Shift World Book II Chapter 3
by Christopher W. Gamsby
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Slart rested her head on a table in the Traitor's Tavern Inn. Since her teens, she had spent an hour or two in this old lord's manor every day. Many years ago, she met a lost boy whom she named Nort. They saw each other every day, even during the days that he went to school and she worked late into the evening. Most days of the past five years, she had eaten each meal with her friend Karp. Slart, Nort, and Karp’s table sat closest to the throwing board. After dinner, Karp and Slart would play friendly games at the throwing board. Nort tried to join sometimes, but he couldn’t get his knives to stay on the board, despite his immaculate throwing form. Eventually, they learned that because he was a particular type of shifter known as a scholar, any metal he touched took on the characteristics of being wood. That made the knives too malleable and blunt to stick into the hardwood board.
Every aspect of the Traitor’s Tavern Inn reminded Slart of these happier times, when footsteps echoed around the bar, sounding the evening’s tempo, and each song flowed and crescendoed. Dancing thuds on the throwing board sang of nights of challenging rivals for all sorts of puzzles. Slart smiled at the thought of all the opponents Karp had swindled through the years.
The evening meal smelled of a banquet’s sup. Beer flowed from kegs that lined the far wall. Karp and Nort had always enjoyed Star's cooking. Karp would eat in a blur, but Nort savored every bite. Brews heralded the seasons. Blueberry mead signaled that spring had sprung, and lemon shandy cooled the summer's heat. Pumpkin ale complemented autumn's changing leaves, and vanilla porter nipped the brisk winter air. These memories felt distant, but part of Slart hoped that they could be her future again.
Lark meekly placed a plate next to Slart's ear and slowly pushed. Slart had met Lark at the Village of the Bog Djinn. She was a mud-covered young teen girl who had stumbled out of a rundown house when Slart and Karp were traveling to the village to investigate the rumors of its destruction. Slart had taken the girl under her wing and helped heal her after the trauma she had endured.
Lark continued pushing the plate, and the scraping finally roused Slart from her daydreams, and she lifted her head. Lark smiled and gently rubbed Slart's lower back while scooping out mashed potatoes and stewed beef. She slid the spoon's handle between Slart's fingers and clasped her hand over it, raising it toward Slart's lips. Slart then continued the motion unassisted, shoveling the food into her mouth. Once Slart began to feed herself, a relieved looking Lark sat and ate too.
Slart had always felt uneasy when Karp or Nort traveled, but her nerves especially stood on edge when they had headed for The Grand's Meadow. The feeling of unease had grown as weeks turned into months and no news of their fate reached the Traitor's Tavern. Slart started losing sleep, and her appetite faltered. Bags hung under her eyes, and skin stretched over her gaunt face.
Slart had understood Lark's pain after the destruction of the Village of the Bog Djinn, but feeling the pain Slart felt now, she realized how intense Lark’s pain must have been, and for much longer. Lark's whole world had crashed around her as monsters killed her friends and family. Slart worried something similar happened to Karp and Nort. The weight of all of it eventually became too heavy to bear.
Lark's recovery seemed to accelerate after caring for Slart. Lark transformed from an infantile teen bawling in her village's rubble to a compassionate young woman caring for a despondent woman she barely knew. The responsibility of healing others turned out to be a wonderful elixir. The same thing had, in fact, happened for Slart when she first cared for the abandoned, unnamed boy who came to be known as Nort.
Long before meeting either Karp or Nort, just after Slart’s fourteenth birthday, a band of thieves had murdered her parents and raided the Traitor's Tavern. The bandits believed they had made a clean escape with the general store's goods and Slart, so they camped in the Willow's Respite, a small forest to the southeast of the Traitor's Tavern. The bandits made merry, drank from stolen kegs, ate plundered food, and openly dreamed about spending the small fortune they had acquired. The men's exhilaration blinded them to the reality that the food would run out in only a few days. The goods distributed among the fifty-person gang could only support each person for a few months.
Slart had lain tied and gagged among the stolen property. Men casually beat her, and drunken women threatened to slice her “pretty face,” but they backed off at the prospect of losing coin when they sold her. Revelers laughed at her muffled whimpers and cries when dogs attacked. Her captors abused her for every shortfall they felt in their own lives. Even today, Slart still couldn’t understand the cruelty they had shown her. As a little girl, she couldn't have possibly been responsible for their wives leaving, their children dying, their gambling debts, or any of their other complaints. Tears had trickled down her cheeks as she thought about her future as a slave, enduring the beatings. She couldn't remember what happened while she was blacked out, but thinking about whatever happened in those gaps of time had terrified her ever since. By the end of her imprisonment, she would lay her face into a pelt to release muffled screams. She had hoped that if she dug in hard enough that she could suffocate, and the pain would end.
The camp’s mirth, though, had turned to an uneasy restlessness. Slart recalled pulling away from the pelt and turning toward the field, where the men stared into the woods and muttered. A spear shot through a man's chest, and the revelers recoiled. The bandit lifted bows and crossbows and fired into the woods. Other men stirred and drew weapons, but the bandits were hopelessly outmatched.
Korg the Whitecoat had launched into a small group, and his quad-helix staff struck faces, groins, stomachs, and legs until everyone was laid out unconscious. Jorn the Sunflower had sprung upon another group. The enemy's weapons never even came close to his steel plate and sunshine helm. His short sword cleaved the bandits' armor and iron. The harried bandits scattered and regrouped in the center of camp and successfully held against Korg and Jorn's two-prong attack. The bandits' counterattacks never endangered the pair, but Slart’s rescuers couldn't inflict significant damage as long as they weren’t able to approach.
The fighting stalemated until Drom the Troupe Leader and his troupe emerged from the woods. Drom's troupe acted as protection and entertainment for The Bog Djinn's convoys. The troupe's jugglers threw daggers into the crowd, and bodies fell. Tumblers slid between sword strikes, and more bandits died. The remaining criminals scattered from the clearing, into the custody of a contingent of The Bog Djinn's standing forces.
The Whitecoat found Slart lying among the spoils and announced that the bandits would not receive quarter or respite. Given the cruelty they had showed Slart and the way they had callously killed citizens of the Traitor's Tavern, the posse gladly dispensed justice. Half of the bandits' corpses lined the trade route north of the Traitor's Tavern and half lined the road south. They remained there as a warning to other criminals for more than a year.
After being rescued, Slart lived with Korg and entered an inconsolable melancholy. The depression lasted years and then became intermittent. Korg was so concerned about her health that he had brought her to The Bog Djinn's castle during his extended trips. On good days, Slart wandered the grounds, played with servants’ children, or learned new skills from Drom's troupe. Slart learned the throwing knife from Drom's jugglers. She practiced in the dining halls of The Bog Djinn's Castle but lost almost every round.
Sometimes, when The Bog Djinn wasn't busy, he'd tell Slart grand fables. She loved the stories. The Bog Djinn spun tales of historical figures in the Lush Forest and always interrupted a thought with a note about what actually happened, accentuated with a wink. At the time, Slart assumed he had read these stories, but after The Whitecoat's death, she learned he had actually lived through them. The Bog Djinn was a type of shifter known as an angel, or djinn, and in Slart’s world, that meant he could live many times the average lifespan of a person.
By the time Slart turned eighteen, her mood had stabilized enough to work at the general store. Within four years, she had worked her way up to assistant manager. One day, though, she had hit a particularly bad spell of depression. Everything felt futile, but she pulled herself from bed and departed The Whitecoat's compound. That’s when Slart heard a strange crying just outside of the caravan staging areas and found a young boy behind a tree on the roadside. The boy wore a helm and training leathers and steel chainmail draped over his body, hanging loosely from his limbs. The armor looked like it belonged to an adult, not a child. The strange situation raised many questions, but the boy only cried whenever Slart asked him anything.
Slart dragged him to the general store despite his nearly constant objections. He became the talk of the store's employees and all of the Traitor's Tavern. Slart stripped off the boy's armor and replaced it with children's leathers. When the boy became hungry, he never asked for food; instead, he only cried like an infant, despite appearing to be six or seven years old. Slart retrieved food from the Traitor's Tavern Inn and spooned the mash into his mouth until he stopped crying. Slart didn't want to drag him back and forth to The Whitecoat's compound, so she unlocked the store's side door and ascended to a small apartment on the second floor. Slart hadn't been to those rooms since her parents' murder eight years before.
Reentering shocked her far less than she had expected. Slart brought the child to her old bedroom, which was little more than a straw bed. Dust-covered scrolls from the third year of school rested on a student's desk. Childish writing scrawled about the pages was a testament that she had once had a life there.
Slart lay the boy on a wolf's pelt, and to her surprise, he peacefully dozed off. Then, Slart moved to her parents' room and searched for clues about their lives. The intrigue was increased because many aspects of their lives would have been hidden to her as a teenager.
Scrolls of poetry were hidden in a crate near the foot of a double bed. They spoke of love and longing during trips abroad. Some compared Slart's mother to the sun or the wind, but others were more direct. Slart also found stitched pouches holding little throwing daggers that her mother had used at the tavern. According to Drom, Slart’s mother hardly ever lost a match. A white cloth uniform hung in the closet. A seashell steel stripe flanked by parallel steel stripes rolled down the left arm. Her father had worn that uniform when traveling or at festivals. Slart then decided that she had had enough memories, and she lay on the bed, closed her eyes, and slept.
Over the next several days, Slart had kept a watch for the child's parents, but they never showed. She tried to ease his spiteful bouts, but nothing could soothe him when he had a mind to cry. A month passed, and Slart lost hope that the child's parents would ever come back for the boy. She was at her wit's end on how to stop his crying. She thought back to her parents. As a girl, when Slart was upset, her mother sang, and Slart calmed. Unfortunately, Slart had inherited her father's tone-deafness, but she still attempted to sing one of his poems.
The hills roll through the day
Leading away from my love
Farther straying from hearth and home
I follow its path into the night
Lost, I forgotten my way back to you
I spotted the morning's blinding light
I understood where I roam
Thanks to the bright star above
I hurried all the way
I swam the raging stream
climbed and conquered the sheer cliff
ran across the breaking plateau
chopping, emerging through the haunted wood
My love stood at home's start and journey's end
It was more hope than my weak heart could
hold on to while I took the blow
home was far, and I felt stiff
awakened from a daydream
I traveled to make trade
Gave away my love for coin
Sold my life, future, and daughter
I missed my family and farm to death
With everything lost, the price was too high
When everything sold, I found my breath
The dust and dirt led toward water
Love stood where sea and home join
Rest beckoned, I obeyed
The child had calmed by the time Slart finished. Watching him rest, she realized that she hadn't been calling him a name, just "the boy," "that kid," or some other title. She decided on Nort, which was the man's equivalent of her mother's name, Nart, since the boy seemed to enjoy singing. From then on, Slart kept the habit of singing whenever she was depressed and wanted to feel better.
"Don't worry. I'm sure Karp and Nort will come back!"
Lark's words brought Slart back to her current reality. She smiled and continued to eat. Lark excitedly finished her food and moved to retrieve glasses of water. Slart hummed "The Emerald Glades" and hoped Lark's words were correct.
The birds around the Traitor's Tavern sung a chorus praising the mid-morning sun. People milled about the streets between the Traitor's Tavern Inn and the general store. Workers marched east on the main road toward The Whitecoat's compound. Children moaned, laughed, and frolicked while heading west toward Widow's Bridge Road and the schoolhouse. Despite the world's abundant life buzzing all around her, Slart lay quietly in bed, defiantly refusing to face the day.
Lark tapped on the door to Slart's room, and Slart rolled over, ignoring the sound. The door creaked open, and Lark slipped inside and walked to the bed. She gently tugged on Slart's sleeve, but Slart pretended not to notice.
"Wake up. Hey! Wake up!"
Slart rolled a little further away, but she already lay at the bed's edge. Lark crawled onto the bed and plopped down, sitting on Slart. Lark bounced.
"Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!"
The sudden, crushing weight surprised Slart and squeezed the air from her with a low grunt. Lark had gained forty pounds since living with Slart. She had grown inches taller and resembled a young woman now and not the emaciated child that Slart, Nort, and Karp had found in the Village of the Bog Djinn. Slart giggled as her breath returned. Lark laughed and scurried off the bed. Finally, Slart smiled and slid off the bed's edge too. Lark walked toward the door and turned to face Slart before exiting.
Slart thought on the offer, but she should have already left for work hours ago.
"Uh...no... I have some...uh...work to do."
Lark worried that Slart used work as a pretense for not eating, but the fact that she had left the bed so quickly meant that she was improving.
“OK, I’ll just bring you something when I’m done eating.”
Slart smiled, and the two walked down the main hall to the top of the steps, where they sat. Slart stopped before slipping on her leather shoes because a fine layer of sand covered the bottom of her feet. The sand remained from the time before Nort had learned he was a scholar, back when he had tried shifting every morning.
Nort would stand in his room, facing the sun and try to shift. He had thought he was failing every attempt, but he actually was moving between worlds with no memory of it. Each time he returned to the world, sand from the Arid Desert covered his feet, and he'd drag it around the apartment. That simpler time for Slart's little family stuck with Slart, just like the sand she kept finding months later. Slart wondered how long she'd feel the memories of her old life.
Slart and Lark descended the stairs and exited the side door. Lark headed for breakfast at the Traitor's Tavern Inn, and Slart headed for the general store's side entrance. Slart entered, and workers darted around arranging displays, showing customers goods, and cleaning. Typically, Slart would have personally opened the store hours ago, but the store's assistant managers and seasoned employees had helped with those responsibilities during her depression.
Slart met one of the store's assistant managers standing at the counter near the stone vault. Occasionally, Slart reviewed the store's ledgers to decide on the inventory to replenish, but right now that seemed daunting, so she decided to start slowly.
"Give me the, uh, valuables ledger."
The assistant manager capitulated, and Slart looked it over. Slart dragged herself to the weapon and armor racks in the store's rear. A worker escorted a lordling and his two retainers to the department, answering their inquiries on protection and offense. Slart felt proud of how the young woman handled the questions with ease and grace; over the years, Slart had trained and mentored the saleswoman. Slart embraced the saleswoman's success as her own success.
Slart checked the armor list and marked each piece she found.
5x full set standard steel plate armor
5x full set standard iron plate armor
10x full set steel chainmail
8x full set iron chainmail
12x sets steel gauntlets
8x sets steel greaves
9x steel helms
4x steel bucklers
7x steel short swords
9x steel morning stars
13x steel daggers
4x steel axes
2x sunshine steel plate armor sets in vault
5x seashell steel plates in vault
2x water steel plates in vault
Most of the iron weapons and armor were in The Whitecoat's compound; Slart would check those later. She moved on to nonmetallic goods and started with cloth. After Korg and the followers of The Mandrake all died, the flow of cross-world trade had grounded to a halt and new clothing became scarce, but the general store still had a few sets. A green silk blouse with flowers starting over the breast and moving over the shoulders was the most popular style and a specialty of the store.
Slart slid her hand over the smooth fabric, and a bittersweet memory bubbled to the surface. Slart first met Karp in that very spot because Karp had traveled to the Shift World looking for valuables to trade for a similar shirt, but something had gone wrong. Karp fell bloody and convulsing to the floor, and Slart and a few workers brought her to an empty room at the Traitor's Tavern Inn. When she wasn’t working, Slart would visit the injured shifter, and they grew into friends. Karp seemed to sense Slart's fragility but never treated her as broken or contagious like many of the village did. Over the years since that event, Slart, Nort, and Karp became a family united by tragedy.
At that moment, a man with a snide face and condescending smile approached Slart, snapping her from her memories, and her heart sank. His name was Cont, considered to be a village elder despite only being slightly older than Slart. The Demon's Wrath had left Cont's graybeard father to die when he had attacked the village, so out of respect for the dead, the community had appointed Cont to replace his father. Most villagers didn't trust Cont, but his superficially nonchalant attitude toward governance soothed much of their apprehension. Slart knew he was a snake, though, and feared whatever maneuvers he had planned.
"Did you make a decision yet?"
As a village elder, Cont had been pressuring Slart to sell all of The Whitecoat's goods in order to build a new village hall.
"My...uh...answer hasn't changed."
Cont's face twisted into a scowl.
"This will be much easier with your help. No one is as good at bartering as you, but keep in mind I said ‘easier.’ I still don't NEED you."
"No one from the village would support you. I have their loyalty. Your father had their trust. You have neither."
Cont's face darkened in a clear indication that Slart's assessment was accurate. He must have already tried and failed to take over through politicking, and so now he was resorting to threats.
"I don't think you understand the opportunity you're missing! The local envoy died at the Last Festival. They still haven't found a suitable replacement! We could become the new envoy, but the village isn't exceptional. Not with that rundown tavern as the only landmark. We need a grand hall."
"We? Huh? You mean they'll make YOU the new envoy. If we, uh, sell off everything right now, we won't only barely get the...uh...supplies we need, but you'll bankrupt the whole village! The market is barely...uh...staying together as it is. I doubt the royal family would make you an envoy anyways!"
"What do you think you can accomplish? The market's barely staying together. You’re barely staying together! Do you really believe that traitor is coming back to save you after all this time? I tried to get you to cooperate, but I will have my way."
Slart finished the semi-annual inventory and stock management reports. Her stomach told her it was finally time to eat as she grunted and dropped her pencil into the ledger's binding. Almost everything was accounted for except several pounds of food and scattered goods, but only a few. Slart deemed the quarter a great success. Tomorrow she would order the materials she needed for the next quarter, but now it was dinner time.
Slart rose from the table and looked over at an empty seat with a ledger and pencil sitting in front of it. She sighed and exited the general store's back room. Stars dotted a darkened evening sky. Light from the Traitor's Tavern Inn shined on the mostly deserted road. Slart walked toward the glowing beacon, looking forward to a hot meal and fresh ale, but she balked at a strange notice on the inn's door.
"Hear Ye! Hear Ye! By royal decree of the princess, Tark the Demon Scorpion, the criminal, Karp the Horse Thief, is a wanted felon of The Conqueror's Empire. The Horse Thief was a vagabond with no social ties until she became Karp of the Traitor's Tavern and apprentice to Korg the Whitecoat. The Horse Thief is at this moment charged with the following crimes:
1. The murder of 30 individuals during the Founders' Day Festival, including her master, Korg the Whitecoat, and the royal envoy to the south-central Lush Forest, Barj the Sea Lion. The Horse Thief's murder spree was only ended by Tark the Demon Scorpion's intervention and her execution of the heinous traitor, Jorn the Sunflower.
2. Sacking the Village of the Bog Djinn and murdering its inhabitants. This crime would have lay undiscovered if The Demon Scorpion hadn't found a lone survivor.
3. Sacking the Grain Fort and its local village. The Horse Thief raided the town with a band of mercenaries. She burned homes as she stole The Lion’s prized mares. The Demon Scorpion rescued the village, but The Horse Thief escaped with the prized animals amid the chaos, even as her comrades died.
4. The Horse Thief sacked the keeps of lower lords along the main trade route, including Borgal the Ghost, Balt the Squid, and Poln the Rabbit.
5. The Horse Thief’s identity was discovered during her opportunistic theft of a royal mare. The cowardly thief besieged the Royal Citadel with her followers. While the Royal Guard cut down the villains, The Horse Thief stole royal mares from the stables. The princess amputated the villain’s left hand during the effort.
All known associates of The Horse Thief are traitors but are not to be harmed if they don’t resist. They shall be brought to justice through The Demon’s Wrath.”
Slart shuddered, looked around the street, and tore down the poster as soon as the roadways cleared. She entered the tavern. All of the patrons’ eyes moved to her for a few seconds, but the patrons seemed to lose interest when they didn’t see Karp standing at the door. Slart walked to the barkeep and ordered the day’s special and a mug of ale. The barkeep nodded, and Slart moved to the table near the throwing board. A moment later, one of the serving girls brought Slart the drink and food. Slart scanned the room as she ate.
Every time Slart became comfortable, she’d feel the eyes of taverngoers on her, but when she looked up, no one was watching. Slart heard a familiar voice. Cont, the village elder, sat at a table supping with people Slart didn’t recognize. They weren’t village elders, warehouse workers, or villagers. Slart looked around and noticed that most of the patrons eating in the inn were not locals. The strangers chatted, glancing at Slart through the corners of their eyes.
A game began at the throwing board. Slart surveyed the room until she heard a knife strike. Slart scanned the room again. Another thwap broke her concentration. Every knife crashed louder than the one before, stirring Slart and haunting her. At the next knife strike, Slart shot up. All eyes focused on her as she stumbled from her seat and burst out the exit into the cool night air.
Slart lay in bed, turning back and forth, trying to sleep. Every time her eyes closed, stress scratched at her mind and tore open her eyelids. She was afraid for Karp, who was being framed and hunted, but she was even more worried about Nort. Karp had clearly upset the empire, which meant she was alive. They wouldn’t be trying to find her if she were dead. But where was Nort if they weren’t looking for him? Did it mean that he was dead or captured?
Slart closed her eyes and imagined Karp returning to the Traitor’s Tavern. In Slart’s mind’s eye, Karp entered the main door and smiled and waved. Slart’s heart raced as she ran toward Karp, but the tavern’s doors flew open, and Royal Guards seized Karp. Karp kicked and scratched as they dragged her out the door, which slammed shut with such a loud bang that the noise echoed and intensified long after the door closed.
Slart opened her eyes and looked toward her bedroom door. The banging wasn’t from Slart’s imagination; a customer was knocking on the side entrance. Slart didn’t want to pull herself out of bed. She couldn’t sleep but was comfortable and exhausted. Everything but lying down pushed her willpower to the limit. Still, customers only came in the middle of the night if they had an emergency and needed supplies that couldn’t wait until morning. Slart knew that if she fell back to sleep again, someone could die. She used that guilt to propel herself from the bed.
Slart thought it unfair that she was so groggy that she couldn’t even walk straight down the hall. Slart placed her hand on the wall as she descended the stairs. The customer’s bangs rang in Slart’s head. She finally arrived at the door, unlocked the inner bolt, and pushed it open. The customer stepped back to let the door pass. Slart saw his face, and shock woke her completely.
“What are you...uh…”
Cont grabbed Slart's wrist, pulled her from the door, and hit the back of her neck, throwing her to the ground. Cont pulled a knife and stood glaring over Slart.
"Slart of the Traitor's Tavern, known accomplice to Karp the Horse Thief, you are under arrest for high treason. Don't worry. I'll take care of the general store after you're gone."
Cont turned the knife down in order to lay a killing blow and stepped above Slart. He raised the blade and cracked a sinister grin. Slart kicked up into Cont's crotch, and he dropped to one knee, heaving. Slart scrambled away and ran toward the main road. She passed the general store and turned west. Slart panted as she ran and turned back to see if Cont was following, but he was nowhere in sight. She veered off the road and hid behind the local leatherworker.
Slart leaned against the rear of the leatherworker building. She was panting out of panic and because she didn't exercise enough. She concentrated on controlling her breath. Her breathing shallowed, and her heart rate slowed. Slart relaxed in time for Cont to round behind the shop. She sank to the ground. Cont stood over her gloating.
"I thought I lost you. I'm surprised you didn't run further."
Cont grabbed the back of Slart's head and pulled it back, exposing her neck. A blade snapped into Cont's back and fell to the ground near Slart's feet. Cont turned and peered into the darkness. The light glint of a metal plate glistened from a slash across Cont's leathers. That hidden plate had saved his life.
"Baln, you moron! I'm on your side! Be careful where you throw those!"
Slart reached down, picked up the knife, and slashed up. She found soft skin hidden under Cont's secret plate and rendered a chunk of flesh from his hip. Blood poured down his pants. The pain and sight of blood seemed to scare Cont, and he ran off crying. Slart sprinted east to find Lark before fleeing the village. Baln the Coral Snake watched Slart run off but didn't make a motion to follow.
Slart ran past the Traitor's Tavern Inn and doubled back to the general store. Royal Guard members were congregating in front of Slart's apartment. Slart hadn’t anticipated that they'd be waiting for her. Each guard wore a sunshine steel hauberk and chest piece and a dragon fire steel helm. Two warriors carried spears, three held short swords, and one had brought a maul. Slart only had the knife she had used to stab Cont.
Slart worked on formulating a plan to distract the Royal Guard so that she could infiltrate the apartment and rescue Lark. As Slart thought, The Coral Snake ran through the side road and waved at the Royal Guard. The guards looked at each other and then back to The Coral Snake. They chased after Baln, and the apartment was then clear. Lark fled, meeting Slart in the street. The pair headed west until they arrived at the Gate of the Traitor's Tavern.
Slart and Lark rested under the gate, which was a crossbeam suspended on a pair of identical logs. Blue with red stenciling resembled running blood painted down the whole structure. The last time they had been at the gate, they had waved Karp and Nort goodbye, unsure of what the future would bring. This time they stood waving goodbye to the Traitor's Tavern, once again unsure of what the future would bring. Slart and Lark headed north on the main trade route, feeling a sense of deja vu.