance in sharing what he had with Parno.

“I’m thinking that I can help you, and your fellows,” Parno said simply. “I’m thinking that with proper funding, there is much you could accomplish. Would such a sponsorship interest any of your fellows, Roda?” he asked plainly. “And would some of them be willing to apply what they know, and what they learn, in helping me?”

“I’m sure several of them would jump at the chance, milord,” Finn answered thoughtfully. “In the past, some of our predecessors have sought Royal backing for certain projects. Not always with success, mind you,” he added.

“As to helping you, I cannot say,” he admitted. “None would deny you specific information, as you are a Prince of the Realm. But,” he shrugged again, “I cannot say that any would agree to work for you as I have. What areas would interest you the most? I may know of some who would be willing to help.”

“I’m interested in all of it,” Parno chuckled. “Anything that would help our people is always of interest to me, Roda. As to assisting me directly, I would be most interested in the medicinal aspect, and the engineering.”

“I see,” Roda mused. “I know a few that might be open to working for you in those aspects.”

“I would also be interested in the study of the weather,” Parno mused. “If someone could predict weather patterns, even a few days in advance, then that would be most helpful. Especially in combat.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Roda nodded. “If I may have a few men to serve as couriers, then I can dispatch messages to a few of my colleagues who have great skill and knowledge in those areas.”

“I would be willing to build a hospital on our post, if one or more of the physicians would be willing to relocate,” Parno added, hoping to sweeten the pot. “I’ll provide anything they need. For any of them, as far as that goes.”

“That would certainly appeal to many of them,” Roda agreed. “I will draft the messages starting tonight. I cannot promise anything, mind you,” he warned. “All I can do is present your proposal, with my endorsement.”

“That is all I can ask,” Parno smiled. “And I thank you.”

“It’s the least I can do, considering that you kept me from being the guest of honor at a local stake burning,” Roda replied.

Chapter Four

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