First Among Fools (Chapter 1)
First Among Fools
I doubt that anyone really sleeps the night before the Trial of Colors, though a few of my friends made a point of getting insensibly drunk so they could sleep. Frankly I didn't see any of them being among the first five of any color either. Being one of the first five gives you the dubious joy of more schooling and longer service to the Crown. But then, I've been serving the Crown since I was born; I'm one of the Blood Royal, a Heir, ok the Heir.
All hail me, yes I do try not to take myself too seriously. Trust me being the Heir may be rewarding, yet it also is very dull and confining a great deal of the time. In many ways I wish my mother and father had more kids, as it’d give me a lot more freedom. If wishes were fishes I’d be a vegetarian out of sheer stubbornness or is that rebellion? Either way I have struggled for every inch of relative freedom I could squeeze out of the rules much less wiggle out of from my family.
I could have skipped the Season of Colors, my education as the Heir more than covered all the basics, laws, histories, and weapons work taught in during the Season. Though the one thing being heir doesn't give you is a lot of time to make real friends, and even then there is always that suspicion; that what few friends you do make, have their own agenda. Which is why I pushed my father so hard to get into the Season of Colors on my eighteenth birthday.
Ironically, being one of the Blood Royal steeps your life so deeply in the laws that if you wanted to, you can use them to get some freedoms. And I wanted more freedom, so I spent a lot of time learning the laws and driving my parents to distraction with them. Hey, someone has to test the laws for fairness, don't they?
I toyed with the anti-fertility charm that hung from my belly button ring. That had come as a side effect of testing the Laws of Equality. I smiled wickedly in the near darkness: My family had been more than a bit shocked when I had announced that I was spending my Seventeenth-birth year as a woman. I learned quite a bit more than just how laws affected women in the realm. I also learned that life of a woman was multi-faceted and at times very rewarding. So much so, that I kept the Ring of Changes that I had worn from that year. I still use it from time to time as well; sometimes it feels great to be pampered.
I did get some grief about being a lover of men and women, ok, a lot of grief. That had quickly shifted away from violence to merely rude comments after the first few days of weapons drill and self-defense. Though a few of those lessons had taken place away from the eyes of the weapons masters. One of my better friends of the Season, Thomas, had resulted from one of those sessions.
Admittedly, Thomas was not entirely at fault, as his family had some distinctly parochial views on heritage and sexual mores. Unfortunately not all the lands of the Realm had taken easily to the change of the laws redefining women's rights. My father blames it on the lack of education in those parts of his realm; personally I blame it on the residue of all those years of contaminating magick.
Which brings me back to Thomas, the ever-so-loudly snoring. Thomas's parents and family are largely Isolationists; their bloodline focuses more on building up the Mage gift and weeding out the non-gifted branches. As a result, they have a nearly devout worship of genealogy that strictly dictates who they can and cannot marry; much less have kids with. Of course to them, male and female are firmly defined roles, and relationships that are not fruit bearing are frowned upon. Needless to say, my being a lover of both men and women did not sit well with his upbringing.
Sure, I could have merrily trampled his ethics with a royal decree, sending him back home to wait for the next year's Trials. It also would have stripped me of any opportunity to make real friends, which for the most part was what this whole endeavor on my part was about. That and the fact I had to do something to prove, at least unto myself, if no one else; that I had something going for me other than a good bloodline.
Fortunately for me, Thomas, aside from his great capacity for ale and his mind staggering mage gift, is severely guided by honor. Surely he could have struck me down with a wave of his hand and a word, but since I was in his words, "Limited by your lack of powers." He chose to fight me using swords, blunted ones.
It may have been a tad unfair of me to suggest swords. As I had been working on my blade work since I could barely hold a sword; not to mention other soldierly skills like archery. Admittedly I was more than a bit perturbed by his attitude at the time, and while he was not exactly a slouch with a blade, he was no-where near my level of training. One thing about honor, if someone holds truly to it, once a fight with them is done, it is truly done. I will say I gave much worse than I received, though we both walked gingerly for a few days afterwards.
His honor, bound him effectively into a grudging friendship, once he got past his initial dismay of losing to "a powerless fop." I admit to liking stylish or even rakish clothing if you will. One thing I learned during my year as a woman was that clothing didn't have to be uncomfortable or drab. Much to my Father's dismay, as it seemed to jar his sense of style wildly. But then he tended to dress as if he was still in the army.
It also didn't hurt that I offered to trade Thomas some lessons on fighting without powers, for a better understanding of the Mage gifts and what they could and could not do. Sure I could have got a stuffy lecture at home about them, and had at one point. Yet it was another to get lessons from those who lived and breathed it. It was during one of those sessions when he discovered that my bloodline as was as rich as his own.
One of his discussions with me had covered concealment and detection magicks. Being a heir also meant trying to stay alive versus assassins and the like, whom frequently used concealment magicks to get close to their targets. It was during a demonstration of the counter magicks where he managed to cause my royal signet ring and circlet to appear.
Yes I had the dubious honor of having to carry or wear a circlet all the time. One of those hereditary magicks you just get stuck with if you are of the Blood Royal. It does serve two purposes, it makes you instantly recognizable when the bullocks break from the plows, and it also declares you free of the Mage gift. Almost, you can still be of the Blood Royal and have the mage gifts; the circlets are just to let people know if you have it. If the gems on it are alight, no one will accept your active leadership in events, aside from emergencies.
Oh those who are royal and gifted can suggest things, recommend and enforce the laws of the land. The females with the gift have turned the subtle forms of persuasion into an art form. Unfortunately, mages of the blood are less free than those mages who are in service. Being royal also means your life is dedicated to one thing, ensuring the kingdom endures. Be it through arranged marriages, bearing children or acting as judges in the various courts. While being king or queen is a confining role, no one tells you who to marry, when to do it, much less where.
So you can imagine the shock and dismay of Thomas when he found out he was instructing The Heir. It was almost comical to watch him go from stunned shock, to stark crimson to utterly pale. One of the laws of the kingdom had this minor niggling detail of forfeiting your life if you attacked a member of the Blood Royal… Of course I had no intention of demanding his life, though I did swear him to secrecy.
In private he later started to address me as "Your Royal Fop-ness." He does have wicked sense of humor, and a distinct advantage of being able to tell when some families daughters show up to consider him for a match. In his case they show up with huge tombs of genealogies. It is very hard to conceal your intentions when your servants are lugging around a small library behind you. In my case it quickly becomes a case of polite conversation that avoids all discussion involving union, marriage, relationships and last but not least, pollination.
Some dear lady had resurrected the Language of Flowers and bent it to towards ensnaring me. Evading that proposal had taken some deft social footwork and some very creative retargeting of affections. Not to mention a royal appointment among the palace gardeners, of which I still thank my mother for deducing what she really was after. I still get flower arrangements from the lady in question, though there is a distinct air of humor in them. That and pollen dusters, the lady definitely has style.
Yes I am rambling, I blame my overly fertile mind, that and a bit of very obscure advice from one of the First's from the prior weeks Trial. "Follow an unseen path." It's customary for those among the first five of any given color path to complete the Trial; to give out odd but semi-practical advice to the next group going out. I just happened to ask advice from a First going into one of the many priesthoods. He seemed a bit distracted when he said it, though that could have been all the drinks he had consumed in celebration.
The Trials start off by a random lottery, each person going though the Trial chooses a token. The token tells you the order of when you can start. Unfortunately, I had the dubious joy of having my token handedto me. Much to my annoyance I was going to go dead last.
Each Trial has a path you select from a row of posts. Each post has a ring with a ribbon tied to it. There are a multitude of colors, your path is chosen by which ring you take and what color is attached to the ring. There are a maximum of eleven rings that you can retrieve, if you can get to the eleventh of that color before anyone else does. There are five of these ending rings for each color.
Of course it goes without saying that competition for those ending rings is fierce. Possessing one of those few rings places you among the Firsts, and sends you on to advanced training and schools. Yes there is an onus of longer duty or service for that schooling, but those who want it that badly enough will not give up.
There is no real time limit to complete the path you choose, though many people will stop when they can't see a way to go further. Or decide the elements are too tough for them to endure. The only real losers of the test are those that don't try at all. Though that is my personal take on things. The general rule of thumb is that if you go past ten days and have no more than eight rings you may as well pack it in. I had already made myself an oath; I get eight rings, I am going to go for all eleven, even if I get there and the post is empty. If I got there and it was empty; I was going to carve my initials on the damned post.
Of which it may be, I am going last because my father the King stepped in and with a personal note to the Color Factors and myself, made his will known.
Your education is assured, I know you don't wish to hear this, but the person who may lose his chance to you would hardly think it fair to be denied their chance. I would rather have you be annoyed with me, than for someone to be denied his or her rightful chance at success. So with the good of all in mind, I have made my will known in this matter.
Do note, that if you get a first, it will because you have more drive than that person will have had. I do not doubt your drive or your own will power, you would not be there if you were not as obstinate as your parents. I am not sure if you are aware of this, but there may be a path that is much harder to find than others. Finding it, if it exists, is of course your own challenge. Either way, I expect you to do as well as you have during some of your other adventures. When you get back home I will expect your evaluation of the Season of Colors.
Reginald the Just
Ps. Your mother is giving me an earful that you have not been as frequent with your letters as she would like. Do take a moment and spare your old man a tongue lashing? Also, I only found nine rings on my Trial, so if you have half the spirit I think you do, you'll match that or do me proud and fetch home ten.
Reginald the Just, was his way of driving the point of the letter home. My father spent many years working as a Judge of the Land, before the gods called his father home. His courts were noted for of all things, fairness and firmly applying the law as it best served the land. Rarely did a criminal escape justice, though in some cases where the law may have dictated a firmer hand, he was gentle.
No, Father was not soft judge; as he had no qualms about sending those who deserved it to the gallows or worse. He made a point of looking towards the needs of the land, in all things. He also had his own views of what was considered a Just Repayment. As such, during his long reign, some crimes are nearly nonexistent. Rape being one of them. No, you don't want to know the specifics of the punishment, let it be said that it fit the crime, completely.
With good fortune, the land would live under his hand for another fifty to hundred some odd years. N'relvian blood runs heavy in our families veins. Not only did we inherit the long life, we also had the overly pointed ears, and the faint bronze-gold skin tones. I never had to worry about needing a tan or burning over much in the suns light. Though I could have done without the mix that left my hair mottled brown and copper. Admittedly as my feminine self, it was quite striking. If it were not for my eyes being a plain blue rather than the tri-colored hues of some of my cousins, I would fit well among the High Families of the N'relv.
I was given to wearing my hair long, which causes me some mild grief; as I have to rise at the touch of dawn just so I have proper time to brush and braid it for the day. Of course my father does view my mode of dress as slightly effete, he does accept that I am my own person. Something of which; he made a point of establishing for himself, when he was younger. My grandmother only smiles and comments to him gently about the sins of the father being returned in due time. She said I would understand that, when I was much older.
I smiled slightly, from the hints that my grandmother dropped now and again, my father was as wild as I am purported to be. Ok, if you asked some folks I was damn near a spoiled brat. Frankly I don’t know, the few of my friends in court that I can tolerate to be around for more than a few moments; are ever so much wilder than I am. Yes, I admit I like the good life and that possibly the hardest days of my life were truly ahead in the Trial where I had to succeed on my own merits without any padding or subtle guidance from the side lines.
Part of my being spoiled may have to do with the fact that if I felt like doing or learning something, I made damned sure I learned it properly. Being the only son of the King, and being sheltered from every possible danger and harm; you either put up with it. Or you worked every possible angle so you could get the freedom to do what you wanted. In doing so, I seemed to have been branded as a spoiled brat. Frankly, unless you enjoyed living your life in a velvet box, you probably would be as bad as I am.
One of the reasons I can fight as well I as can, stems from my figuring out my blade-work instructors were making sure I won all my bouts. Sure it was great for your ego, if you were happy with having your victories handed to you. I can't remember ever being so pissed off as when I discovered that. Personally I think my father was a bit annoyed when I walked into his court and announced what my instructors were doing.
I made a very loud and distinctly profane diatribe discussing their faults, and the fact that they were effectively rendering my training worthless. By their standards and protestations I should have been able to almost outfight just about anyone that should attack me with a sword. I of course, challenged the most skilled person I could see in the court at the time to test their training against. He was a N'relv B'radian or more commonly known, a Ranger of the Land.
I argued that if I could even hold my own, against such a warrior, that their training was valid. If their training wasn't adequate I was demanding they be turned out. Ok, so I interrupted a court that wasn't especially important to do it, was a bit bratty, and while yes my father gave me an earful privately about my manners. He also agreed that if I wasn't being trained properly if it came down to where I needed those skills and they were inadequate the Kingdom might suffer for it.
I would love to claim that my skills were more than a match for my mouth at the time, but I cannot. For someone who was supposedly well trained, I could bare but hold my own ground against him. I managed a small number of decent almost touches, even whereas his skill clearly out stripped my own. He also fought to his utmost, which needless to say: It was very brutal, effective and had nothing to do what so ever with the kinder gentler rules I had been trained under.
So after several humiliating rounds I was rudely awaked by a well-placed bucket of water. As you can imagine I had been well and truly trounced. My father was amused and very angry at the same time, amused that I had been so effectively taught the lesson of: Choosing your opponents with care. And angry in that I had been so poorly instructed. I think if it were not for the humor in my defeat my father would have been very more than a bit vengeful with my so-called blade masters.
Personally I was just grateful that I had not made the B'radian mad by my selecting him. Later I found out he had been studying the red path of swords for over a hundred years. While I still carry the small scar under my right eye to this day from his hands; the evaluation he gave me of my skills made up for it. In his words, "The Heir shows distinct promise in his skills, if he gets the proper training." Which in a way sealed my fate in some ways.
My next few years worth of weapons training was very brutal, required much in the way of salves and balms and long hot soaks to recover from. Yet, I would not have traded it for anything. I truly felt alive during those lessons, as every success or victory was truly mine and mine alone. While I did never see that particular B'radian again, I did make it a point of sparing with those that came to our court. Though more than often than not I lost, which is not exactly unsurprising considering that they often had decades of practice.
The idea of a hot soak sounded good, so I quietly got up from my bunk and pulled a tunic on to cover my nudity and grabbed a towel. The tunic draped past my thighs neatly covering my modesty, normally a belt would be worn with it to keep it manageable. The tunic was rough spun cotton that was dyed yellow, as I was a part of that Seasons Color. The colors run the whole gamut of the rainbow and your birthday and birth month tend to dictate what color you would end up in. Some exceptions do occur due to weather, illness and transportation to the Trial Lands. Technically the Trials can cover the length of the kingdom, though they all start from one point.
Each Color’s 'Class', barring a hold to fill the class, starts two weeks apart from the next. So I was going to barrow the soaking pits of the prior color class, and let my hair down. Or that was my plan. I had taken the short time of the walk to slip on my Ring of Changes and enjoy the more than pleasant thrill of the change when I heard a muffled female shriek of pain, from inside the Red Classes bathhouse.
Almost at once a thick feeling of anger arose within me, I wasn't sure why until I stepped into the bathhouse. I never really enjoyed fighting as a woman, for one it skewed my balance some, the other, well some parts are more sensitive to abuse than others. However such thoughts quickly vanished when I found three rough looking men pinning a girl to the floor of the bathhouse.
Pinning was a mild word for what the center most man was doing to the girl. Since the lass in question could not scream, I did it for her. With an ear piecing cry of "Rape!" I then proceeded to kick the centermost man soundly in the back. He bellowed in pain, I liked the effect so I did it again, though I could tell from the sudden ache in my foot that I did not get the angle correct when I kicked him. Unarmed fighting is not really my forte’, of which at times I regretted, this was one of those times.
When his two friends produced daggers I decided that a towel was not an effective weapon for offense. Two things are certain in a bladed fight, being unarmed is not good, the second was that you are going to get cut even if you are lucky. I backed up a few steps and quickly wrapped my off hand with the towel, it was not as good as an armored vambrace or a shield but it was what I had.
"Looky here, we got us another whore, a N'relv even." I gave my approaching foes a quick once over; they didn't have the right footing of someone who was well trained, but from the way they held their blades I could tell they knew a few things. Two on one was bad odds if the one was unarmed, so I gave off another loud cry. "Tors mana toh Ara!" Cousins to Arms, in the high tongue. It did nothing to slow their advance, but the shear traditional fierceness of it gave me an emotional boost.
A step to the left placed me directly between my new found enemies and the sole door. One took a few steps ending up in reach and he made a hasty grab of my toweled arm. I let him grasp the towel and stepped forwards smashing my free hand, palm flat up and into his nose. He choked back on the pain and swiped at my chest with the edge of his dagger.
I registered that hint of fire, and took the opening his clumsy slash gave me. I slammed my knee into his groin and slid back a step out of his reach. While he managed to remain upright and conscious, he was dramatically slowed. So I used his slowness to steal his blade from his less than coherent grip. A second kick to the inside of his knee rewarded me with a solid ache in my already abused foot, and my ears with the sounds of his knee shattering.
The strong odor of bad ale was the only reminder that I had neglected to pay full attention to his buddies. I tried to spin desperately out of what I was sure my sudden doom when a spike of fire lanced into the meat of my right shoulder. I let the pivot carry me away from the man with the knife, though it tore the wound that much wider; then I was free of his blade. I was hurt, bad enough that if I didn't end this soon I was going to die.
I let the towel drop off of my good arm and I switched the blade to my left hand. They say pain can be a good focus, that fear can make time seem to drop and slow. I would not know, the only thing I let myself feel was anger.
"Yield or the girl dies." I looked over to where rapist was holding a knife to the throat of the young girl. For one awful moment all I could think of was the needs of the land, a Heir versus the life of a unnamed girl. For one awful moment I considered the attack. I knew what choice my father would take, the faint sounds of running feet made my decision easier.
I let the knife drop. "Fine, let the girl go. You can't escape now anyways." Then to ensure the searchers would find us I screeched, "The Red Bathhouse!"
"You slut." The leader of the trio cursed at me then drew his blade firmly across the girl's throat. For one shocked moment I saw the moment of her death register in her brown eyes, then she dropped to the floor raggedly sending blood across the walls and onto the tiles.
At that time the door crashed open under the flow of several armed factors. I ducked back under the sinks and let the factors do the fighting, all I could do was stare at the lifeless but trembling body of the dead girl. Absently I noted a anti-fertility charm laying near me, a glance at the dead girls belly button were a line of blood lay proclaimed its owner. A single green fig leaf, with a red gemstone told me she had been virginal, before it had been forcibly removed.
In the bathhouse light flared as someone cast a spell to brighten the room or blind the men, abruptly the sounds of fighting died away. For a time I rested there with her charm clenched tightly in my good hand. For a long moment I prayed for the soul of the girl, sending her to the arms of the Goddess. I had failed her and in doing so, myself.
Dimly I became aware of a proctor calling my Name, "D'ne'Ari, D'ne'Ari!" It was Neil Antagon, the Yellow's proctor, and one of the few who knew my true name and that I was the heir. I was safe, somewhere in that realization I lost the war of alertness and passed out.
Gradually I became aware of the scent of flowers, earth and grass. For a moment I just lay there, taking in the warm sunshine as it filled me with its gentle rays. The absence of sound or wind was mildly disturbing, though not alarming. I cracked an eye open when a shadow passed over me, and I was staring up at the sky; a lone cloud drifted across a vivid blue sky.
As far as being dead goes, this was not bad. I didn't hurt and from all that I could remember, I should be screaming in pain. I looked around for a few minutes, just turning my head from one side to another. Definitely a garden, it was slightly relieving, I was certain I should have awoken in some form of a hell. I failed, though I could have sworn I made the right decision, one my father would have made.
A voice interrupted my train of thought it was gentle, soft and full of love. "It was the right choice daughter."
I sat up slowly and turned to look at the woman who had spoke. She was light and life and most importantly love, though her form was hidden I knew who she was. I looked down at myself, I was still in my female form, oddly enough that didn't bother me, aside from my bloody yellow tunic.
"I'm sorry Goddess I did my best, I really did."
"I know daughter. My poor Ari, do you not know that people will die even if you make the right choices?"
"It wasn't a war, she wasn't even mine to command," I protested.
"She was meant to die at that time, in that manner. My child, she died knowing hope was at hand, that she was close to deliverance. She is at peace and after a time will live again, is that not enough?"
"If I said I wasn't sure, would you be mad at me?"
She laughed, and warm feeling echoed within my heart. "The truth never offends me daughter. Your time here is limited, soon you will have to go back."
"Why am I here?"
"Ah, that's the Ari I know and love, ever quick to question and challenge," she paused. "I called you here to give you a warning and a choice."
"A warning and a choice? I thought the gods never directly meddled in the affairs of their children."
"We do when it suits us, we even maneuver events so that we can meddle, from time to time."
"Ah, so I'm your pawn?" I asked cautiously.
"No daughter, a servant perhaps, if you choose to be, but never a pawn or a puppet. Free will only works if you are able to exercise it."
I could feel something pulling at me. "You may have to just tell me plain Goddess, I am good with riddles, but I feel time moving oddly."
"Indeed. Listen carefully and keep this close to your heart. A Mage King is reborn; sadly you and your family are in opposition to his plans. In you, and your quest is the key to defeating the Mage King. I also give you a gift, though I think for a time you may be angry at me for it's giving. In time you will come to see the need for it, do know I will always love you. I have always loved you my daughter.”
She smiled with a hint of sadness and humor on her lips, “You will note it in time child.
I stood mutely trying to sort out what she was telling me, “So this quest?”
"In the riddle of your path, the answer is hidden in the growing of the grass. Though that is only the start of the pathway to your quest. Go my daughter our time here as passed, be at peace."
A dark cloud seemed to fall in on me and the ground gave way, leaving me to fall ever so far back to my flesh.
"The choice, my child is to act or not to act. Be free of will and strong of spirit, dearest Ari."
I jolted awake to the faint touch of fire and ice. The fire was from my wounds and the ice was a cold hand resting between my breasts and over my heart. I clenched my teeth together and opened my eyes to take in the view. A priestess of the Goddess was in a healing trance, her eyes were closed and a white fire surrounding her body. The dark green cloak of her order was muted by that fire and an enrapt smile filled her face.
I wasn't dead. That thought resonated in my head for a moment. Daylight was streaming in through the window; from the shadows on the wall I could tell it was yet early in the morning. I had failed the girl, and I had missed seeing my friends off on their various paths.
The fire of my wounds drifted off like a lazy summers cloud on a gentle wind. A few moments later the priestess removed her hand and smiled down at me gently. "Better sister?"
"Yes, thank you, Blessed of the Mother."
"T’was only my duty. Though I think you would have recovered soon enough as it was; the Hand of the Mother was upon you."
"Her hand is upon us all," I replied almost by rote.
"Indeed child, indeed. Have you given thought to a life in her service?"
I smiled lightly, "My life may be in her service, though not inside the walls of her temples."
"Then you have seen your path?" she asked.
"Not exactly, though if I remember correctly, it may lay in the way the grass grows."
"Ah a service among the N'relv. Looking to be a Healer of the Land or a Ranger?"
"I'm not sure that my hands are given towards healing."
"I am sure your path will become clearer to you in time." She stood up from the stool near my bedside, "I have to see to the men that were injured, so they can stand for their crimes." She didn't seem happy about the prospect.
"I am surprised they are still alive." I was too, as I had expected they would have been hanging from a handy tree, assaulting one of the Blood Royal, with intent is an automatic death sentence. No judge needed, just the whim of the Royal in question.
"They were waiting on your recovery. You are of the Blood?"
"Yes." I raised my left hand with my signet to touch my circlet bringing both into view.
"I would ask a boon, for your healing."
"Justice must be served in this matter, though if it is within reason I will grant it."
"The two men that attacked you, while not actually rapists in deed, did participate willingly."
"You would have me alter their punishment?"
"The girl who died was an orphan, she has no family to seek her revenge. Also she was a faithful servant of the Goddess, if redress is owed it is to the Goddess."
While part of me longed to avenge the fallen child with the blood of those men: The good of the Land would be better served with their lives in labor. I sighed, the Land before all else. "I will do as you ask, Blessed of the Mother, though part of me seeks blood for her blood and mine."
"My heart is heavy in this matter as well, she was precious to me. Still, justice is best tempered with mercy."
"What was her name?" I asked.
"Jonne, she didn't have a family name." She bowed, "If you will pardon me, I have to attend those who would answer before you."
"Walk with the Goddess."
"You as well my sister."
For a few moments I lay in the bed, then I arose and made my way to a small table where a basin and pitcher awaited me. Blood, be it your own or another's is difficult to clean with cold water, so I was largely relieved to find the water was moderately warm when I poured it into the basin. I removed the scarlet soaked yellow tunic that I was still wearing and chased the remaining blood away with a soft cloth.
Part of me longed that I could chase the dead girls image from my mind with the same cloth. Unfortunately, her blood may take some time to wash way. Someone had set out clothing for me; I gave it all a wry grimace, evidently I was going to be here as my official self.
The bandeau was a gentle white cotton cloth that I fastened tightly around my breasts and pinned in place with a small brooch. The breeks, were more of the soft cotton, I stepped into them and slipped them up, using the drawstring to keep them in place. Fortunately I didn't need a breach clout for my menses yet or I would need a separate belt to hold those unpleasant but needed extra bits of cloth and herbs in place. Admittedly I simply could have skipped the breeks, though one thing I had learned the hard way was that having an extra layer of cloth between you and a saddle was a good thing. That and leather trews chaffed even when made of soft doeskin.
Trews or hose was the next difficult choice, ease of movement or practicality. I had not given up on taking my Trial, if anything I was more determined to continue with it. Both have their merits, the hose permits the wearing of thigh high boots, which are good for wading through heavy brush. The trousers would be easier to keep up and on, though would be more of a headache in other ways. Part of me suspected that there would be a lot of brush to wade though if the path ahead of me was as neglected as I expected.
With all the foot traffic every few weeks to the various color paths, much of the underbrush would be beaten down to some extent. Even with the various mages urging the brush to grow afresh. In truth, the mages and such are not allowed to force nature to act against itself, though urging it on is acceptable. So once the first few points are cleared, Natures own hand dictates the rate things are obscured. Though there are some folks who absolutely cannot navigate to find their own arse in the dark, for them the lack of brush would be a good thing.
I did not expect that luxury, so I added to the gray hose, a pair of dark brown leather thigh high boots and belted them up. If I changed back to male, I would have to swap boots, something more to carry. The hose I could simply loosen or adjust the thin strips of cloth that held them up, as tight as I needed.
As I considered myself still a part of the Yellow Trials group, I selected a vivid yellow warriors shirt and spent a few moments lacing the sleeves tight. I simply gave a slight tug to the laces that opened over the brooch of my bandeau and let those laces dangle, the days of late promised to be warm, and under a doublet or leather jerkin it would grow warm.
For the sake of presenting the royal face, I selected a deep blue velvet surcoat. Over my right breast the coat-of-arms for my family were displayed. The coat of arms is fairly simple, considering the depth of history they cover. A simple crown, broken across a round, blood red field, a phoenix ascendant in gold rising from the broken crown. I tugged the doublet on, and then I buttoned all of those ever so dressy, but largely annoying gold buttons up, leaving the top handful open as to stay cool. Then I spent a few moments pulling the wide collar of the warrior's shirt out from under the surcoat and into place.
I took a few moments to check my blades; I favored a solid rapier with only a bit of flex. While the fancy swept hilt rapiers were in vogue, I learned that they were wonderful for earning bruised fingers when practicing against skilled blades men. You quickly learned to guard your hands in fencing, if you planned on hold a blade for more than a few minutes.
Thus my blade was a simple rapier with solid but plain metal cup and cross guard, favored by the B'radians. While the fancy wirework of the blade was gold, it was a practical and fast blade, though it wasn't meant for protracted bouts with the heavier two-handed blades. But it was good for getting in, killing and getting out alive. Another reason I kept that style, was that a rapier was an effective weapon for men and women alike, very handy if you crossed the gender line as frequently as I was wont to of late.
A main gouache was the custom with the dueling circles. Though for myself I chose a solid metal throwing dagger with a simple crosspiece. Sure I could stand and mix it up toe to toe with both blades, though in either of my forms I was not a stocky person. So speed and sheer effectiveness guided my weapon style. At need I could throw the dagger and escape quickly to safety or go for the killing strike a tossed blade might open to me.
Normally, at least when custom did not dictate otherwise, I wore a thin stiletto braided into my hair. Yes it is a pain to braid my hair into and around the sheath for it, if I had had it last evening, the girl might be yet alive. Though, the no-weapons policy of ‘those not-yet-on-their-path’, precluded my wearing it until today. It largely, was a sensible rule as the various cultures of the Kingdom do occasionally clash. Add blades to a heated argument and there was frequently bloodshed.
Noting that my blades were sharp, clean and oiled, I took a few moments to remove my circlet and brush my hair out then braided it. If you are curious, while my hair is largely what holds the blade handy, the braid and a leather wrap keeps the blade upright. I wrapped the loose end of the braid around the backside of the sheath in a fairly tight spiral behind the blade, so that with a few leather ties it becomes a neat bun. Yes, it's slightly feminine, in either of my forms, though it served to keep my hair out of other people hands in grappling, and well; I think it looks good that way.
Replacing the circlet does ease of the pulling sensation on my scalp resulting from the weight of the blade. If I wasn't going to be official, I would wrap and tie a long black leather band around my head and that helps with the blades weight and keeps sweat under control as well.
Fortunately, the surcoat and warrior's shirt are roughly knee length even with wearing the belts required to wear the sword & dagger. So my modesty was assured, though the women of the court would be scandalized by my choice of surcoat versus that of a kirtle or a dress for that matter. The place of royalty is to set style, not to live others visions of style or so my mother tells me. So in her purview I am setting a precedence, which naturally has the dressmakers screaming.
I rarely bother with makeup, no its not because I don't look go with it on, it just seems like overkill with my families natural good looks. I did take a small brush and trace the sigil for justice on my left cheek in a bright red paint. If I had been seeking justice for myself or another it would be painted in black; today I was just representing the Kingdom.
I turned to a freestanding mirror. Yes, everything was in its proper place. Were it not for the slightly tired expression on my face you would think I was off to carouse the night away. Sadly, regrettably, I was off to stand as witness and possibly judge of last night's events.
One thing about being of the Blood Royal and acting as such, the only people you can be tardy for are the King and or Queen. As such, everyone was waiting on me to take my place at the front of the crowded mess hall. Since the truly injured hence dead party, was the girl Jonne, her color class was in attendance. As were all the proctors not needed to tend their charges, and a handful of N'relv B’radians dressed in woodland colors.
My eyes narrowed a bit at the presence of the rangers, evidently I was going to have watchers on my Trial, if I wanted them or not. More of my father's not so subtle maneuverings, he openly shows his favor among the N'relv, sometimes too much so. My mother is a touch more subtle, she would have her own watchers, but they would not show themselves unless the need was dire.
The court of law, started easily enough, as last nights events were unfolded for the class that had lost a friend and sister. They looked more than a bit shocked and saddened, which told me a great deal about the young lady whose life was lost. Occasionally their eyes would be drawn to the white wrapped body that lay on a table attended by a silently grieving Blessed of the Mother.
A few of their eyes were filled with anger; that, I understood all too well. When they met mine I left my face impassive, letting the sigil speak for me. Once the preliminaries, the laws that were broken and penalties explained to the class, they were a bit taken aback.
When all was said and done, the elderly proctor that was explaining the laws turned and bowed to me. "Your Grace, has the right of law in this matter, as you are both the offended party and the Kingdoms just representative."
I stood up, "Thank you Senior Proctor." I nodded to him and he wearily retired to his own chair, his night must have been long as well. I turned to address the class.
I hesitated for a moment, then took a few steps the where the girl lay in state. "One of the toughest things a Judge among the people may have to accept is that his or her duty frequently comes too late to save or protect a life."
I lay one hand on the shrouded girls head, "The King, through his representatives, like me or as some of you may yet become, lays a heavy burden. The needs of the land is tempered with the need for mercy and the rule of justice that protects the Kingdom as a whole. Justice, fairly measured out prevents the Kingdom from becoming ruled only by power and hate. As we stood once at the Near Ending, never shall we stand so again."
I addressed the N'relv guarding the room, "Cousins, be at the ready." As blades slipped their scabbards and bows were readied, I spoke loudly to the far doors. "Bring in the accused."
I tried to wait impassively as the trio from the night before were brought before me. They were naked, baring the chains, which brought a few twitters of amusement. I glared at the assembled class and soon the only sounds with those of the chained men and their marching guards. Once before me, I motioned that the two that attacked me would be moved a few paces off too my right, then all three were forced to kneeling.
I addressed the rapist before me. "You are brought before me, seized in the act of rapine and murder. Your body bears yet the stains of your actions; the blood virginal and the life's blood of girl whom you have killed. By the evidence of my own eyes, and the blood you wear, you are irredeemable. Have you anything to say?"
He knelt silent before me quivering in what appeared to be rage. Then he spoke, "I would know the name of my judge so that I could curse it with my dying breath."
"Since you have nothing of merit to say; I am given to subject you to the full extent of the law. That your death provide in some small measure a warning to others who would stay your path."
I gazed down at the man, "At dawn tomorrow you will be castrated via the flame, and your manhood sundered. You will broken of body and caged until the elements ravage your body and take your life. One year and a day hence, your remains will be burned and scattered such that even the gods may not find ye."
For a moment he slumped then he surged upright raging against his chains. I took few paces back as he fixed his eyes on me and began chanting. A dark reddish haze enveloped the chained man.
A voice from among the class shouted, "Tran Dalath!" Death Magicks!
Among the sudden cries of fear, the flight of three arrows and my own throwing dagger were lost. Though I could not tell you when precisely I drew it and cast it. The man stared stupidly down at his chest where a pair of arrows jutted from the rear; the third arrow pierced his neck obscenely. My own dagger was protruding from a gore-rimmed socket where his left eye once sat. For a tense heartbeat he remained standing, then he fell face first while the red haze sputtered and died around him.
I took a few additional steps backwards and drew my rapier. I studied the other two men, they were regarding their dead leader with the same shock and fear that the class was. In the din and tumult of the moments I studied all the faces present looking for potential threats. Finding none I rested the tip of the rapier on the floor of the mess hall.
A glance to the N'relv showed arrows at the ready, and a hint of shock and fear themselves. Usually B’radians are largely unflappable, so I took a few more steps back away from the prisoners. Then I addressed the other two men, "I am given to end you now, even though our Blessed Mother here has asked your lives be spared. If you attempt to speak you will be cut down, so nod or shake your head as needed. Do you understand?"
They vigorously nodded their heads.
"Good. If you know fully who this man was and what purpose he served you should nod again."
One shook his head while the other nodded.
I motioned to the man who nodded to step away from his friend. "Can you write?"
He again nodded.
"Fine. Proctors, gag this man and set him to papers and a pen, if he falters in his efforts or has a sudden lack of will to write, you will give him over to be tortured, baring of course his writing hand. Once his testimony has been taken and the truth adjudged by a Cleric of Truth, he is to be changed to the fairer sex and bound upon his person into the service of a temple to the Goddess."
I turned to regard the other man. "Since you cannot write or be trusted to speak in my presence, you will speak before a Cleric of Truth. Should you falter, you will be tortured until such time as you decide you can speak. Once the clerics are assured you have no more truth to impart, you will be bound over like your compatriot, to the service of the Goddess."
I motioned to the various Proctors to take the men away, then I sat, resting the blade across my lap and addressed the class as they did so.
"This was not a normal court." There was a hint of rough laughter among the class. "As Blood Royal, by their attack on my person, their lives were already forfeit to my will. Torture, by its harsh nature, is not normally a suitable punishment for most crimes or as incentive to speak the truth. However, as to the case before me," I pointed to the dead man. "It is occasionally merited."
"Circumstances often dictate the seeking complete answers. Sometimes as Judge, the good of the land will require you to order the deaths or torture of those who rightly deserve it. Sometimes you may even have to act directly or in a manner that seems unjust to ensure the good of the land is maintained. It is in those times you should think carefully and ask of the Gods and Goddesses for guidance."
I took a breath, "To those that served, I am grateful, as will be your King and the Land. May your path be more peaceful after this day, Court is dismissed."
I was fairly happy that my meal stayed in my stomach, though my nerves had caught up to the prior minutes actions. While the crowd dispersed, I stood and returned my rapier to its scabbard and eyed the task of retrieving my dagger with some small revulsion. I grasped the hilt and with a deep breath I gave it a tug and the remains of the eyeball made a sickening plop as the blade came free.
After several deep breaths I reopened my eyes and surveyed my blade. In a slightly detached manner I tapped the point of dagger to the tile, until mess slid off of the blade. In death, all people are robbed of dignity, and the added smells of the eviscera and such, gave me a few involuntary spasms. I focused on the task at hand. I was not going to throw up, as it would be undignified.
A deeply tanned hand thrust a mottled cloth into my hand, "Here, use this."
"Thank you." I stood upright and very carefully did not think of the materials I was removing from the blade. A few careful wipes removed the residue from the dagger and a few more made sure it was clean. With a careful glance to its sheath, taking care to be safe because of my yet unsteady hands, I replaced it in my belt.
I turned to look at the N'relv archers who were recovering the ends of the arrows by the expedient manner of snapping the arrows and pulling the pieces free. If they had wanted the arrows intact they could have simply cut them out of the body. Messy, but practical if you were short of arrows.
I handed the cloth to one of the archers when he had reclaimed his point. I gave them a quick glance nodding to the two males and a lady, "Gentlemen, lady, may you never miss your target." I inclined my head to the dead man. "Very good shooting."
"Your own throw was quite neatly done as well." I nodded to the N'relv lady.
Half expecting what the answer would be I asked, "I take it your presence was not exactly coincidental?"
"Well, your father does worry about his Heir." Her nose wrinkled as she said this, "We should see to clearing this mess and restore the Revered One her space of mourning."
"Indeed." I pointed to a few of the proctors who were standing idle, "Make this room presentable, as befitting our guest and our dead sister." Some times it is good to be of the Blood, besides I had cleaned a few latrines as of late and was not above some petty revenge.
I took a few minutes to stand in silence besides the dead girl and the Blessed of the Mother. If I were one for omens: I would pack everything up and run home to the castle with all haste. After a moment I gave the Blessed Mother a soft hug. "Be at peace, if you need anything ask it of us and we will see that Jonne is attended to with dispatch."
She gave my hands a light squeeze, "Thank you daughter, I am glad you are so aptly defended and your own skills kept you safe."
"As am I. I rested my head to her shoulder, then I spoke softly, "The Mother warned me that a Mage King is reborn." At her sharp intake of breath I made a soft shushing noise, "I know it is not fair of me to impose upon you in your grief, I need you to pass a message among the Sisters of what has transpired."
She nodded and a dim white light surrounded her head, "Speak softly daughter and the Sisters will hear you."
"Blessed Mother's of the Goddess, hear me and know my heart is heavy. The Goddess who loves us all has told me in vision, a dire warning. A Mage King is reborn, he stands in opposition to the Blood Royal and our Land. He may have struck once at the Heir and fortune favor us all, he missed."
I took a breath and continued, "I as Heir go upon my path of colors seeking an unknown path. In doing so I hope to draw the hand of our enemy to myself, buying the Blood and the Land time to seek out and destroy our enemy."
"To my Father and Mother give all aid and surcease in this dark time. I seek only the good will of our Goddess and her blessing upon us all. Be ever vigilant my sisters, Goddess keep us all." I squeezed the Mother's shoulder lightly and the white glow faded.
"You don't ask a blessing for yourself child?" she asked.
"Her hand is upon me Blessed Mother, should I ask more?" I gave her a kiss on her forehead. "Besides, if I read the writing of the winds of fate correctly, we may all need her touch."
"I hope not daughter. Alas this wretched of fates to have befallen us, yet death is a part of life."
"She will return to us when it is time Blessed, She said so."
"Ah, thank you daughter, I do forget in my grief that all things return to us."
"Honest grief is balm to the soul, and a tribute to those who go before us."
She smiled, "So the rumors of your time with us are not rumors then?"
"No not a rumor Blessed One, I spent a few months in service to the Goddess learning her mysteries."
"Not every child does, but we could hope." She chuckled, "So Ari decided which you shall be?"
I gave my head a rueful shake, "No Sister of Her Path, I haven't seen a clear path along that choice."
"It will come, it will come. In the mean time you have my blessing and my thanks." I knelt down resting my head on her knee. "Before the Goddess I know thee, in my heart I keep thee, in my prayers I hold thee. Know ye beloved of me, my Sisters and The Goddess, our hand is upon you," She traced a circle on my head with her fingers. "In the fullness of time, we will meet, know and embrace you once again. As she wills it and by our will, so it be."
"So it be Sister." I rose and chased a tear away from an eye, "Safely stay, Blessed of the Mother."
I blinked as a sudden deep rose glow that briefly enveloped her. "And you Daughter, look for your path among other paths, the grass tells an odd tale."
"Thank you, Blessed of the Mother." And the Lady herself, I added silently to myself. As she closed her eyes and returned to her prayers for the deceased girl, I took a few quiet steps back away from her vigil and turned to make my way out of the hall.
The N'relv's were giving me a guarded but unreadable expression. I motioned them to go outside, and followed them out. The sun was firmly overhead, my day was passing and I had yet to gather my quest pack, change tops and go.
The lady B’radian turned and gave me a wide-eyed look. "I couldn't help over hearing."
I nodded, the kindred's hearing was better than most. "And?"
"You would take a huge gamble going on your path now," she didn't sound happy about the idea.
"Still I am going, if only to buy time for our people to prepare. If I run home, it only places all our eggs in one basket, making it easy to get us all in one fell swoop." I pointed to the poles where a single yellow streamer hung awaiting me. "If I were to simply surrender to fear what sort of leader will I be."
"If you end up dead you won't lead anyone," she looked slightly irritated with me when she said it.
"True, but knowing my Father and Mother sent you all to keep tabs on me, doesn't exactly make my path any less real."
They had the good graces to chuckle at that. One of the men spoke up, "Oh we will get an earful when we report at the end of all this, I am sure."
I shrugged, as I planned to ditch them as soon as I hit the forest, if that was even possible. They were B’radians after all, the best scouts and trackers among the Realm. I sighed and kicked at an errant stone sending it skipping back down the road. "I don't suppose if I ordered you to go visit an ale house for a few days, you would go?"
That got a trio of soft laughs, and then they spoke in unison, "Hardly."
"I thought that was the case, anyhow I have a hour before I expect will be ready, I need a meal and to gather my gear. I expect I won't see you for a time?"
"Who can see a B’radian if they don't wish to be seen?"
"Only another B’radian," I quipped back.
As a group the nodded and left talking among themselves. I think they were making bets on how many rings I would collect. I was slightly pleased to note it was more than eight.
I took my meal in the room where I dressed earlier, a hearty mutton stew, bread with cheese and a glass of wine. Normally I would have skipped the wine, but I wanted something to wash the slight case of nerves I had, away. I looked about the room until my eye chanced upon a painting of the poles that held the many streamers and rings of a starting quest. A copper plate at the bottom placed its age at over four hundred years.
For a moment I studied the painting, then went to the window. For a long moment I stared at the solitary yellow ribbon, then I looked back to the painting. I blinked a few times, and then looked back out the window. In the painting there were nine poles; outside standing in a row there were eight. Considering that sight, I went back and filled my glass from a pitcher of water.
So, four hundred years ago, there were nine. Now only eight… Nine is a significant number among the Mages and Priests, while eight has no meaning. I drank the glass dry then refilled it and sipped it in contemplation. Too many coincidences, for some reason that thought alone made me shiver as if a cold draft had alighted upon me.
As I mulled over all the odd clues and the painting I changed into a plain but sturdy leather jerkin. It too reached down past my knees and was made more for rough brush than the formal velvet would have been. I left the collar inside the leather, as the sleeves were more than bright enough to show folks where I was.
I was broken away from my musing by the sound of a loud argument or a debate heading my way. I finished belting my weapons around me when a firm knock from the door resounded into the room. With a grimace I returned to the ruins of my meal and sat. "Enter."
The elderly head proctor made his way into the room along with a few priests and several of the N'relv. "Highness." The proctor bowed slightly in my direction. "We think it would be unwise for you to seek your path at this time.
"Oh, and your reasons for this?" I eyed the B’radians with a frown, they didn't seem happy that I was eyeing them with some irritation.
"The prisoners were not exactly forth coming with information and expired as if under a death curse." I was still giving the B’radian's a hard look. "Also we were informed that you had received a warning."
"A warning, which I am heeding." I had a distinctly angry tone when I next spoke. "I am not turning aside from my path, it is my right under the law. You know the law as well as anyone Proctor."
"Highness, at this time the good of the Kingdom requires that I forbid you."
"Forbid if you want, I am still going." I fairly shouted as my faced grew warm.
"If you have no color to follow, how will you go?"
I glanced at the window to the poles; the single yellow streamer was missing. "You had no right."
He didn't seem too pleased at my anger, "I am Proctor here, even a Heir must bow to the laws that govern the Paths."
I took a deep breath and scowled, "Fine, remove yourself from my sight, your news and intent to meddle in my affairs sickens me."
"Highness I," he stopped taking a step back at my apparently foul look.
I took my dagger from my sheath and threw it at the painting, neatly skewering the ninth post. "Get out. Before I do something even more rash."
"D'na'Ari! Your behavior!" he protested.
"Is often a worry to my father and mother, but it is their worry and not yours anymore. I quit myself of your instruction, as you have ruined my path, you will not ruin the rest of my day. Remove yourself at once or I will have my meddlesome cousins remove you." I gave the B’radians a foul look as I poured myself a fresh glass of wine.
"But you can…"
"Can what? Try again some other time when you can meddle once again? I think not." I debated throwing the wine at him, as it would be in keeping with my so called 'bratty nature', though I hated to waste a decent wine.
My eyes darted to the post in the painting that my dagger was piercing. I forced my eyes down into my cup and bit my lip to keep from laughing. To the hells with them, I didn't need their blessing if I found the right path.
"I am sorry Highness," he said seeming contrite by his posture.
"I doubt that." I slipped the stiletto from its sheath in my braid. I singled out one of the B’radians and pointed the tip at him. "Remove him and yourselves, I would be alone for a time, if you remain in my sight much longer I will do something rash."
I speared the Priests a glance, then I singled out the eldest of them. "I would have words with you sir, the rest should leave as well."
"As you will." He didn't seem happy to be singled out for an interview. Though I did like the colors of his cassock, deep red and a single flame of embroidered gold.
Once the Proctors and B’radian's had left and the door closed once more, I motioned him to a chair. "Forgive my temper Sworn One."
"I can't say it is not entirely unwarranted child." He smiled and noted my stiletto.
I took a few moments to recover my other dagger, easing it from the painting with more care than I had thrown it, and to replace the stiletto in it's proper place as well. "I should have tossed this at the Proctor, though I think he may have gotten the point."
"Forgive an old mans curiosity?"
"If you will give me your name."
"Ah, I am Denali, I serve in the temple of the Sword."
"And your question?" I asked.
"You have no intention of going home do you?"
I chuckled, "I try not to lie to a priest or priestess, so if you will forgive me I choose not to answer that question."
"Good," he seemed suddenly cheerful, I crossed the room and picked up my glass of wine and then sat next to him.
"If I were to say, follow as I have been bidden, by a higher authority, would you feel slighted?"
"Hardy child. I was worried that you would give in to the pressures placed upon you," he replied motioning to the door the Senior Proctor had been ushered out of.
I took a sip of the wine, and savored it for a moment. "I tend to do as I will. Were the halls not filled with ears I would say more."
"Indeed," he chuckled deeply, “I have heard that of you.”
I smiled a bit blandly at his comment, "And in truth, if I cannot find my way it won't matter."
"Some times acting to ones nature need not be an act."
"Your aim was true," he answered pointing to the painting.
"Ah more guidance from above?"
"Let us just say you are at a crux, if my words have meaning then act. If not, you fail only if you don't seek."
"It's there then?" I indicated the painting.
"You hit your mark, did you not?"
Oh boy, it was real. "I think so."
"Then act. You have all you need to start do you not?"
I though for a moment, "Aside from a few things, though I may be cold and hungry for a time."
"Is not a worthy task not without some difficulties?"
"Lest you forget the gifts of the Blood Royal, some things you can hide in plain sight." He tapped his own head and stood up. With a mischievous smile he turned to regard me, "I'll remove my meddlesome self from your presence now. If you find your way into a Temple of the Sword, some things may be available for you." He chuckled. "Or not. Find your path child, for all of our sakes."
"Travel in safety Sworn One."
"Oh I think I will be safer than others. If you should go, muddy your trail quickly and frequently."
"I'll give that some thought. Be well."
"And His hand ward you." With that he let himself out muttering loudly about youths that did not mind their elders. I spare him a glance and he winked before bumping into one of the B’radians. "Off with ye you oafs, give the lass her privacy or I'll blister you with my tongue."
One the door closed I chewed on my lip for a time and took a quick inventory of my belongings. I located a few small pouches of coins, which I tucked into my jerkin. I found a wine skin that was partially full and slipped it over my shoulder by its cord. I picked up a small wet stone and I tucked that into the top of a boot.
Much as I wanted one of the blankets I didn't think I could take one with out being obvious as to what I was doing. I did take an apple and the bread and cheese, wrapping then in a cloth so that I could carry them along. I tapped my coronet with the signet ring twice making it vanish from sight.
One of the magicks of the circlet is that if I tapped it three times, then two more times it would turn me invisible for a few hours at the longest. A handy magic if you needed to hide from an assassin or an angry husband. That, only happened once, and well the lady in question lied to me about her not being married.
I added some water to the partially filled wine skin, as it would dilute the wine. It served two purposes, I could swill it and not be drunk, that and once I got moving it would not dehydrate me as much as pure wine would.
I walked to the window, I was happy I was not on the second or third floor, so with the aid of a handy chair and a few needful taps to make me invisible; I was gone. Out the window, passed all the ever so annoying Proctors and B’radians.
I choked back on the impulse to laugh loudly and eased my way carefully around the various knots of people. Once I was near the poles where the rings would have been hanging, I slowed my pace and looked at the scuffed dirt and the patches of grass. For a long moment I just stood there then I went and leaned on a wooden post of the fence.
‘Patterns in the grass’, such a wonderful clue. I hung my head and studied my boots and then my eyes drifted to the fence. Or more precisely the grass that grew up around the fence posts. For a moment I tried to think how the grass would look around a pole, then I smashed the grass down as if it were trodden down by many feet. The crushed grass made a very odd spiral around the fence pole. I felt a slight sense of disorientation as I looked at the eight poles.
I walked back to them and tried to line myself up with them. They were roughly five long strides apart, so I closed my eyes and took six long steps. Nothing. I went to the far end and repeated the process. Step, look, wait for a person to pass, a few more steps and there was a circle of grass. Wanting to be certain, I closed my eyes and took a few more steps.
I stopped abruptly as I ran into something about chest high. I jarred it hard enough that I was not quite seeing stars, but slamming something firmly into your breasts hurts, if you didn't know that. Though at the time I was doing my best not to shout for joy. I looked down to spy the crushed circle of grass, and it was all I could do to not jump up and down in excitement.
Carefully I knelt down to find the base of the pole and I carefully worked my way up to where the rings should be hanging. I found the first hook, it was empty, as was the next. It took me what felt like ten long days, though I am sure it was just moments before I found a strip of time worn strip of clothe and the ring it was attached to.
I took a deep breath and removed it from the pole, as I did so the pole popped into view; I took that as my cue to get away from the starting poles. Surely someone would notice its sudden appearance and I did not want to be found idle like a dumb struck fool. I took a quick look at the top of the pole where various arrows indicated a direction, my direction was due east. There was a number there as well, badly worn but visible, eight. Which meant I had eight leagues to reach the next marker point.
I could feel some markings on the ring as I walked a short ways away from the poles. The rings themselves provide clues to help you find your way to the right place you needed to be at. The proctors were nice enough to have a small sandbox map that showed the local region. A minor magic made sure it was fairly accurate. I put my finger on where the ninth pole, my pole would be and looked to where east would be.
Fortunately, it looked like I had a fair bit of easy travel as a road went due east for four leagues before it turned south. A road, that fortunately had a fairly good amount of traffic as well. That traffic should muddy my trail for a bit. From looking at the map, it also seemed like I would be heading away from the Color Path Region as well.
I shrugged and turned to walk towards the road, ignoring cries of my name, and the sudden hustle and bustle of activity. I needed to get off of the campus before someone bumped into me, and vice-versa. As I walked I could hear some laughter and a few cries of alarm that I was missing. Well if they had not been such idiots they could have followed me discretely. Personally it felt good, I just had to rely on myself, the whim of the gods and a lot of luck. I was free, and it felt right.
For a time I stayed off the road and jogged along side of it, with luck I could get a few leagues covered before the invisibly wore off. I did put the ring on a finger and tied the strip of cloth around my wrist loosely, as I did not want to loose either it or the ring. Surprisingly enough, the ring fit neatly on my right index finger.
When the few hours of my coronet granted invisibly surely had passed and I was still not able to see myself. I moved on to the road and counted myself fortunate that the ring worked as well on me as it did the post. Part of me was wishing I had taken a blanket, though if the weather remained fair, the worst I would suffer would be a few dirt and grass stains.
Occasionally as I walked, I had to get off the road as men and women road by at a gallop. I recognized the tabards of the Kingdom's messengers and several troops of Light Calvary as they made their way to the Color Campus. Inwardly I grumbled, as it was obvious that some people were determined to make things so much more difficult.
I did not want to have to worry about dodging Kingdom Patrols, Mages and B’radians as well. Admittedly I was not so much worried about the random patrol finding me, and I did have a head start on the B’radians. The Mages on the other hand, I sighed, Mages could probably see where I was, though with luck I would soon be deep in the woods.
With that thought, I chuckled, as most human Mages never set foot outside of a city so they tended to only see the trees for the forest. So if I got into the woods undetected, they would be clueless as to my location. If I were in a city, well they could likely tell what ale I was drinking, much less when it left me.
Though if they used a Mage gifted in Divination, I might have some trouble. Divination is the art of locating all nature of things, sometimes those mages dabbled in the paths of the future. Though oft times they choose to see only what is happening 'now'. They could be a real problem as they could tell others where to find me at a certain time.
As time passed I would alter my pace from a jog to a walk. I was trying to cover the twelve miles or four leagues at a quick enough pace that I would hit the forest at the roads turn before dark. I did not want to be near the road if and when the spell on the ring faded.
Eventually the days past events took their toll and I gave up on jogging and merely walked. I was feeling more tired than I thought I should be. Though I was going, doing and acting, which is more than I would be doing if I had bent to the various pressures arrayed against me.
I took a moment to study the road, it was mostly well packed dirt, though I did leave an occasional foot print in the dust. Rather than leave a solid trail of dusty steps, I got off the road and walked by it for a time. The land in summer is filled with a riotous tumult of colors, from the odd flower to the deep greens of the trees and the various grasses. If it were not for overshadowing of the Mage King's rebirth, this journey would be quite pleasant.
For a long time, I just walked, letting the scenery and the calm warm air take my cares away. Though all of the pressure of the day came back when I approached the area where the road turned south away from my path. A row of picketed horses and the presence of men constructing a camp for the night, jolted me wide awake.
I stood there blanketed in anger for a few long minutes, consigning the various members of that camp to the various and sundry hells. Part of me wondered how they managed to find me, the other part of me was pushing me to get into the woods. So I slowly eased off the side of the road into the woods, taking care to make sure I did not leave much of a trail.
I was truly annoyed, and that was putting it mildly. I took the time and sat down in some deep brush, rested my back against a tree. When my stomach growled, I absently remembered the loaf of bread and the cheese. Figuring I was stuck, at least until dark, I went ahead and ate. In all honesty, I was moping.
The Goddess and God’s put me firmly upon this path, so why did everyone have to go and try to muck it up? I made sure to note that the Goddess herself had given me instruction when I passed word via The Blessed One. So I didn't think my present predicament arose from them. Either it was my family, who tended to see me as but a child or it was the Proctors trying to stop me from haring off, as I am sure that’s how they would put it.
I was not sure if B’radians would actively interfere with me, though if they felt bound by their orders they would do so. I sighed quietly in exasperation. This wasn't going to be easy by any measure, it was on that note I drifted into a tired sleep.
Night found me rudely awakened by the loud hoot of an owl. Once my heart stopped pounding like a racing horse, I moved to look where the camp was set up. For a time I wondered if they had posted a guard, then I noted a hint of movement where none should be. Well my father would be pleased at their diligence; I on the other hand was truly irked.
I really did not want to wade north or south in to the woods any further than I had to at night. Though it looked like I would not have a choice in that matter. I looked up to the sky, the moons had not yet risen so I was blessed in that aspect. No sense tempting Fate anymore than I had to, so I turned and walked south deeper into the woods.
A few hundred paces later I made my way to the road and looked north. Fortunately the curve of the road obscured the northern section of the road where the camp was. Seeing no patrol near by nor any guards, I made my way across and deeper into the woods.
Once across I was wishing for a compass, as trekking blindly in a forest was a certain way to get lost. Though once the moons came up I would have a track to follow. Having no good path or route, I merely gave it my best guess and went in that direction for what felt like hours. Much as I wish I could move faster through the trees and the brush in the forest, I could not. Well and be mostly quiet about it anyways.
At night, time passes oddly in the depths of a forest. As the first moon rose I didn't quite notice that I was seeing better. Though by the second’s rise I was able to move briskly among the brush. The twin moons were called Vonne and Venne, for the two gods of love they represented. I counted my good fortune that they were nearly full as it made my travel that much easier. Given the season, namely summer, they easily marked a path across the sky with their own travels.
Vonne, travels slightly to the northeast, and Venne travels slightly southeast. Once they have touched and passed, if you draw a line from them in your head or on the dirt you could approximate the other directions. It is said Venne is much further away from the world than Vonne is, so the two never truly touch; yet in light they caress all of us. I was able to discern east and made an effort to keep them in mind as I walked.
One thing I picked up from my time with the B’radians and my N’relv cousins is some small measure of field craft. A loud night, and night in the forest is by no means quiet; it also means there is no real predator or dangerous beast on the prowl. Which is why when things stopped in a dead silence, I froze.
For several hundred heartbeats the silence pressed heavily on the forest. I knelt resting my hands on the hilts of sword and dagger. In the distance I could hear a heavy crash and then all the frozen life in the forest burst from hiding and flowed in one direction.
One rule of nature is touted by the B’radian's. "If nature flees from an area you had best flee with it." I took a deep breath and ran in pursuit of the various animals that were fleeing. There are so many bad things still living from the Near Ending, such that if nature is fleeing you did not want to stay and find out what caused it to do so.
In those timeless moments of fear, man, N'relv and nature are in accord. We all seek to find a safe place and a safe direction. Taking my path from a bounding deer, I fled with it until it left me far behind. Heart and lungs burning in time with my legs, I finally sprawled under a bank of deep bushes and waited for my lungs to catch up with me. My ears strained trying to hear sounds that indicated a danger was still in the area.
Sweat fairly poured off of me in the warmth of the summer night as I tried to slow my breathing and listen. Slowly as I regained a measure of my breath, I could hear the slow return of life to the land. Either the danger had passed or this area was far enough away from the danger that it was safe. I was happy to just lie there and simply be alive.
I counted a few hundred heartbeats then I crawled out from under the brush and found a tree to use as a rest while I relieved myself. Fear, has an unpleasant manner of ensuring that you are a few pounds lighter. Fortunately for me, I would not need to find a stream to wash my breeks out. Though it was a near thing. Admittedly I am not overly brave, even though I may seem so to others. In the company of my own self, I let the tears come and shakes come and go as they were wont to.
In the comfortable embrace of a different tree, I lay back and looked up to the stars that winked through the trees. "Goddess above as my witness, I will continue, I will endure. Though Gods within me and around me, this is not what I had planned." I sighed, and pulled my knees up to hug them. Sweat had soaked my clothing and I was slightly chilled, even so I drifted off to sleep among the roots of the tree.
The rising sun found me partially buried among the past winters leaves. I suppose I unconsciously moved under them for warmth, though they also afforded me some concealment as well. I checked to make sure I had my pouches and my wet stone. The apple, bread and cheese had vanished in the long hours of walking the past day.
I also noted I was visible, though the ring I had taken from the post was not. I felt the odd and yet hidden markings for a clue to its nature, then I tried to remove it. I quickly found that it was not going to come off, though when I twisted it to the left it appeared. A twist to the right and it faded from view, as well did my finger for a short span of time.
I eased it back to the left and wiggled my finger, as evidently its magic would replenish over time. I took some small comfort in that, though I was not sure of what to make from the markings on the ring. The ring was supposed to provide clues to the next point where it’s successor ring would be found.
Turning it to the left there was a clearly defined start, where the black-work started on the silver band. The first symbol or symbols were a pair of overlaid disks, one smaller than the other: Vonne and Venne. The next symbol eluded me utterly, though it was distinctly familiar, and of the Ston’Kinder or Dwarves if you will.
The next marking was of a person reclining with a cup outstretched on one hand, odd but unclear. The next was the N’relvian symbol for safe water. It was followed by a duplicate of the figure with the cup facing the opposite direction; creating matched set around the symbol of water. The last symbol was that of union or marriage taken from many common alter cloths at weddings.
With those mysteries in mind I stood up and shook the leaves out of the various places they found themselves. Though I did have to dance around a bit with one boot off trying to sort out how an acorn had made its way down a good third of the boot. I suppose that there is a law of magical contagion somewhere that says any foreign object will find its way into a difficult spot to reach.
That settled, I looked about the forest, trees, trees, bushes and more trees. Since I was hungry and effectively, as good as lost; foraging seemed to be the order of the morning. Being summer there was variety of fruits and berries to be had, though nuts would be scarce until next spring. The thorns make getting berries a bitch, so I much would rather someone else do it for me, as some time later I was wishing I had thought to bring gloves.
As long as I only nibbled at the berries and ate but a few of the mushrooms, I would be fine. Though eating too many berries would have me stopping to frequently to visit the trees. I really did not need a laxative or the effects of one while on the march. So I bundled the majority of the berries in the same cloth I had carried the bread and cheese in.
With a glance to the sun I made a rough stab at picking out East and went for it. With luck I would either pick up a road or a river, either would bring me to a village or someplace I would be sure to recall from the long lectures of on map reading. But, I would have to climb a few trees to look for the distant landmarks.
I was definitely not looking forwards to doing that, as I really don't like heights. Though I can climb, my N'relvian cousins had no small bit of fun calling out encouraging advice like "Don't look down." or my favorite, "It will only hurt when you land." While I may have N'relv blood, I don't have their love of heights. Getting stuck some hundreds of feet above ground was not one of my more fun childhood memories.
So it was with some no small amount of trepidation I chose a likely tree. It was magnificent in its own right, a towering giant that easily could have been standing at the time of the Near Ending. I studied the grand old man of the forest and picked out a fairly safe, ok, easy, route to the top. I unbelted my rapier and let it rest against the tree, then added the wine skin and berries. I did not want to get hung up, well hung up more any than my fear would stick to me.
For a time I stood with my hand against the tree and asked it's permission to climb it. You may think it odd, but among the N'relv it is considered a necessary and polite thing to do. Though for some reason they are not sure why the tradition started or persists. I then lifted myself to the first branch, and started the winding path up.
I would like to say that the climb was easy, and that any child could have done it. Unfortunately, when all you can do and think about what your next step or handhold is, you tend to become critically focused. In my case I was breathing fairly hard and sweat was creating its own river down my back.
A good two thirds of the way up, I had to stop and just pretend the world was not spinning and to remember that the light breeze was just that and not a gale. I clung to the tree, letting my head rest against the trunk. It had a soothing odor of maple and some odd spice. I drank it in, letting the smell distract my mind from the certain death a fall would bring.
When I could reopen my eyes I was greeted by an odd sight, a fair arms span from me was an ornately decorated spear. From the wound in the tree, a small amount of sap dripped in time with some hidden heartbeat. The spear itself appeared new, which worried me. Many of the weapons that survived the Near Ending were magical and had some fairly ugly enchantments on them.
For a long time I studied the runes that were along the shaft. My knowledge of runes and such, while not on par with most mages, is fairly adequate. Though for the life of me I could not see the purpose of a Tree Binding. If that was indeed that the first rune was. Runes change like any other language or alphabet, so I while I was fairly sure it wasn't a spell targeted towards humans or N’relv. It did make me curious.
If I have a fault, I would rank curiosity as one of my major ones. If a cat may die of such things, I could count myself lucky to not be a cat. Though if you asked my mother it was debatable. Oddly enough I wasn't so much worried about the odd effects of the spells on the spear as I was of falling.
For an odd moment I found myself reaching towards the spear. I suppose it was the lure of the forbidden or an unknown urge that made me finally reach up and take a hold of the shaft. The odd tingle it gave me only made it so much easier to jerk the spear backwards out of the wood.
In an ever so brief moment my mind and heart convulsed in a shear panic of what I had done; then I felt myself slipping and falling. Unconsciously I dropped the spear and tried desperately to find something to grab a hold of, in that long dreadful sinking moment something wrapped itself around me, arresting my fall.
After a time I became aware of two things; one, I had most assuredly had wet myself, and two I was wrapped up in all manner of branches and tree limbs. In those two thoughts I let myself drift for a time, merely reveling in the fact I was alive. When a deep ancient voice addressed me, I nearly sent my wits into oblivion out of fear.
“You are safe, Child of the Leaves.” I glanced wildly around trying to find the source of that voice.
“Um, thanks, I think. Who are you and where?”
A deep laugh convulsed the tree and I gripped the branches that held me tightly. “I am that which holds ye. I am Ammot Tree-Kin of the Lasages, and you are?”
“D'na'Ari. Pardon my confusion, but I thought Tree-Kin were but myths?”
“Do I feel like a myth?” It gave me a slight shake and my heart fairly stopped for a moment.
“N-no, p-please don't do that,” I stammered out quickly.
“A Child of the Leaves is frightened of heights? What has the world come to?”
I shifted slightly trying to regain some sense of feeling in my leg that was threatening to go to sleep. “Well if you would care to set me upon the earth, perhaps we could talk easier? Or at least I would be able to.”
“Ah indeed.“ For third time in as many moments I found my heart among my throat as the branches swayed and dipped before gently setting me upon the ground.
“Thank you ever so much, kind sir, it is sir? Is it not?”
“Yes,” and the first time I could see the great eyes and mouth of the tree that had addressed me.
“I beg you indulgence kind sir, I need to um, remove a bit of clothing.”
“Fear not child, your modesty is safe as you are hardly of age and of the qualities I would seek in a mate.”
“Thanks, I think.”
It gave a hearty laugh and I felt its eyes shift to look around the forest. While it seemed distracted I stripped out of my sodden breeks. In some small way I was pleased that I had not soiled them as well, though it was disheartening that I had peed myself. I used a bit of the water and wine mix to rinse out the breeks in the vain hope the smell would be easier to take as they dried.
That done I looked up to my benefactor, “So Ammot, baring my ignorance and confusion, how can you be um,…”
“Not dead or not a myth?”
“Well,” I think I must of flushed in embarrassment, ”yes.”
For a time it was silent, “Well, if that spear is any indication, we were forced into a slumber. We can not truly die, save by fire, and then that takes some doing.”
“Oh, then I suppose the next question that bears asking; are there more of you?”
“Indeed, though they slumber too. I think we may owe you a great debt of thanks young D'na'Ari.”
“Please just call me Ari, I have never been one to love the full sound of my name when just talking.”
“Ah, you are not fond of the courtly life for being one of the High N'relv?” it rumbled with a hint of humor in its tone.
“No, not especially, if anything I do my best to escape the court. Though this escape is not exactly one I would have welcomed.”
“You do seem out of sorts, surely the wars have passed? I do seem to have felt the ages pass in my slumber.”
“Yes and no.”
“An odd answer. Yet there seems to be a hint of truth in it.”
I draped my breeks on a handy bush and turned to reclaim my rapier and bundle of berries. “Well some hundreds of years ago, the N'relv and Humans were but fraction of what we once were.”
“How so? I recall the days where I could but keep my limbs free of your young,” it sounded puzzled to my ears.
“Well from what history survived of that time, the Mage Kings in their war against the other races nearly sent us, their own people unto extinction.”
“I do recall the start of that, though I am not sure why the Tree-Kin had fell into a slumber.” It turned, lifting its roots from the ground and resetting them. It picked up the spear then snapped it. “A nasty piece of work.”
“Yes, from what I recall of the legends of that time, the Mage Kings feared what they could not control. If I may hazard a guess, they used those spears or something like it to remove you from aiding their enemies.”
“I do feel my kin asleep hither and yon, though the distances are minor to such as I.”
“So you will be awakening them?”
“Indeed,” it paused then turned to look at me. “What brings you so far from any enclave or city, young Ari?”
“I am on my Trial, and well I am running from a new Mage King it would seem as well.”
“A new Mage King?” it fairly roared it’s concern in that question.
“That is what the Goddess told me.” I gave a half hearted shrug. “I gave warning to the Blessed Ones to pass along. And yet.”
“And yet you are running by yourself, when you could be safe. You are a strange one Ari.”
I shook my head. “Not really, do you recall the Death Magicks?”
“Death Magicks, there are no such things,” it opined incredulously.
“I wish you were right, unfortunately, they were discovered, and used. As it is, someone is turning them against the High Families and if I can find my way again, I may be able to stop them.” I took a breath, “Should the gods grant me success.”
“Find your way? Surely a Child of the Leaves is never lost in the wilds?”
“They are if they are me. Something sent the forest to running, and I was not about to find out what it was.”
“Indeed, that holds true in this age too?”
“Yes, too many things remain from the Mage Wars, yet. Like that spear, so we have learned when to run. Though a good Mage could stop some of those things.”
“Have you no gift?”
“Not enough to light a candle.”
“Yet you are laden with magicks.”
“A pair of rings and other small things yes. None of which are my own gift.”
“That is not what I meant, while you do have those items, to my eyes you fairly glow with the gift.”
I sat down abruptly, “I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I hope you are wrong.”
“Surely the gift is desired?”
“No, well not by me or my family.” I used my signet ring to unhide my coronet, then I removed it to where I could look at the gems. Thankfully, they were dark. I held the circlet to show the dark gems. “If these were alight, I would be unfit for rule.”
“What manner of non-sense is this? Surely a strong Mage is a better defender than an ungifted leader?”
“We had our fill of Mage Kings once, the laws are set to protect the people form their return.”
“Yet you say one is reborn?”
“Unfortunately it is so.”
“Surely you have Mages?”
“Oh most assuredly, but they are given to the preservation of the land, not its rule.”
“That does not sound like an unwise system, so in time your ‘Kingdom’ will marshal itself against this threat.”
“If this Mage King does not bind the people into slavery like the first ones did.”
“Oh, so that would explain the runes on that spear. I thought they looked of your Kin.”
“Sad but true, our people the Human and the N’relv were little more that fodder for the whim and will of the Mage Kings.”
“And the Goddess set you alone for this task?” it sounded bemused.
“Yeah, I guess I am just lucky that way. Still if it’s any indication I did find the first step on my Trial.”
“This Trial is a new thing to me. Though I suppose it is not unlike the coming of age treks the N’relv used to take. Though they used to work in teams.”
“Well, for the most part a Trial is supposed to be a solo venture.”
“If a thing is custom, it generally has a good reason for it to be so.”
“I suppose, then with the Mage hunting me; it would be best to keep it a solitary thing.”
“Are you allowed gifts or aid along your way?” it asked with and air of thought to its voice.
“Yes and no. I can’t ask for directions or aid that directly leads me to the next stage of my Trial. Food equipment and such, it depends on the nature of the gift. The Trial is supposed to be a test after all.”
“You don’t seem particularly well equipped for your ‘Trial’, a set of clothing and a few weapons. Surely they expect their young to be able to finish these ‘trials’?”
I related the events of the past few days and how the Senior Proctor had tried to deny me my Trial. Looking back on it now I felt sort of foolish for not liberating a great deal of things. Ah well, I am not a thief.
After a bit it commented, “So you went anyways. Either you are very foolish or just plain stubborn, if not a bit brave.”
I laughed aloud, falling backwards as I did so, I looked up at him. “Oh if you asked my parents they would say both stubborn and foolish.”
“Indeed, but then that does seem to be the parlance of youth.”
I gave a slow nod, “I suppose. My Grandmother tends to make that point on occasion to my Father. Still, part of me is annoyed at the Proctor’s meddling.”
“So how are you going to find your way?” it asked.
“Well I had planned on finding the road or a river then working from there.” I shrugged, “Some how I got distracted.”
It chuckled loudly, “Fortunately for me and my kin. Hmm, we do owe you something, if only for Chances Favor that you freed me.”
“It was but chance.” I protested.
“You would refuse a gift?” it sounded a bit angry.
“Um no.” Who was I to annoy a Tree-Kin, especially one so huge. I slowly stood up, “I didn’t mean any offense.”
“I am not upset with ye young Ari, though if my Kin were not asleep I would have words with your Proctors.”
I frowned slightly then grinned, “Oh I would love to see the expression on his face when you showed up to discuss the matter.” I gave a half shrug, “He thinks that he is doing the right thing.”
“More like he is afraid,” it said then twisted to look around.
“Not as such, I have been overly long in one spot and some roots are deep.
“Ah,” I took a moment to check on my breeks, perhaps washing them out with a mix of water and wine was not the best idea. They were a tad sticky.
“So how do I reward ye?”
I turned and looked up at him, I took a moment to think. My mother was of the opinion that friends were more worth having than any gift. Lately among the friends of my Color I had found she was right. “Well, Ammot, I can truly think of no finer gift than that of friendship. If you think I am worthy, I would be your friend.”
“What, no jewels or gold?” it asked with a bit of humor in it’s voice.
I looked down at the ground then back up, “Ammot, I can get gold and jewels any day of the week, finding friends is a lot harder.”
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown?” it asked.
“Something like that.” I waved in what I thought was the general direction of the Campus was. “Part of why I even bothered with the Trial was to make friends.”
“An did ye succeed?”
“Yes, though most do not suspect who I truly am.”
“An do you expect those who do not know you to change their thinking?”
“Hopefully not, though it would show me as to what sort of person they are, if it did change them.”
“So you would test those you befriend?”
“Well experience has shown the effect of not testing such things to bring about painful endings.”
“That has the bitter tone of sorrow to it Lass.”
“Truly, it has occurred one too many times at court. I was hoping to avoid even being present as Blood Royal. Though duty required it.”
“Is duty such a hard thing?”
“It can be, I have one face for one occasion and another for the other. In some rare times I can be myself, even if I have to be a woman to do it.”
“You are not normally female?” it sounded a bit incredulous.
“No,” I had to laugh. “Normally I am, if you were to believe the august members of the court; a spoiled young man who does not seem well placed to assume the crown.” I took a bow, “though, I am not exactly what I seem.”
“Ah so you play the Fool to hide the real you?”
I nodded, “My father and mother see through me, largely, and one or two friends. The others…” I waved my breeks around as if side stepping a dangerous beast, “I am able to nimbly avoid.”
“Our kind does not give our friendship or allegiance to kings,” it paused and crouched down to were it could look me in the eyes. “But, to a not so foolish young man or a wise young woman it is easily granted.”
I touched my hand to my head and heart, “May I never betray your friendship or your trust.”
“Indeed that would be wise, as I have a long memory.”
I laughed, “As one would expect.”
It rose to its full height, “So young Ari, can you find your way?”
I fingered the ring, “With some backtracking, yes.” Not to mention a bit of luck I added under my breath. I tucked the half dry breeks into my weapons belt.
“So Ari, if you were of mind, you might walk south east, though I didn’t say that,” it chuckled. “All that vibration on the road, it’s a wonder you didn’t hear it yourself.”
I cocked my head, “Ah, indeed, I must have dirt or something in my ears.”
“Truly my friend you should wash them be for people assume you have rocks in your head as well.” It bellowed in laughter.
“I have been accused of being a bit dense at times. I suppose I must return to my clowning around.” I pantomimed putting on a mask, “See I hide myself once more?”
“One must take care that the mask does not become the person, young Ari.” It took a moment to study me, “Though a fool may act like a king, it does not always suit a king to act like a fool.”
“Gods willing I would rather remain a fool for a long time than to become king or queen for that matter.”
“You will do fine young Ari, now I must leave you to awaken my Kin. Be well and walk gently,” it lifted a limb and waved expansively to the forest.
I waved to it as it turned and moved off into the forest, I stood there for a bit of time. I was amazed that something so large could move so easily and so quietly. I shook myself and looked around, fortunately no one was there to see me gaping like an idiot.
I looked up at the sun then I faced it, as it was still early in the morning. Finding southeast was merely a matter of looking at the sun and then taking a half turn to the south. Forest, trees, and more forest, ah well if it was easy everyone would be doing it, right?
How anyone manages to tell tales of epic journeys and leave off just how mind boggling dull such travels are in truth, escapes me. This was my most predominant thought as I fairly slogged my way through the underbrush and various flora of the forest. Given that the sun had reached roughly noon and I was still not in sight of the road, had me wondering just how far I had ran in last nights wild run.
Admittedly, I had thought I was in only average shape, compared to some of my class. So when I stopped to take a rough stab at guessing how far I had traveled in that mad dash last night; I revised my estimate of what my overall condition was. Either that or I had been walking in circles for some great length of time. On a good day with clear roads I could walk a league at a brisk pace in about an hour give or take a quarter. In the woods, perhaps an hour and a half and that was being generous. So when three hours had more or less passed, I was a bit concerned.
In all fairness I could hope I was not wandering aimlessly; I did keep the sun on the left side of my face as best I could. Which should have kept me more or less facing south-southeast, not to mention giving me a slight warmth that promised to blossom into a mild burn by the end of the day. True, fear does add a great deal to what any man or woman might accomplish in a panic, so I was not exactly depressed when I stopped a bit at noon.
I broke my fast with a few mushrooms and a handful of berries, of which I washed down with the luke-warm, watered down wine. I think in my next great escape from things I will empty a larder on the way out, surely a nice ham or sausage would do well about now. I gave myself a rueful snort and debated on the odds of my achieving such an escape again. The words slim and not even, fairly rolled through my mind.
Being grateful for what you have and not what you desire is the basis of a great many religions; none of which I totally subscribed to. Yea, I do give thanks to the Lady and her Lords, I just don't go out of my way to suffer for it either. From what of my own looking through the holy books, the gods ask more for you to use common sense and respect them, not that you should expect them to hand you a banquet.
I was a bit hungry, as all my thoughts seemed to turn to food or feasting, not a bad thing of itself. It is however, not helpful when you are trying to forget that mushroom is not venison, much less berries not being jam on a loaf of bread. My mood was nearly as sour as the last berry that I devoured, so while I sat and debated a great many far distant diplomatic positions to send one Senior Proctor to 'oversee'; I was at first quite pleased to note a small wild piglet make its way near me.
Mind you I was only happy for a brief moment, as the notion that Momma Boar was not likely to far behind, sunk in as well. The sound of something heavy moving in the brush did wonders for banishing my fear of heights. So it was with some rude displeasure I found myself, for the second time of the day, up in a tree. I would like to say my sudden lack of fear was largely due to an effort of iron will and determination, but then I would be lying. The true impetuous to my sudden lack of fear for heights was doing its best to scar the tree I was in, up with its large and very sharp tusks.
Momma boar was not happy with me to say the least. If it had words to speak I am sure they would fill the glen with things like, baby killer, murderer and the like. For I had, after a longish moment of reclaiming my wits and my breath, taken a moment to throw my dagger at one of its baby piglets. Yes momma boar was pissed, I on the other hand, planned on enjoying a fine dinner of roast piglet over a hot fire. Once of course, momma and the rest of her sort left the area, which might take a while.
A long while… a very long while. So long, that in many ways I was quite happy that I was quite alone on this journey. If only to save my ever so abundant pride from the social scaring it would undertake from all the rude jests about being treed by a boar. No I am not overly prideful, though one must do his or her best to maintain some humor about themselves in the worst of situations. Evidently I was in some great comedy, and had yet to discover it for myself.
Still, finding myself up a tree was helpful, even if you discounted my angry audience of the moment. In the few long minutes after the shock of being chased up a tree and decreased the population of a wild swineherd by one, I discovered that I was in a fairly sturdy Pine tree. I also discovered the road Ammot has sent me in the direction of.
For a time I filled the air with a few of my own oaths, and I can assure you my vocabulary is quite colorful when I give it vent. I was viewing the ‘road’ Ammot mentioned with some disgust. No, I was not cursing Ammot. Please do credit me with knowing not to hurl invectives at beings who can reach over battlements with ease. Yes he was not in the vicinity to hear me. But, the forest does have ears.
The thing that truly had my ire was the fact that the road he set me upon to discover was overgrown. Overgrown by a few hundred years. Though that may have been over-exaggeration on my part. In truth I was not exactly displeased by my discovery, as I now knew with in a few leagues of where I was. Sadly, I was now ever so much further from my destination.
It did appear in my rampant fear inspired dash last eve, I had made a large half circle. I was firmly in the vast expanse of the Color Campus territories. A glance of the surrounding hillsides and various outpost towers scattered in the distance along the way merely confirmed this. Once I thought to look for them, as there are times when my own stupidity both astounds and annoys me.
On the bright side of all of this, I sincerely doubted anyone would look for me back on the campus. On the dark side, I had several additional leagues to make my way to the campus proper, and the still same eight leagues to get to my original destination. If I was the chosen of the Goddess for this task, surely she was having a good laugh.
I laughed for a bit recalling the old wag that cited, “Those that the gods destroy, they first make mad.” No I wasn’t crazy, ok maybe just a bit ‘off’. Yet still, I had to give credit to the Gods for the jest they had placed in my life. I also made a promise to never hint to the Gods, while in a temple that I was bored with my life, ever again.
Somehow I made it safely down to the base of tree after the swineherd had moved off. Finding my dagger took a few moments longer, for while the boars had not been cannibalistic, they had nosed the dead piglet around for a bit. Gutting and cleaning the piglet was a few short minutes work as I left the entrails and such to lie in the dust. Normally I would prefer to bury such things, though nature does tend to cleanse the earth of such things. Having naught but a dagger to dig with, such things will happen.
Counting myself fortunate to know where I was, and having a few meals to ward against the odd chance of starvation. I set my way upon the road for a time, if only to save myself the burden of beating through the brush. In some ways I did chide myself for trying to rush the gods’ timetable.
They say; “In all due time, doth the wheel turn.” Inwardly I shrugged, homilies and platitudes I had in abundance, I would have preferred a solid map and a compass. So when I tripped and fell over a Ston’kinder I was a bit shocked.
The Ston’kinder or if you like, a Dwarf, was imitating something not quite dead. Oh he was breathing, if the sick sounding snores were any indication. Though Ston’kinders as a whole were supposed to be a ruddy and hardy race, not pallid and gray. I took a moment to snort in disgust at how the Gods had maneuvered me about. Still one does not argue over much with the Deities if they insist someone live or die.
I was fairly certain they intended the Ston’kinder to live, why else would I have tumbled upon him? Some might argue that Fate never directly tosses the dice; in my case I oft have thought that she doth gamble and with frequency. So it was with mild bemusement that I set about finding what ailed him.
Ston’kinder, are by nature, not quite tall, nor overly fat. If one was less than generous they might say that a tall rain barrow would make a fair casket for a Ston’kinder. While I may not agree with the unjust and unkind statements about the race as a whole; he did have a certain solidness about him that made getting his pack off a challenge.
He had a coal black shock of hair on his head, and the makings of a beard of the same color. A peek at his eyes, apart from a slight unhealthy yellow tinge, showed them to be a dark blue. He was wearing a dark green tunic, which, given the shortness of his beard and almost youthful appearance put his age at about a hundred, give or take a few decades. It also would place him as being a member of one of the prior Color’s classes.
I did credit him with a low whistle as I noted a thin metal chain about his neck that held eleven rings. The ugly little bugger was a first. Ok that was unfair, though if I judged Ston’kinder beauty in comparison to a High Court N’relv, it would be vastly unjust. If I compared him to another Ston’kinder he might just be handsome; myself, I put him down as rugged, and left it at that.
The slight yellow tinge in his eyes had me somewhat concerned, as it indicated either a poison or an infection of some sort at work. Getting him out of the boiled leather cuirass he wore took some doing, though I did note a few odd dimples along one side. A second look down to his trews and buttocks gave me a moment’s pause.
In the gap above his tall boots were several small seeping holes in the cloth of his trews. I shook my head some and shrugged, his modesty was not my concern. So I took on the annoying task of dropping his trews so his shanks were exposed.
While cacti are not indigenous to this region, if not the continent as a whole, I had only seen a few outside of special gardens. As to plants with thorns on them there were a few trees, flowering bushes and one very ugly hold over from the Mage Wars. The trees themselves, are largely not poisonous, though the Onwak a carnivorous bush-cum-bramble patch was. If I was not mistaken, from the few bits of thorns that stuck out from the wounds on one cheek, he ran afoul of one.
Some people think the Onwak were designed to be a form of natural shield wall or aggressive fencing for someplace you wanted to protect. In truth some people do place bramble berries and roses around their homes to act as such. Though if a Mage created Onwaks as such, he made a great error.
The Onwak plants look fairly harmless, though it is quite the predator, if not an immobile one. A colony can span a few hundred feet in diameter, and with the various gripping vines and spike laden limbs they feed fairly well. The scent of their flowers is intoxicating, and are sought after carefully for perfumes, and while the intoxication from the flowers is not the danger, the spiky thorns are. Fortunately the spikes are not cast or launched in any manner, aside from being entangled in the moving vines. So the poor chap at my feet had blundered into one.
Fortunately for him, it takes a great many spikes to kill a hardy human. Even more of such to kill a Ston’Kinder. As it was, he was likely just very ill and possibly suffering from some infection as well. I counted some six sites that seeped an odorous clear fluid and I thought him quite lucky that gangrene had not occurred.
I took a few minutes to tumble his pack and pulled out the medical kit that all the classes were supposed to know how to use. I located a small pot and a flint and steel and set them aside. At the bottom was a brass hunting horn, though I was loath to use it, his health would suffer if I did not summon aid.
I lifted it to my lips and blew out two long notes, a quick triplet and a second pair of long notes. After which I took the blanket from the pile and covered him with it. A long minute or so later I could hear a faint horn in the distance. I echoed the call and tucked the horn into my belt. I needed to gather things for a fire if I was going to be up a long part of the night with a signal fire, and tending to his wounds and my dinner.
Part of me was very angry, I do admit. I know, one should not be angry at the saving of a life, I was just frustrated by the whole turn of my course and events. Though if I used the magicks of the circlet and the ring once again I should elude any seekers. I had enough problems with having to do everything against the grain as it were. I did not need to have to face a phalanx of angry proctors as well.
Once I had a good fire going, a pot of water on for the poultice and a portion of the piglet cooking on a stick. I found that I would be forced to remove my sleeves to make bandages, as the Ston’kinder had evidently used the few clean ones he had been issued for something other than bandages. I made a rude noise and took the time to do so, viewing the solomnent Ston’Kinder with a bit of annoyance.
By the time the sun was dropping from site I had cut the thorns free from his buttocks, cleaned and sewn him up. Every so often I would sound the horn to bring the rescuers in closer. I did take a few items from his pack, namely the arrow points, and the few bowstrings he obviously was not going to need along with the flint and steel. I also liberated his tarp and the ball of cord that went with it. Then I packed the rest back away, keeping the medicines handy.
I figured the fire and blanket would keep him warm and safe if I had to duck into the woods again. I do admit some guilt to taking those other items, though for the services rendered I don’t think he would complain over much. I did ensure that I had cooked a fair portion of the piglet for the both of us, and the searchers once they arrived.
From the sound of the horns in the far distance, I would have a few hours watching over him before I needed to be away. I killed the time drawing the symbols from the ring over and over again in the dirt. After about the tenth time I was jolted from my introspection of the symbols by my patients awakening with a cough.
I spent a few moments dribbling the diluted wine from my skin into his mouth. A bit of time and his coughing passed to where he could speak. “An elf?”
I rolled my eyes, “Please, if you would be so kind as to not call me an elf, I will not call you a squat.” I tapped his bandaged buttocks with a hand. “You should be kind to your healer you know, as they tend to know where it smarts the most.”
He about yelped aloud at my not quite gentle tap to his posterior. “Had me my axe I would rend your hands from your body, wench.”
I took him by his beard and gave it an ungentle tug, “Should you want to keep this you should remember your manners, Ston’Kind.” As he flailed weakly at me I easily stepped out of his reach.
I walked over to the fire as he grunted and described me in very unflattering terms, not to mention maligning my parentage. I did my best to remember the few curses that were unusual and ignored the rest. I made a deliberate point of eating slowly in front of him and out of reach. “So have you exhausted your vocabulary and wish to return to a more genteel manner?” Yes, I was baiting him a trifle, once he got excited enough to cough the rest of the crud out of his lungs he would be in better shape.
As you might expect he launched off into another verbal assault, of which dropped into the coughing fit I had hoped would ensue. Once I was sure he was done coughing and had some more wine, I handed him a stick with some cooling pork on it. He gave me a very dark look, but he did eat the first portion with speed, and slowed to a deliberate pace on the next.
For a time he ignored me and I him. I returned to my musing as he lay quietly, though his eyes did follow the patterns I was drawing over and over. I blew the horn and waited for the answering call, much closer. Ah well, I took some time to gather up the tarp and the pouch I had made with the other items.
“Thief,” he grunted.
“That’s a poor attitude to take, I must remember that should I see you hale and hearty, to knock some sense into your head.”
“Ha, a puny thing like you?” he fairly chortled, which I took as a good sign.
“I am not puny, lithe, svelte and agile, but never puny. Oh thick and lumbering oaf,” I twitted back at him.
“I do not lumber. I,” he paused, “mine.”
“Ah grubbing in the dirt you mean?”
“Argh! Devils take you Elf!”
“They might have had you, show some manners or I will lead your rescuers a merry chase and you will have to suffer my company another few days.” I walked to the fire and made motion to extinguish it.
“Gah, anything but that. Fine, you are an outstanding example of all things N’relv, right down to your trice be-damned ringed eyes.”
The allusion to having three rings in my eyes was a minor point but I gave him a fluid bow. “Was that so hard kind sir?”
“Bah, you are worse than my mother.” Oh dear he’s complementing me, I think.
“So do you have a name, oh First and late of the Greens?” I enquired.
“No such thing as late. I would grace you with my full name but your lips would profane the noble house it arises from.”
I picked up a handful of dust and let it sparkle into the fire slowly.
“Wait, wait. Gods woman have you no sense of humor?”
I blinked, that was humor? “Evidently not as you would recognize it kind sir.” For a moment the sarcasm passed by him in the darkness then he erupted into gales of laughter.
“Ah, it is a pity you were not of my class, unlike that other trio. Ever so stuffy and dry.” He looked over to me, “My friends would call me a bit daft if I let the only N’relv with a sense of humor escape without sharing my name. I am called Okann, by those I would call friend.” He held his hand out.
I went over and shook it gravely, “I am called D’na’Ari, though my friends call me Ari.”
“D’na…” He looked at me for a moment, “D’na’Ari, as in the heir?”
I nodded and sat, “I have that misfortune.”
“Blast me for an arse. I’ve done gone and made a right mess of things have I not?” He almost sounded contrite.
“Not as such as I would remember.” I smiled at him. “I was to touch hard on you, but you did need to clear the cobwebs from your lungs and head.”
“The N’relv remember everything.” He chuckled and winced slightly. “I don’t suppose you have a remedy for pain by any chance?”
“None that is safe to give you out here. It would make you weaker than you should be at this time.” I pointed to his buttocks, “Onwak thorns, if promptly removed, would not have made you so ill.”
“I know that. I did not plan to go rampaging through the forests either, is all of your land so untamed?”
“Well the Trial Lands are largely left wild, else wise there is no test to the Trials. Though there should not have been any Onwak colonies on it.”
“Ah, I think that may have been my own fault, I got off course a tad. Although the result was worth it.”
“Being a First?”
“Indeed, I will be able to plunder the libraries of your kingdom for a few paltry years of extra service.”
“Well, I do intend to read quite a bit.”
“So you are literate?”
“Are ye teasing me lady?”
“A bit,” I conceded with a grin.
“I would have you know Ari, that I am quite the scholar, which is why I was able to garner my last ring.”
“I would have figured you to be a warrior.”
“Indeed, I am, though not to the extent of some of my kin. I plan on being a leader, not a follower. Your kingdom does produce solid generals.”
“Thank you. So you will be heading to the capital once you recover?”
“Aye and a good alehouse as well.”
“You might find the company in the Flaming Dragon a bit rough, if not odd, though the drink is good.” Odd was a mild word for it, but hey a good jest is often subtle.
“Well, should I find ye there, I will get ye properly soused and we will sing until they throw us out.”
“I will look forwards to that.” I was tracing things in the dirt again.
He looked down at the symbols and after I had drawn the second one he spoke, “Temples or staves?”
I blinked, “Beg pardon?”
“A coin, you flip it, Temples or Staves. You find that mark on the Kren piece.” He pointed to the symbol. “The Kren piece, I think it trades equal to the Sovereign, a gold.”
For a moment I sat there then I shook my head, if I had thought to look at my coins I might have figured it out sooner. “I am so daft at times.”
“Ah, not so daft. Only a scholar would know that mark for it’s meaning, as it is over four hundred years old.”
“Fate throws dice,” I commented with what felt like a rude grimace on my face.
“Yea and verily.” I stood up when the horn sounded and then I sent my reply after it. “They should be here shortly, and as such I must be off.” I placed a few more large chunks of wood on the fire to build it up, I placed the horn in his hands.
“If you encounter a Revered Mother at the campus ask her, else speak to the priests. But for my favor, I pray you will not say my name for the space of a few days to anyone else.”
“If they ask who helped me, who should I say was here?”
“A N’relv called Jonne.” I draped the rolled tarp over a shoulder and stepped out of the circle of light provided by the fire.
“Travel safely Ari, I’ll keep my peace but I will want the tale later.”
I called back, “Until later then.”
I paused, listening to the night, when my eyes adjusted I walked quickly into the forest and hid under some thick brush. I was going to stay there until he was in the hands of the rescue party, then I would be off.
After a time.
(Thus endeth the chapter but not the tale.)
Historical Clothing Glossary:
I did a bit of looking and such on the web for accuracy, the following information can be skipped if you like :) -Renae
Bandeau - A strip of cloth used to cover the breasts and or to give a measure of support and surcease to those over-endowed without the need for or desire to wear a corset. Frequently in the ages of our own world, such things were either worn or were not, depending on ones modesty, and the cost of cloth.
Braies - are short linen trousers over which are worn the hosen (long stockings). More or less, the forerunner of modern underwear. Hardly glamorous and if you need a good mental image, take a pair of old sweat pants and hack off ¾ of the legs, then add extra draw strings and a few buttons to keep the hose up with.
Breeks - Female underwear for the lower body. These looked something like running shorts or swim trunks, but of course with tie strings rather than elastic. Very similar to Braies. A noted example from European history, comes from all places; ST. Joan of Arc’s own clothing.
Hose(hosen) - Stockings worn in the stead of the modern trousers and jeans we are so familiar with. To a large extent they were either specifically made to fit their owner or wrapped with a ribbon or banding to keep then up and in place. In our own history, largely the hose(n) were worn predominantly by the males. They were not joined to briefs other than by use of buttons or to an under belt.
Trews - trousers, pants whatever and however you want to call them again held up largely by a drawstring. The belt in general parlance was worn over the outer tunic or clothing, if everything is in the right place, the outer belt does keep most things up. A second under belt may be worn as well, though the use of belt loops had yet to be invented.