First Among Fools
Chapter Four - The Road Less Travelled
We had reached Kerlith’s cave just as the moons were growing bright in the sky, evidently Kerlith was used to maneuvering this part of the forest as we had picked up the pace once deeply in it. Her cave was sizable, though riddled with small passageways that lead off deeper into the darkness. Evidently she had spent some time there as it looked like a small enclave had invaded the caverns.
Torch in hand we guided the horses into deeper into it, “It’s not much, but it is comfortable and very few people are likely to wander in announced.”
“How did you find it?”
“Some dam fool of a farmer had shot a bear and it turned man killer, I ended up tracking and killing the beast. But not before it had maimed a child.” She pointed to a hide that was stretched out in front of the tent and wood structure.
I pointed to a small shelter off to one side where a shadow of a person was highlighted by a candles light on its canvas wall. “Friend of yours?”
“Well so much for privacy,” she sighed dramatically then she whistled loudly, sending a small echo though the cave. “Hail the camp!”
At the sound of something dropped, and a half muttered curse, she beamed and she poked my shoulder, “Serin is not a bad sort, though I will warn you that he is a bard.”
“Oh wonderful, should I run away or just kill him now?”
She smirked then tapped my horn, “Tuck that away so you don’t get asked a few hundred uncomfortable questions Jonne.” From the way she stressed my name I was not going to be allowed to be me here either.
“Right.” I dismounted and winced as my legs complained from being on the horse all day. I found my pack and worked the horn inside just in time to see Kerlith swept up into a hug by Serin, I noted that she wasn’t too unhappy to see him from the kiss they shared.
Serin was a hand or so taller than I was, his black hair was loose and reached nearly to his buttocks, though I could see from the waves in it that he had evidently worn it braided. He was wearing a shirt that was a very garish green, though the dark black vest he wore over it did mute that some. His face while tanned, seemed to be ruddy from too much sunlight and there was a hint of peeling skin on his nose. He was barefoot at the moment, and evidently not given to being with out shoes of some sort, as his white feet contrasted sharply with his black pants.
By the dim light that shown out of the fabric he was not too hard on the eye and I felt a slight pang of loss; as they seemed entirely lost in their greetings. I saw a hitching post and walked the horses to them and tied them in place, as the two made happy noises at each other. I suppose I should not be jealous, though I had to admit a hint of something there. I had loosened the girth straps and removed the bags by the time they found their way to me.
“Serin, this is Jonne, she’s on Journey so mind your manners.”
“I am always courteous among ladies,” he smiled brilliantly in the dim light and bowed his head, his eyes glinted with the odd colors of the Kin though his ears were more rounded.
I had the sudden impression from Kerlith’s wry grimace that she thought Serin was overfull of himself. I bowed gracefully and looked at him with an appraising eye, from the embroidery and the tooled pattern on the vest I was mindful of some of my more foppish friends. “Pleased to meet you.”
“So Jonne, where are you from?”
I hastily remembered the name of the enclave given me as Jonne’s home, “Oak Basin.”
“I can’t say I have been there, though I do get around. Jonne is a human name correct?”
“It’s my use name.”
He nodded, and looked down at Kerlith, “Are you borrowing trouble again?”
“Yes you.” He looked back to me, “A great many people are looking for a N’relv child called Jonne, that would be you?”
I sighed, “Do one good deed and what becomes of it? Naught but headache and annoyance.”
“I don’t think they mean you harm, Jonne. As the Heir had vanished about the same time you appeared, from what I am given to understand.”
“Well I don’t have time for their misconceptions or confusion.”
“I would not worry to much Jonne, evidently they will figure out the Heir is well, if not wanting to be found.” She looked at me with a hint of mischief, “It’s fairly obvious that the Heir approves of Jonne, even if she is a bit young.”
“I think he was just lonely,” I felt myself flushing for no good reason under her wicked gaze.
Serin smiled and Kerlith chuckled throatily, “Oh is that what it was?” she asked while looking intently at my face. “I think she doth protest too much.”
“Perhaps, so Jonne do have you have any set destination on your Journey?”
I shrugged, “Well they say knowledge guides, so I am seeking after it.”
“A scholar then?”
“Not really, I was given a riddle at the start of my Journey and since it amuses me, I am trying to solve it.”
“Your guiding elder must have an odd sense of humor.” He smiled, “As curious as I am now am, I think I will give you your privacy. Though when your Journey is passed I may seek you out for the whole tale.”
I shrugged though I was tempted to give Kerlith a sour look for setting a Bard to my trail. “We shall see what the future brings.”
“Speaking of songs and tales, you might find your way to the forest near the temple Tamorah serves at. I think you might find events there, fit to be a song.”
“Oh? What manner of trouble have you bestirred now my dear Kerlith?”
Kerlith chuckled and took a pack from the horse, “Grab your pack Jonne, and this lout can settle the beasts for the night.”
“Oh that is hardly fair Kerlith, awaken my curiosity then run me off with the beasts.” He protested with a smile as he took the reins from the hitch, “You know I will not rest until I have the tale or the start of it anyways.”
“Shoo, Jonne needs to eat and so do I, now if you have a gallon of good mead or so…”
He groaned theatrically, “Woman, you know I can’t travel sober.”
“I’ll take that as a yes,” she pointed to a brace of gutted but not yet cleaned rabbits, “if you skin them I’ll awaken my stove and fix us a proper meal.” At his suddenly eager expression she added, “Serin can cook, but he tries to burn everything, including the water.”
“Ack, such abuse!” he called after her.
“Only the truth!” she called back from inside the shelter.
Following her inside I rested the pack on the floor as she went back outside with a glass lantern, of which she hung from a hook. A second pass in and out and she lit a long taper from the torch, “A few moments and we shall have light.” She carried the burning taper passed me and with a quick kiss she moved deeper into her home, pausing now and again to spark light to various candles and lanterns.
“Is there anything I can do?”
She paused to point out the door, “If you would put out the torch, it would help.”
I walked out side noting the bright colors of her home as it was alit from inside. There was a barrel of sand sitting under the torch holder that glinted with bits of charred wood, so I used that to smother the torch. I was tempted to try and relight the torch with magick, though I had yet to get the knack of making a stick burn just yet. Shrugging a decided to wait on practicing for a time, I was slightly chagrined to remember I was tracked more by my trail of burnt sticks than by anything else.
Before I could get too annoyed by my evident carelessness I moved back inside to see Kerlith stuffing wood into a metal stove. “This is my baby,” she patted the stove, “It will makes the whole house warm and heats water for bathing.”
“How did you get it here?”
“One yard at time, yet I had a wagon to get it to the cave.”
“And the water?”
“There is a spring that is a lower part of the cave, it runs low during the early fall and in the winter is colder than the blazes.”
“Do you have an outhouse?” I asked as my body complained at me.
“Yes,” she pointed down a hallway, “take the passage out and go down to the left with a torch or lantern. It’s easy to find.”
I passed Serin on the way out the door and took his lantern from him, he nodded amiably and disappeared into the house humming a tune. I took my time finding the outhouse as while I wasn’t exactly in a hurry to use it, and the cave was interesting to look at. Looking up I could see the occasional dark spot that moved, bats or something like them I supposed. Still, I made a point of rattling the outhouse door just incase something had take up residence inside.
The trip back was much faster though I was feeling a bit tired. I noted the wild hunt seemed to have caused every muscle to be over used, and that sitting on a horse all day did not help matters. So when I took up residence in a chair in the kitchen I groaned tiredly.
“You both seem worse for wear, did Kerlith keep you up into the wee hours of the night?”
Kerlith chuckled and walked over to lay a soft kiss on my cheek, “No, as much as I might have wanted to, she is under an oath of service and we were a bit too battered for it to have been any fun.”
“Battered?” he asked looking suddenly angry.
She lifted her shirt up to show her own collection of scrapes and bruises, “Though I was much worse before this.”
“Who dared…” he started to rise and Kerlith stopped him with a kiss then she seemed to ask me a question with her eyes.
At my shrug she nodded, “Have you heard tell of odd raiders and soldiers in the land?”
“Some, mostly I chalked it up to bandits.”
“They are from outside of the kingdom, soldiers of a new Mage King.”
With a wave of exhaustion that swept over me, I yawned tiredly and Kerlith frowned halting Serin’s questions with a wave, “Jonne, you should rest as dinner will take some time anyways.”
“You could be right.” I suppressed a second large yawn, “I feel about done in.”
“Come,” she turned to look at Serin, “go fetch your mead, and maybe after a glass it will loosen my tongue.”
“You are a vexing lady, first you rile me for battle then set me a mystery, and then you want my drink in the price of it.”
“Oh Serin, you are a dear, yet poor Jonne needs to rest and the tale is worth the cost.”
I blinked tiredly at him as he nodded, “Fine I shall fetch it and we shall see if the tale measures up or not.”
She led me down a long hall to a room was largely walled in with wood yet the roof was more like a tent, she closed the door and kissed me deeply. “My poor Jonne, don’t mind Serin; as he is quite the gentleman and adventurer. Not to mention he is good in bed, of which you will have to wait to discover.”
I sighed and rested my forehead on her shoulder and held her for a few moments, “I will admit some jealousy.”
She laughed softly. “Don’t be jealous of that one, his heart is to big for any one woman, at least thus far.”
I nodded and she pulled my shirt up out of my belts, “Ever the ladies man?”
“Yes, I think he became a Bard largely to keep the angry husbands at bay.” She walked over to a dresser and picked up a small earthen pot, “Let me see to your back and then I must return before he comes traipsing in here.”
I carefully removed my shirt gasping slightly at where the shirt had stuck to a spot. “I think you are either taking a horse with you on the morrow or resting here another day. The Gods can not expect you to haul that pack of yours around on top of this.” She tapped a spot high on my shoulder causing me to hiss.
“You could be right,” I said moaning softly as she worked the contents of the pot into my scrapes and bruises.
“Great Goddess child.” Was the shocked voice from the door, and Serin fairly stormed into the room, “Who dare do this?”
I was amused to see his attention on my back rather than my bosom, “They are dead, so it doesn’t matter.”
“Doesn’t matter she says,” he handed me one of the two skins he was carrying, “Drink and lets get you abed, you are evidently much worse for wear than Kerlith is.”
Kerlith chuckled softly and kept slathering me with the balm as I took a few hefty swallows of the mead. “I was using her bow, and Jonne here went through a few blades in that night.”
“I want to know the whole of it Ker, and I won’t take no for a answer.”
“Jonne,” she paused and moved to where she could see my face, “I know Serin is able to keep his mouth shut, but there is no need for you to wear yourself out with the telling of it.”
I nodded feeling the mead light a small fire in my belly, “I trust you, though I should eat.”
“Take a few more swallows and I will bring you a plate after a time. Though if you are lost to a deep sleep, it will keep till the marrow.” She pointed to a worried looking Serin, “You out, she needs her peace.”
He nodded slowly, “I will be in the kitchen.”
She waited until he was down the hall then nudged the skin, “Drink, so how much dare I tell him?”
I took a few more swallows as she guided me to a chair and helped me out of my boots, “Use your own judgment, if he can handle the truth without abusing it overmuch.”
She chuckled, “Well he will likely try and follow you for days on end if he thinks there is a song in it; so we should not tell him that you are the Heir just yet. Though he isn’t stupid, he will likely figure it out in time.”
“As long as he doesn’t bring trouble down on my head,” I sighed. “Doing this all alone has been tiring.”
“Well for the night you are safe and can truly rest, so do so.” I stripped out of my trews and she shook her head and said, “I should be the one so battered. Ok, on the bed, lets getthe rest of you anointed, and then I shall see to the questions Serin will pose.”
I lay down and she spent a few moments fussing with the room before she returned to putting the balm on me. She was mostly silent though she started to hum what I think was a lullaby, for shortly after that I was asleep.
I awoke once in the night from a confused dream, and had made a quiet trip to the outhouse afterwards. I could make out some soft sounds that had nothing to do with violence coming from Serin’s small house. I smiled in the soft light of the lantern and returned to my bed, I considered teasing Kerlith in the morning but she did seem frustrated by my oath. Hell I was frustrated by it.
I did eat, though the rabbit and tubers were not quite cold, as evidently I had slept for several hours. A few more mouthfuls of the mead eased my path back to sleep and it was with a contented sigh that I slipped back in bed. The scent of the salve and what I think was her scent and a light perfume eased my way back into sleep.
I don’t remember when she joined me in bed, though I remember her light touch sending me back to sleep after I awoke panting a few times. I am not sure when I woke up though I could hear the soft sounds of a harp further down the hall. A gentle touch on one of my sore spots cause me to hiss softly, though the kiss next to it felt nice.
“Did I drag you away from a warm body?”
She laughed lightly, “Not really, he snores.”
“Ah,” I turned to see her smiling at me. “Evidently I was tired.”
“Yes, Serin is going to run off with your boots.”
“Yes you and he are close enough in size, and he has a pair of old ones that are in decent shape. He is going to head to that forest then go off east, he isn’t too shabby in the forest and he has been burning twigs all morning.” She chuckled and tapped me on the nose, “Your trail of sticks is going to become very handy.”
“What happens when they find him?”
“Oh he will think of something.” She giggled, “if worse comes to worse he can always plead bardic immunity.
I lay back to see him standing in the door way, “Are you aware of how much trouble you might be borrowing.”
“Oh I think the song will be worth it.” He eased the remains of my meal to the floor then took the stool it was sitting on for himself, “Besides it is a small thing compared to what you are doing.”
Kerlith eased up beside me and nodded, “If you are going today I am going with you, you are hardly fit to travel wearing your pack. Your back is a mass of yellow and green bruises, and while they are not purple, of which I can only thank the Goddess for. You should not push it.”
“I don’t feel that bad.”
He chuckled, “Well in any case you will have to wait for your clothing to dry. I took the liberty of dumping them into my laundry this morning while you slept.” He smiled deviously, “and while you might fit into my boots, you are not tall enough to wear my clothes.”
“You are a devious man.”
“Thank you Jonne, from you that is high praise.”
Kerlith laughed aloud, “Considering you have been fast and loose with the truth, my dear Jonne, it cannot hurt to have someone as devious as a bard on your side.”
I grumbled under my breath but I nodded, “Ok you win.”
He smiled and with a lazy flourish rose up to bow, “It will be fun Jonne, and besides how often does a bard pick up on the start of the story rather than the end?”
“I have no idea, though if you get the details wrong I will trounce you later.” I growled at him and his smile only widened.
“Then I should be on my way before you are fit to fight. I will leave you my palfrey, it is a sturdy beast if a bit tame.”
“I can’t say where I will be able to leave it.”
He shrugged, “I will have yours so it will not matter. At the worst I will have a few days walking before I can fetch a new horse. Though once the week has past I will be spending some time walking that forest looking at the battle and talking to the people who fought in it.”
“Just remember that it was Robert’s Hunt, called by the Heir to the defense of the Land,” said Kerlith firmly.
“You want no credit for yourself Jonne?”
“No, what good is credit if it only gets men killed?”
He shook his head, “As you wish Jonne, though it would have been romantic concerning the Heir’s interest in you.”
“The Heir will endure without a love song.”
“Perhaps in time then.”
“Perhaps,” added Kerlith as she kissed my cheek.
I spent most of that day wishing my clothes were dry, that and cursing bards. Well a bard. Kerlith and I did hunt for a short time in the day, though a skirt and a second wrap around my bandeau was hardly field wear. I definitely looked as wild as some of the Kin were wont to, yet I felt out of place in the wild dressed such.
We managed to bring down a young doe and fetch it back to the cave before the rain fell again. Kerlith cheerfully ignored my grumblings though she made a point of poking a bruise now and again to remind me why I was ‘resting’. The rest of the day we spent cutting the venison thinly and forcing it to dry somewhat in her oven.
“It will not last as long as if we smoked and properly dried it, but that takes a few more days.” She said as she handed me a bowl with a good portion of stew in it. “If I were going to stay here a while I would hang it to dry from the chimney rocks.”
“Wouldn’t the bats get on it?”
“Oh no, they hate the smoke. It took me some time to persuade them that they could live happy in the other parts of the cave.”
“How big is this place? I counted some hundreds of yards while fetching water.”
She paused, and then shrugged, “I don’t tell many people this, but since you are Heir and might need a place to hide an army.”
“Or a great number of people, I remember some of the tales where the people were scattered by the Mage Kings.” I shook my head trying to erase the vision of Hanna’s children ripped from them.
She stopped and looked at me with some concern, “This place could hold an enclave and then some, with some work. Mind you the bats would not like it, but they would get over it.”
“How much money would it take to start building it up?” I asked slightly wincing at her frown.
She closed her eyes for a moment then nodded, “A small loss compared to a kingdom.”
I winced at that, “Yes, though where there is one set of caves there may be more.”
She nodded, “I can see the Lady has a task for me.” She walked over to hug me while I sat, “I wanted to go with you Jonne, but she has a way of making herself known.” She lifted my hand to show a faint white light rising from it. “She has spoken, so I will act.”
I stood up and held her tightly; “I would have welcomed your company, especially in the dark hours of the night.”
“A year will be a long time Jonne,” she kissed me deeply and I had to agree with her.
Nightmares were not much of problem that night, though I did notice her occasional absence in the night. I discovered why in the morning, as she evidently had been sewing. Sitting on the kitchen table were the horn and my bow, both of which had a dark canvas sewn tightly around them. My newly acquired weapons were unsheathed and freshly sharpened from the look of them as well. I shook my head as she walked in looking slightly tired.
“You didn’t have to do this,” I pointed to the weapons and the bow.
“I could not sleep all of the night, so I put that time to good use.” She walked over to hug me and traced a spot that was still sore, “I am surprised the Lady didn’t heal you last night.”
I nodded, “Me too, though perhaps this is her way of making sure I don’t over do it for a day or so.”
She smiled at that, “Well I can agree with her there.” She sighed looking annoyed, “They are using you harshly Jonne.”
I nodded, “They have their reasons, and if it keeps things from being as bad as the Near Ending, I can bear it.”
“I could hate them for what they are doing to you.”
“Don’t, if anything be happy they care this much for us.” I was thinking about the balance, “The Mage King can not expect his or her gods to help them in our lands. So in doing so he has made a grave error striking at this Land. In the Near Ending it was our own peoples, not some outside invaders who caused the Land to suffer.” I paused to think about that for a moment, “I think the Gods must have wept as their children tore at themselves and the land.”
She took a minute to hold me against her then smiled as a tear slowly flowed from her eye, I noted the soft green glow around her and held her as tightly back. “We do use you harshly Ari, and I am sorry for the times you will spend alone, especially in the next few weeks.” She gently turned me and traced her hand across my back sending a hint of warmth into me, “In time I will send Kerlith to you, but for a time she has her own path to walk; the people of the Land will need this place and the others she will lead them to.”
I nodded and she placed both arms around me, “In truth we do use the ones we love the most, the hardest. Though we also strengthen them beyond what other men and women could bear, in some small way it evens out.”
“So she will be safe?”
“Safer than you, yet she will have her own challenges to face.” I felt her tug at the Ring of Changes on my finger and I let her remove it, “One of the changes in you, makes it impossible for you to ever be a male again.” I turned to look at her, feeling a frown form on my face, she rested her hand on my lips and I could see the pain in her eyes, “You would have been a great king in your time Ari, though the people of the Land need Jonne more than Ari.”
I reluctantly nodded, “I will do my best.” I felt a tear form, “But what of my family?”
She shook her head softly, “That page is being wrote in these next few days. I would spare you that if I could, but even with the Mage King on our lands we cannot act without a human hand in place.”
“Which is why I was able to call the Hunt?”
“In the defense of the Land, yes.”
I paused for a time and nodded, “I am having troubling dreams, and if things are going to get worse I don’t think they will get any better.”
She kissed my forehead and nodded slowly, “You are tied to the Land, by blood and birth, and some of what you dream is a result of that.”
I sighed, “So it will only get worse?”
“Yes, but in time you will be warded from it,” she tapped the two rings I yet wore, “These are but part of the process of your change, rest comes of us and yourself.”
I looked at the two rings, “They didn’t exactly make it easy on me.”
“It was necessary to hide them thus, those are the rings that forged the eleven souls who stopped the first Mage Kings. This Mage King is greater than the ones they stopped, so instead of eleven hands there is but one to wear them.”
I looked at her with a sudden suspicion, “Is this how the Color Campus started, those eleven rings leading to that and now this?”
“In part, and partly in tribute to those eleven men and women.” She smiled, “That king wasn’t entirely sane at the end of his life.. Yet in madness there is often the seeds of greatness.” She tapped my rings, “His son was a wiser and saner soul, I think he would be pleased by the Firsts that arise out of those classes to this day.”
“I gather my days of rest are passed?” I asked hesitantly.
“Sadly, yet you should not push yourself too hard for the next two days. In some ways healing slowly is best for abused muscles, and yours were surely tested.” She smiled, “As much as Ari was handsome, I see a lady before me who in time who will outshine a great many others.”
I felt my face heat at her complement, “I can live with it I think.”
She shook her head in mirth, “Therein speaks the Ari we all love, try not to lose that part of yourself over the years child.”
“I will do my best, though it seems like much is weighed against me.”
She nodded, “Not every hand is turned against you child, though it may seem that way at moments.” She looked at the my hand holding it gently up between us, “Were that we could just hand you the rings child, but even we have to follow some rules.” She paused to smirk, “Though Fate follows her own rules, which govern a great deal more than just this land.”
“She is the weaver of destinies and if I read her threads aright she had something other than this planned for you. As it is, she is very angry.”
“Oh great, should I slit my wrists now and be done with it?” I asked with some sarcasm.
“Hardly child, she is not angry with you. It is the others she is upset with. We contend with other forces on behalf of this realm and occasionally the darkness does win, though only for a time.”
I nodded and watched as the green glow faded from around Kerlith who was left looking at the Ring of Change with some bemusement. “She is right you are quite beautiful, though much abused.”
I nodded, and slowly slid the blades into their sheaths and scabbards. I watched as she undid her necklace and strung the ring onto that chain as well, her eyes were thoughtful as she refastened the necklace about her neck. “I am going to leave most of my share from the Hunt with you. I don’t need much and given events, I will end up stripping the dead time and again.”
“You don’t have to fight every battle you come across,” she said with a hint of worry in her face.
“But can I sit by and do nothing either?”
She moved to hold me tightly, “No I expect not, just think more before you act.”
I held her and kissed her softly, “If I am given time to think I will, though I can not say for what Fate will drop in my lap.”
She nodded and released me slowly, “I hate to send you off not quite whole, but we should get you moving.” She chuckled, “Even if Serin can tie up your seekers for a day or two, I am not sure if the Council will abide by not seeing you for themselves.”
I sighed, “Well they will not find the Heir any time soon so I can expect to deal with that in time.”
“I get the feeling you may never really be the Heir again,” she said and I looked to see her cast an angry look at the ceiling.
“Well even if I was Ari, in form, with the mage gift I would have to let that go as well.”
“It doesn’t make it right.”
“Yet it is the law, and if the Land is to endure even the Heir must bow before it.”
“Well it is a horse,” I shook my head in amusement as it had to be one of the ugliest beasts I had ever seen. Its coat was as mottled and miss colored as if it had been rolled in mud, chased through the autumn leaves and splashed with paint. It was not quite fourteen hands and if it were indeed a palfrey I would be amazed. Though it did look to have a large enough head in that it might be smarter than it looked, of which I was doubtful.
Kerlith nodded as she eased he horse closer and kissed me quickly, “Do try and stay in one piece Jonne.” She held up her necklace with the charm and the ring on it, “I’ll keep this safe for you, even if it won’t work on you.” She paused with a thoughtful expression on her face, “At least I don’t have to worry about you falling afoul of a change field.”
I rolled my eyes, “True, I suppose I am stuck as being Jonne.”
“You’ll live.” She clouted me on my back eliciting a hiss, “Just remember to think before you get into anymore fights.”
I nodded, “You too.”
“Deal,” she said brightly and swatted my horse to get it moving, “Now shoo before I drag you away from all this.”
I looked back to wave and saw an unhappy smile on her face, “I’ll be expecting you to show up whole, don’t disappoint me.”
“Fair enough, now ride Jonne,” she replied with a wave and turned her own horse to vanish into the woods.
I sat for a moment, then set off myself; I wasn’t going to get anywhere sitting and moping was I?
By the end of my second day of riding I had decided that while the horse might indeed qualify as a palfrey from its gait, it might serve better as soup or glue. As every now and again it would fight for the lead or wander off the road to eat at the grasses. Not to mention my legs and buttocks hurt from the occasional display of attitude from bucking. Needless to say the horse and I were not suited for each other.
So it was with some relief that I dismounted at an inn for what I hoped would be a good meal, a hot soak and a long night of sleep. I found a stable boy and likely over paid for the nights stabling and such, though if it make the horse happier and easier to ride the next day it might be worth it. I lugged my pack away from the stable with a sigh and made my way to the inn proper.
The Fleeced Hound as it was called, was a large two-story structure that at once might have been a house, yet outgrew its original design. An uneven patio sprawled out into the lawn where a cloth awning provided shade and likely some protection from the rain. A few chairs where randomly dispersed around the lawn, most were empty, yet a few elderly men were conversing spiritedly while watching the night unfold around them.
The town that it sat at the edge of, was called Stone Mount, likely due to the large shaft of rock that stood some miles away to the west of it. As the sun dropped lower, it’s shadow stretched to claw at the land not quite reaching to the town. I watched the reds and purple gray of the sky mute as the sun drooped to hide behind that mountain, then I walked up and into the inn.
Or would have had my way not been suddenly blocked as a bear of a man unceremoniously hoisted a second man roughly through it and into the air. I blinked as the bearish man sent a few choice phrases after him, and followed up with, “Comeback when you are sober and can pay!” He dusted his hands off on his apron and chuckled as the man unsteadily rose up to weave off.
I blinked as he turned to face me with a smile that seemed at odds with what had just occurred, “Sorry about that miss, that one gets a mite rowdy if I let him sit drunk too long.” He shook his head, “Anyways come on in and find a place to set, an I will send my daughter out to see to yer needs.” I nodded as he cast a gaze to a the same man emptying his guts out in the road, “Better out than in, I always say.”
I laughed at that, “I am sure he might argue that.”
“True, but if he remembers it I will be amazed, anyways I am Richard, your host and cook.” He nodded to the room as he stepped aside, “Mostly it’s peaceful here, though I doubt a little bit like you is unlikely to stir a ruckus.”
“I will likely fade away after a meal, something to drink, a hot soak and bed. My horse and I do not agree.”
“Well tell Molly when she comes to find you, I’ve got a good joint of lamb and beef yet, though the beef is a bit dry.” He shrugged slightly, “the lunch crowd was thin, but it’ll be soup on the marrow.”
I nodded politely, “The lamb sounds wonderful, I’ve been stuck with dry venison for a day and some.”
He chuckled, “Well I can start that then.” He pointed to a corner table, “Ignore them, they are a bit rough at times but harmless enough.”
I looked to see a few Ston’Kinder with huge tankards in hand and acting a bit merry. I nodded after a moments thought, and chose a table further across the room away from them. “I’ll sit there I think.”
He chuckled, “A quiet evening you be seeking then?”
“Yes, I have had enough excitement for one week.”
“You do seem a bit peeked, and skinny.”
I sighed and carried my pack and bow to the table as he turned to walk into the next room and presumably the kitchen. I carefully sat my pack and bow to one side then eased the quiver so that it would not spill out. I had to ease the scabbard of the short sword slightly so I could sit in the spoke-backed chair comfortably. I spared a tired look for the few people who watched my movements curiously and suppressed a sigh as they either frowned or looked away hurriedly.
The daughter turned out to be a young girl of about sixteen how looked far wiser for her years, she had her hair tied back with a red scarf and an apron that was much whiter than her fathers. “Good evening miss, Da says you will be wanting the lamb correct?”
“Yes, with some sort of vegetables and bread if you have them.”
She smiled easily and nodded, “What about a drink?”
“Mead or wine, which ever is handiest.”
“Well the mead won’t be drinkable for another month and the wine,” she rolled her eyes, “Da got a good deal, but if you ask me its better for cooking with than drinking.”
“Ok, what a bout a good ale?”
“The dark is good this time around, but the brown is stronger.” She shrugged, “Personally I think the dark is the better of the two.”
“That should do me well. Also I would like a hot soak and room for the night. I saw the boy outside for my horse already.”
“Jared is good with horses so don’t worry about your mount. So,” She thought for a moment, “that isn’t quite four silver, though a few more beers would make it even.”
I chuckled, “I’ll see how the first one goes down.”
She nodded with smile, “Oh you will be surprised I think. Ma has a fair hand with the yeasts and such, enough so that Da had to marry her to keep her around.”
I smiled and nodded at what evidently was a family joke, I eased a pouch from my belt and counted out five silver. I handed them to her and shrugged at her, “Fortune smiled on me a few days back.”
She held up a coin that was stained with a spot of blood, “Hopefully not yours,” she indicated the stain.
“A bit of it was, but on the whole I was lucky.” I eased back my sleeve to show the pink and red spot of flesh where the arrow had been in my shoulder.
“No doubt, still Da doesn’t like trouble,” she warned taking a look at my weapons. “The Watch has been grumpy of late too, so you may want to use a peace-cord on the sword.”
I nodded, “My ball of cord is at the bottom of my pack, but if you have spare bit?”
She pointed to a spot by the door, “Most places have some handy, I will fetch a length with your beer.”
“My thanks, I would not wish to flout custom.”
She nodded and quickly threaded her way through the tables towards the polished bar.
I had finished my meal and was well into my second glass of beer when a group of brightly liveried men walked in to fill several tables. I winced at the colors they wore and inwardly shrugged trying to remember which of the various Lords and what not used scarlet and green as their colors. The device I noticed was a simple parti-colored leaf on a tan field, which indicated an older family, as the younger families were more complex.
My eyes wondered the crowd, trying to get a feel for their take on the new comers. Largely it seemed that they were unimpressed or had seen them more than a few times, so I chalked their presence up to a guard shift going off of duty. An older man watched them with a hint of amusement; he was dressed in a darker red shirt and vest, with contrasted neatly with the touch of gray in his short brown hair. He raised his glass to drink and I noticed a large ring on one finger, seeing my eyes upon him he paused to salute me with his glass before drinking further.
I nodded politely and returned to my own drink, the dark was indeed quite good and I debated upon a third glass. I had barely worked to the last inch or so in my glass when I became ware of the silence in the room. Suddenly alert I turn to see the older man frowning, he pointed a finger to the door and looked to see a second group of men entering. These were wearing a mix of black and gray, I noted the presence of chain mail and I eased a hand down to pick up my bow and ease the strap of my quiver to one shoulder. I glanced at the man and he motioned that I should move to sit at his table, his own hand rested on his dagger near his sword.
With my empty hand I lifted my pack and moved back to his corner table. He fairly ignored me as he watched the other men move into the room, he grunted in what I took as annoyance as a different man entered. This man was dressed like the ones that preceded him, yet he carried himself as if he were a leader of men. He wore wide bronze torc about his neck, though his most striking feature was his goatee. Which was a mix of brown and black, contrasting sharply with his long brown hair.
He moved slightly and tapped the chair that was directly in the corner, I took that as a firm suggestion. On a chair off to his left was a thick red cloak or robe, my eyes wandered to the multitude of colors woven into it, for a stunned moment I noted the pattern of swords, then I sighed and nodded thoughtfully. While I had mot spent much time among those that followed the Forge and Sword, the symbols of Matten and Kherre were known to me.
I took a second and cautious look at the man and noted firm muscles and a studded leather skirt over thick legs that ended in sandaled feet. The hammer that was resting in his hand under the table was easily three times the size of my fists and looked to be quite formidable. The scent of iron and coal hung to him slightly and I could see tiny scores on his arms that might have been from working at a forge.
With a thick hand he tapped at the horn that was in my belt, “When and if I say, blow that twice then once and twice again, then stay out of harms way.”
I nodded then sat still as the goateed man moved into the room, for some reason I was mindful of a hunting beast as he gazed upon the other brightly colored men. I think the room fairly thundered in surprise when my host sat his own drink on the table with a thud.
A flicker of annoyance crossed the face of the goateed man and he lazily crossed to stand across the table across from us. “Why is it when I care to wander, I find you Arnold?”
“Decided to turn yourself in, Derrik?”
“Hardly, I find jail most tedious and the food there is appalling.”
“As if we would keep you away from a noose long enough for you to get used to the flavor.”
Derrik laughed loudly, “Oh you are such fun, it is a pity that you are not more suited to my style of living.”
“Stealing and murder is not a tolerable lifestyle for me,” Arnold rumbled back to him with a frown.
“And who is this lovely maiden, surely you have not forsworn the Forge to chase delicate flowers now have you?”
I snorted at that, then lifted a used arrow from my quiver to drop it on the table in front of him, “Mind yourself this flower has thorns.”
He lifted the arrow and paused to study the dried blood on the shaft of it before dropping it to the table. With a graceful bow he smiled, “In truth lass I was but jesting with the good priest, we are ever at odds yet I remain uncaged.”
“Only because you run fast and have deep pockets.”
“You wound me over much, yet I will admit to being well off.”
“You live on the pain and loss of others.”
“True, but I think I will tax you on this night, and perhaps the lass of thorns as well.”
“That would be unwise Derrik for I would be forced to hurt you severally for attempting to do so.”
“Oh I don’t know, it seems to me if I placed a child in harms way, that you would withhold your hand.” He snapped his fingers and a pair of men drug the serving girl into the room, “See I have one handy for just such an occurrence.”
“You risk much Derrik.”
“Not so, I know your code prohibits you from acting.” He took a half step back from the table with a bland expression, “It has been a long time since I have taxed a priest. Taking your robe would be trite and red does clash with my wardrobe.”
There was some rough laughter as his men moved about the Inn herding people to the far side. Occasionally the two men would pinch the serving girl rudely to the laughter of the other men. I felt a hint of fire similar tot hat of the Wild Hunt rise up in my veins. Dimly I heard myself say, “One really should think before one acts.”
“I don’t know child of thorns, I have always thought it best to act then count the cost.” He looked at me with a pained expression, “I would so hate to hurt such a flower, yet if I must.” I saw his hand drop to his belt and I rose up tipping the table upright between us.
With a slight brush of my fingers I seemed to place an arrow to my bow and drew it. “I should judge you now for your intent and kill you where you stand.” I stood there staring at a spot just over his belt, sighting the arrow for his gut.
In the silence he pouted and eased his hands away from is belt, “You would strike down a defenseless man?”
“I know how long it takes to draw and throw a dagger, so lets just say I am proactive in my actions.”
“Yet no real crime as been committed by me.”
“Ah but a commander my be held responsible for the action of his men,” Arnold said as he pointed at Derrik with his hammer.
“These ruffians? Do you think that I command them? I am sure if they were questioned by the guard they would say otherwise.”
“That may be so,” rumbled Arnold as he slid the table out of the way, “yet how many of them are willing to die for you?”
He glanced at the men who were frowning, “True they might not be that bold, yet there are just the two of you. And her arm will have rest soon.”
“So should I shoot him now and rest my arm?” I asked to the still air.
The three Ston’Kinder started to laugh loudly at that, then they clanked their steins together and tilted them up to drink them down, “Well said, N’relv. It is about time there was an Elf with a sense of humor.”
I nodded slightly to the trio, then sighted past Derrik to select the man who held a knife in one hand and the sobbing girl in the other. “By thy intent I judge thee.” The air fairly cracked as the arrow left my fingers to pierce the throat of that man. I took a half step to the right and brought my bow down hard on Derricks arm as he reached to draw his sword. I was rewarded with his bellow of pain and I danced a few more steps way from him, unconsciously placing a fresh arrow to nock.
There was a crash of pottery and I looked to see the three Ston’Kinder saluting me with their axes, “Well struck lass!” one said as he kicked the unconscious man who had been menacing them.
Arnold chuckled and took a large step to close the distance with Derrick, “So Derrick shall we dance this night or are you leaving now?”
“This is not over,” he replied.
“Oh but I think it is,” I saw a hint of bright green glowing through the dark canvas that was sewn onto my bow.
He turned to glare at me, “You dare much girl.”
Shaking my head casually I aimed the bow at his leg, “It would suit me to leave you hamstrung and tied naked to a gate, and perhaps the good people of this town should see you thus?”
Arnold chuckled, “Aye a great many people would love to see that sight.”
I looked to man who still held the innkeeper’s daughter, “If you wish to die continue to hold the girl, otherwise leave your so called leader and flee into the night.”
“You will regret this,” promised Derrik.
I only smiled tightly as his men took a collective step away from the girl, when I motioned for them to keep moving, a few broke and ran off to the jeers of the Ston’Kinder who were moving to stand between them and the girl.
Arnold stepped up to Derrik and lifted him to where his toes barley touched the ground, shaking him vigorously, “You are done here this day.”
I chuckled deeply and at a wild thought walked up to where he was holding Derrik, “Maybe we should rework you in this life, perhaps into a more personable being?” I raised my hand and smiled slightly at the white glow coming from it, so maybe it was not my idea but Her’s. Though it suited me fully.
Arnold smiled at the sudden frantic look Derrik was giving me as I placed my hand on his chest and closed my eyes. I was lost in the scent of green growing things, feeling the movement of the Land as the ages passed. Warmth flowed out from my hand and into the Derrik, seeming to fill him and flow out into the air around him.
I opened my eyes as the warmth stopped to look into the eyes of a girl seemingly a few years younger than myself, where Derrik once stood was a pretty girl who in time might be a lovely lady. “Hello sister,” I said before kissing her on the forehead.
In Derrik’s confused silence I turned to look at a beaming Arnold, “So Arnold, is there a temple where this wayward child might serve the needs of the Land?”
“Oh indeed, as she may not be safe in her past homes, we can not turn her out to suffer needlessly.” He chuckled and said, “Though I do not think the Temple of the Forge would be good for her.
“True if anything she might find reason to think she is not worthy of her second chance and fall into her old ways of thinking.” I paused to consider the gloating look on his face, “Not to mention that someone would relish the amount of work heaped upon her, perhaps overly much?”
“Ach, though it would amuse me,” Arnold studied me for a moment then sighed, “this one was a thorn in my side for a time.”
“Then let that wound go brother, and heal.” I poked him in the side, “Unless you like the pain it gives you?”
He sighed then nodded slowly, “So where is your black robe little one?”
“She likes me like this, so who am I to argue?”
“There is that.” He turned to look at Derrik, “So we should change this ones name, yes?”
“Indeed as she is a new person after all.” I speared her with an amused smirk, as comprehension seemed to dawn on her.
“What have you done to me?” she screeched at us, eliciting a chorus of rough laughter from the people in the room.
“Do shut up child, this is your punishment and your second chance, be thankful we are not brutes.” Arnold lifted her up and with a gentle shake lowered her to the ground. At her frightened look he paused, “But we are not the men you were, do consider that while you grow up, child.”
“I think Sami would suit her, though perhaps a temple in a different city would be best.” I glanced at the hungry looks and sighed. “I will not give over any woman to be abused.”
“No as much as I had issue with Derrik, I would not abuse this child. Sami will have her chance.” He chuckled then removed the weapons from her loose belt, “Nor will she need these any time soon.”
“So let us hope.” I walked over to look her in the eyes, “This is your second and only chance in this life, do not throw it away.”
“But…” she started the stopped with tears dropping from her eyes.
“But you are a girl?” I shook my head, “Being female will not make you weak.” I touched her head then dropped my hand to rest over her heart, “It is what you carry there that makes you strong or weak.”
Richard moved through the crowd holding a red marked towel to his head, “I rarely am so humbled in my own inn.” He held his daughter in a hug then sent her to run upstairs, “I am grateful, if only for the sake of my daughter.”
With a shrug I motioned to Sami, “This one will trouble you or others no longer.”
He shook his head silently and motioned to the body, “There will be questions.”
Truthfully I had not though of that particular problem, “Well I could just wander off into the darkness.”
“Surely you have no need to fear the law?” asked Arnold with a frown.
“No though I have to be further down the road, and not lost in hours of debate and discussion,” I said I closed my eyes and tried to think of any smooth way out.
“While I doubt anyone will mourn the loss of that one or Derrik’s sudden absence, I am sure there will be questions.” He chuckled and motioned to the body, “That was neatly done.”
I looked again noting the red of the blood pooled at his head and at the fingers clutching at his blue face. For a moment the room spun and I took a few deep breaths to wards off the darkness that rushed in at me. Unsteadily I moved to a chair and sat gingerly on it, “I think I would like a glass of water.”
Arnold moved Sami off to a different chair and forced her to sit, “Are you well lass?”
“Yes I am just tired as it has been a hard few days for me.” I took a few more breaths and nodded thanks to an older woman who smelled of yeasts and hops as she handed me a cup. I took a sip of something that was eminently much stronger than water and coughed several times as it burned its way down my throat. I blinked a few times and took a second sip before she took the cup away from me and then handed me a glass of water.
“There, that put color back in your face,” she beamed at me and finished off the glass with out much aplomb.
Feeling a bit flush from the drink I nodded and sipped at the water, “Thank you I think.”
She cackled and thumped me on my shoulder where I was bruised from a few days prior, “Tis no problem, my daughter was in need of the same, yet she seems to have fared better from the night.”
“With luck her dreams will be restful,” I said as I eased the quiver from my shoulder and set it with my bow so that it rested upright between my legs. “I should have slept in the woods this night.”
“No, I think not,” said the lady, “you were where the Lady wanted you.”
I looked over to the body and quickly away, “I suppose, though I could wish for there to be less death in my Journey.”
“Admittedly I have never seen an arrow drawn so quickly.” I looked over to the Ston’Kinder that addressed me and at his friends. As they nodded he smiled, “It does you and your Kin credit, now if you were of my Kin, well I might be tempted to steal you home.”
“I am flattered,” I carefully said without adding ‘or so I think,’ to the end of it.
“As it is scarce that I have seen any of the N’relv with a sense of humor,” he continued dryly.
“I have been told that,” I acknowledged cautiously. Well I had been told that, once.
“So what is your name lass, so that I might be able to tell this tale properly to my doubting Kin?” he asked with nods from his friends.
“I am called Jonne.”
Ugly dreams only awoke me a handful of times and a cramp in my abdomen only hinted at the worst of my cycle yet to come. I was among the unfortunate of ladies whose cycle came with fierce cramps and a foul mood. I took a sachet of Maiden’s Balm from my pack and tried to ignore the spasms it would ease. Opening my door I was hardly in a good mood, noting a man wearing the same livery and yet armed waiting across from the door only soured my mood further.
“Good day Miss,” he said with a slightly bow. “The Barron would like to see you shortly.”
“No he would not,” I glared at him and turned to lock the door to the room. When turned back to him he seemed undeterred by my comment. “Look I am in a bad mood and among other things, I have to buy some provisions and be back on my Journey.”
“Be that as it might be, the Barron’s requests are not to be ignored.”
I stepped around him and fairly stormed down the stairs, “I do not care for what he wants. I have my own path to follow and frankly I do not care if he approves or not.”
“Is this lad bothering you Jonne?” asked Richard with a glower at him.
“Not so much more than my monthly annoyance is upon me with a vengeance.”
I was amused to see him nod slowly then ease towards the kitchen. “Kenneth, have a care for her temper lest you find yourself suffering her complaint some time later. Jonne go sit and I will send food to you shortly.”
“A cup of hot water and a bath would help,” I suggested hopefully to his back.
He paused and nodded, “I will set Molly to it shortly.” He chucked and cast a thoughtful eye to Kenneth, “Don’t eat him lass, he’s too scrawny.”
I clacked my teeth at him with a grimace as a cramp set upon me, and then I turned to walk past him to a table in the corner. “We’ll see.” I took a seat at corned placing my back to the wall and frowned as he followed me. For a time I crushed the sachet in my hand, not quite enjoying his discomfort.
Reluctantly he sat across from me, “The Barron is a busy man…”
I held up a hand, “Frankly I do not care.” I winced as a cramp wore its path into me.
“What is wrong with you?”
I was about to bite his head off as Molly deftly set a cup of steaming water and a jar of honey and a spoon before me. She shook her head in sympathy and answered for me, “Womanly things.”
I dropped the sachet into the steaming water and ignored his confused look, “Surely you have sisters and aunts?” I asked stirring it deeper into the cup with the spoon.
“Two brothers, one that is older, the other is younger than me,” he offered.
Well that explained some of his ignorance, "I am a sole child, but I have lots of cousins and kin." I offered to his confused look and added, “My cycle is before me and it makes me foul of mood and short of patience.”
At his sudden comprehension Molly chuckled, “Breakfast is coming, I’ll bring more hot water too.”
He nodded and asked, "Does that taste as bad as it smells?"
"Well a good herbalist adds stuff to deaden the taste of it, but if you have only that herb to use it is tough to swallow." I blessed the chance that allowed me to trade the Maiden's balm for the sachets. He nodded and lapsed back into silence of which I was entirely too happy for, which only stated my mood all too well.
Breakfast arrived shortly, of which I was grateful as Kenneth’s nervous silence was annoying me. I must admit that Richard had a deft hand with seasonings and I made a point to remember his place. I hoped that the coming times would leave him well. As I for one planned to return when there was less to worry about.
I ignored Kenneth’s odd looks and occasional glance o the door. I was in no mood to dally about with nobility and deal with cramps, as it was I considering dumping him shortly after my bath. Invisibility would help with that. I smiled with that plan in mind and continued to eat at my leisure. So what if I did not have my rank, I was not going to rushed about during the curse.
Kenneth squirmed when a lady marched up to the table wearing the same colors as he was. When she demanded to know what the hold up was, I passed her my cup that reeked of herbs.
“Oh,” she said after a sniff of the cup, she quickly set it back by my hand. “Has Kenneth been a bother?” she asked looking slightly apprehensive.
“Only so much that he is male,” I growled.
She laughed and motioned for him to stand, “Ken I think I should best take your place.” She glanced down at my clothing and nodded slowly, “Have you had a hot bath yet?”
“That is coming up, with a second cup of this.”
Kenneth looking entirely too eager to swap roles with her, “What shall I tell the Barron?”
She smiled, “Actually you might tell the Baroness first. His Grace is male and might not yet understand, as he has only been married a short time. She will no doubt enlighten him in time, if her moods are like my own during that time. As it stands, not even the Barron will spar with me during those days. Not to mention if the Watch’s records are correct, she is a Handmaiden to the Lady and should not be pressured over much if we wish his Grace to remain male.”
I studied her tanned face as she motioned him off, her blond hair was neatly tied back and her rapier looked to have more than a few hours of hard use to it. Gray eyes found mine and she nodded slowly. “So who might you be?” I asked.
“Lieutenant Cear Thompkin, at your service,” she said with a bow, “You already know Mister Kenneth Miles.”
“I had that pleasure yes,” I commented drolly.
“Aren’t you a bit young to be a Handmaiden to the Lady?” Caer asked as Molly approached.
Molly chuckled at that and placed another steaming cup of hot water next my cup. I took that cup and poured it into the first, liberally adding honey to it as well. “Oh I would say she is indeed her hand if not her Handmaiden, Derrik will scarce forget last night.”
“If it is not to much of a bother Molly, I would like to soak now?” I asked with a slight chuckle.
“Oh the water is hot and just awaiting you, Ma said to have it ready and waiting.” She giggled, “Da is hiding and said not to worry about the cost of the meal.”
I frowned but nodded, as I would leave then something before I left. With a wave of her hand Molly pointed to the hallway, “Third door on the left. I left you some bath stuff there for you.”
“You didn’t have to do that,” I protested.
“No worries I have more than enough, though school does eat into my time at the tables.” She smiled, “I do well enough at meals, but I do have to dash.
I nodded, “Be well if I do not see you later.”
“And you,” she eased back a step before turning away and walking briskly off.
After she left the room I picked up my steaming cup to take a sip, “I see the nights events have not bothered her.”
“Evidently not, from what our own men said of that night it was lively.”
“Does your Barron not allow his men to armed at night?” I asked out of real curiosity not having seen but belt knives on them last night.
“Well the Watch is able, though there has been trouble with the recruits before. So rather than risk such, they keep their swords at the barracks.”
“It would have deterred some of last nights problems if they had been armed.”
“Or caused more blood to be spilled,” she countered.
I stood and sipped at the cup before nodding thoughtfully and I turned to walk into the hallway. “Possibly, though it leaves your men exposed to other threats as well.”
I glanced in the bathing room seeing that it was roomy, I glanced to see her watching me with some amusement, “I suppose it would be rude of me to leave you standing in the hallway?”
“Not really, but chatting with you would help pass the time,” I motioned to a stool and she took to it with a smile. “Though if you were stuck with Kenneth he might have though he was suffering overmuch in the day.”
I took the time to test the water in the metal tub and poured more into it from a steaming bucket. Then I closed and locked the door. “Admittedly if he were here I would likely leave by way of the window,” I pulled the drapes closed on the lower half of it. I sighed and drank a good third of the yet warm herbs, I am not one given to waste my time with things that keep me from my Journey.”
“Men often think first of their orders and rank, rather than the results their impatience may risk.” She laughed and smiled, “Poor Derrik will have to learn his newest set of lessons for a time, and his ego was likely his largest sin.”
“I think that was the point of his change.” I pointed upwards then grinned, “She has a way of making her displeasure known. As it was, I think she has been annoyed by that one for some time.”
She nodded with a smile, “Not to mention the Barron, and the various Lords, merchants and such in the city.” She chuckled, “Personally I do not doubt it, yet some might think he got off lightly”
“Well in this case she might have plans for him, at the very least she will have plenty of time to reflect and possibly see a better path.” I set my cup on a bench and skinned out of my shirt, only wincing slightly as the herbs did numb some pain as well as ease cramps in certain muscles.
She stood up abruptly and she raised a hand to point at my back, “Who did that?”
“Men long dead,” I eased my weapons belt off and sat it away from the tub, then the pants and other things were removed. I sighed, as fortunately I was not bloody yet, though that would be annoying on the road.
“Obviously not that long dead, judging from the colors on your back,” She backed up at my scowl, “I only wish to help child.”
“I will be fine and they are quite dead, so it does not matter.” She digested that as I slowly and gratefully sunk into the hot water.
“So what am I to make of you?”
“I am just a N’relv child on her Journey, of which it seems I am going to be delayed for no good reason.”
“Well the Barron does have a right to know what occurs in his own city.”
I shrugged at her and spent some time getting clean, “What the Barron should concern himself with is the coming Mage King.”
“How did you hear of that? We’ve been keeping it quiet,” She asked with some consternation in her voice.
“She herself told me,” I sat up slowly as to not slosh, “besides how can the people prepare if they do not know war is coming to their door?”
“Prepare yes, but a panic is not helpful.” She stood up to pace around the room, “Even the Revered Mother’s urged care with the information.”
I submerged for a moment then eased up to test various corked jugs to find a scent I liked, and then I worked some of it through my hair. Frowning I said, “Care yes, inaction no.”
She tilted her head to study me, in the silence I worked at a few small knots in my hair. “I think you are a bit young to be one of her servants,” she finally said.
“Not really, we are all her servants in one fashion or another, I just have the dubious honor of acting as her hand at times.” I blew a bubble from my hand in her direction, “You would prefer I be elderly or at least motherly?”
She chuckled at that, “Well it would lend credence to your words and actions.”
“Sorry I am not that kind of priestess,” I muttered and ducked back under the water.
Reluctantly, very reluctantly I allowed myself to be ushered to the fort-like structure that served as the Barron’s residence. There was some annoyance as to my weapons, but I was not going anywhere without my bow, much less the horn in my belt. It raised a few eyebrows as I certainly looked a bit wild compared to the people who were dressed for court, though the one B’radian I saw was slightly more wild than I was.
“No weapons are permitted in audience,” stated a guard as we approached a set of large doors.
“Fine, I will be on my way then,” I replied and executed a neat about face, with a grin I walked away casually nodding to the B’radian at his amused smile.
“Jonne!” Caer called after me and I heard her boots clicking as she walked quickly to catch up with me. “Jonne are you always this difficult?”
I stopped and turned to look at her with a frown, with a loud tone of voice I answered her, “I am on Journey, I have broken no laws and I dealing with cramps.” I took a moment to point a finger at the closed doors, “I am not his servant, nor am I one to be ordered around lightly, not to mention I am her Handmaiden.”
“Of that I have no doubt,” I turned to see Arnold dressed in the full robes of his order. Vibrant red dyes colored his cloak and while the hardened leather armor he wore under it was ceremonial; he wore it as if it were meant for battle. He chuckled and pointed to a much-subdued Sami who was wearing chains.
I frowned, “Should she not be on her way to a temple?”
“Aye but the Barron wanted a few words with her first, just in case she was not mindful of her second chance.” He lifted up a scroll, “In time this is her pardon, if she proves herself worthy of it.”
“Ah, well in any case I have miles to go and my day is being wasted.”
“Jonne wait,” Caer insisted and she was making motions for me to soften my voice.
“For what, the Mage King to catch you all napping?” I asked in some annoyance.
“What is all this noise?” asked an elderly N’relv dressed in a robe sprinkled with a riot of blue and greens in a leafy pattern, as he stepped into the wide hall from an anteroom.
“Marshall,” I was amused to see Cear brace at attention, “Jonne, here does not wish to surrender her weapons.” She motioned to me with a hint of worry.
“I see.” He walked over to study me, “Child what manner of chaos bestirs you?”
“I am on my Journey, sir,” I replied with a hint of annoyance.
“A bit young for Journey are you not?”
“As the Goddess wills, so I go,” I shrugged, “as it is I have supplies to fetch and miles to go this day.”
He walked around me in a circle and I noted that the B’radian was frowning; he walked over to me and asked to see my bow. I eased it off my shoulder only to note the green light that burned under the canvas covering.
With a smile I allowed him to take it from my hands, he nodded thoughtfully then spent a moment trying to draw it to no avail. “An honest bow of her Hands.” He looked at the elderly N’relv, “Only a true child of the Huntress can draw a bow marked such.”
“Ah no wonder she is reluctant to part with it,” the elderly N'relv said as he walked around with his head tilted as if he was measuring me. “Your name child?”
He chuckled and pointed the bow, “And you would worry more about that.”
“The mage gift is something I could easily do without.”
At the odd frown on Caer’s face he chuckled and tapped the glowing canvas, “And I thought my Journey was interesting.” He looked down at me and nodded thoughtfully, “One day I would like to hear of your travels child.”
“One day,” I nodded with a smile.
“So, if reports are true, you are a Handmaiden to the Lady," the elder paused, "well more than one Lady it would seem.”
Arnold chuckled and then strode over to place a meaty hand on my shoulder, “She is indeed that.”
“Well I doubt the Lady of the Hunt would allow her huntress to draw that bow in an evil act, so I can see no harm of letting her carry it.” With a wave to my sword and my quiver he smiled, “Child, for the sake of a quieter day would you consider letting someone hold those?”
I sighed, “I would rather be on my way.”
“I do think some courtesy would not be amiss, after all you are on another’s land.” He chided with a soft smile, “As much as it does interfere with custom.”
“No one man owns the Land.” I countered with a smile, “Though many might think otherwise.”
“Yes, though some are given to rule over it,” offered an amused bass voice.
I turned to see the people around me bow in his direction, “Yes, though it may be that they do so, if it serves the Land and the Goddess and Gods.” With a chuckle I inclined my head to him.
“It is custom to bow child,” the man wearing a Baronial circlet said as his brow arched.
“I would consider it, if I was not worried about being stuck that way.” I sighed as a cramp wove through my belly, “Needless say I am not in the best of moods either.”
He chuckled and nodded as a young woman took his arm, “So I have been told, still I would prefer to hold my court in its accustomed place.” With that he turned and walked back through the open doors.
Will ill grace I undid my sword belt and passed it to Caer, glaring at the amused looks of the guard I handed her my quiver as well. “Don’t run off with those, as I do not plan to stay long,” I informed her with a glower.
She shook her head in amusement, “I shudder to think of what you were like when you were younger.”
I smiled and walked slowly forwards, “Well if anything, from my grandmother, the sins of the father were amply repaid.”
The elder chuckled and walked just to my left, “Oh I can believe that.”
Once the Barron and his wife were seated on a dais, he chuckled glancing about the room with a staid expression. “So Jonne, I finally have you before me, some hours later than I would have preferred.” He reached over to hold his wife’s hand, “However sage and wise advice suggested I deal with other things until you were here.”
I shrugged without comment.
“Still I am curious if you are the same child the Council is looking for. Are you that person?”
I looked up to the ceiling, which was embossed with rampant lions and scowled, “Why is it no good deed goes unpunished?” I complained at it, and then looked down the see an amused smile on the Barron’s face. “I might be that person.”
“I see, would you know where the Heir is?”
“Several days travel south and east, and seeking his own path.”
“But alive and well?”
“As well as I am.”
“She is a mass of bruises, among her other problems,” Caer noted aloud.
I scowled at her but nodded, “That is of no matter.”
“And how did you become so bruised?”
“Killing the enemies of the Land as part of the Wild Hunt,” I said with a loud sigh and ignored the murmers as the chamberlain knocked his staff against the ground to call order.
“The Wild Hunt has not been seen in this land for some hundreds of years child.” The elderly N’relv was frowning, “Excepting rumors of Her Justice.”
“Kernos is quite real, Elder.”
“Of that I have no doubt child, but I may be thought the fool if I did not question it.”
I sighed, “The land is in danger from a Mage King and you would debate if Kernos would in fact rise to the defense of the land if the Heir called him?”
I studied the Barron as he frowned, “Child how did you come to know this?” he asked with a quick look to the crowd.
“The Heir was told of it by the Goddess, he then sent word through her servants, though that message seems to have been ignored.”
The Barron shook his head, “Not ignored, just not widely announced, until now.”
I tapped my foot in annoyance and pointed at him, “You would leave the Land in ignorance or is this a scheme of others?”
“The Council, thought it wiser to seek the truth before alarming the people.”
“Three hundred soldiers lie dead some few days from here, if a company or so of such is not evidence of his intent, what more do you need? A sign from the Goddess?”
“I think I will pass, thank you for offering though,” the Barron chuckled. “Still what am I to do with you?”
“Leave me to my own path,” I stated with a smile.
He glanced to the various member of his court who were frowning or talking amongst themselves. “This is my court people, do remember that.” Once calm returned he shook his head, “Well the cat is truly out of the bag, though I am mindful to keep you for a time.”
I took a moment to study the room noting the doors and windows, “You could, but that would only annoy me, and would be cross purposes to Her plans for me.”
“I will say you are a bold one Jonne.” He shook his head and turned to look at Caer, “Is she fit for her travels?”
“I am not a healer my Barron, though I have not seen many men walk around as easily as she does, as badly marked as she is.”
“I am fit enough for travel, and I have no need to be coddled,” I protested angrily.
The Baroness stood and walked to where I stood, “Child I would see for myself.”
“Fine.” I said and quickly stripped my shirt off and tossed it defiantly to the ground, “There, everyone can have a good look. Behold a hunter of the Wild Hunt!” I growled to the shocked court.
It was with a not quite somber face that the Baroness walked around me to see my back, at her slight inhalation I looked back over my shoulder, “Child how, who?”
“They are dead, and that is the only thing that matters.” I slowly turned to look at her, ignoring the sounds of concern or surprise from the others in his court, “It only looks bad.”
The elderly N’relv walked over look then he too wore a frown, “I would be a poor protector if I let you go, bruised as such as you are.”
Ignoring him, I bent over and picked up my shirt, I eased it back on and tucked it back into my belt. I walked over to Caer, “I will take my weapons, now.”
“No Caer, do not give them to her,” instructed the Barron.
I shrugged, “Fine. I can always get more,” I snarled and turned and walked to the doors.
“Jonne, are you always this difficult?” asked Arnold as he stepped between the two large doors and me.
“Yes, now you can get out of my way or I can go through you.” I smiled thinly, “Do not think that I will not.”
He looked at me and nodded, “Yes, I think that you would indeed try.”
With a sigh I said, “Brother get out of my way.”
“No. You are not fit to travel Jonne,” he said in a soft but calm voice.
I took a few steps out back out of his reach and dropped into a defensive posture, “I am going.” As he reluctantly copied me, I turned my ring and slipped out of sight. I was forced to take a few steps out of the way as he rushed at where I stood. Stifling a laugh I ran to the doors and shoved them open, I stepped unseen around the guards and walked quickly out of the hall.
Ignoring the sudden chaos around me I set off at a brisk pace, I was more than a bit angry. “Damned meddling idiots,” I muttered aloud and chose a gate out of the fortress at random and started jogging to it. I would have blistered the air with oaths if I were not trying for some measure of stealth, as it was I just thought them. It was with some small amount of luck that I slipped out before they were slammed shut behind me, I disregarded the hue and cries inside the fortress and set off at an easy lope back to the inn.
With luck I would fetch my pack and be gone with out much delay. I grumbled at the thought of extra difficulties my lack of weapons would present, though I only needed a knife to make more arrows with the points in my pack. Heartened I sped up, as surely Richard would spare me a knife, if not the whole kitchen.
The only real problem in my plan I discovered, was that a mounted men or woman move so much faster than I could. It was with that annoying detail in mind I noted Caer riding past at a gallop with several other men in trail. In disgust I stopped and took the time to catch my breath, I could not out run galloping horses. I cursed silently and walked over to a large shade tree to sit and sulk.
Once a cramp came and passed I had discovered that I was royally angry and outraged. I stood and ignored the cramps and everything else, I could continue without my belongings, but I would make an effort to claim them before doing without. I slowly wove my way around people and the odd member of the City Watch. I felt an odd melancholy settle around me though I largely ignored the tears as they dripped. I was doing what I was supposed to, why did every fool and his brother try to make it so much harder?”
By the time I returned to the Inn it was past midday and that, only made my mood that much fouler. It was not helped to see soldiers out in the yard looking for me as well, I walked around the back of the in to discover a soldier standing on the back stoop. Frowning I studied the back of the Inn, the windows to the bath were open, yet a bit higher than I could reach.
There were times I really hated my dislike of heights, part of me longed to scamper up the tree, across a limb and onto the small awning over the stoop. As another cramp visited me I chalked up that idea as a worse than bad idea and wandered back to look at the front side. No one stood directly in the door, so I debated just walking in and going from there. It had a certain appeal, though I was sure that things might become more interesting once I was upstairs.
I looked over to where the horse were picketed and smiled as my eyes fell upon a horse that had my quiver and blades draped across the saddle horn. I shook my head and counted myself fortunate that Caer was a bit short sighted. I eased around the front of her horse so I would not get kicked accidentally, as that would be a bruise or worse I could live with out. With an unseen smile I took back my blades and the quiver, then eased back away from the horses to belt them on.
As a cramp not so subtly reminded me I was due for more than just a long walk, I turned and headed back into town. While I would have to return to visibility to buy things, I could walk to the stores and shops unseen. I noted that my first stop would be the herbalist, as I was not enjoying the day at all. Mentally I kicked myself for stressing overmuch about my weapons and pack, after all what was money going to be good for in the deep of the wilds?
Equipped once more and a good bit poorer, I had one last task to perform before leaving town. I was a good distance from the Inn and I sighted at the open window of my room. I had tied a short yet angry note to Caer on a blunt arrow and a more polite one to Richard, essentially I told Caer to mind her own damned business and to worry more for the Land than a wayward Handmaiden of the Lady. Richard I warned to expect coming troubles, and that he was free to sell my horse if he could find a buyer. I did ask that he hold my pack on the odd chance I would be back, though not to worry about it past a year. With a smile I let the arrow loose, only to be rewarded by a startled oath and a few shouts.
I stood for a moment watching the soldiers and other people spill out of the Inn like an enraged anthill. I shook my head at the amount of trouble people will undergo to have things their way, then admitted some of that fault myself. I stayed off the road and worked towards getting further down the road. With luck it would not be too many hours until I found a forested stretch of land to lose myself in.
Night fell and I was another shadow within it. I was back to being visible as night was enough to hide me from most eyes, I doubted I had to worry about any Ston’Kinder bothering me as I traveled though. I puzzled over the odd moments I had passed with them, for some reason they thought I had a sense of humor when most of the Kin to their eyes, evidently did not. I used that odd mode of thought to kill several miles as the only conclusion was that I was either odd or the Ston’Kinder were.
By the time Venne and Vonne were fully in the sky I had barely reached the safety of the forest and was working further into it. Even with the cramps, sore feet and wishing my pack were a few stones lighter, the sounds and scents of the forest calmed my angry mood. The only thing from my pack that I regretted leaving behind were the books from Rixthat had given me so that I could get a better grasp on the mage gift. I sat in the lee of a large oak tree and slipped my arms free of my new pack. Tiredly I picked up a trig and told it to burn.
Rather than the usually puff of smoke and falling ash I was rewarded with a gently burning twig. More than a bit shocked I sat there and watched it crackle and spark, when it reached my fingers I dropped the remains of the twig and quickly stood up to stomp on it to put it out. With a giggle I swept up another twig and repeated the process, several twigs later I had a very small and tidy fire, of which I used to heat a cup of water.
With a sigh I saluted Rixthat with my cup of easing herbs, admittedly I would have preferred to use mead, but I had been warned not to mix the two. Evidently spirits and Maiden’s Balm did not mix well and tended to cause headaches and bad dreams. I could deal with a headache, but I didn’t need more fuel for my nightmares. I pulled my bedding from the pack and lay for a time watching the small fire burn cheerfully, when it was only a few burning coals I dumped the wet herbal sachet on it to extinguish them.
There is some thought that women should not be allowed to take the field in combat with men, largely from the hygiene aspect. Though if most women felt as I did when I woke up in the morning, any unit that bothered them in combat was certainly stupid, if not fated for a messy death. As it were, when I all but tripped over the B’radian from the Barron’s Court; I was in a foul mood. Fortunately he had not found my camp that night or I might have skewered him out of general purposes.
“And what am I to do with you?” I asked causing him to jolt upright with a curse.
It was quite comical to se him work through the fact that I had caught him unawares, not to mention with his pants partially down, though he did have a nice ass. He gave me a pained look, “Do you mind walking a bit further way?”
I laughed and circled around from where he stood, “Take your time, don’t rush on my account.” I could smell a hint of wood smoke so I walked in that direction to discover his small camp.
I used the time he spent on his business to pull out my cup and some more of those damned herbs. I filled the cup with water and placed it in the coals to warm, I could tell he was in a mood not much better than my own, which suited me perfectly. Regrettably I had no honey to mellow the taste, so I chalked that up to another thing lay at the feet of the Barron. So I was being slightly unreasonable, they were not the ones with the cramps, several long days of walking and a riddle to solve once I got wherever it was that the next ring was.
He looked more than a bit thoughtful when he walked into his camp, “And here we are.”
I grunted and dropped the sachet into my cup, “Yes, here we are.”
He crouched on the opposite side of the fire away from me and shook his head, “My parents say that I was a difficult child, though I might think that they exaggerated. At least in comparison to you.”
“How nice, I am not going back.” I motioned with the dagger towards him, “So you can chuck that idea out, right now.”
He shook his head, “Well your mood has not changed much.”
I smiled sweetly at him, “True, so you came all the way out here for no reason. Though I will admit some curiosity. What made you come here?”
“It was the only forest for some leagues, where else would a child of the Huntress go to shake pursuit?” He motioned to my attire, “Not to mention one that obviously has some B’radian skills?”
Moving the cup off of the coals I nodded and set it on the ground to cool some, “True.” In some was I was pleased by his comments and yet I was also annoyed that I was so predictable.
“Needless to say the Barron is upset.”
“Good.” I pointed a finger at my bow, “What the Barron wants is of small note compared to what they want.”
He shook his head, “Have you any idea of how much trouble you are?”
“Look, I was more than happy to be left alone and on my way.” I lifted my cup and tried to ignore the taste, “It was not my idea to go into court, though if you ask me it can only help matters.”
“And why is that?”
“The Heir passed his warning through the Revered Mothers, and rather than acting on it the Council squelched the news of it.” I motioned with the cup to him, ”Not to mention seeing fit to harass me.”
“You did show up just as the Heir vanished”
Part of me wanted to shout ‘Gods rot the Heir’ but instead I said, “Co-incidence, nothing more.”
He sat back against his own pack and I took that time to ease out of my own, “In any case it was amusing to see you flicker with green light and proclaim yourself as a hunter of the Wild Hunt.” He smirked broadly, “I think you shocked them.”
I did feel slightly abashed at that, as I cannot say I was exactly in my right mind at that point, “I was fed up with them.”
“Well that was evident, though I don’t think anyone has stripped half naked in front of the Barron’s court in a long while.” He motioned to my shirt, “Though I think the Kin would have applauded the effect you had.”
I peered into my cup and sighed, “I was annoyed with them, I just want to be left alone to do what is needed and hopefully recover some part of my life.”
“Are you really on Journey or at another purpose?” He paused for a moment, “I was with out my manners the other day, I am Tresik.”
“Yes I am on Journey, but one that She set.” I motioned to the north, “She has me traipsing far and wide to pick at age old riddles. Thus far I have been up to the task.”
“I had wondered if you were merely using custom to your own needs.” He looked unhappy, “You do seem very young Jonne, how old are you?”
“I am eighteen.”
“And while you might be of age, were you a human, you have a good twelve years before the Kin might agree.” Shaking his head he studied me, “And what would your parents think of your running wild in the Land?”
“My parents would be concerned, but they would recognize the need for such, as evidently the Goddess and the Lady of the Hunt have seen fit to bless me.” I lifted my bow to wave it in his direction before laying it back down.
“There is that,” he said after a moment’s silence. “You don’t seem overly happy Jonne, if I might say so.”
“I have my moments, though I am carrying a heavy burden of foreknowledge.” I tapped my head, “There were a few things I would be so much happier not knowing.”
“Well a Mage King is coming, the land will be in turmoil, and the Heir will likely be bereft of kin shortly.” I paused and added, “Even if he should succeed.”
“Succeed at what?”
“Finding that which forged the eleven that stopped the first Mage Kings.” I motioned to the four directions, “That which forged them are scattered abroad.”
“Is he fit to such a task? I was under the impression that he was bit of a fool,” he asked dubiously.
“I doubt a fool would be able to call the Wild Hunt, with out it falling on him as well.” I stretched slowly, “It is rough on its hunters as it is.”
“Just how is it that you are so bruised?”
“Well if my shirt and pants from that night are any clue, it is from blows that should have done more harm.” I shook my head, “My shirt alone could have served as a fishing net.”
“How many people were lost in that hunt?”
“Only one, but he died well.”
“I doubt that, there is no good way to die.”
I shrugged, “He died in service to the Gods, at the defense of the land, with his dagger in his enemies heat and his teeth upon his last enemies throat. He was a true warrior.”
“Still that does not sound like a good death to me.”
“He might argue other wise as he rides with the Wild Hunt for a time before his next life.” I took a sip of the herbs and sighed, “In either case the loss of one man, compared to the deaths of some three hundred enemy soldiers is not something to be made light of.”
“No I suppose not, how many fought in that battle?”
“Roughly sixty, a mix a man, N’relv and H’faan.” I finished my cup and took the sachet out and tossed it into the brush.
“Sixty? You were outnumbered by at least eight to one, was he mad?”
“We didn’t fight in any set battles, we used the night and fog to hit them. Not to mention the Wild Hunt was upon us, burning in our veins and driving us onward.” I paused to smile, “And yes the Heir was a bit angry at the time, as were the rest of us.”
I stood up and put my pack on, “In any case as much as I enjoyed out little chat I am going now.” I bent down and picked up my bow.
“What am I to do with you?”
“Well trying to stop me would be fool hardy.” I paused to look at him, “Admittedly you could do so, but what cost are you willing to endure? Your gender, the loss of the Land, the end of the peoples? Which?”
His pained expression tore at me, “Look cousin, I cannot rightly let you go off, you are not whole yet, much less.” He pointed at the cup I was tying to my belt.
“My cycle? Cousin if you hinted such to an older B’radian lady, she might make you eat that implication.” When he nodded slowly I pressed on, “As it is it is annoying, it makes me a bit unsociable, but it does not stop the sun from rising much less will the Mage King hesitate for it.”
“I can see that,” he commented dryly.
I stuck my tongue out at him, “In either case, did you hear me approach earlier?”
“No, I did not.” At his rueful frown he added, “And your timing was rude.”
“I will remember not to do that to you again. In any case if I wish to be unseen I will be, and how easy is it to track a B’radian in the wild if they are unseen and unheard?”
“Everyone leaves a trail cousin,” he stated emphatically.
I glanced to my bow and I turned it so that he could see the dim green glow radiating under the canvas, “And if She wants a person unfound, do you think that trail will be there to be discovered?”
He snorted in disgust, “You certainly have a way of hammering a point home.”
I chuckled, “If you are so worried to my health you can accompany me while I am yet in this forest.”
“But not further?”
“Regrettably no, Fate herself made that point clear to a friend of mine.”
“Not fatally I hope?”
I made the motions of flipping a coin, “No, She stopped a coin in mid-flight and lowered it to the floor, Temple's side up.”
He chuckled and started to put out his fire, “I can picture that.”
“In any case I am mostly annoyed at having to leave my books behind.” I picked up a twig and told it to burn and then waved it at him, “My friend gave them to me so I could get better at this sort of stuff but well, they are there and I am here.”
“Well you could return and get them.”
I dropped burning twig and crushed it out, “I am not going that way any time soon.”
He shook his head, “You are an obstinate child.”
“So I have been told.”
Tresik and I argued for the better part of a day before he lapsed into a sullen silence. Of which I was all too happy for him to do so. I wanted to hit him, hard. As much as I frequently considered turning him into a female, I doubted the Goddess you let me turn him into a woman out of my annoyance with him. Our progress through the forest was not as fast as I could wish, even though I frequently caught him jogging to catch up with me.
“If you would quit dawdling you would not have to run now and again,” I pointed out to him as he motioned for me to slow down.
“Jonne…” he called my name again and then stopped in his tracks.
Annoyed I turned abruptly around to glare at him, “What?”
His eyes were wide and he pointed at a very large tree, “It moved.”
For a moment I closed my eyes and rather than using my eyes I used my nose, there was a great deal of cinnamon in the air. I opened my eyes and looked at the tree in question, it was indeed very large and I chuckled at Tresik, “It’s likely just a Tree-Kin, not anything to worry about.”
“And how would you know that?” he asked with a hint of strangeness in his voice.
“I freed one some time ago.” I let him digest that and I turned to regard the tree in question, “Are you Ammot or his kin?” I asked loudly of it.
When it turned to look at me I think Tresik nearly left his skin, “I am Ammot’s Kin, yes. And who are you child of the leaves?”
“Jonne,” I stated and motioned to Tresik, “and this is Tresik.” I tugged at his arm and hissed at him “Be polite.”
“Um hello, sir. Bright the Day,” he offered a bit uneasily.
It moved a few steps closer until we were resting in its shad, “I have heard of one called Jonne, a princess among fools?”
I chuckled softly, “More or less. I take it Ammot is well?”
“Indeed, though busy, as I should be.” It paused, “You are the Awakening One, correct?”
“Yes,” I said, as it seemed to study me.
“Ah, I think I have heard your horn recently,” it noted and turned to where its eyes looked at us, “Is this one of your huntsmen?”
“No,” I shook my head trying to sort out its thinking.
“Pity, for not far from here is such which you hunted I think.”
That information jarred me into alertness, “How far and which way good sir?”
It stretched out a limb to point to the northeast, “Thus, perhaps a half days walk, for you.”
“Are there a lot of them?”
“Enough that I went around them child, strange magicks too.”
I frowned and sighed, “Thank you sir, I hope your kin will all be awakened soon.”
“Ah, it is nice to meet the Awakening One, if you have need but ask of the trees and we might hear one such as you.”
I bowed to it, “With the Lady’s will, I will but leave you to awaken your kin.”
“I am Anolti, if names are kept by you?”
“I will remember it yes.”
“Good, you should awaken your friend before going off,” I think it chuckled as it moved silently on its way.
I turned to look at the unconscious Tresik, I felt a smile tug at my face as I debated all sorts of mischief. Regrettably, I forced myself to resist the temptation and took his water skin to dribble a few splashes onto his face, as he blinked and sputtered into wakefulness I tried not to smile too much. “Oh Trevisk, surely a meeting with a being thought legend is not too much for you?”
He groaned and I helped him up to his feet, “What, who?”
“That was Anolti one of the Tree-kin, surely you know of them yes?”
He gave me a foul look as I handed him back his water skin, “Of them yes, expecting to meet one no. They are but legend or so I thought.”
“They but slept, as the pervious Mage Kings entrapped them in spells.” I sighed at his slightly gray face, “Do you have a stiff drink with you?”
I sighed loudly and removed my pack, I had picked up some mead and a smaller flask of brandy in town, just on the odd chance I would need to put dream flowers or what not in it. I dug that out and handed it to him, “Not too much as we have a long jog ahead of us.”
“What, did you fall on you face after the first sentence?”
He took a swallow and then gasped out, “Evidently.”
“It said there were soldiers to the northeast, enough so that it went around them.” At his incomprehension I motioned for him to take another drink, “You dolt, damned few things make something that huge take a path around anything.”
“Which means what? A small army?” he asked handing the flask back to me.
“Or a not so small army.” I sighed and tucked it back away, and pulled out a bit of dried meat, “In either case we should see for ourselves, considering this is your neck of the woods correct?”
He gave me a dubious look but nodded, “Yes, it is, though an Enclave lies near here as well.”
I cursed silently for a moment, “Wonderful, in that case let us find this army before it finds your Barron or the Enclave.” I put my pack on and motioned to the northeast, “I am now going that way, if you wish to tag along?”
I started walking briskly occasionally tearing off a strip of dried meat and chewing on it. “Damn it Jonne, what did he mean when it said you were a princess among fools?”
With a laugh I continued to walk quickly, “I think it may have meant something about my being a Handmaiden.” I lied quickly, adding yet another nail to Truth’s coffin.
“Why do I have the feeling that that is not exactly the truth?”
“Because you are suspicious by nature and evidently are not used to traveling in the same circles as I do,” I quickly replied as he jogged up to my side.
“I think you may be right,” he said shaking his head.
Somehow I managed to put my fear of heights slightly out of mind, as we looked at an army spread along one edge of the forest. I had not quite counted several hundred men when Tresik tugged on my trews to draw my attention to him. When he motioned down I nodded gratefully and took my time to descend. Pleased to be on the ground once more I quietly slipped my pack on and followed him away.
After moving quietly for a time he paused by tree and asked “So Jonne think you can find the city again?”
I frowned, “Yes, but...”
He held up a hand, “I know you would rather be going in a completely different direction, the needs of the Land and it peoples come first.” He pointed a bit north and east, “I know exactly where the Enclave is, and it will take me less time to get there, warn them and then circle that army to return, than it would take you to find it.”
Reluctantly I nodded, “If you are thinking I will stay there once I tell them, you are mistaken.”
His only answer was to take of his pack and pull out a map and then used a coal pencil to mark on it. “This is the current position of the enemy camp, I counted three hundred on my own, you?”
“Well if I was not counting yours as well, you can add another two hundred as well.”
He nodded and made a set of specific marks on the map, “Ok, you get this map to the Barron or Caer, and he should be able to tell what is coming.”
I stood there feeling entirly put upon, though I understood the necessity of it, “Joy.”
“In any case I will likely be half a day behind you if you falter.” He paused to pull a few things from his pack before covering it with dead branches and leaves. “You likely will need your pack, but if you can afford to lighten some it you should.”
“I’ll consider it if I see a good landmark.”
“Right,” he frowned and shook his head, “If they were not so close to the Enclave I would drag you back to the city.”
“You could try, but I will deliver your map and warn your annoying Barron.” I gave him a look, “Do not think I will remain there past an hour once it is delivered though.”
He shook his head, “Fine, Jonne, though if you dawdle and I beat you there, all bets are off.”
I smiled, “Just do not end up dead trying to catch up to me.”
He handed me the folded map, “You have a few hours of light before dusk, heading south and east will place you closest to a road, if you veer too far south west you will find a river that runs back to the city as well. Now if you run due south, the forest will stop dead after a time, but then you should be able to see the Stone Mount, but it will be just a hump in the distance.”
I nodded, “Which route would the forest hold out the longest?”
I took the time to pull out my new compass then sighted it for such, “Good,” I pulled my pack on with a sigh, “hunt well if you have to cousin.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but if so, hunt well cousin. Though I would recommend not getting into fights, we don’t know if there are more yet.”
Nodding I lifted my bow and turned to go, “My luck I will tumble on to their vanguard.”
He chuckled, “I hope not.”
I waved as he turned and started running, prompting me to do the same. I ignored another cramp and tried to think of all sorts of abuse to heap upon him later. Fortunately I was not hurting much from the bruises, of which I was thankful. True a few days back and I would have been miserable, as it was I was more troubled by the cramps than the bruises.
I was back to being invisible, but only just. As it seemed every few leagues I would nearly stumble into scouts or a platoon of soldiers. Part of me was frantic with worry that Tresik was going to end up dead or worse before he reached the N’relv’s enclave. As it was I was praying with every cramp that came that I would not fail him or myself.
When true night fell I was sweating furiously and alternating between jogging and walking. Fortunately for me the Lady of the Hunt seemed to be lighting a trail for me through the brush and trees. Of which I was entirely too grateful for as I could have been wandering for some time in the wrong direction at night and not know it. I sent a very heart felt prayer to her every so often as I stopped to drink water and catch my breath.
Even so, I felt like I was not making the best of time. I think that was partly due to my wanting to occasionally thin their ranks. It was alarming to see so many enemy soldiers here roughly in the inner reaches of the Land. Part of me was trying to figure out how they could have crossed into the land in vast numbers and go unremarked for so long. Surely the which ever the boarder they were using had either been compromised or there was an unknown route into the Land.
Venne and Vonne’s light was dim due to a partial clouding of the sky and their own cycle of travels. Venne was slightly brighter than Vonne when they were waxing, yet it would only be a few days before they would be hiding their faces for a few days. Tactically speaking, in their darkest of nights the enemy would be foolish not to move and or attack. Though they could as easily strike now or the next few nights.
I worried too that the pages not yet written the Lady of the Hunt foretold me would be here all too soon. I think that wore at me more so than my cramps or the threat of discovery. Part of me longed to be at home and somehow protecting my family, and the other part of me wished that I was closer to the end of my Journey that barely upon it.
I stopped and pulled out a sachet opened it so that I could get at the dried raw herbs and dumped them into the cup. With a bit of water I turned them into a paste and set some of it in my mouth against the cheek and jaw. With luck that evil tasting poultice would leech enough of the herbs out so that I would be mostly cramp free. A mouthful of water set me to gagging slightly, but I managed to wash a bit of the herbs down as well.
With a reluctant yet suppressed groan I returned my pack to my shoulders and set off to jogging again. I don’t think I had ever pushed myself this hard since the night I fled with the forest, though this time it wasn’t a monster possibly at my back it was an army. An army that had no qualms with rape and murder of noncombatants, evidently the Mage King was likely the same, as a nation or army took that much from its leader. An anger much like that which fueled me during the wild hunt flowed into my veins, bringing much needed strength to run.
Part of me wanted to lift my horn and call the Wild Hunt yet again. I was not sure if it would work without a good force of righteously angry people to act as its hunters. Not to mention I was more than a bit unnerved by the loss of my own self control during the last Hunt. Surely I could lay that at Kernos’ blood fever, and possible some of the Huntress’ own anger as well. It was bothering me that I could become a brutal killer so easily, that I could take lives as freely as I did the night before.
Breaking free of the forest I paused for a time to gather my breath and to place my location. The odd hump that was Stone Mount was in the far distance to my right and a dim glow in the horizon had to be the city. A faint gray ribbon that stretched in the direction of the city was likely the road, so I was more or less where I expected to be. I crouched down and spat out the remaining bits of the herbs, and then washed out my mouth before drinking a few swallows of water.
Still I had at least a few hours of travel to get to the city, then I had see the Barron again. Of which I doubted he would be entirely too happy to see me, I snickered softly as I has no doubt he would not care for the news I was carrying either. I shrugged trying to get my pack into a slightly more comfortable position, with a sigh I picked up my pace once more.
My dislike of bards was growing by leaps and bounds, as they seemed to omit the part of running for your life as a horde of enemy soldiers pursued you across a section of farmland. I had inadvertently run into a squad of them as they were crossing the same stretch of I was using. Needless to say none of us were happy to see the other, unfortunately they had the advantage of being rested and numbers. Though fear gave me a slight edge when it came to speed, just not as much of a lead as I could wish.
Invisibility would have been a nice option; had I not used up the rings charge much earlier in the day, winding about other soldiers in the forest. So that left me scrabbling through fields, ducking into irrigation ditches and trying very hard to get clean shots at their bowmen, while avoiding being skewered. Of which I was a head of the field, slightly.
But only slightly, I was looking over the body of one solider while another two where trying to close the gap between us. Shaking my head I finally gave up and dropped my pack. I drew the short sword and a throwing dagger, sure it wasn’t sporting of me to throw it at the first one’s face. But as they say all is fair in love and war, and I was not too mindful of the code duello when fighting for my life.
I could have wished to have killed that one, but a dagger hilt is not as effective as the point or edge. It did give me a few moments respite and allowed me to get close enough to at least wound him before circling away. He was a good foot taller than I was and his long sword was definitely going to be a problem if I could not get inside his guard.
Shear finesse was not going to win this fight, so I was looking for any edge. My eyes focused on his quiver and I dropped back a few step and pointed at them. “Burn!” I commanded and took an uneasy step back as his clothes flashed into flame.
As he danced around screaming, I fell backwards a few more steps not sure if I should be happy about the results. It was horrifying to watch and I think it was his screams that made me turn and run. Though it may have been pure self-revulsion that caused me to empty my stomach, sobbing in the darkness I looked back in the distance to where the man still burned. Unsteadily I rose up and checked to make sure I had the map, and then I started jogging tiredly towards the lights of the city once again.
Images of that man burning played through my head over and over again, I had only wanted the arrows in his quiver to burn. Not his clothes or flesh, part of my thoughts wandered to say you wanted him dead and he’s now very dead. The other part of me was screaming that I was no better that the Mage Kings. I tried to tell myself that dead was dead no matter how you killed a person, yet there was still that ugly taste of doubt in my mouth.
That foul sequence of thoughts dogged my heels all the way to the city gates, which were closed. I used the flat of the short sword to pound at the gate until some annoyed soldier yelled down for me to use the west gate. I bit off the curse that was on my lips and trudged around the whole damned city. Needless to say when I reached the west gate I was in foul mood and the cramps did not help much either.
Admittedly I must have been a bit of a sight, sweat soaked, muddy and not quite snarling I presented the guard at the gate with a foul look when he asked what my business was. “My business?” I tried to think of some witty reply and choked back on half a dozen insults as a cramp started in my abdomen and sunk into my bones. Once I was able to stand upright again I studied their faces and sighed, “I need to speak with either Caer, Kenneth, Arnold or the Barron. An enemy army is in the forest to the northeast.”
“An army?” asked a man holding a spear loosely in his hands.
I ignored him and stuck my head in a barrel of water trying to cool off and largely to keep from doing something rash. “Just send a runner to fetch them or take me to them.”
“Aren’t you the girl the Barron wanted found?” asked a man wearing sergeant’s stripes on his tabard.
I chuckled tiredly, “Well you found me,” and then I sighed, “so now what?”
He smiled and pointed to a chair near the gate, “Well you look a bit done in, why don’t you sit quietly for a time and I will send for someone who would know what to do with you.”
I nodded and took a seat as he sent someone off, after a bit of time I looked up from my slightly dazed state. “I don’t suppose he’s too happy with me?” I asked with a wince as a case of prickly heat announced itself with a vengeance.
“Well I heard it was quite lively for a time on the other side of town.”
“It will get even more so shortly.”
“Well if what you say is true about there being an army in the forest. I suppose you are likely right. How many do you think?”
“At least five hundred men in the main body, add in another score or so of gathering platoons that I passed just getting here, I would put it at roughly seven hundred soldiers,” I replied.
“Yeah that is an army all right. Crap.” He patted me on the shoulder, “Well you are safe here.”
“Time will tell.”
The Barron was in a fine mood as he scowled at me from his chair behind a large polished desk. “I think I would have preferred a sign from the Goddess to a map showing an army not quite on my doorstep.”
“Well I did offer.”
He chuckled, “That you did, and now what I to do with you?”
“Well hot bath and a bed would be a start,” I said as I indicated a muddy swatch of my arm.
“I was thinking of a room with a view, perhaps a cell in a tower?”
“That might be a bit over much. I could as easily rest in the Temple or at the Inn,” I offered quickly.
“Oh but I insist, if only to keep you from stirring more trouble my way.”
As a handful of guards moved into the room behind me I frowned, “This really isn’t necessary.”
“Just think of it as a lesson in courtesy.” He looked up the soldiers and said, “Do escort young Jonne here to the tower, see that she gets a bath and food, then lock her in for the night.” Shaking his head he looked at me as I tried to protest, “Just go rest Jonne, I have a long night with my commanders as it is and I have no need for your shenanigans this night.”
I sighed, “Fine, you win for this night.” I ignored the cramps and my tired feet to lean over and point at the map, “Just don’t expect that to be as easy of a victory.”
“In war child, only a fool counts a battle as won until it is fought. While a waif such as yourself might make a fool of me at court, I am no fool in war.”
I nodded, “So hope we all.”