School in Hastalan (Part 1)
School in Hastalan
I chopped the wood with an easy stroke, just as I'd been taught. Few chips flew. The evening struck my eyes as I straightened up for a moment, though I resisted knuckling my back.
"Are you sure about this?” My father asked.
I split another log, using momentum to make up for my lack of muscle, as I'd been taught. My father was a burly man, tall and dark, where I was not. The hurt I suspected was there was not present in his voice.
I'm sure, father. The money alone....”
"Hang the money!” He declared, throwing down his adze, his normally careful work haphazard and the chair leg he had been working on ruined.
He took a breath, gathering himself, and continued. “It's not about the gold, son. We can always do something else for that. I can chop wood again, or go to the castle and try again, or....”
"Father, look at me.” He looked up, squinting. I pretended not to see the shimmer; this had to be done.
"The market for wood is down and the other woodcutters would not appreciate new competition, even if you could find a buyer. The Vasrun family broke your last offering to them, and told you never to come back upon pain of death.”
Father stood, grasping my shoulders. “Then I'll find other work, another way! There has to be something! We can move, or...!
I shook my head. “Father, you know as well as I, it is duty.”
He stared into my face as his own fell. “I taught you too well, it seems.”
What could I say to that? I nodded.
"I'll go get dinner ready.” He said, turning and walking towards the house. You clean up here.”
He disappeared into the darkened doorway of our home. I stacked the wood neatly upon the pile it belonged to and covered it with the pitch treated cloth that would keep it safe from wind, rain and bugs. I shook my shirt out and put it on. It was warm out while working, but the evening chill was fast approaching.
Then I took up the tools, both my own ax and the woodworking tools my father had left, and cleaned them. They were all stored in the house.
The strong smell of turps hit me just before I entered. It was matched by the smell of Dix, a local fish. Neither were particularly appealing or filling, but both were cheap, and the turps were easy to grow. One just had to keep the wild beasts from getting into the garden.
The third sniff had me sighing. The flavor was best when not burned. I reached past father and took the spoon. “Father, you're supposed to stir the stew, not stare at it.”
I carefully stirred while father made his usual stuttered excuses; the stew was a water base, which meant it was a little thin, but some readily available grasses usually made up the lack. Father had not added enough onon grass, however.
"How can you stand that much onon grass? It always makes the stew bitter.”
"It coats the other tastes Father, you know that.”
Father's face darkened, but he nodded; he did not like this stew any more than I did. He busied himself by hanging the tools on their intricately made hooks.
Night finished stealing the light as I ladled the stew into our plain bowls. We ate in comfortable silence; afterwards I sealed the remainder up in the pot with the sturdy wooden lid, carved to fit and lock with the lip. The bowls and spoons I took out to the stream. It was best to clean them now, for the scent could attract wild beasts, and there was no telling what damage they would cause.
The stream was fast moving in the spot I preferred, which made cleaning easy; just dunk the dishes in. The water was sweet and clear; I took a long drink before heading back. Finding the proper path came easily. I shut the door and drew the bar across it; the door and bar were both sturdy, but were really no more than a strongly worded suggestion in truth.
With the chores done and the darkness now total, I unrolled my mat and gave it a vigorous shake (insect bites in tender places were an awful way to wake up) and undressed before rolling up in my blanket.
I fell asleep to the gentle scrape of wood carving.
I awoke to the sounds of snoring. It was daybreak, I could see the sunlight through the walls.
Without my constant disapproving presence, I feared for my father. I stretched and sat up; there were things on my carefully folded clothes.
A large comb, the kind that would be used to both brush and set hair, lovingly carved in painstaking detail. It depicting our home with wood nymphs frolicking in the background. It made me glad wood nymphs had not been frolicking near our home, for father would certainly have been spirited away.
I couldn't help feeling touched.
I decided to wash, and grabbed my clothes and blanket along with my cake of soap. I made it myself using a recipe of ash, zols oil, and strong scented herbs. I had no idea how close my efforts were to the real thing, especially since I had to substitute for tallow and animal fat, but it seemed to clean us and that was enough.
The stream was cold, but that was helpful in waking up. Downstream it flowed less quickly and was prone to silting over. I washed quickly, dried with my blanket, and dressed. I turned from doing up my last button to find Father there, watching.
"Won't be able to do that anymore.” He said.
A curious statement. “Do what? You mean not bathe? I'm fairly sure the hallowed halls of the capitol might be offended if I arrived smelling like a midden.”
A ghost of a smile graced his lips as Father answered. “No, not that. Not the choice to bathe, but the location. Soon the very idea of you gracing a country stream with your presence will scandalize our nation.”
Surely he was exaggerating. He gave me a look that said he knew more than he was telling. “You'd best get going, they won't hold the ceremony for you if you are late.”
I followed Father inside to find that he had dug his old travel pack out of his trunk. The trunk was a large thing carved hollow from a solid log and held together with expensive iron hinges; there was a cunningly build combination lock built into it; the correct movement of levers outside opened the chest.
The chest hollow contained all of Father's most valuable belongings. I had seen most of them, watching as Father cleaned and cared for them. The old armor he possessed for example, from our ancestor Thoriv. He had kept the old scale mail, the padded underclothes, and the large sword. A slight revealed the expensive oils used to prevent rust.
Father held the old pack out, and I inspected it; it had several cracks from drying out sometime in the past, but the leather was otherwise whole. I grabbed my change of clothes and folded them carefully before placing them in; they were my best. My own tools for cooking and carving went next, and my kit of herbs – I really should go searching for more of those common around here – and finally my own water skin, which wasn't a skin at all, but a well made and self sealing tankard.
I grabbed my sling and my pouch of stones, as well as my fishing line, and I was ready.
I turned to find Father holding out a large dagger, almost a small sword on it's own, sheathed in worked leather. “You cannot use a sword, but this will serve you in good stead.”
I took the dagger and unsheathed it; it was a wide and thick piece of shining steel, double edged. A weapon, that could only ever be a weapon. Well, it wasn't as if the roads were completely safe.
I re-sheathed it. “Thank you, Father.”
I belted it on, and looked up to find father holding up another locking container in the fashion of my water skin. “Last night's soup.”
It was a large container. “All of it?”
Father wavered a moment, but finally he nodded. “Father, that soup was meant for us both. I can get something along the road.”
He shook his head. “No. You'll have less chance to scare up food on the journey than you think. Take it all; I will fish up what I need.”
I bowed. “Thank you Father.”
The last thing Father held out was another wooden object; this one carved by older hands and stained by tinctures and use. It was Mother's pendant.
A depiction of Hastel the magnificent, the first sorceress, it had been in Mother's family for generations as a good luck charm. I could not deny that it failed her, but it was all that as left of her. I settled it around my neck.
Father's eyes were bright. “You'd... best get along now. You don't have much time to reach the village.”
The ritual would be held at dusk. If I left now, I would reach the village by midday, just as the festival started.
"I'll see you again, Father. Please take care of yourself.” It was a promise.
"I'll be waiting, my child.”
I squared my shoulders and walked straight ahead.
The walk to the village was shorter than expected. The woods had been pleasant but silent, lacking in game; I had found a few berries that would be edible for some time, and stowed them in a cloth brought for the purpose.
The village clearing loomed into view; a simple beaten path leading to it, the large rush houses to either side. My father had made the foundations for those. The center, where the well was sunk, was decorated with straw women and colored ropes. The bonfire wasn't lit just yet, and the long tables filled with food were still taking shape, being tended to by girl and woman alike under the watchful gaze of what could only be the sorceress and her retinue from the capital, standing on the large wooden platform for the purpose of holding them above the dirty streets on foul weather.
"Kath? What are you doing here?”
I turned to find Meilan approaching, her face as a thundercloud and bowl of fresh baked rolls forgotten. I tore my eyes from the sight as my stomach growled, turning my attention back to Meilan. She would insist on it.
"Good day to you, Meilan.”
Meilan's eyes narrowed. She noticed the dagger at my belt and her eyes narrowed further. “Good day to you, Kath. Now, what are you doing here?”
It wasn't obvious? “I thought I'd enjoy the festival.”
"But you never come! Your Dad turned down the invitation every year! Mom was always trying to get you two to enjoy!”
I nodded; Father had his pride. “That is true, however this year I come of age.”
Meilan quieted, shooting a loaded glance at the sorceress, even now discussing something with the man dressed as a noble next to her. She laughed, and Meilan's eyes narrowed again. Any further and she would find it hard to see.
"Right. I guess that means you can show up for the free food if you want to.” Meilan responded, turning back to me with a small smile.
The food would not be free. Meilan was also coming of age. Tomorrow she would likely be married. I would wish her well; we had been friends for many years.
Speaking of friends, there was Conrad, Count Vasrun's youngest son, making his way to the sorceress.
"Come on Kath, you can help me set out the wine.”
Meilan led the way down the path and into her house. Her mother was there, pouring wine into earthenware jars and capping them with their lids. Meilan dipped and brought two up smoothly, and I managed to follow her example before her mother realized someone else was present.
"Oh, Kath! You came!”
"Your father not with you?”
I shook my head.
"That is a shame,” she replied. “My own Forash misses him. Says he just can't drink like he used to, without your Danja there.”
I considered that. “Probably for the best, then. He'd probably never get out into the fields.”
She grinned, and I followed Meilan out the door.
There were a few more present than mere minutes ago, all boys who also needed to participate in the coming of age ceremony. They were stealing food and staring at the village guests with unabashed interest... and in a few cases, awe.
Garz was among them. I waved and turned to help Meilan again.
"Garz. Come help.”
He stopped me with a hand on my shoulder. “No, I shouldn't be working, and neither should you. It's our big day, and a day free from work for both of us.”
"Only when the festival starts.” I replied, looking pointedly at the square and all the work that needed to be done.
"Come on, don't be like that.”
"Yes,” Zhet broke in, shouldering past Garz. “Don't be like that; you may not have to do day in and day out, but we all work in the fields, and a day's respite is welcome.”
I had worked in the fields before. Many times, in fact.
"Come on, let's not fight,” Garz stated, shouldering Zhet back. No mean feat, that; Zhet was the largest of the boys. There was rumor the Count was waiting to hire him on as a soldier. It was foolish talk, but his chained fury made the rumor believable. The Garz turned to me: “Let's go. The women can handle this, let's go catch the porowogs down by the pond, while we still can.”
Catching porowogs was a child's pursuit. Come tomorrow, none among us would be doing it, no matter what may come. I looked to Meilan and she rolled her eyes dramatically; she had already made another two trips while we had been talking. I shrugged. “Sure. Lead on.”
I could join them at least until midday; that wasn't long and if I was careful I would not need to bathe again before the festival.
Many of my now present company could use a dunk themselves. Perhaps that was a secondary goal here? The pond should be clean enough, for all that the water was sluggish.
The porowog population was low, judging by their croaks. This did not deter my comrades, who gleefully waded into the rushes with reckless abandon, driving the object of their hunt before them.
I made the trap; several sticks pushed into the soft mud together into a circle, angled so the porowogs could not jump out. Some lashing with a handy rush, and it was quite sturdy by porowog standards. A few sticks on one side not lashed together made a serviceable door.
While I busied myself with that, the others busied themselves with laughing and splashing. Porowogs were caught, escaped wet fingers, and caught again. I sat and waited.
"Come on, Kath! Come catch some! If they are big enough, we can eat them!”
I pointed to the cage. “I've done my part.”
Garz marched up to the bank and carefully squelched down beside me. “You know, this is the last day.”
I shook my head. “For me, yesterday was the last day. I spent this morning making myself presentable.”
Garz tapped my dagger. “Is it certain, then?”
I nodded. “We are certain, Father and I.”
There was no need to tell him why we were certain; he could no doubt guess. Some who had the spark within were visited by the Phos, the ethereal ghost lights which led men astray. None knew why or when, but those who lived outside of town saw them more often.
They had been beautiful – and frightening, circling our home the entire night, dashing close to the windows, then away. Only the dawn's light had banished them, and they had not returned. They had not needed to.
Garz saw his answer upon my face. “I see. You'll be leaving, then, come the morning.”
He tapped my sandaled foot with his own. “I make no promises I cannot keep, but I shall do my best to look in on your father while you are gone.”
I turned to him. “Thank you.”
He shrugged. “Well, back to the porowog hunt! We must find at least two for all of us!”
This early in the season that would run a real risk of emptying the pond of them.
An hour later there were porowogs for all (even me, I'd caught a rather plump outlier well away from the mud of the pond) and it was time. We made a large sack of tied rushes and brought our bounty back to the square. All the preparations were finished, and the women not involved were beginning to trickle in; the men would begin to join them around dusk.
The bonfire was lit, which made the start official.
I sat at the nearest table, poured a cup of rich red wine, cleaned my hands in the nearest bucket placed for the purpose, and snagged a fresh loaf of bread with a sigh.
The bread was a delicacy, as was the wine. With one dipped into the other, it was even softer and the taste of both was enhanced. I shot a glance at the sorceress and her retinue, to find her staring off into the fields from her stage, drinking a cup of wine herself, a table of roots and berries the region was famous for in front of her and her escort.
They even had a slemn fish, each, from the river to the North. I wondered who had gone to fish for those; the journey was not an easy one, and a poacher's noose could await anyone who was caught.
And speaking of the poacher's noose, a red faced son of a Count was striding to our table. My friends looked up warily as he stopped in front of us.
In front of me, specifically.
I saw Blizal, Conrad's very experienced bodyguard, shift from his position in a nearby doorway, tensing.
I moved. As soon as I was out of the chair, he kicked it over. I just sat down in another; we were not required to bow to him today; his father was not present and he was not a man himself, yet. It was just our misfortune to share a birth year with him.
Meilan righted the chair and he immediately sat down in it without so much as a glance her way. “So what brings you out of the woods, peasant?”
"The festival, of course.” The ceremony also, but that should be a given.
"I thought it had been made clear to you, that your kind were not welcome, here in the village.”
"I'm just an ignorant peasant count, I don't know anything about welcomes.” I responded calmly, watching his face redden. He had no title, but insisted on one years ago, and so 'the little count' was born.
He didn't demand we stop, only that we shorten it. Calling him count was against the law, however the real Count ignored it. This meant one had to be careful.
"Well, get out. Go rejoin your bandit father.”
"I cannot, Count. I am of age, and must take part in the ceremony. To do otherwise is against the law.”
A subtle reminder that even he dare not take things too far here. After all, our guests were watching. And they were watching – with great interest.
Conrad noticed as well, and stood up straighter – then kicked my porowog into a tree. I didn't have to look to know it was dead, and likely too befouled to eat, now.
"There is no place at the feast for vermin.” He stated with more volume than he needed to, and huffed off grandly when one of the delegation from the capital took a step, hand on what had to be a fine sword.
The Sorceress laid a hand on his arm, uttering low soothing tones. Blizal took his hand away from his own sword as he passed me with a mutter: “I'm sorry about that, Kath.”
"The fault does not lie with you, Blizal,” I replied just as low. “However the sentiment is appreciated.”
He clapped me quickly on the shoulder as he passed; he was a village man, for all his increase in station, and he knew us. The others, village folk all, ignored Blizal's very presence.
"Never mind that crab, Kath. Let's eat!”
We managed to fill our plates before the men came to sit, freshly scrubbed. The women joined us, waiting until after everyone was seated. Some had volunteered to serve, and for that service would receive special consideration for a service throughout the year.
I had provided more than one of those services, together with my father. Furniture and little touches made from wood were in great demand when free. Meilan's mother still had the little corrow I'd carved for her years ago, still standing as if to take flight in pride of place on her mantle.
It did not deserve the place it occupied; if I could I would throw it into the mantle it resided atop. But that would be a grave insult. I had carved her another; Father was to deliver it and convince her to retire the first bird.
I realized I was staring as Meilan and her mother served the Sorceress and her retinue, and averted my eyes just in time. Both could tell when they were being watched, and there were limits to how rude one should be.
The little Count stalked back to his place, the far left of the table on the platform where said retinue waited patiently, sitting down just in time to get served himself. He looked to the Sorceress as the other sat; she remained standing, a delicate glass goblet in her hand.
A metal fork was gently rung against the glass, and the odd noise stopped what few conversations had sprang up.
The Sorceress met the expectant looks and then spoke, her voice not so distant from the musical tones the goblet had made.
"Please good people, eat, drink, and make merry! You are the backbone upon which the kingdom of Hastelan rests. I wish you good harvests, bountiful game, and much joy. I raise my glass to you all in the sincere wish of prosperity for all.”
She drank, and we followed.
She opened her mouth again... then sat with a twinkle in her eye.
We all dug into the main course with relish, roast fowl culled from the coops. Normally there would be a diffyr, hunted legally on the Count's land and donated for the purpose, but it had been many seasons since last we saw such.
I tried to pace myself, to match the Sorceress as she delicately cut her food into small pieces rather than the much more simple spear and bite method used by all. She was elegant in a way that even the Count and his kin would be hard pressed to match.
Were such manners used at court, or at the school?
Judging by the Count's son they were not in any great use at court. They seemed worthy of emulation regardless.
Once the main course had been served and eaten the murmur of conversation rose again, and old Jokaz and Merle gathered their instruments as the others built up the blaze in the square. Jokaz played the liment, and Merle played the pipes. Neither played enough to suit our tastes, saving their gentle notes for special occasions alone.
The dancing and clapping began immediately, and I joined in both as best I was able, for as long as I was able. As the celebration continued the Sorceress circled with light steps, looking among those of us which brought her here.
She came close, and I could find no flaw in her appearance.
Her dress was pale cream, stitched with threads of gold to match her pale honey hair, done up in elaborate braids. She was smaller of stature and lighter of step than the village women, with an unlined face. The intricate layers of her dress should make it a hazard to walk in, and yet she hadn't stumbled once. Her river-blue eyes met mine and I could almost fancy a spark occurred.
Then with a nod she moved gracefully on, and it was only after I noticed the man in her wake. Tall and dark, he was built as a great cat, and he stalked like one besides. I would have mistaken him for a man like Blizal if not for his rich clothing and and the massive ring that was a family crest if ever I saw one. His gaze was pointed, and I lowered my head in deference.
I looked up a moment later to find him gone, still following in the Sorceress's wake as driftwood in the current, bobbing forward every now and again to glare at the course and people ahead before settling back.
Old Jokaz stopped the music soon after, and all the village crowded in for what was to come next, myself included.
"In the beginning, the beginning of beginnings, there was no kingdom, no empire, no stronghold of Man. Man was bereft of succor, wandering lost and alone, prey to both beast and gods. And then in the East, not too far from here, the good lady appeared before Hastelan the mason and said 'Should you wish it, you shall become a king, and lead all the peoples to greatness.'”
Thus began the Cycle of Hastelan the great, founder of the kingdom, which bore his name. We had all heard it many times... but could stand to hear it many more, for it was an epic tale. The sorceress was just as enraptured, leaning forward in her chair and nodding minutely as if to say 'yes that happened' as old Jokaz described the great battles and tribulations of the gods which Hastelan and the good lady, the ancient equivalent of the Sorceress herself, endured.
The epic was a long one, but we listened spellbound as old Jokaz covered the foundation of the kingdom and the subject of more current import, the foundation of the school, the first institution where magic was learned.
As expected of old Jokaz, he finished the first part of the tale just as the sun slipped under the earth. He finally finished as the Kingdom repelled it's first human enemy, an early empire whose name was lost to the sands of time. I had not noticed the men feeding the bonfire, but they must have, for the light was still bright for all that the shadows cast were long.
It was time; the sorceress stood. “Thank you, honored elder; your storytelling was most talented.”
Old Jokaz's nod was both gracious and grave.
"And now, I'm afraid I must impose upon you all. Would the children to be tested please step forward?”
I did so, one of not quite a dozen, Garz fell in on my right side, and Zhet came to my left. Conrad the little count just beyond him. Perhaps that was Zhet's plan, though I'd not ask.
The sorceress stopped by each of us, and pressed something into our hands wordlessly. It was a seed, warm from it's stay in her palm. Once she had given the little count his, she spoke:
"We must step away from the fire. This way, if you please.”
This much we all knew. We followed as she led us to the tree line. A few steps into the trees there was only sound.
"Stop, and stay still please.”
I waited. A moment later and my sight was almost clear, so when the delicate hands of the sorceress touched my own I did not startle. She led me gently a few more steps, in front of a tree.
"Now, I want you to focus upon the seed I gave you. Imagine it, full of life, opening for you, sharing all of it's secrets with you.”
And then she was gone again.
That was it? That was the secret of the coming of age ceremony, which fathers were unable to share upon pain of death? Perhaps there was something I did not yet know?
With a sigh, I focused on the seed. Completion of the task meant a return to humanity. I opened my hand and looked. The seed looked like a simple Paka nut vine seed; whatever life it contained seemed distant. What sort of secrets could such a seed hold?
A simple inspection revealed nothing.
And yet there was something... I could sense something, beyond the lingering warmth the sorceress imparted with it. Wait, such heat should be long gone...
Light caught in the seed, a small spark matched by the phos which suddenly bloomed around me.
The sorceress was there, helping me to my feet as the phos circled us both. No, not to my feet, to the ground before the tree. “Quickly! Plant the seed!”
I shoved the seed into the soft earth before the tree with my thumb, as taught by the planters. It blossomed immediately as the phos swarmed around it, the branches twining around the tree in seconds. The growth only stopped when it reached my height, and only then did the glow fade.
The bonfire might have obscured the glow, but the phos would no doubt have been noticed by all.
The Sorceress helped me to my feet, her genuine smile easily shown in the soft light provided by the phos, still flitting to and fro. “Well done.”
We began to return, the Sorceress's hands warm upon my shoulder and back. “Now, a few things we must discuss before you re-enter your village square; you are not in any way required to join us, though of course we prefer it. Many do not, and lead happy lives without magic. Should you choose to, you will have a year to change your mind.” she stated. Her words had the weight of those often repeated.
It did not matter. There was happiness, and there was duty. Even should I never pass that tree again, the pull of the vine I caused to grow there would make itself felt. My path had been clear for a season, and this had merely been a stone placed on it.
The sorceress had continued. “Have you seen the phos before?”
My leave-taking preparations had been obvious; it seemed.
"And your decision?”
"I will go with you of course, Milady.”
"Kath Thorinsson, Milady.”
She hummed as we entered the light from the fire, a musical note almost lost amidst the noise of life, much of which ceased when she became visible. Her hands were once more at her own, folded into each other.
"Your attention, good people of Vard.”
It was meaningless to ask for attention, she already had it. She continued: “The testing is complete. Kath Thorinsson has passed, and has agreed to join the ranks of the Illuminate. Beyond the fire and to the west is the proof and covenant of this successful testing; let all who would doubt bear witness.”
The testing was complete? I saw the others to be tested already around the fire, and yet it felt as if only moments had passed since we left it. However the moon was out, high and fat in the darkened sky.
From the stories told, trees or vines that gave edible fruit were often used for the testing in poorer villages so that the people would have another source of food; some of the more outlandish tales had the plants lasting for lifetimes. In that moment, I could believe them.
The sorceress clapped her hands together. “Now, tonight is cause for celebration! Doubly so in your case; not only do the ranks of the rare swell, but this is your first successful test in generations! So, to merriment!”
She motioned to Meilan, who would not meet my eyes as she brought us both wine.
The little count glared at me from his position near the fringe of the revelry before the sorceress's male companion drew close, blocking the view.
I was up with the sun, as normal.
I rose carefully from my place, bedded down on the floor of Meilan's house. The sorceress had wished for me to stay with her at the inn, but I had begged the indulgence, and it had been granted.
Meilan stirred beside me but did not wake. It was just as well, as she needed the sleep; work would not cease for her.
Would that I had something to give her. Something to calm her, as she had been distraught last night. At least she had not broken decorum, for all that she threatened to. Her honor was intact and none could gainsay it.
I gathered my travel pack and carefully opened the door. It was as silent as a whisper, as it should be; I had greased it last night with just this in mind.
Meilan did not stir, though her mother looked up from the bed she shared with her husband. I waved, a quick gesture, and shut the door as silently as I opened it. With her awake I did not need to worry.
One table was spread with replenished finery; a feast of manageable foods designed to break fast while on the road. The Sorceress and her companions were already before it, and had already started. I despaired; their manners and demeanor were so different than mine.
"Ah, there is our sleepyhead." The gentle to the Sorceress's left said, smiling to show he meant no sting.
The Sorceress chastised him anyway. "That's quite enough of that, Baron Halith.The young apprentice is on time, it is we who are early."
"Oh hey, none of that now," the older man sitting to the Sorceress's right said. "You're an equal to us now, or as much a noble as we, for all that you are unlanded. You may incline your head to show respect, but you only bow to the king and queen."
I straightened up quickly.
"The good Count Warren is correct - we are equals here. Come and eat with us."
I closed and picked up the nearest fruit bread. It was a rare thing to have here.
"I am the Countess Phine, and you are of course young Kath. I did introduce us all last night, but I've no doubt the excitement chased our names from your head, eh?"
I thought about how best to construct my answer. "I'm afraid not, Sorceress; I remember all of your names, and indeed the names of those man-at-arms in Count Warren's service introduced to me last night. Your full name is Lirisphine, or so you said last night."
The sorceress grimaced. "Please forget that - I am not fond of that name."
I did not want to give offense, but both possible answers seemed to have their own pitfalls. "As you say, Sorceress."
"Right! Now that the introductions are out of the way - again, shall we go? daylight is burning." Baron Halith opined while stealing some sort of pastry.
the Sorceress frowned. "We are still not a complete party."
The Baron looked to me. "But then who... " His face soured quickly. "Oh, that one."
"Aye, that one," The Count ground out. "And if he does not arrive soon I'll drag him from wherever he hides. Woe to those who impede our sacred mission."
"A trifle too much doom and gloom, good Count," the Sorceress countered. "Besides, our 'sacred mission' as you call it is over, all our young chicks found, as it were."
The last was said with a smile to me, in much the same way as the Baron had with is own words earlier.
I thought to issue a verbal sally of my own. "I must admit, this seems a bit much for one village. Last year there were not half so many, and the year before."
The nobles shared a glance among themselves, before Count Warren answered. "In truth there have been rumors of unrest and banditry in the region, and the Countess here" - He paused to smile again, at the Sorceress this time - "has been ever fond of traveling with as many companions as she could field."
"Flatterer." The sorceress responded, fluttering her eyes. The Count's grin sharpened into something I would take for mocking.
The Sorceress had no time to take offense, if such were intended; the little Count, Conrad, entered the green bowed down by a pack larger than mine and sporting mail, for all that it was ill-fitting.
"Ah, and there's our prodigal. You're late, lad. Snatch a quick meal and let us be gone."
"Sorry sir." Conrad replied glumly, head bowed our direction.
"Come here, young sir," The real Count told the false one. "It is time to begin your instruction."
The spectacle was interrupted by the arrival of one Eadric, a young member of the Count's men-at-arms, leading his horse, a formidable looking beast trained for war. I gave the creature a wary eyeful, which it returned.
"My Lady Kath, may I take that for you?" he asked pointing to my bag.
I could do for myself just fine. "Why?"
Eadric stretched out a hand. "It is unseemly, my Lady. You are now one of the gentry yourself, though unlanded as yet, and a noble such as yourself should not be burdened overmuch on a long journey. As I have been assigned you for the duration of such, it would reflect poorly upon me."
I knew the rule of course; all apprentices were to be treated as such. But I had no idea it was to begin so soon.
I handed over my worldy possessions, and Eadric affixed them to his horse with some care. I felt more at ease among the common, for all that he was a soldier. "As long as you don't expect me to ride this beast myself. I know not how, and I dare say he does not like me."
Eadric laughed. "Riding lessons are surely in your future, my Lady, but perhaps not today. As for Gern here, he likes you more than most, for he has yet to try to bite you even once."
The horse showed teeth, as if to prove his master's words.
The sound of a step behind me caused me to turn; the Sorceress herself was approaching. Eadric stiffened in salute from beside me.
"That reminds me, young Kath. It is best to begin as early as possible, so with your permission, I would like the chance to teach you at least some of the lessons you may need upon the road, circumstances permitting."
What to say to that? There was nothing, so I inclined my head carefully but quickly.
"Splendid!" She all but cried, no doubt waking more than a few of those slumbering 'round us.
"Mind yourself, Countess!" Count Warren hissed in a whisper that carried itself across the green,
The Sorceress clapped her hands cross her mouth, her cheeks pink.
"Are we ready, Count Warren?"
The Count finished adjusting a buckle on the little count's armor. "We are, Countess."
"Then let us depart - before the good people of the village throw us out."
I wanted to object, we would not do such a thing! But the Count merely laughed. "Aye Countess."
A gesture had two men leading the way on horseback, and the rest formed in behind them to a double line. Eadric mounted and moved his own horse to my side.
"We shall you out on foot, my Lady. However I shall be close and at your disposal, should you need anything."
It was... as odd a thing as I expected, to be considered among the worthy.
"Thank you, sir,"
We started off at a walk and I found myself in the center, just in front of the Sorceress, and I was alone there, surrounded by a wall of horseflesh and metal. The little count was in the rear, listening intently as a man explained something to him, his face purple. Well, they both made a matching purple pair.
I wish I could hear what it was all about, but the jangle of harness and discordant notes of armored men made that impossible. It was no wonder the party needed horses after all; being burdened by so much steel must make walking difficult, at least long walks.
I wondered how I had missed so many armed men at the festival all of yesterday; they had been hidden for much of it, cycled into and out of the throng, but where had they been hidden? Were they bitter over missing the merriment at all, as several had done altogether?
The sun was high in the sky when the Count led the party from the trail to a grassy field with a stream, a place that seemed custom made for meals while on the trail. I was no closer to answers, for all that I felt I could tease the answers myself.
The Sorceress spread a blanket as one of the Count's men - Arglye I think his name was -led her horse away to the stream.
She sat and patted the cloth next to her. "Come Kath, let us eat and discuss the ways of magic."
I turned only to find Eadric already had my bag outstretched.
"Of course, Sorceress."
The Sorceress pouted. "I am beginning to think you have forgotten my name yet again, young Kath,"
"I could never, Sorceress. However, even should I be a noble, present company outranks my humble self, and I do not wish to give offense."
"Oh, but you are a flatterer," the Sorceress replied. "You will go far with such a silver tongue! However your very wish not to give offense might give it, for the proper address to one such as I is Countess, not Sorceress. Sorceress is a polite title of address to a sorceress you do not know the rank of, and is often used by the peasantry as a term of respect to all of our kind.
You however will have to be more discerning, for while I do not take offense at such, many might."
The Count Warren bulled his way amongst the grass and sat at the blanket. "She's right lass. Some consider rank to be important."
Spoken as someone who did not understand that rank was very important. Rank determined whether you ate or not, and if others ate. Rank determined if others committed a crime against you or not. Speaking of eating, I began myself, my own travel bread would do.
"Rank is important. I apologize."
The Countess waved me off. "I am not so petty as to be offended by a title. I was once as you - but far less well spoken."
"I find that hard to believe, Countess Phine."
"And there is that silver tongue again," The Countess turned to Count Warren. "We were to discuss magic workings, you may stay if you wish?"
The Count shook his head ruefully. "Such talk always makes my mind swim. I think I'll see to the young squire."
The Countess grimaced. "Try to keep the swords clashing to a minimum please, it gets hard to talk over them,"
Count Warren snorted. "There will be no sword-work today, until he learns the proper way to hold one."
And then he was gone.
"Well... shall we begin?"
Our meal was complete, it seemed. I was finished anyway.
The Countess removed a wrapped bundle from the small bag at her side, and unwrapped it to reveal... a glass ball?
A perfect sphere of glass with multiple colors shot through it and smoke trapped inside. She held the precious object out to me.
"Take this, and we will work on your first feat of conscious magic."
I took the cloth along with the ball; the Countess allowed it and that option was superior to getting my dirty prints directly on such a precious object.
"Don't be shy, Kath. Cup the ball in both hands." The Countess mimicked the pose she wished me to take, which looked much like the pose the shrine statues had been carved to take in the temple my Father had taken me to the one time we journeyed to Cohnak, many years ago.
I felt briefly sacrilegious.
"That's good Kath. Now, focus on yourself and the globe. You have color within you, and you wish to push that from yourself to the globe, to make it reflect those colors within."
I focused - and felt nothing. For a long moment, until the noise in the clearing began to grow strident with the sounds of departure.
I cracked an eye and told the Countess so, expecting her disappointment. She shrugged my failure away and pressed the globe back into my hands. "Keep it, and keep practicing. This is but a simple thing that one can do anywhere, even walking upon the road. As long as one keeps their eyes open, of course."
Eadric had already claimed my bag, so I in turn claimed the blanket, shaking it out and returning it to it's owner as free of dirt as I could manage.
She thanked me and moved off to mount her horse.
"Alright, your turn." Eadric said.
He was cupping his armored hands below the saddle of his horse. "Some find it difficult to mount, and you admitted earlier you've never ridden before."
"So the lessons begin."
"They do should you wish it." He answered.
I stepped into his hands in response; my weight proved no issue for him, and I found myself on his mount's back. Gern, for his part, looked less than impressed with these proceedings, and I was certain that only the firm hand of his master upon the reins prevented disaster.
"We shall start at a slow walk, of course. Which method of riding would you prefer to learn?"
There were multiple methods?
"Teach her side saddle, Eadric."
Eadric wore chagrin as a cloak. "Ah, but my lady Countess, that will require the second pommel and..."
The Sorceress merely looked at him.
"...Right away, my lady Countess."
A metal encased hand plumbed the depths of a saddlebag, and a form of hard leather hook was placed over the saddle. Strong hands moved me.
"In order to ride side saddle, which is all the rage at court, one simply shifts one's seat further over the backbone of the horse and places one's right leg into the second pommel here. With the left in the stirrup of course."
I was so adjusted in short order.
"There, remember that pose and keep to it as best you can... lean back a bit. Now take the reins, and give them a snap."
I did so, and the animal in question turned and gave me such a look of profound reproach I almost slid from his back.
Eadric gave the beast a gentle slap on the shoulder. "Gern behave, she's learning."
Gern shook himself and went rigid, staring straight ahead.
Eadric shook his head. "Try again, my Lady."
Another snap of the reins and Gern started forward, at a slow walk. I quickly found myself leaning so as not to fall; there was a roll I had not seen involved in riding, a hitch in the gait of the horse, and I had not anticipated such.
Eadric stayed close, ready to lift a steadying hand or grab the reins should Gern decide he preferred to run.
I clearly heard laughter from behind me as we started off, followed quickly by what could only be a blow. I dared not turn to see, but the laughter had sounded much like that of the little count Conrad.
"Don't worry about that, my Lady. Other lessons are being learned."
Should I inquire? Yes, I should. "Why does Conrad journey with us, can you say?"
"I can. His father has decided that Conrad should learn the art of war or of peace. To that end he now rides with Count Warren, one of the strongest and most wise knights of the realm. Conrad himself will determine which path to take by the time we reach the capital. An informed choice at Count Warren's able hands, to be sure."
I could almost feel for the little count; after the coming of age, the Count Vasrun decided the best use of his third son was either as a priest of the Goddess or as a man-at-arms, and so cast him out to make his own fate. Without title or land, he was no better than a well educated commoner. At least he was allowed his name, a probable safeguard on the Count Vasrun's part against war or illness.
"Don't worry about Conrad," Eadric exclaimed. "Some of us were third sons as well, or even fourth! We turned out alright."
"Do you have the gift yourself then?" I asked him.
"Heavens no, else you'd be seeing me in a dress. A dress made of mail, of course. But no, you were as glass. Anyone with an ounce of heart would be.Conrad has some hard lessons ahead of him, but he will be given the best chance under Count Warren's care."
"That is comforting," I told him - and it was.
Gern the unfriendly bucked, just a bit, and I had to return my attention lest I be dropped painfully into the dirt.
Not a single event, as it turned out. Gern had a good grasp of his surroundings for a horse; every time my attention was on anything other than him, the beast tripped on a stone, or rolled a shoulder, or pulled up suddenly, and I had to adjust myself or have a repast of road soil. Eadric was invariably studying our surroundings during such, and so saw nothing.
By late afternoon, I'd had enough. "Let me down sir, please."
Eadric looked at the sun a moment. "I guess it's about time. Can you find your own way down? Dismounting properly is important."
I swung my leg off the pommel, my other leg from the stirrup, and slid down. Gern snorted and shifted, but despite his efforts I landed upon my feet.
"Well, that is indeed one way. Perhaps not the best way, however."
"And what way would you dismount, sir?"
"Well, from that option, I would swing down as you had done, and kick out, shifting myself so I faced the horse and keeping a grip on the first pommel so the animal cannot shift away from me."
That seemed more involved than I wished to be. Eadric mounted and Gern the unfriendly gave me a stare, as if to say that all was now right with the world. If that was his thought, my backside agreed with him.
I was certain I preferred walking.
Eadric leaned down, and I was treated to the sight of Gern adjusting to the change naturally. "Do not worry - riding will be easier for you when you get your own horse and saddle, rather than relying on ones made for others."
I just nodded and picked up my feet; our little stop was in danger of lengthening our line of march, and I did not wish the responsibility for that. I'd as soon walk, however. Horses were temperamental beasts, it seemed, and too costly besides; I'd never have the gold to waste on such. So unless the crown wished to gift me one (a fanciful dream and no more) the skill to ride would wither after this journey.
I busied myself with a survey of our surroundings; we were nearing the border of the world I'd seen. By dusk we had crossed it, the small stream that marked the border of the Count's territory. We stopped on the far bank, and the Count levered himself from the saddle with a sigh that I felt I understood.
"We will camp here, upon the road. Lady Kath, are we likely to impede traffic if we do so?"
I inclined my head. "No, Count Warren. The harvest will not be ready for travel yet, and so the wagons are still a day or more away. With our animals rather than horses, the pace will also be slower. None visit us from Bithal, the next village, as they are busy same as we. We could camp here another day besides, and not impede any traffic."
Not that there was much visitation in the best of times; the lords frowned upon it, or indeed travel of any kind between their domains.
Count Warren nodded. "As to be expected. Here we are on Baron Bithal's land if by only a hair, and his hospitality and patrols both are legendary."
"Do you fear bandits, Count Warren?" I asked.
"Bandits are always a concern, Lady Kath... but most know well enough to leave the Sorceress or Apprentices alone, and indeed will move quickly in the other direction should either be spotted. Few wish to risk the direct wroth of the King. But no, bandits are not a concern for this well armed company; foreign powers have been known to... meddle, however, and a good dozen of the King's own as escort go far in preventing such mischief."
"Other kingdoms interfere with the choosing?" I could not fathom it.
"It has happened before." The Countess admitted.
"And seems to happen more of late, especially at the border towns," The Count Warren added. "However you need not fear."
You would be hard pressed to find another village closer to the border of the kingdom than Vard. The choosing rite was also well known throughout the lands, and occurred at the same date every year. I had heard that some other nations mimicked the rite in hopes that the luck showered upon us by the Goddess would divert to them in some small fashion; Hastalan boasted the most numerous and strongest school of magic in the land, such that we had stayed free for generations untold despite being invaded by others many times.
If it would happen to this party, then it would happen. The border guard was strong to protect against invasion from the Ostrok empire, so it would be difficult for them, short of a full invasion. At least, around the Count Vasrun's lands; I knew not of the others.
"Come, Lady Kath. It is time to continue your training."
The Countess had the blanket spread upon the ground again. "Shouldn't I help set up camp?"
Eadric led his horse by. "Not at all, Lady Kath. The men and I have it handled; your job is to learn, and learn quickly."
The Countess pulled an item I recognized with dread from her nearby bag. "Tell me, Lady Kath; can you read?"
"A few words only. My father did not know all the letters himself. Shouldn't I practice the concentration you showed me earlier?"
The Countess patted the blanket. "Not at all; that is something to be done on your own, whenever possible - such as when walking carefree as a bird in the midst of an armed party sent to secure your safety. For now, you learn something you must, and something which cannot be learned on one's own.
I sat; I could only be made the fool this way once.
The countess opened the book. "Now, say every word you know to me."
I woke with the Sun, stretching carefully as the light brightened enough to see. The camp was already stirring on its own. I carefully turned my head and met the gaze and impish smile of the Countess Phine. Said gaze and smile were very close.
I could not suppress my startlement, however I managed to avoid giving offense by shout or scramble.
The Countess thrust our her bottom lip. "Good morn, lady Kath."
"Good morn, Countess Lirisphine."
We were alone on a the Countess's padded blanket, accommodations that were more comfortable than the cold ground upon which it lay. Another such blanket was atop us to ward the morning chill.
I rose to find the others also greeting the dawn. Most were more surly at it however.
"Ugh, Lady Kath, how can you be awake this early?" Eadric asked with a yawn.
"I could ask you the same," I stated.
"My answer will doubtless be different than yours however, Lady Kath. For I... stood watch in the small hours to ensure that we would be safe. Therefore I did not truly wake with the dawn."
"Verily, Lady Kath shows good sense in rising early; there is much to be admired about such habits, which all peasants share," The Countess Phine stated with prim weight loading her words.
I was unaware a watch had been set.
"Is there ought I may do to help?"
Eadric gazed upon the camp. "Focus on your learning. Mundane camp chores are not the province of quality. I and the Count's men will see to things."
Speaking of the Count, he was still abed in his pallet, and judging from the soft snores, still asleep as the camp revived itself around him. I could not fathom how.
His new squire, the little count, was making the bracing morning tea favored by most in the kingdom as a common cure for minor ailments like morning malaise' I resolved to stay away from it, for he was doing a poor job of the task.
One of the soldiers gave what appeared to be a gentle kick, but the little count fell over from the impact, almost landing within the fire. "Too much mandra root, squire. You'll make the brew as a syrup."
The little count muttered something but replied "Thank you, sir."
Which drew him another rebuke, this one hissed with venom: "Quiet! Your master deserves his sleep."
The Countess Phine drew up beside me, watching. "You know, we also could have stayed abed. We were up quite late with very hard work."
I had found the learning tedious, but not difficult. There was error in such a confession however.
"I could not," was the best answer I could provide without offense.
The Countess Phine hum'd and stated: "You will learn. Some of our duties require us to be awake when all honest folk are abed. But perhaps it is too soon for such sloth. Now, can you show me how well you've learned? The ball or the book, as you please."
I chose the ball, as all her lessons promptly fled at her urging that I repeat them.
I tried to shut the world away, to feel what the Countess wanted me to feel, but I could not. I finally admitted failure when Eadric walked his demon horse to me.
"It's time to go, Lady Kath."
The Countess stood, her book in hand. "Do not worry young Kath, you will find it. I've never known one to get the calling and fail this task."
That was a comfort. "Thank you for your kind words, Countess."
"Come, Lady Kath. Today Gern and I decided you were to ride first."
Gern looked as if he came to no such conclusion.
"Come Lady Kath, I will be guiding him; he will not hurt you."
My backside said otherwise. But I climbed upon the demon's back; duty was what it was.
Eadric slung my bag again, but I kept my canteen and the globe, and in turn the globe kept my focus for some time.
I felt something. I knew not what it was, but there was something. By the time Gern stopped in the road, I was certain of it.
"Come lady Kath, it is time for the noon meal." Gern, for his part, gave a warning buck.
"Certainly." I slid from the animals back. There was a moment of clumsiness as Eadric attempted not to touch the ball still in my hand; he recovered and caught my canteen instead.
I on the other hand managed to catch myself; this time the demon beast did not move to spill me to the ground.
"That was cruel, Lady Kath." Eadric accused, levering himself to his feet.
"I am sorry Sir Eadric, but I do not understand."
I reached out to help him; he ignored the attempt.
"No, Lady Kath, I am in mail and while I am sure you are quite strong, you cannot support my weight."
He then gave me a piercing stare. "You do not know what offense you've given, do you?"
"I do not." I was forced to admit.
One of the other armsmen laughed and said: "Tis the orb in your hand, Lady. Some fear to touch the baubles of power for fear it may take what all they are very attached to. A silly superstition, I had not counted Eadric among such august ranks, but it seems I was wrong."
That made some sense; I would have refused also, before. "My apologies then, Sir Eadric. I meant no offense or ill will."
Eadric struck his helm once, sharply; it made a wonderful note. "Now, none of that. My apologies for such behavior. I grew up in a village not unlike your own, and while I have grown more wordly, the teachings of the past oft prove hard to leave there."
And then he sank to one knee in a clatter. I felt more than the sun's heat upon my face. "Please get up, Sir Eadric."
"Not until you forgive me, Lady Kath."
"You are forgiven then. Please be more courteous in the future."
Eadric looked up, his face earnest. "I shall endeavor to do so, Lady Kath."
"You may start by rising, as you are causing a delay." Indeed everyone in the party was now watching us. Some with more amusement than others.
"So it would seem," Eadric stated without remorse, rising swiftly and securing my belongings. "Up you go, Lady Kath."
I was able to get upon Gern without direct help, and seated myself to the Countess Phine's tastes.
"We should make the hamlet of Lelix later this afternoon, Lady Kath. Have you been there before?"
As a child I had passed through the town on pilgrimage with my father; I would not call it a 'hamlet.' "I have once. There was no purpose in any further visits."
"The pilgrimage then?" The Count Warren asked.
I nodded. "We are devout, my father and I."
"Good lass," The Count approved. "All should make the pilgrimage, even once."
I could not disagree, though I could count some among those I knew who had not. Perhaps my emergence and the proofs of such would bring those into the capital.
"We will not arrive, if we do not set out," The Countess Phine stated curtly from her own horse.
The Count Warrent winced. "You are correct, Countess. Let us be about leaving then. Move out!"
There was a scramble as the Count's men jumped to obey. For my part I focused on my own duty, and the ball once again in my hand.
The globe promptly changed color in response, from it's multiple colored surface to brown shot with some shades of green. It appeared as nothing more than a ball of gently moving mud.
"Pardon, Countess Phine. Is this normal? Was this what you expected?" I showed her the orb; it no longer glinted in the sunlight.
The Countess all but fell from her horse. She recovered rapidly however, and moved her horse so close Gern tried to shy. "Did you feel anything?"
"No, I did not. I simply took the globe and it changed as soon as my mind was upon it," I of a sudden was no longer willing to confess that I had felt something the night before.
"Well the colors are good, they are very good," The countess exclaimed. "Do you know what they mean?"
I simply looked at her. How was I to know that? I hadn't even known the colors could change. Hadn't I been attempting to summon light from within it?
"Ah. Well, the colors correspond to the type of power used; and in this case they would suggest what type of power you is most natural to you. It has attuned itself to you, and far more quickly than I thought possible."
So... that was good, right? "And what are the ramifications of this?"
The Countess promptly pulled away. "Ah... I do not wish to taint your understanding, so it is best I say nothing in regards to such. However I can say that nothing bad can come of this. By all means, please continue; try to change the color or use the bauble to create light, if you can. Focus on the feeling you have for such."
A simple thought caused the stone to change to gray, and the Countess Phine's breath caught. I felt the sensation as light spilled forth... for a moment. Then it grew dark and as mud again.
"Ah, do not pout my dear Lady Kath; you are learning quite quickly," the Countess replied to my sigh, before holding out her book. "I think we shall switch to reading, as it will be far more useful than you suspect very soon."
I took it. "As you say."
"Now if you will read aloud please, from the start."
I did so, with the Countess correcting my errors. At least once I heard laughter at my failure of understanding, from the back of our line, followed by the sound of a body hitting the ground.
Some time later and many pages in the light faded, just as the 'hamlet' of Lelix.
It was far larger than I remembered; with a palisade and what must be fifty homes or more. The main road was raised above the mud, and made of split logs with no sign of rot. The people out and about, hurrying to some errand or another were more richly dressed than most commoners I had seen and bore an important air.
There was bunting placed upon the palisade, and festive decorations lining the homes and places of work. The Blacksmith, a large man with a fearful demeanor, had almost buried his smithy under such. His face cracked into a smile as I walked by. All moved aside and watched us pass, and many fell in behind us as we passed.
We stopped at the green before the inn, before some richly dressed older folk sporting wide smiles. The one who stepped forward was and older man, just beginning to gray and wrinkle. He was dressed in multi-hued garments, both shirt and hose, and wore gleaming black boots.
"Welcome back Countess, Count. I see that your mission was a success. While it grieves me that our humble town could not provide you with our own, it pleases me to know you need not return empty handed.
"I've no doubt of the sincerity of your words and that of your people, good mayor. You have always provided for us, and will do so again. But for now, let the festivities commence at your earliest convenience."
Festivities? What festivities were these? The selection was already over. Eadric standing beside me, saw my confusion and whispered: "In the rest of the kingdom, the selection festival continues until the newly discovered sorceresses return to the capital. So while your village only celebrates a day, others can celebrate for many."
But that would mean for some the gaiety could last a tenday or even more!
"And who might our new champion of the realm be? I must admit I do not recognize the face."
The mayor's stare was piercing, and his hands were slathered in grease.
I hesitated, and the Countess answered for me. "This is young Kath Thorinson, from Vard."
"Of course, how does the day find you, young Lady Kath?" The smile on the man strained around my name.
His bow was genuine. "I am pleased to meet you, Mayor..."
"Rett." The Countess whispered.
"...Rett." I finished as smoothly as possible.
The mayor politely ignored the fiction. His bows to the Countess Phine and Count Warren were deeper, of course. And in at least one occasion completely ignored.
"I'll take your innkeeper's best rooms, Mayor. Please see to the feast arrangements as well."
Thus ordered directly, even a worthy like the mayor could not refuse. "I'll see to it, Count Warren."
His seeing to it consisted of hurried whispers to the other villagers behind him. They moved with alacrity, and soon we had chairs, heavy ornate things, placed to our rear on an raised platform pieced together from close fitting smaller parts. There were three chairs in the center, with several others left to the slightly lower sides of the arrangement.
The Countess guided me to her left while Count Warren took her right; Eadric sat to my left and put on a stern visage, all but glaring at those scurrying about, and Halith took Count Warren's right, his alert gaze passing over those on that side of the green and beyond.
The mayor slid past and into a chair under Halith's gaze with a woman who could be the village wise woman... or his wife; I could not be sure.
On the other side of Eadric, the blacksmith sat, still ruddy from the forge. He ducked his head in deference as my gaze met his. It was only a hiss from Eadric that stopped my instinctive but incorrect response. The smith was much larger than expected at this distance.
At least the good smith did not look uneasy in my presence.
A moment later another man sat next to the smith, clapping him on the shoulder as he passed by. He was a young man but tanned and lined, and dressed in forest green. He had a large knife at his belt and no other weapons, but he walked with the easy grace that I'd learned marked a warrior. From the way Eadric sized him and the way he ignored it, a skilled warrior.
Or perhaps an arrogant one.
"Good day, Lady. I hope you enjoy the hospitality of Lelix, and remember us fondly upon the end of your journey."
"I am certain that I will, Sir. I am Kath Thorinson, may I ask who you are, to offer such well wishes?"
I must not have tripped over myself overmuch there, as neither Eadric or Countess Phine attempted to correct my speech.
"Ah, how rude of me Lady Thorinson, my apologies. I am Alif, a craftsman of this town. I have a pottery kiln, know my way around both ax and adze, and manage a shop. In my spare time, I have been known to seek out game at our lord's pleasure."
He left out a significant part of his past, I felt sure.
"And I am Xil the smith," The smith stated after a pause. "If you would like any metal work done, I would be happy to provide, free of charge."
I looked to the large man's ruddy face and knew I could not trouble him so. "Thank you good smith, but my needs are quite small and have been met for the moment. Should that change, I will of course come to you. Alif, you mentioned work as a woodcutter; do you perhaps know my father, Donja?"
"Ah, as I thought. I do indeed know your father, Lady Thorinson. In truth many here do, if only by reputation alone."
That sounded ominous. "Do you know him by reputation alone, sir?"
Alif sat back with a small smile. "I do not. I have in fact met your father - he provided some advice on how to best work wood which even now I have engraved upon my heart. He helped me more than he knew on his way to settle in Vard, with a tiny bundle that could only be you strapped to his back. We met a few times since then to discuss business matters."
"I have met the man as well," Xil the smith said. "But only the once. He seemed a fine one to me."
Should I, or should I not. I decided not, as I had no memory of this man. I would find another way, and failing that, the mail service in the kingdom had a long and storied history of being most reliable in their treatment of parcels.
The tables were placed in front of us by men of the village without a word; men who were less brilliantly dressed than those which greeted us. Men who left as soon as it was possible to do so without giving offense or stirring the alarm. They returned with tables for themselves, a sight I was relieved to see.
Women with much the same demeanor came after, laying out large crockware plates upon which heaps of food sat; it was a wonder none of the elegantly painted finery broke under the strain.
Conrad appeared, loaded with crockery himself, and placed plates and silverware before us, with myself first. He averted his gaze from my own and said not a word. Eadric on the other hand, had much to say:
"That's a good lad, Conrad. Bring us all some wine, will you?"
I looked to the center table, they already had plates and cups themselves, and were discussing some heated matter among themselves; the mayor seemed hesitant to add is opinion. I could not hear more than the occasional word myself due to the angle of certain heads and the noises of revelry.
Conrad left, but his grumbling as he departed I heard well enough. Eadric ignored it however, so I did as well.
The generalities of the situation made me uneasy, however. "Shouldn't Squire Conrad be serving his master?"
"Of course," Eadric replied. "And he will. But infortunately there are a shortage of quality willing to serve at table, and as young Conrad needs to practice, the duty to serve us all is his alone tonight."
"I see." That did not bode well for someone, Conrad had a vile temper. But he could not act upon such impulses among present company for obvious reasons. That would have to be check enough.
Conrad soon returned with large jacks filled with honey-mead and plates of meats, cheeses and fruits. The meat was a still steaming cut of succulent diffyr mixed with paka, with not a fish to be seen. The cheese was cawa, a sharp aged cheese which I had only seen twice before. The fruit was a much more local apa; expensive but easily found.
"I apologize, it seems our hosts are out of wine, the best I could uncover was a honey mead from the local distillery set for shipment to the capital."
Eadric scowled at him, but winked as Conrad bowed his head. "It will have to do, I suppose. How say you, Lady?"
I had never had honey mead before; the jack before me contained a month of my father's wages. "Truthfully I have no knowledge of the vintage."
Conrad made a noise that could have been a cough. Eadric ignored it, so I did as well. "You are in for a treat then, Lady. The honey makes the drought smooth, even at lower temperatures; there is no bitterness at all."
It was true, but the brew was potent. More potent than anything in my experience, though the extent was yet to be determined. I resolved to let my father's example guide me and stay at one jack lest I be useless tomorrow. The diffyr was roasted to perfection and rubbed with herbs to bring out flavor. Chasing bite of the meat down with a slice of apa proved a wonderful experience, which was made more favorable when the cawa was added.
Using the knife and fork kept the lior's share of the mess from ones hands and lips. I would have wished for a slice of bread to sop up the juices, but a glance told me none other at table was doing such, and I had no wish to trouble Conrad with a personal request; he was among us to serve, refilling jacks and fetching dishes as asked, but his face was thunderous.
I was beginning to doubt his face could be anything else, as he had run out of children to torment.
Perhaps that was uncharitable of me. I should strive to better illuminate.
The Mayor cleared his throat. "So, Lady Thorinson, if I may ask without presuming overmuch, why did you decide to join the order?"
"Duty," I answered immediately. Conrad snorted from his corner and Count Warren leveled him a heavy glare.
"Well spoken," The Mayor responded. "We have had a marked shortage of those willing to sacrifice for the kingdom lately. Why, a few short years ago, a man from this very village was selected, and he elected not to answer the call! Can you imagine?"
The Mayor himself looked foreign to sacrifice. "No sir, I cannot."
"Now good Mayor, a man's choice regarding selection is just that; his choice. The reasons of each potential candidate to accept or deny their calling are their own, and to be respected. The kingdom has yet to fall so far as to adopt the policies of the empire."
The mayor paled while I tried to cast about for signs of shame. I found none.
"Countess, I never meant to imply such!" The mayor protested in a scandalized voice that rang genuine to my ears. "I merely sought greater understanding into the motivation of today's youth."
"Then I hope I have provided the insight you sought," I interjected.
"Indeed you have, Lady Thorinson. May you be blessed for such a ready response." The mayor graciously stated before involving himself in his meal once again.
Countess Phine squeezed my thigh gently and gave a smile before following suit.
"So... Thorinson, eh?" The Xil the smith probed.
"Indeed sir, I am of the line of Thorin, as my father before me." My ancestors were in many of the tales of the kingdom's early years - a time of mighty deeds and wonders long past.
"To your health then, lass. An honorable line, and one I am glad to see still survives." The smith raised his jack and I did likewise. We drank to the survival and death of a line.
"Good health, and long life, Lady Thorinson." Alif said, and we drank to that as well. Afterward, the conversation turned to more personally pleasant topics.
Dawn broke. I woke to find myself surrounded by bodies. The bodies were not those of my fellow revelers, but instead of two young ladies no doubt in their finest dresses who were to tend my needs during my stay in this, the second best room the town could offer me, that of the chief's himself.
Both had taken a spot upon the large bed at my insistence, and were currently at better ease than I. My head fairly swam under heady scents and the remains of the wine from the night before.
A perfect time to practice with the orb, truth told.
I hid it under the thick blankets which no one should have on any bed in the middle of the harvest season, no matter how soft it was or cool the room stood in the evenings. A matter with which I disagreed with my host.
It proved as hard as expected to merge my thoughts into a whole and send them into the ball, but I managed briefly before a gentle knock came upon the door.
"Lady Kath, are you awake?" Eadric whispered to me from beyond.
"I am," I stated, placing the ball back upon the nightstand I had retrieved it from as the ladies woke with assorted murmurs. "The door is not locked."
First one then the other girl snapped to, faces aflame.
"Sorry, I cannot enter Lady Kath, unless you are in distress. It would not be decent." Eadric said. "You are not in distress, are you Lady Kath?"
I eyed the two girls. They kept their gaze firmly ahead and above me. "No Eadric, I am not."
"Right then. The morning meal is ready downstairs. I shall see you below at your pleasure."
I wondered how long Eadric had been outside, and if he had heard me stirring. The door was a solid one, and I certainly had heard none pass in the night.
"Lady Kath, do you require us for anything?" Hissa, the more forward of the girls asked. She had offered to launder my garments last night, to our mutual chagrin.
"No, thank you, you may both leave."
They curtseyed and all but fled, duty well done with none the wiser. After all, I would say nothing.
I began packing as the door shut, taking care to check each item. I missed nothing of my own. In fact, there was the addition of a two charms, both sprigs of Hilas, for fortune under change. From the scent, both were fresh.
The door creaked as I opened it; no one was waiting beyond the portal. I shrugged my pack on and tested the stairs. They were more solid than last night.
My companions were in the common room, at table with the mayor and village worthies, and kitchen staff comprised of older women serving them.
All conversation ceased as I appeared. "I apologize for interrupting."
"Not at all, Lady Kath," Countess Lirisphine responded. "Please join us. We were just discussing the state of the roads ahead."
"Yes, I was just saying the road should be clear and packed hard, as the last rain was a week ago," the man Alif stated with authority.
Something we already knew. That anyone with sense already knew. "That is good. It should be a boon to harvest trade."
"Indeed, indeed," The mayor repeated, nodding.
I met the gazes of my company and shrugged. If they wanted me to know, then they would discuss it. The Countess and Eadric both wasted no time looking elsewhere, but Count Warren nodded slightly.
Halith brushed past me. "The horses are ready, Countess."
"Right, thank you Halith."
I wasted no more time, sitting in the nearest vacant seat. The good women of Lelix wasted no time either, filling a plate heaping with bread and gravy, and fresh aspertus and setting the feast before me.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry, but there is no way in all the heavens I can eat all of this."
The kind server smiled. "Do the best you can, Lady Kath. The remainder shall in no way go to waste.
That did little to ease my mind, but I refrained from stating as much, preferring to match action to words.
Aspertus fresh from someone's garden; it had been some time since I'd had such.
The talk was about small, safe matters such as the weather and the exact numbers of the harvest. I paid careful attention nonetheless, even as I stayed silent and filled my belly.
I did do admirable work of the plate before me, though a distressing amount remained. I did not let the Aspertus waste at the least.
Halith moved his chair near. "Lady Kath, what troubles you?"
"Is it obvious?" It must be so.
"A little. Come and walk with me, if you are finished."
The air outside was fresh and smelled of a blend of freshly gathered crops, and the morning sun was bright. Halith struck out for the green and I followed.
The green was empty but still bore the scars and trappings of the night before. I was at least grateful to see none had spent their evening in the dew, or had at least moved on to healthier climes upon waking.
Halith scanned the space as I had and finding it to his liking, he turned to me. "Now Lady Kath, please won't you tell me what troubles you?"
"All this. These people have given of their food and of themselves to me. I ate a meal which might have served on of the field hands in better stead, and spent my first night in a bed surrounded by girls who seemed petrified that I would take offense at some slight." I did not know how to explain. How could I explain to one born of wealth?
"Ah," Halith replied, sinking to a knee. "I thought it might be that."
He sighed and looked me in the eye. "I mean no offense, but I will make a wager; you have always given of yourself freely and without hesitation."
Thinking back, I could not refute him.
He saw it, and nodded to himself. "I thought so. Lady Kath, in harvest seasons past, was it not your pride to give as you were able to the sorceresses who visited? Was it not your villages pride? A noble must accept the well wishes and gifts of the peasantry, not with dark emotion but with grace. It is a peasant's pride to take care of one who sacrifices their very lives for the kingdom on their behalf. Carrying the hope and will of the kingdom is your lot now."
"I know all that... but the knowledge makes none of this easier. I can do for myself. I am used to doing for myself. It seems a waste."
"Only time will tell if that is true," Halith replied soberly. "If you do well, then none of the sacrifice great or small which came before nor any sacrifice in the future will be wasted."
I admired Halith's honesty, even as I cursed the blunt speech for the yoke it settled on my shoulders.
Halith tousled my hair. "That's a good lass - you're thinking. Come, let us rejoin the others and help harry them to the road. I know Count Warren will wish to tarry for the wine is most potent."
He stood and I followed as he headed back to the inn, my thoughts falling upon the wine. It had been most useful in loosening tongues, my own included. Count Warren had proven quite the bard under it's influence, recounting battles and glories past.
"Now let us speak of happier subjects. How go your studies? I have been too busy scouting of late to see the fair Countess instruct you."
"You have missed little, sir. Aside from my fumbling at letters."
Halith turned to me and leaned down again, whispering. "Truly, letters are instruments of confuddlement. I myself can only just decipher many of them, and my own scribblings will never be deemed prose of the ages. Should you manage as much after a season, you may be deemed one of the most brilliant minds in the kingdom!"
"You are a base flatterer sir, and I am inclined to dismiss every word you utter." I whispered back.
"Only half," He replied in his normal tone. "Deciding which half to trust will stand you in good stead for the games ahead."
"Oh Halith, don't say such things, you'll frighten her away." A voice from beyond the opening inn door scolded; the Countess emerged with an austere gait and expression at odds with her warm smile.
I stepped aside as first she then my other companions emerged. Eadric came nearly last, with both his and my bag of belongings slung over his shoulders. He stopped and motioned me to step in line as a sullen Conrad exited the inn at our rear.
I made sure to step in front of Eadric; judging from the hay on his fine clothes Conrad had spent the night not in a bed, but a hayloft. A nice warm place to while away a night to be sure, but it seemed the good squire had not been impressed.
"Unfortunately, the good folk of Lelix had no spare horse or even donkey for us to borrow or buy."
"My feet weep at the missed opportunity," I informed him primly.
"Hah! Well said. You'll just have to continue to grace Gern with your bottom."
"My bottom prefers my feet," I informed him, sliding to the side and removing my knife from it's pouch in my pack. I could use it for fine detail, and I was - had been a fair piece from learning all my father knew of such subjects.
I very much felt the need to practice such skills today; my letters and orb could wait.
"Well in deference to your bottom I'll take the first shift with the mighty Gern. What is that you have there?"
"A knife used for work in Carpentry."
"Looks just like any other." Eadric commented idly as I bent down and scooped an errant branch up. It was Whil and promised a fair bit of stretch, likely from that tree over past the stable. How had it gotten here?
"It is, I suppose. The difference lies mainly within the mind." I pruned the branch down until I had a manageable length.
"Right. Are you able do such things while you walk?" Eadric asked.
My look was to be scathing, but Eadric seemed to dismiss it. "I am the child of a carpenter, sir, and almost full grown. I will not injure myself in the attempt."
"Ah, but will not the branch be injured?" Eadric countered.
I shrugged. "That remains to be seen of course; I am not the artist my father is."
Conrad snorted loudly.
"I look forward to your efforts then." Eadric answered, sending a black look behind us.
Conrad kept silent.
We reached the stable; I stayed back as the party moved to their animals, checking girths and hooves and uttering gentle words to the creatures. There was little I could add to such activity. I did pay some attention however; I knew so little of how to deal with beasts of burden that any information was both welcome and useful.
The knowledge of the morning seemed to be that bribes seemed to be most effective, and that horses did like sweets. Perhaps I should ask the Countess how her mount was of a normal size.
Under my other efforts, a form began to take shape; with that form came an idea, and I nurtured both unwatched, as was best.
Soon we were all out and upon the road between an honor guard of the good citizens of Lelix, amid cheers and well wishes.
I modeled my behavior from the Countess, who gazed straight ahead with a smile and every so often exclaimed gracious thanks.
The village soon passed behind and the people there returned to their every day.
The road was ours alone; no carts or wagons were yet loaded with the harvest. They would likely join us later today, taking the excess harvest to market and paying their yearly taxes.
The next hub of civilization along the road was a town larger still - Forsworth. Named after an old knight in the early days of the kingdom, it was an old border town with centuries of history. It was also a walled city, and a center of trade thanks to every road save the one we were traveling down.
It was also two days of fast travel from Lelix, or many days at the pace of a cart. I looked forward to the scenery.
"Alright, your turn Lady Kath."
I looked up from my wooden focus and found hours had passed; had I kept pace or had they? No matter.
Eadric stood before me, his hands steepled, with Gern behind him showing teeth in the promise of pain. With a sigh I mounted, trying to spare Eadric as much of the road dust my shoes had gathered as possible.
He dusted off my failure and pointed to my project. "You might have to stop for now."
I brandished the knife in clear warning at the beast balefully staring back at me. "I will not. If Gern decides to frisk as he did yesterday, this knife might slip, however, and find itself a new home in a very tender place."
It wasn't a very big knife after all, and would cause no lasting damage. Gern rolled his eyes, showing the whites, and turned, starting off at a gentle pace that barely rolled at all.
"It seems you've had a breakthrough in human/animal relations, Lady Kath, though not one I'm sure I appreciate."
"Relax, Sir Eadric. Gern is not in any danger," It would be a poor repayment of the knight for all his service to harm his trusty steed, after all. "But clearly the animal takes me for a fool. I observe as well as any other, and he walks differently with you upon his back."
"That is true enough. He also understands the nuanced language of violence."
"So all he wanted was the threat itself?" Clearly I would need to ponder my long held beliefs on the intelligence of animals.
Eadric shrugged theatrically. "Who can say? I know not the mind of beasts. That would make me a sorceress after all."
"I know them not either." I protested.
"It seems so, yet there are some sorceresses that know all of the animal kingdom, and indeed know the bears and wolves of the kingdom by their first names," Eadric claimed.
I had never heard of such, and I told him so.
"Ah but you have - for all the kingdom has heard the tale of Tamer Miriam."
"Oh? But the stories told don't state she was a sorceress." At the very least, none I'd heard had.
"Correct, but her very own journal does. It is a rare trait among your kind is all, and not well reported upon. Perhaps you'll be the next one, eh? Tamer of beasts and defender of the kingdom?"
"I am sure that such is not the case."
My hands almost fumbled flipping the block of wood, now recognizably a figure of a sort, over.
Eadric crowded closer. "Oh, I recognize it now. You are more talented than you intimated."
As he smiled an arrow bloomed in his chest with a hiss, as if conjured there. Around me others fell, and a horse screamed and reared.
Eadric's voice was pained but shockingly loud. "Gern, get to safety! Lady Kath, hang on!"
Gern spared not a single glance for his master, but lowered his head and bulled forward; it was all i could do to lower myself and grasp his neck for dear life.
Arrows flew all around me, but none ventured close. The air filled with screams and curses, the scent of blood and something else. It all passed rapidly behind me as I tried not to break my head open upon rock or low branch. Gern seemed to have no idea where he was to go, weaving from side to side and even off the road between strides.
"Stop you fool beast! We need to go back and help your master," Of course Gern did not; if anything, he sped up. Perhaps that was for the best; I had little idea what I could do to help in what was clearly an attack. I did not know how to use a sword, and what little I knew of mending wounds would be useless.
Still the fool beast would break his leg and kill us both as this speed.
Horses thundered behind me. Had my party followed our example, despite how few had been mounted? I risked twisting for a glance.
No, they had not. The horses behind me were fresh and bore men I did not recognize. Six in all, whip thin and dressed in black garments of an unfamiliar cut, they rode their steeds with enviable grace while hunched almost as low as myself. Each had a bow and a sword visible, though their quivers were nearly empty. The bows stayed slung.
As calmly as I could I whispered in Gern's ear. "They are not friendly, and they are gaining."
Gern's ears flicked into my face and his speed doubled as he abandoned his meandering. The other riders soon lost ground. Even then, no arrows flew.
But as long as we were on the road, those riders would be able to find us. I had no idea how fresh those mounts were, but I was willing to bet they were rested, and though my weight was slight, that vision I'd stolen whispered to me of confident speed.
I was not the one in charge of the situation, however. The reins might as well have been woven of gossamer for all the impact they had.
No sooner had I given up all hope when Gern changed direction again, this time into a streambed. He slowed at least, and I risked a look behind us. I saw no evidence of our pursuit. I also saw little evidence in our change of course, dissolving even now under the rapid onrush of clean water.
Gern shook and slowed again, picking his steps carefully. I was finally able to sit up, but found my fingers still firmly entangled in handfuls of mane. Such might have been why my use of the reins was less effective than desired, though Gern had in fact turned the direction I had been pulling... of course I had also been pulling at his hair as well.
Gern cast is ears back and I did the same, listening for the noise of pursuit. But what to do? A simple turn right would lead us back into the woodlands towards friends, but Gern would be unable to run there and should we meet more of the enemy I did not favor our chances. However, each step in another direction brought us further into the unknown, and there was little doubt that if they had not assumed the correct path, the riders in black soon would. There was some space to run along the beach that seemed less treacherous, however the trail would be clear. Away from the stream led to the city, but would I be safe there, where none knew me?
What could I do?
In the end, the choice was clear. I would be expected on the road, for obvious reasons. Perhaps I could use that.
I tried to turn Gern toward the city, and he went readily enough. At least until I led him to a stretch of rock beyond the beach and slid down onto it with my belongings. He stared t me balefully.
"This is where you and I part ways, beast," I told him, and pointed. "That direction. Go."
Gern showed his teeth and waited.
"Now is not the time for this. Your master wished you to protect me, and this is the way to achieve that. Now go."
I stepped back out of range and slapped him on his rump. He snorted and took flight, heading in the proper direction; the noise seemed that of several horses his size. I rapidly picked my away across the stones, back to the beach and into the stream.
With good fortune, the riders would not realize Gern was alone until miles away, and I would be free to rejoin my companions.
A dead branch from the treeline beyond the beach was the perfect tool to erase my wet prints from the sand. It was far from ideal, but it should hold to casual inspection, if the riders came downstream this far.
I was not quite finished when the sounds of pursuit sent me scuttling into the treeline. It grew close and then further away; it seems I needn't have worried after all.
I crept into the gloom, my largest knife in hand; I held no illusions about my ability to protect myself, but I refused to simply surrender if found. The forest was silent, and this far from the site of the attack such silence was not natural.
I strained, but could hear nothing save the wind and myself. Would that I knew how to float. As it was, my only choice was to crackle along as silent as possible. I was certain I made no more noise than a rampaging Draffitz.
The commune with nature was silent and overall, dreadfully boring. I pondered rejoining the road for the sake of speed, but banished the thought. After all, I was as likely to find my pursuit as my party.
But if memory served, this side of the forest was the origin of our ambush, so I must needs be most careful, even if it were unlikely the attackers were still lingering there. Unless I was much mistaken in their goal.
The trees seemed to sway in a breeze only they felt.
A time later my fortunes changed; I found a diffyr trail aimed the proper direction and was able to abandon stealth for speed. The ability for a peasant to run pell-mell in a forest was a useful skill in our village for a host of reasons. Those among us accounted the best at the skill could do it with little noise, given a trail.
I halted when I heard voices,
"Come on, you black bastards! I'll feed your livers to the crows!" A pained voice I recognized.
From just to my front came a voice I did not recognize. One which was much closer to a whisper than a shout.
"He's still bleeding out; another hour is all he has left to yell, I reckon."
Another voice, this one a whisper ny ears strained to gather. "Shut up, you imbesel. All we need to do is pin them down, which we cannot do if you give our position away. Or how many we are."
This was punctuated by the sound of a longbow loosing an arrow.
The pained shout came instantly. "You missed, whoreson!"
The shouting masked any sounds of my approach.
The armed men were down to pair, it seemed. Both in black, their faces hidden behind veils. Both were close, facing the road, and had bows of unfamiliar construction. There were many arrows between them, and both were loosing at targets I was unable to see at a great speed. To give the illusion of more archers, I supposed.
They certainly weren't wasting any time aiming, a tactic I was grateful for.
Now, how could I do that which I must do? My only weapon was my knife, and it was more suited for carving wood than flesh. What could one such as I do? I had no warrior's training.
I had a spare shirt, and the veils they used gave me a plan.
I timed my movement to the shouts, and took note of them; Eadric knew slurs which would cause a wagoner to blush. While I crept, I removed my shirt and knotted it.
When the far right bowman stood to release, I was ready. His veil was sheer, my shirt was not, and knotted as it was, it went around his entire head easily. I drew it tight, and almost fell as he flailed with a yell. I could ill afford the loss of seconds.
"Vill, help! I can't see!"
The other bowman was already turning, I dashed, but his rough hand closed around my arm like a trap and I was pulled from my feet. His other hand went to his knife, steel much larger than my own, and I thrashed.
"Mar, I got..."
Mar didn't hesitate to hear what Vil had, instead stabbing his own knife at the source of the noise. I was that source, however Vil was between the two of us. Blood flowed from the man's mouth as Mar tore the dagger from his back. He managed to free his face from my shirt in the same moment. Vil's grip relaxed, and I wasted no more time.
Mar managed that much before an arrow took him in the throat.
I stumbled out to the road; Eadric was under cover behind a tree, covered in blood with an arrow in his shoulder. He held his sword ready in his left, but lowered it when our eyes met.
"Lady Kath? What are you doing here?"
I rushed to him. There had to be more hidden men than those two. I took note of Halith, a wound in his side, turning to face the other side of the forest with an arrow already set to his bow's string.
"Gern was good enough to draw off my pursuers with a little convincing, and so I was able to circle around."
Eadric stumbled and fell upon his back. "Well, that was quite foolhardy, as decisions go. Gern is quick as the wind, and you could have made the city easily."
At least half the party was here upon the road, in various stages of injury - and death. There were no further arrows falling among us however, though all were taking cover behind regrettably dead horses or shields. I did not need to worry about suddenly sporting such an accessory; if any of our attackers remained, I would be recognized.
"And then what?" I asked him. "No, do not move, you are injured. How would I explain who I am, and my purpose alone, before being taken?"
"No, leave the arrow in, Lady Kath. Simply bandage around it. Quickly now, I believe Halith also needs such attention. And I must admit you raise a valid concern."
"It seems as if everyone might need attention of a sort." I scoffed. It wasn't as if anyone else would be overlooked should they break cover.
I did not see Count Warren, nor the Countess, and my inner tally revealed a hand of men also missing.
"Where is the Count and Countess?"
Eadric raised his arm and pointed forward. "They broke the seige and went looking for you. Our friends out there also split, some before to chase you, and some after to harry them. Do not worry, Sorceress or not, the Countess will not be easily beaten."
I missed a crucial piece of the riddle earlier, it seemed. "The enemy had a sorceress?"
"Aye, she attacked after you we saw you safely away. It was her who overcame Halith there. Speaking of, if you can you should see to him."
I knotted my bandage. "I shall now, you rest here and keep your eyes on the trees. Shout vulgarities should you see the enemy."
Eadric winced. "You heard that, did you?"
"The many curses masked my approach."
"There is no need to inform the gentry of such, should you wish to tell the tale of your harrowing escape - is there?"
His pleading tone gave me pause. I was unsure how to answer, and so did not.
Halith was well beyond my meager bandage talents, lying at pained ease in the middle of the road, his guts beginning to spill from his trunk. I gave up the last of my now mutilated shirt to the cause; The man watched me work in silence, his eyes sharp and fingers clenched around his creaking bow.
One of the Count's soldiers stood, shield at the ready. "I think they're gone. Even wounded as we are, they can't leave cover to come at us, and their main group won't know Lady Kath is here unless they send a messenger. They wouldn't have enough to stand against us."
No arrow came for him, so perhaps he was right.
Slowly, others rose up and started tending to each other, even as a man I distantly knew to be Halith's own gently moved me aside in order to tend his lord in silence.
The soldiers all knew more of medicine than I, so I mad myself useful collecting weapons and other belongings.
"So, now what do we do? We have men too wounded to move, most of our horses are dead, and we need to reunite with the Countess. Any ideas?" One said; he had the mark of an officer on his shoulder, and other turned when he spoke.
"We could set one of our signals." One man said while bandaging his friend.
Fighting was bound to make one thirsty. I began with my own skin, and offered it to Eadric. He lifted enough to drink from it greedily, spilling much of it on himself.
"That signal will bring the others back as well; should the risk be taken?"
"The alternative is to wait for their messengers to inform them of Lady Kath's return."
"Which would bring only enemies on our heads. Fine, set the signal if you have it."
"Draz had it, Jenly, and he's dead. But I have his bag." The man held a bag up.
"And since the signal didn't go off, it's still intact enough to use," The newly named Jenly added. "Go to it, then."
"Yes, sir." The first man drawled, and dumped the bag upon the roadside. From the belongings he drew a sphere, much like the one given my and in my possession, but instead holding the yellow and red of fire within.
This, he turned and threw; there was indeed fire trapped within, and it flew into the sky as a streak of light, one that was not swift to die.
"The rest of you, barricades! We must make we're prepared, iffin the wrong friends come back."
Boxes, bags, and even corpses were soon being lifted.
A quick shake and I was back to my own self appointed task.Many of the things done, I had not the skills for. But giving water was something anyone could do.
Conrad as among those wounded, his weaker arm hanging limp with an arrow hole through it; someone had already tended and bandaged it. His eyes were glazed but he responded, so after I saw to his thirst, I moved on.
I soon finished, as most of those able tended their own needs. "Does anyone need assistance?"
"No, Lady Kath. Please see to your own safety." was my response, murmured from many mouths.
Jenly did not look to me directly. "Dirst, Crox, Sirus. Shields on, and take points around the lady. Let no arrow or sorcery through, on your life."
I was swiftly surrounded by the three men, one of whom had been the one to shatter the fire orb; it was good to put a name to the face. All three men were very large and undoubtedly strong.
I felt uneasy. Was my life worth so much?
"Should we not instead do something else?" Another man I did not know asked, as he bandaged a leg. "If we dressed Lady Kath as one of us, would not our enemies hesitate to ttck us from a distance as before? Up close, we could smash them."
Such a thing might work. I would be willing.
Jenly turned red and stomped to the man. "We will not do that. It would endanger Lady Kath's life, and far better we all die. Remember your honor, Forens."
Jenly turned back to the other men, his voice still soft. "All who are fit, take what bows we have and hide yourselves among the treeline. Should another ambush like the first be tried I want the enemy to run directly into death. If you see them, remember your signal arrows."
Seven men grabbed bow and quiver; I watched them vanish into the tree line. We would be less easy a mark than we appeared, if all went well.
From farther up the road there came a distant sound; I knew not what it was. The closest I could come was a mudslide or tree collapse, but it was far too distant for that.
"What was that noise?"
"A sorceress casting a spell of massive destruction. That or two sorceresses fighting." Dirst informed me, his words clipped and eyes alert.
"The enemy had a sorceress of their own?" Was the Countess able to overcome another? Was a duel among sorceresses normal? None of those around me seemed surprised to hear such news. Perhaps the calling was not as rare as I had thought.
There was another noise, similar to the first. I could also detect smoke rising in the distance, as from bonfires.
The tense wait was not a long one.
"Truce, truce, tis us, good men of Hastalan! The Countess rides behind, stay your hands!"
The man riding at a gallop was another I recognized, one of Halith's men. He pulled up with clear surprise.
"Huh. I expected to be full of shafts by now."
"The archer's have been settled," Jenly explained.
"So I see," The man replied. I remembered him now, Virn. His eyes met mine. "I see our prodigal returned to the fold. I would pay to hear that tale."
"Oh Virn? What it worth to you, perchance? I know the tale entire." Eadric admitted with an easy if pained grin.
"A silver, should the tale be good. But that is to be settled later." The others were drawing up, the Count in the lead.
I gathered my courage. "And what of the other sorceress?"
The Countess heard, and answered. "Dealt with. There will be no further attacks. How is Halith?"
Eadric approached, his face grave. "He took another wound after you too up pursuit. He is... not well."
"I see." The Countess dismounted without haste. I shall see what I may do. Please excuse me, Count."
I thought it best not to intrude, even in the face of my many questions. My shields had moved away slightly, but were still wary, and their shields were still raised. They must be heavy, yet there were no complaints.
The Count dismounted heavily and led his fearsome beast to us. "Lady Kath, good to see you looking well. I feared the worst."
Best to get this done. "Eadric's quick thinking saved me from the worst, I think. I know I should not have, but I came back to return the debt."
The Count laughed; it felt out of place, for all it seemed from the heart. "Aye, and that should be an interesting tale to tell, if dangerous. You should not have risked yourself, as you no doubt know."
The Count winked and whispered loudly, "But I'd have done the same. Now, if you'll excuse me my course language, I have my men to see to."
I nodded again. He knew his work better than I.
"Alright you maggots! Get up and get to work! I want this mess cleaned up and all of you on the move inside the hour! There is no rescue but ourselves. You four, build litters. And build them right this time, with the proper lead! You and you, gather all animals capable of burdens, and ready them for the wounded. Here is your first."
He handed the reins to his own horse off to poleaxed soldier and strode past, giving more orders. Conrad bobbled in his wake, driftwood on a river.
One of the men near me whispered, "So glad I'm on protection duty now."
The man to my other side snorted laughter. "You said it; even better that our shield arms are well developed. I might actually thank our man-at-arms for the drills."
The third shuddered. "Don't ever do that. he ill become difficult to reason with."
"A reasoned argument." The first admitted.
"Is there ought I can do to help?"
"You could offer water to the wounded again. The Count has just sent a few men to gather some from the stream, but you could help them when they return."
It was obvious that assisting in the gathering efforts itself was dangerous, even with an escort, and indeed that none here would allow such. Truly, it was not a risk I'd prefer to take, but seeing all this suffering and doing nothing was taxing.
"Alright. Please excuse me."
I moved around Crox; he rushed to catch up.
Countess Phine's eyes were wet, but she had a smile for Halith as he weakly gripped her hand.
"How are you, my lord?"
"I have been better, I surmise. I am assured we need fear no further attack. How are you, Lady Kath? Well I hope?"
"I am well thanks to you. Your arrow was well timed."
He smiled. "Ah, both bragging of me in front of the Countess; and getting me an earful of the Countess. You had best watch this one, Phine, she is crafty."
The Countess barked a laugh. "You fool, you deserve every word, both harsh and praising. Rest now, and when you wake we shall be at the capital.
Halith gave a pained grimace. "You'll get no argument from me. Work your magic, then."
The Countess gently stroked her fingers over Halith's eyes; when she removed them he was asleep.
I found my courage again. In truth, this might require more courage than my mid-day attack. "How is he, really?"
The Countess lost one of the tears she had saved; my own eyes yearned to do the same.
"He might live. I do not know, I can only put him in a sleep where he feels no pain. It is in the hands of the Gods, now. But I do not fancy his odds."
She smiled, a brightness at odds with the rest of her. "He has annoyed quite a few, after all."
"He did save my life." It was important she knew.
The Countess nodded, and stroked Halith's cheek. "Of course he did; he is a good man."
We stayed there for a time, as the camp was dismantled from around us. In time those sent for water returned, and I moved to help. The man in charge of the effort passed over four skins silently.
By the time we were finished, the wounded were being loaded upon their horses and litters and all traces of our activity here had been removed.
Eadric settled in beside me, the pain a map upon him. My current guardians let him pass and settled around to include us both.
"Safest place in the entire caravan."
"I am sorry. Perhaps I should have tried to take Gern with me after all."
Eadric shrugged with one shoulder. "You could not have foreseen this, and your thought was good one. I doubt you'd have escaped in the fashion you did with Gern behind you, in the forest."
He pointed down at himself. "My legs do still work, after all. Some rest in a temple, being attended to by concerned priestesses, and I'll be right as rain."
"Eadric, stop corrupting the innocent, will you?" Crox turned to me. "Pay no attention to this fool."
I tried to control myself; this was no time for the infusion of heat. "We had best start; are you three now tasked to me?"
Sirus nodded, already facing outward. "We shall keep pace with you; it will ease concerns in certain minds."
"Do not be concerned. Eadric has not been replaced, as yet. Only reinforced," Dirst added.
Eadric grinned sunnily. "That's right. No need to worry, your new shields do not mind your status."
Such was not really my concern, but their words showed me that my real concerns were also not a concern of theirs.
With little choice, we walked. Eadric seemed well enough at first, but he soon started struggling. He was not alone in that, the pace set was not a slow one even for a whole man.
I could not see our archers, but I was certain they were keeping pace. Perhaps even scouting ahead to ensure against future attacks; such an act seemed very dangerous to me.
"How many do you think attacked us, Eadric?"
"No more than two dozen," He grunted out in reply.
So few? The Count's troops had them outnumbered then, or had. "How many perished in the assault?"
"Few in the initial attack, but the Count was able to catch the group upon the road, and with the help of the Countess he destroyed them almost entire."
"And the other sorceress?" When had he the moment to hear this news, when I had not?
"Escaped, but not unscathed. It is unlikely she will return in time to harass us. Unlikely, but not unthinkable, which explains the Count's precautions."
By the time the Count called a halt for a rest, Eadric was leaning on Sirus when he thought I wasn't looking to keep pace. In return, I acted the fool.
A short rest, some quickly shared trail foods and water, and some care with the horses remaining us, and we set off again. The sun set while we were still upon the road, but we did not tarry long; the Count ordered torches to be cut and for us to continue.
"We must continue, for the sake of our comrades. We must make the shelter of the city by tonight!"
The Countess was silent and did not stray from her horse's side. The horse Halith's litter was tied to.
We continued long past the moon rise. The moon hung high and large in the sky when we chanced upon the gate of our next stop - Foxworth.
To Be Continued