The Book of Secrets (2)

Their village was surrounded by a thin palisade wall of sticks, brush and rope, mostly used to keep out the wild dogs and other scavengers. There were so many places where it needed patching that Finian could hardly see the point of it; most nights the dogs got in anyway and carried off a chicken or two. It would never hold off any real attackers. The palisade gates were simply an opening at the end of the lane that they propped a line of brambles against at sundown.

The nightwatchman, old Edwyn McConnell, had already pushed the brambles aside and the way through sat open. Holding a wooden hoe in one hand as a weapon, and keeping himself upright with a cane in the other, old Edwyn did not strike a particularly imposing figure. He was rumpled and unsteady on his feet, bent at the middle with a hunch in his upper back that pressed his head and neck forward a bit. He wasn’t even the official watchman, he just liked doing it so much that nobody had the heart to tell him it was pointless. But he took his job very seriously.

“Who goes there?” old Edwyn called out in a croaking sort of voice, brandishing his hoe at them, gripping his cane tightly in the other hand and wobbling slightly. “Halt and declare yer business!”

“Anybody you need to worry about will be coming from the other side of the fence,” Gluma told him, smiling. He eyed her dubiously, then glanced at the fence and cleared his throat.

“Righ’ enough, I don’t doubt it,” he said, shuffling closer and peering at them, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Iffn it ain’t two of the Borgrumble brood?” he said at last, as though it had taken him a long while to determine this. “And where are th’ two of ye off te at this hour?”

“Wood,” said Gluma. “Got te get some before we’re off te the castle.”

“Castle, eh? Wood collectors, eh?” Old Edwyn said with a paranoid sniff, as though every word they spoke was an obvious lie, then lowered his hoe and winced, one hand going to his back. “Very well, very well. But use caution, young Borgrumbles!” He inched closer, as if conveying to them an important secret, raising a gnarled finger in warning. “There may be ruffians afoot.” His eyes flicked to either side quickly, as though he expected them to come crashing over the fence at any moment.

“Ruffians?” asked Gluma, looking alarmed, but Finian saw Edwyn’s eyes lingering on the merchant’s wagons.

“You don’t like the merchants, do you?” he asked.

Old Edwyn straightened up and glared out at the wagons more openly from beneath his gray eyebrows. “Bah,” he said. “Foreigners. Durn foreigners. Ye know I heared a few of ’em are Dunburians, or so it’s been said?”

“What—barbarians?” Finian blurted out, suddenly interested.

No,” said Gluma dismissively. “I mean, two of ’em are originally from Dunbur, but they moved te Nulor, didn’t they? It’s not like they’re here te pillage.”

Old Edwyn sniffed in irritation. This fact seemed to make no difference to him. “Don’ like foreigners,” he muttered.

They extricated themselves from the conversation as quickly as they could and made their way out of the village and down the narrow slope toward the sound of the nearby stream, ignoring Edwyn’s dwindling cries of “Caution, young Borgrumbles! Caution!”

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