The Last Paladin: Chapter Two by David Staiger

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SUMMARY: An Audience With His Lordship

The village below Baensrook stretched out upon the long southward slope of the hill, and approaching from the base it appeared to be no more than a massive tumble of stone and mud and straw roughly put together in the shape of dull mounds that somehow resembled homes. But as they made their way up the slowly winding central road, Elise could discern a more tangible symmetry to the community's layout. Though the road remained tilted always at a slight angle, each home or building had been laid out upon a flat spot of land so that the hillside actually consisted of a series of stepped ledges rather than one continues slope.

Some of these flats had been shaped by obvious construction, either dug back into the hill or piled up against it. Some, particularly those supporting the largest structures, existed as flat outcroppings of solid rock fortuitously placed precisely where the village required it to be. Or at least that was the illusion it provided. More than likely these larger buildings had been erected first, and the smaller homes and outbuilding simply sprang up around them wherever convenience and remaining space permitted.

Regardless, upon closer viewing, the majority of the homes appeared to have been solidly enough built, fashioned mostly of rock and mortared together with mud. The roofing most commonly required straw bundled and layered in sheets above wooden frames. Doors and doorframes appeared to be of stout wood as well, secure enough to withstand the blast of winter months, and each home seemed to have a chimney chute, whether small or large, constructed right into the side.

Though it was nearing sunset, the village remained alive with people. Several children played about in the grassy slopes or darted in between the buildings. Mothers reined in many of the younger ones by now, and fathers sat resting on their stoops following a long day of laboring in the fields. Several chimneys billowed with the smoke of cookfires, and the various smells of baked breads and stewed meats seemed to drift along the breeze like an invitation to supper.

The villagers deferred space upon the roadway to the guards, even to the point of pulling their carts off into someone's yard if necessary, but they did not offer much more recognition than that. When the first villager noticed who they were escorting, a slow murmur began to grow and spread among them. Faces appeared in window frames and around corners, eye looked up in wide surprise. Some folk smiled, others scowled, and not a few began clapping their hands.

It was difficult for Elise to tell who or what they were actually applauding, but soon enough the voices began filtering to her attention as she passed them. Many of them called Jefrey's name happily, and her passenger started to wave back with a warm smile to all. Occassionally one or two villagers, notably the older ones, would give a cheer for the soldiers, and several of the matrons merely shook their heads in pity. One young lad even broke in between the horses and grabbed Jefrey's foot, trotting along beside them asking, "Jefrey, how did you do it? How did you escape the castle?"óbut he was shooed away by Durst before he could get a satisfactory answer.

"Magic," was all Jefrey had to offer, wiggling his fingers playfully at the boy.

"Don't go riling up the boy's head now, Jef," said Durst gruffly, pulling his horse in to sandwich Elise's mount between the two guards.

Elise spoke back over her shoulder.

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