Tuesday, September 30, 2014

13. Father Roman

They called themselves scholars because they gathered in the former quarters of Arcanist Whitefellow.  They would be hard-pressed to study much of anything, given the state of Whitefellow’s library.  Someone had pulled down the several volumes owned by the man and torn them to pieces.  The abused pages had been gathered together by the Scholars into a few stacks and tied together with string, but that was as far as they were willing to go with preserving their old schoolmaster’s library.

The four of them spent the afternoon baking apples in a thick clay pot in the fireplace and eating them.  Sour and hard when raw, they came out of the post sweet and soft and steaming.  After what the guards took and setting aside a few for the night shift, there were enough cooked apples for them each to have two.  The other scholars ate the apples in their entirety except for the stem and seeds.

While the food cooked Fernie told his story of his parents’ death by manticore, his long walk south to the town he’d never seen, and his mistreatment at the hands of the guards.  His audience didn’t gasp in surprise or lean forward in suspense.  They just nodded along as if the whole thing were expected.  Their own lot hadn’t been any better.  “I’m afraid I have bad news for you Fernie,” said the girl Tyra, “if you were getting away from manticores.  You kind of walked into them.”

“They belong to Sharn,” said Karl, the older boy.  “There’s a huge one he rides, it’s really terrifying.  He lets the whole pack hunt in the valley, so if anyone tries to escape this place...”

Fernie pulled his knees up to his chin and wrapped his arms round them.  “I should have gone North.  How many of these things are there?  And who’s this Sharn guy?”

“Sharn the Ruthless.  He’s got about forty elves and humans, and about a hundred goblins.  And the manticores.”

“We used to get along with the goblins,” Tyra said.  “Sometimes they would kill an animal, but the Captain could always work out a trade.  We weren’t friendly, exactly, but we never had any bad trouble with them.  Now they’re like in all the stories.”

“Small but vicious,” agreed Karl.

“I want them all dead,” blurted Wrenn.  It was the first words he had spoken since voting Fernie into the club.  “All of them.  They deserve it.  They took Mom and Pa...”

The group fell silent for a while, watching Tyra fidget with the coals around the pot.

“I made a mistake,” Fernie said, “I shouldn’t have come here.  I should leave.”

“No, you can’t,” Tyra insisted.  “they’ll drop you.  We have to take him to the commons,” she told Karl and Wrenn, “he has to see.”

There was a shared dread on the trio’s faces.  “I can’t,” said Wrenn in a whisper.  “someone has to watch the animals.”

“I’ll take him,” said Karl, “alone.  Nobody else has to come.  Anyway, nobody’s going to stop us.”

An adult wouldn’t have taken Fernie to the commons.  An adult wouldn’t have shown him anything so terrible.  But the Scholars knew most of what the adults knew, and they didn’t see a reason not to share it.  Karl lead Fernie east through the town right to the wall, then they climbed the wood scaffolding and stood on the defender’s walkway.   From there they could see the land sloping gently down for a mile before turning up towards Mt. Stamhead.

Fernie could see what kept the townsfolk so cowed.  His first impression was that of a grotesque garden where corpses had unexpectedly sprouted up from the earth instead of the expected runner beans and squash.  Sharpened stakes the height of a man were planted there, perhaps a hundred a few feet apart in a neat grid.  Onto these the citizens of Stamfield had been dropped from a great height.

“He gets his big manticore to carry people up high and drop them.  People who run away, or try to fight.”  Karl’s forced his tone to be casual.  “The minions place bets on how good its aim is.”  Fernie counted some corpses piled five deep.  Bodies sometimes lay on multiple spikes, and sometimes they fell between spikes and were killed by the fall alone.  A few had missed the target area entirely and lay like broken dolls, bloating in the morning sun.  “Some people are still alive after they get dropped.  If they live, you can’t help them.  Sometimes he makes us all stand out here and watch.

“I have a brother.  Had.  He’s in there somewhere, near the bottom.”

“How many manticores, did you say” asked Fernie?  

“Why?  You planning on killing one?”

Fernie shrugged.  “I just want to know is all.”

“Six, including the big one.  We think she’s the mother.”  The two boys turned away from the commons and retraced their steps.  Fernie seemed weighed down, hardly able to pick up his feet.  “On the first day,” said Karl, “one of the guards put a spear into the smallest one.  The really big manticore tore him to shreds.  Bits of him were everywhere.  That’s why we think she’s their mother.”  The walked on for another block, peering around corners for patrols before crossing streets.  “The whole time, Sharn was riding on her back, laughing.”

“Don’t you have a mayor or something?  Can’t he do anything?”

“The Captain was the only one who could do anything, but Sharn has him in a dungeon.  We have a Laird, but Kelowind is useless.  He tries to act like he’s in charge even though he’s been thrown out of the castle.  People mostly ignore him.  Father Roman is alright though, at least he tries to do something.  There’s not much he can do, but at least he tries.”

“Can I meet him?” asked Fernie, enthusiastically, “I’ve never met a real priest before.”

“I guess,” said Karl, shrugging.  “I’ll take you to the temple.  But then I have to get back to the animals.  People will be pissed if anything happens to them and I wasn’t there.  You can find your way back?”

The old temple building was still in use as such.  It was one great room dominated by a plinth in the center, on which should have stood four larger-than-life statues.  All that remained of the gods were their feet.  At the far side of the room the broken remnants had been gathered: big chunks of stone heads and hands and limbs and torsos.  Each of the four gods had been dismembered, painted plaster still shimmering in the sunlight streaming in from the high windows.  The stones were sorted into piles by color scheme, waiting for their followers to rebuild them.  A domed ceiling looked down on them, tiled in the same shade of deep blue inlaid with bright yellow stars.  The usual iconography required a sun and a moon often covered in real silver and gold, but maybe the bandits had taken them.  There were other signs of recent damage, too:  faces in the wall murals were gouged by sword marks; there was the lingering smell of fire.  Tad wondered what had been burned.

By some clever trick of the windows the light fell mainly into the center of the temple in a golden beam.  The rest of the temple was in relative shadow, and Fernie became aware of people moving about only gradually.  A man and a woman were sweeping, the swish swish of their brooms pushing constellations of dust motes into the light.  Fernie slipped to one side of the doorway, into shadow to watch.  The sweepers worked in tandem according to some long-standing arrangement, each overlapping the other’s work a little in a pattern that would cover the entire floor.  Another man, in a long priest’s cassock, stood by a mural with a paintbrush in hand.  A kind of little bookshelf on wheels was next to him, filled with jars and rags and other artists’ tools.  

Fernie padded closer to see.  The frocked man touched the face of some local saint with delicate stokes of a small brush.  The figure in question thrust one hand forward to abjure a pack of undead back to grave.  Fernie could see the defaced surface had been filled in with plaster, and the priest was smoothing a layer of flesh-colored paint over the damaged areas of the face.  

The priest’s cassock was less fine than Father Ambrose’s, and much more worn.  The cloth at his elbows was worn down to a shine and his buttons didn’t all match.  The man himself was tall and lean with a full head of white hair and a mustache whose corners drooped down to his chin to end in sharp waxy points.  His head tilted back slightly to look though the magnifying spectacles perched on the end of his short nose.  His face was wrinkled with age but he seemed less tired than patient.  Resolved. 

“Feel free to make yourself useful young man.”  The brush dipped into small bowl in the priest’s left hand and rose again to the mural.  “Find me some light, will you?”  He pointed with the handle of the brush to the altar.  A large bronze platter leaned, just inside its shadow.

Fernie shuffled over uncertainly and, after some experimentation, moved the platter to where it would shine light onto the priest’s work.  “Much better,” sighed the priest.  Fernie stood near him to watch, careful not to cast a shadow over the saint.  

“Who is he, Father?”

“Don’t you know?  Haven’t you been paying attention in temple?”  The priest admonished Fernie with a look, given by elders everywhere to their young charges who seemed incapable attending even the most elementary of lessons.  The boy caught the barest glimpse of his white brows before they shot up into his bangs.  “Good heavens!  Who are you?”

“My name is Fernie, sir.  Son of Willis.”  He offered his hand for the priest to shake.  “I came south over the hills.”  

The priest put his brush behind one ear and took the boy’s hand.  “Whatever for?”

“I was running from manticores, Father.”  “But I guess I ran in the wrong direction.”

“So it would seem.  I am Father Roman.  Missus Clay, would you get a plate and a mug of cider for our guest?”  The priest sat Fernie down on one of the benches along the wall with the promised food and left him there for a few minutes.  Fernie enjoyed his second breakfast of the day: jerked meat, a boiled egg, a hunk of tangy cheese on a wooden plate.    The cider was scented with valley flowers.   He wolfed it down like he hadn’t eaten properly in days.

Fernie was about to ask where he should put the plate and cup when the priest returned.  “Leave it for now.   Come into the light where I can see you properly.”  Roman looked him over, asked if he was injured, and where he had come from.  Fernie was just starting his story when a group of men walked through the temple’s doors.  

The man in the center was of an age and height with Father Roman but broader.  Behind him loomed four more in hardened leather armed with clubs.  By his steps he came in anger.  As Roman turned his head to face the newcomer Fernie slipped out of view.

“Why did you tell them not to fight, Roman?” The leader was dressed in silk trousers and doublet overlaid with an embroidered coat.  His clothes must have been impressive at one time but were presently faded and threadbare.  They covered a man struggling with his indignities: his mouth turned down; his shoulders sloped; his hands clinched on nothing by his sides.  He stopped just inches from the priest’s face.  “You’re undermining me.  Again!”

“We don’t have enough men to win.  If we fight now the town will lose.”

“We have to do something, before he kills us all.”

“Not suicide,” urged the priest. “As long as the treasure room stays locked Sharn has a reason to drag this out.  Help may still come.  Something may change.  We have to wait for an opportunity.”

“I am Laird here!  I say when people fight.”

“Not any more,” observed the priest.

Fernie thought the man, who must be Laird Kelowind, was going to hit Father Roman.  The men behind him shifted uncomfortably, not wanting to choose between their Laird and their priest.  One closer inspection, they didn’t seem like the regular fighting types.  They didn’t seem very well fit to their armor, and the clubs were clumsy weapons.   “You’re going to regret this.  After this is over, I’m going to make you pay.  Brother or not.”

“Your enemy isn’t in the temple, brother.  He’s in the castle.”  Father Roman said it without a trace of rebuke but it had an effect on the ex-Laird.

Kelowind backed up and struck a more relaxed pose.  “My point exactly.  Let’s work together in these difficult times.  For the good of everyone.  Convince the soldiers to fight, and we’ll forget all about this little disagreement.”

“They’ll fight when there’s a way to win, or when there is no other choice.  The captain wouldn’t have it any other way.”

“The captain isn’t here.”  Kelowind didn’t say goodbye or excuse himself.  He just turned and left.  Father Roman stood for a while watching his brother’s back recede, his forgotten paintbrush tucked behind one ear.  

They boy made his decision then.  He retrieved the gem he had smuggled past the guards and stood in front of the priest.  He threw off the frightened bearing and tremulous voice of Fernie and exchanged it for the confident poise of a gentleman adventurer’s apprentice.  “Father Roman, help has come.”

The old man’s eyes looked down on him sympathetically, “You’re a good lad Fernie, but you’re too young to fight bandits.”

“I’m an advance scout, sir.  The Duke of Corak sent help.  The rest of us are still in the hills.”

The priest paused for several heartbeats,  then took Tad by the arm and lead him into a curiously shaped alcove.  “A stranger out of the north.  I should have guessed!  How many in your army?”

“Not an army, Father,” whispered Tad.  “Heroes.  They’re not many, but they’re powerful people and they’ve sworn to fight your enemy.”  Tad opened his hand to show the flawless clear gem lying in his palm, “Have you seen one of these before?  It’s a speaking stone.”

“I’m familiar with them,” said the priest wonderingly, “but it has been ages since I’ve used one.”

“I’ll make my report and then introduce you.  You can talk to my companions.”

“Yes,” said Father Roman, louder than necessary, “let’s pray for guidance.”

Taking his cue from the Father, Tad bowed his head with the gem clasped between his hands at his chest.  The priest put his hands around Tad’s and together they bowed their heads.  After a minute of silence the priest asked, “Is it not working?”

“No Father, I’m just thinking about what I’ll say: These things don’t last very long, and my master values concision in any case.”

“By all means, take your time,”  encouraged the priest. To Tad, he didn’t sound entirely earnest.

When Tad thought he had all the important parts covered he reached out through the gem with his mind and looked for his master.  In theory he could contact any one of the three other stones mated to his, but as Mr. Brightstar was the person he knew best he was the easiest to reach.  Tad imagined him, writing in his journal, sitting on a log somewhere in the hills and suddenly the halfling’s mind was present.  Tad could sense himself too, as if from Nolan’s perspective, which was the most confusing part of the experience.  

“You’re early, Thaddius.”

“I’ve made some progress, and I have a report.”  The magic felt like conversing with someone and at the same time remembering that the conversation had taken place.  

“Break, while I get the others.”  Nolan’s presence popped like a soap bubble.

“My master is bringing the others into the conversation, Father.  My report will only take a minute, then I’ll include you and make introductions.”  Just then a whole bunch of somebodies crowded into his head at once and Tad lost sight of the alcove and temple around him.  He was was with the entire party, paired us in twos to share stones. 

“Report, Thaddius.”

Tad efficiently summarized what he knew of Sharn and his forces then tried to explain the political situation.  “We’re short on local leadership.  There was a captain of the guard, but he’s being held in the castle dungeon.  Sharn lets the old Laird run around free, as a kind of joke.  He’s powerless.  People here put their trust the temple priest, Father Roman. Also, I think the priest is hiding fighters somewhere, but he won’t use them unless the situation changes.”

“You think we should work with the priest,” stated Nolan.

“Yes sir.  The Laird isn’t coping well, but the Priest seemed to be expecting us.  He’s been playing for time until help arrives.  He’s here with me now.”  

Tad could feel flashes of emotion from the party members.  Constrained impatience from the sisters.  Aggravation from Minzerec.  Earkey was concerned for the innocents in the town.  Nolan was pleased.    Most astonishingly, there was Familiarity and Danger from Basil.  A pulse of thought from Aidan, querying whether to include the priest in the conversation.  Impress him and he would be more open to them then he would be to their envoy.  Nolan: there is more to know from the priest.  Agreement from all sides.

Tad realized there was a lot for him to learn about this kind of communication, where one could use ideas without words.  Then he was embarrassed to realize his thought was leaking into the mindshare.  Then the embarrassment was received by all parties.  From Minzerec, the word “Practice” appeared in Tad’s mind as if they had been written in chalk on the inside of his skull.

“Give the stone to Father Roman,” ordered Nolan.

Blindly, Tad released one hand and folded the priest’s around the stone.  As the temple swam back into view it was a relief to lose contact with his party.  The talking stones were a little more personal than anyone had told him.  The old priest stood head and shoulders taller than Tad, with his mouth open in amazement.  After about a minute, tears welled up under his closed eyes.  Occasionally his lips moved.  Whatever they were talking about, Tad could see the hope grow in him.  

Roman’s eyes opened suddenly.  “Bless you, son,” he said laying one hand on the top of Tad’s head. ”You’ve journeyed far in the embrace of the gods.  Trust them as you have been, and they will continue to guide you.”  

“I’m to keep this for now,” he whispered, “and give it to you later after we’ve made a plan.”

“Thank you father,” Tad said aloud.  “I’ll go watch the animals with Karl and the others.”

“Oh, you’ve fallen in with them already have you?  Off with you, then.”

Somewhere between the priest and the temple door, Tad disappeared and the orphan Fernie took his place.  

12. The Stamfield Scholars

Fernie son of Willis shuffled wearily down a dry creek bed, a threadbare bag with a few possessions slung over one shoulder and a nearly empty waterskin over the the other.  His tunic had seen better days,  and he had improvised a belt from a rope that frayed within an inch of its life.  He was too tired to go lightly or quietly: his feet scuffed on every few steps leaving a low-hanging cloud of dust behind him.

The boy’s destination was small pond that hadn’t yet managed to dry up in the autumn heat.  It was the only open source of water visible from the hills to the north, where Fernie had come from.  It was man-made, so it must act as a reservoir for livestock.  More importantly, it was screened from the town by a rocky outcropping and a stand of trees.  Grazing animals would gather there in the heat of the day and in the evenings some of the local children would be sent to fetch them back to their barns.  It was the children Fernie wanted: just someone to talk to about his troubles and get news of the town in return.  With any luck they would be wasting the afternoon away picking up the cool breezes that came over the water.

What Fernie found down by the pond was corpses: a bull, five cows, three horses.  They had deflated as the flies and buzzards did their work.  The lack of meat and the scattered scraps of hide said they had been dead for weeks, and the cause was hardly a mystery: the boy didn’t have to search long to find six manticore spikes.  One was embedded so deeply into a horse’s shoulder blade he couldn’t pull it out, but three of the others he retrieved and washed in the pond.  He saw they were half again as large as the one he already carried, and that caused him to scan the skies as he stuck them into his belt next to the pitted iron cooking knife he carried for protection.

Could the town be under siege by a pack of manticores?  That might explain the groups of armed men in the streets of town: they might be townsfolk gathered to keep the manticores at bay.

Fernie had passed a dozen farms so far, all of them empty.  At one farm he had approached the house loudly and knocked to avoid surprising anyone and thus provoke an attack.  Someone had lived there but they must have left weeks before. Two men and a woman.  They had taken with them clothes, perishable food and (judging by the barn) some tools, a mule, and maybe a few goats.  After that he kept his inspections brief: enough to verify they had the same forlorn silence of abandoned abodes everywhere.  In a few cases he found the remains of people scattered near their homes as if they had been killed while running to safety.

After the pond, Fernie decided the townsfolk of Stamfield would keep their livestock close, if there was any left, and their children closer.   He would have to go into town proper.  The boy filled up his waterskin from a farmer’s well, filled his bag from another farmer’s fruit trees, and picked up his pace.  Everywhere he looked he saw ripe barley and apples and grapes but nobody was harvesting.  A few plots of land had been harvested close to town, too few to feed so many.

There was a wall around most of the town proper, a stone structure only about seven feet high and too narrow for to walk on.  The wall did have a kind of gate that spanned the road and there Fernie got his first close look at the guards.  Like any newly homeless child hoping to find shelter Fernie walked up to the gate openly but shyly, unsure of his welcome.

There were eight men at the gate: humans in rusty chain mail and spiked clubs.  They gave Fernie a hard time for being out of town without permission and slapped him around the head a few times till he fell into the dirt.  The leader “taxed” him by dumping his bag of produce all over the street and taking all the best apples.  They took his knife (“But it was my mama’s knife, and she’s dead now” earned him another face full of dirt), but left him his manticore spikes.  Fernie gamely picked up all the apples left in the road and his clothes and stuffed them into the sack, all the while curious what happened when you stick a man in the kidneys with sharp objects.  They sent him into town with a warning not to leave until a harvest party was assembled, then he could pick all the apples he wanted.  They were definitely occupiers.

Padding nervously through town Fernie could hear people in some of the houses but the streets were empty.  Instead of a large gathering in the market square, a few people were going door to door to get the things they needed.  They moved quickly, shoulders hunched, not looking up.  The one woman who made eye contact with the boy recognized him instantly as a stranger and made the decision to move on.  He wasn’t her problem.  Maybe she had her own children at home who needed her and she didn’t want to get involved.  Every building’s shutters were closed. 

He made one detour to avoid a group of men on patrol.  They were loud and careless and easy to avoid.  Otherwise, he headed for the temple in the center of town.  Soon he could see the domed box down the street from him but then changed his mind to follow a street crusted in mud covered in hoof prints.  Finding the priest, if  would be good, if there was one, but finding children would still be better.  Children around Fernie’s age should be taking care of the animals.

The tracks led into a small square built around a well, milled all around the well aimlessly, then into a building that was most definitely not a barn.  It looked more like the typical residence for the local Arcanist: a large room on the bottom floor lined with narrow windows and a smaller second story to house the wizard and his personal study.  The front door lay in pieces in the street, and Fernie could hear then animals within.  A cart without a horse was parked to one side and held a sizable mound of manure.  The boy paused in the shadows of what must be tavern in better times to watch and listen.  The windows were all open in the schoolhouse to let the breezes in and the smells out.  Under the normal animal noises he could hear people talking.   Nobody showed themselves.

Convinced his situation wasn’t going to get any better the footsore boy approached and knocked on the empty doorframe.  One he was inside the doorway he could see the desks had been piled up against the walls to make room for a collection of goats and a couple cows which were doing what animals do: lying down; chewing; crapping on the floors.  A spiral staircase next to the door went up to the wizard’s apartment, where a fair-skinned human face popped into view.

“Who is it?  Hey, who are you?”  The face withdrew, “Someone’s here.”

“Well who is it?” asked a girl.

“I don’t know.  Some kid,” which was rich coming from someone who looked younger than Fernie.  “What’s your name?”  The boy had red hair, similar to the woman Fernie had seen on the street.

“I’m Fernie.  I came south over the hills.”

The face disappeared again, “says his name is Fernie.  He came over the hill,” he said, as if such a thing were barely heard of.

“We heard him,” said a third voice, a male one a little older sounding than the other two.  There was the sound of movement, then a second red headed face showed itself, “Are you friend or foe?”

“Friend,” said Fernie with the most confident tone he could muster, “and I brought apples.  What the guards didn’t take anyway.”

The girl’s face popped into view between the other two, “I nominate him to the Scholars if he shares his apples,”

“Seconded,” said the first boy with enthusiasm.  “All in favor?”

“Aye!” they said together.

“Welcome to the Scholars Club,” said the older boy, “you may enter.  Bring forth the apples!”

11. Westward

From the camp they turned East to face the edge of a ridge line of hills that ran east-to-west.  The road angled to follow the southern side of the hills and to Stamfield, but the party left the road to follow the North side of the hills instead.  The reason the sisters gave was that if Stamfield was in trouble then by definition the area was unsafe.  They could get closer to the city without being seen by approaching over the hills.

The next two days proceeded a little slower as they crossed overland through rising land and up gullies wedged between the hills, trusting Lady Calanth’s maps.  The hills were only a few hundred feet in height, but they were a steep and effective barrier between the vast grasslands and Stamfield.  Grass gave way to forest suddenly where the hills began, mainly widely-spaced specimens of oak.  Several areas were choked instead with birch.  Basil explained that there must have been a fire, probably by lightning strike, and after grass the birch trees were the first species to take root.

For two days the camps were cold and well-hidden, and watches were tense.  On the third day they rose early and, near dawn, crossed an unmarked pass that put them within sight of Stamfield.  Basil and Tad were the first over the pass, several minutes ahead of the others, and the first to glimpse the city in the valley below, peering between the trees.

The hill dropped steeply to a valley marked by long centuries of habitation.  Near its center was a squarish building with a peaked dome Tad recognized as a temple of ancient design, although its current purpose was anyone’s guess.  The temple made up one edge of a five-sided plaza ringed around with buildings only a little smaller.  From this center roads sprouted in five directions branching and retrenching and intersecting like an irregular spiderweb, the whole forming a village smaller than Walter’s Bailey.  The buildings were all gray stone and thatch.  Only about a third of the town’s chimneys were letting smoke into the sky where it lingered in a brown layer a hundred feet above the ground. From the edges of the town the spiderweb kept spreading as the country lanes and low stone walls subdivided the valley into ever-larger parcels.

Beyond the town rose another line of hills dominated by the mountain of Stamhed.  It was as tall again as the hills all around and its peak was well-lit even as the valley below lay at the edge of dawn.  From their position Tad and Nolan could see part of a road switchbacking its way up the gentler southwest face before it disappeared behind a spur of the mountain.  Somewhere on the mountain, Tad knew, would be a spring-fed lake whose waters lapped up nearly to the walls of a small castle.  

The town was ringed with a wall with at least three gates Tad could see: two for the main road running east and west, and a smaller gate facing them.  At each of these a fire burned for the watchmen gathered there.  He couldn’t make out an exact count without getting closer, but it could be ten men in each position armored and equipped with a spear.  Towns frequently guarded their guarded their gates at night, but something about them felt unfriendly to Tad.  Maybe that had something to do with the total lack of other people or animals in view.

Tad was on his belly peeing over the ridge, counting people, when something large and heavy struck his thigh.  Nolan rolled onto his back and fired a crossbow bolt into the air, dragged Tad to wedge him between a rock and a tree, reloaded, fired again from their new position.  While Nolan was thus engaged Tad managed to form a single thought,   “What’s that on my leg?”

The two of them were packed into a space the size of a camp cot.  Nolan had found them shelter were an ancient oak grew among large rocks.  The canopy and thick limbs gave them some protection from above, and they were surrounded on three sides by rock and wood.  Whatever attacked them would have to approach by ground and face their crossbows at close range.  Tad could hear the flapping of great wings, a heavy thump of a large body touching the ground, the roar of two (or three?) beasts.  Tad got his crossbow pointed at their unprotected side.  For several long moments they huddled waiting for the monsters to either attack or lose interest.

The attackers split up: one taking up a position at the front while the other circled around looking for another way in.  Tad realized anything larger than a goat could jump to the top of their meager rock wall and he swiveled his crossbow to point above the rocks behind them.  Whatever it was sounded like it had paws, not hooves.  It also had wings and could attack at range.  Tad thought to examine the wound in his leg for clues but decided he wasn’t curious enough to risk looking.  He would learn what the creature was when it tried to eat him.

Tad’s world was wholly occupied by a simple imperative: track the stalker by sound and put a bolt into whatever showed itself.  Though he was breathing heavily he felt calm about it.  The thing would attack him and he would fight back.  Either he would live or he would die.  His leg was beginning to experience the first throbbing pains, but if the attack came soon then it wouldn’t matter: it would all be over before the pain could debilitate him.

The attack came simultaneously from both directions.  The slightest rustle of dirt, a sudden shadow on the rocks, then a huge furry face like a monstrous cat appeared above him its mouth open wide and huge yellow fangs bared.  Tad pulled the crossbow’s release and was rewarded with a spray of hot blood across his face.  The beast yowled horribly and its face disappeared, to be replaced by a huge paw.  Tad dropped his crossbow and drew his sword to hack at the searching paw but there wasn’t enough room to get a good swing in.  He could score the beast’s hide but he couldn’t pierce it.  He reversed the weapon to point up and braced it against his body.  When the paw came down again it found a sharp point and impaled itself.  The creature drew back again and yanked his sword away from him.  Tad drew his dagger and set his mind to killing the thing, whatever it was called.  A mere nine inches of steel didn’t seem like enough but he wasn’t about to give up.

Tad spared a glance in Nolan’s direction and saw his master fit a bolt to his reloaded crossbow.  A mound of tawny fur blocked the opening behind Nolan.  Nolan motioned with his eyes to the rocks above Tad, meaning “pay attention there”.  Something large was by turns chuffing and yowling.  Maybe it was worrying the sword from its paw.  With any luck it was dying.  Tad’s leg was starting to hurt in earnest.  He wished the creature would hurry up and attack or else hurry up and run away.

Tad didn’t get to see the end of the fight.  There was a rush of hoofbeats, a shout, a dying roar, then silence.  The sisters had arrived to put an end to it.

“It” was a manticore, a monster like a giant cat with a flattened face, massive wings, and a tail full of spikes it could throw with deadly force.  Even dead they were scary to look at.  It was one of the tail spikes that had pierced Tad’s thigh and it might have killed him if it had been a few inches nearer the femoral artery.  Getting the spike out of his thighbone was the worst part of the whole ordeal.  Ambrose and Aidan held him down while Nadia twisted the thing and yanked it out in motion that hurt so badly Tad couldn’t scream.  He couldn’t even breathe.  He flailed like a man drowning and passed out.

Tad awoke later in a cold camp in a steep gully, all pain gone.  People around him were unloading and grooming the horses, and when they saw he was awake they hauled him to his feet.  They patted his back and whispered congratulations.   They gave him spirits to drink.  Nadia presented him with the spine that had almost killed him.  Tad took in his hand the slim spiral length of bone a foot long.  She had thoughtfully washed off all the blood.  Nolan beamed.  For someone who so recently was nearly dead Tad felt quite good, like he could do it all over again.

“So what are we doing next?” whispered Tad, because everyone else was keeping their voices so low.  They must be camped very close to the town.  They had come a ways down the hills which now loomed over their camp.

“We’re still discussing it,” said Nolan in a low voice, “Stamfield is occupied by some outside force, but that’s all we know.  Probably bandits.  Aidan and Nadia want to ride down there and hit something, they don’t care much whom.  Father Ambrose thinks there will be a priest here and wants to make contact with him.  The rest of us want to know more about what’s going on before doing anything.”

“I could find out.  It’ll be easiest for me.”   The entire group looked at Tad, over half of them with the look you get from a patient relative before they tell you that no, you can’t play with fire inside the house.  “It’s a human town, right?  Any non-human will be noticed.  You can’t send them,” he said indicating the sisters, “or the Father because they don’t know how to act normal.  They can’t walk down the street without being in charge of it.  They’ll get noticed.”

“And you don’t think a child alone will draw any attention?” Ambrose asked.

“The occupiers won’t see him as a threat,” Nolan offered. “But the natives will notice a stranger.  They’ll ask questions.”

“My name is Fernie, son of Willis.  I live with my family over the hill.  Or, I did,” Tad improvised, making a sad face and forcing his eyes to fill with water, “until a monster came ... it was so awful.”  He turned his face away and swiped at his face with the heel of one hand, as any boy would do rather than shame himself by openly showing tears.  “I didn’t know what else to do, so I came here.  Pops used to tell me about the town over the hills, so I thought I could find it.”

“Oh, you poor thing!” said Earkey, caught up in the act.

“I walked for days!”

“Ah,” said Ambrose acidly, “and pray tell, what kind of beast ravaged your poor family?”

“Manticore,” said Tad in a piteous voice.  He produced the manticore spine from his pocket as proof, “see?”

Maybe it would be that easy.  Or maybe he was high on the rush of surviving a surprise manticore attack.  Either way, he was walking into Stamfield as a Fernie Willison.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

10: The Southlands

Autumn heat lay heavy on the Southlands, a vast expanse of grass and heather that exhaled dust. The lack of landmarks unnerved Tad, who had spent his entire life in places from which he could see other places. Towns, farms, distant hills, stands of trees had always been his guides. The endless plain capped by the endless sky left him feeling lost and very, very small. This is what sailors must feel like, he thought, surrounded by water everywhere and nothing to steer by.

He was usually last in line, leading the packhorse, squinting and choking on the debris of everyone else’s passing, trying to follow without getting lost in the cloud. The road was hardly any different from the rest of the landscape, except that it was raised up a few feet and banked on either side with stone. Over a century of neglect hadn’t yet broken the foundations of the highway, but the surface was waist-high in vegetation.

In better times, when Aspera had been bigger, there had been farms and hamlets along this road. Smaller roads had branched off from the highway to lead travelers to yet more towns and more farms. According to Geranicus, the Southlands had never been prosperous, yet over a hundred thousand people had lived here, mostly scattered in small settlements. In the 990’s, a decade of drought, disease, and civil war had broken the kingdom, leaving it vulnerable to raiders and monsters. King Tygar had put the realm back together though drastic measures, including forcing people to move from the periphery to the inner duchies. He was unpopular for it, but time had proved him right. His actions made the kingdom defensible again, and the kingdom began to recover.

At night the party made camp, usually in the ruins of a village or a farmhouse that had a working well. Basil was tasked with finding these, and Tad liked going with him just to get away from the choking dust he usually rode in. The elf had a surprising knack for finding good camp sites. He could spot the remains of a stone dwelling from hundreds of yards away, solely from some imperceptible (to Tad) differences in the grass. When they found a possible camp site, Tad and Basil would search systematically for a well. If they didn’t find one they would move on. Once, Tad had discovered a well by falling into it, and Basil had found him hanging onto the edge with his fingertips. That was how Tad learned the proper use of the ten-foot pole.

In their camp sites, there were enough loose stones to make a decent fire pit, but it was seldom necessary to build one. It was more typical to find a circular paved area surrounding a built-up hearth, laid down without mortar. Basil said the hearths were left by elves, who went through the Southlands in early Winter to hunt elk for meat and skins. Before the snows became too deep, his people would head West towards their desert home and dwell there until Spring.

In the fading evening sun, Tad would have lessons with weapons, during which Aidan would take care not to fracture his skull again. Some nights, during the first watch, Minzerec would teach him Astronomy. The arcanist had a magic circle of glass which made things far away seem close. He mounted this on a clever little stand that let it turn and tilt to look at any part of the sky, and Tad would spend hours peering through it under his direction. The dwarf smoked his pipe and lectured him about how stars were born and died, and Tad learned to read star charts and find any body in the sky that was visible. What he missed from the daytime sky, the night sky had in abundance: features and guideposts by the thousands.

On the nights he didn’t study the stars, Tad shared the third watch with Basil. The elf tried to teach him how to meditate. If he could learn to do it properly, Basil claimed that “the world will open to you”. Tad didn’t think he was making much progress in these lessons: mostly, he seemed to struggle against boredom and sleep.

In his bedroll at night Tad’s dreams took a turn away from long-clawed monsters in the night. Instead, he dreamt of a night sky that wheeled and rippled like a strange sea, and his world was a ship that sailed on it. Near the big wheel that turned the ship there were people fighting, and he could hear shouting, and metal ringing against metal. A blackness moved against the stars, in which Tad thought he could make out the shape of a giant raven, it’s wingtips shimmering bronze in the starlight. He thought something had caught fire, because smoke was stinging his eyes. But when he woke, it was just the breakfast fire.

Riding through the lost duchy, farther from home than he thought possible, next to the strange little man who had plucked him out of a ditch last winter, looking at the distant peaks of mountains he hadn’t even known existed, Tad felt a little sick to his stomach. There were things bothering him he didn’t know how to say. “Mister Brightstar, I’ve been thinking.”

“A dangerous pastime, my boy.” Tad’s master took a deep breath, as if steeling himself for some complex task. “What has been on your mind?”

“Father Ambrose and Earkey can heal with the Gods’ power. How many people can do that?”

“In Aspera? Besides our friends here, only the Heirophant and his champion. If there are others then they’re hiding it.”

“And Nadia and Aidan, they’re famous fighters. And the duke himself sent them.” Mr. Brightstart nodded, as if seeing where Tad was going with all of this. “And I think Minzerec works for the Arcane Council.”

“Now what makes you say that?”

Tad shrugged, “I don’t have any proof. But sometimes, when he talks about arcane things or about the Academy, he acts like he’s in charge. He thinks people should just do what he says, and trust him that he knows best.”

Mr. Brightstar nodded several times. “Minzerek Granitehelm is an enforcer for the Academy. It’s a little like being a rider or a peacekeepr: if someone breaks the rules about using magic, then it is his job to catch them.” Tad thought about what the rules about using magic might be, and set those questions aside for the moment.

“And I don’t know anything about Mister Basil, but he’s probably important too. I mean, he’s always drunk, but his armor is good and he has enough money for wine, so he’s not nobody.” Tad waited for some response or encouragement from Nolan, but it didn’t seem to be forthcoming so he continued. “And that spell on the sisters, I heard Minzerec say it was really big magic. The Harrels and the Hemmets had a contract, and the Harrel family is being called to do whatever it is they’re supposed to do, and the magic called the sisters.” Tad’s mouth was picking up speed now, like it sometimes did. “So that means the sisters are related to the Duke of Corak, only they’re not in the geneology. So they’re like those unrecognized kin that Lady Calanth was talking about, right?”

“Is that all that’s on your mind?” Nolan asked him wrily.

“Yes sir. And the thing about one of Sammit’s relics. Can you imagine holding one in your hands? Except for the throne. I guess you’d have to sit on that. And it can’t just be lying around somewhere. It’s been gone for hundreds of years. It has to be hidden, and guarded somehow, with enchantments and stuff, like that shrine we did over the summer, but bigger?”

“And your point, apprentice Thaddius?”

“Well, it’s all pretty big isn’t it?”

Nolan looked at the boy’s eyes, wide and shining, and sighed. He had utterly ruined the child for a simple trade like weaving. Whatever happened now, there was little hope for the simple, quiet life for Thaddius. “Might be nothing,” he offered, “but it could be big. Very big indeed.”

On the featureless terrain, which Tad came to think of as the Sea of Brown, days passed like weeks. It seemed like the longest ride of Tad’s life, but it was only eleven days until a line of hills could just be seen in the south. Somewhere in those hills, he knew, lay Stamfield, once the seat of the southern duchy of Aspera, and ancestral home of the Hemmet family.

Two days after the hills first came into view, their road took a gentle turn to the southwest, to angle into them. The hills had grown, an beyond them were the dim blue shapes of mountains. According to Lady Calanth’s map, the road would wend its way through the valleys to take travelers to whatever remained of the city of Stamfield.

People used to live around the bend of the road, at least according to the stone marker engraved with the words “Hemmet’s Bend”. But whether that was the name of a large road house, a nobleman’s estate, or a hamlet was unclear. All that remained was a tall squarish building, maybe the ruins of a tower, with no roof, and a lot of tumbled-down masonry all around it. Not even elves made camp here, at least not often enough to build a hearth. Basil built a fire-ring in the shadow of the ruins, and the party made camp around it.

The next morning, when dawn should have touched their camp at the bend in the road, there was only a diffuse illumination. The very tips of the hills to the Southwest shone bright with sunlight, but the rest of the world remained in twilight.

Turning East, all Tad could see was was an impenetrable grayness. It was as if a mist hung there, unmoving, shading them from the rising sun. To the north and the south, it stretched like a barrier, a wall miles high. Tad let his eyes follow the mist to the ground, and then tried to measure the distance from it to his own feet. With a shock, he realized that he was only a few hundred feet away from it. His eyes returned to the wall and tried to scaled its heights: Tad’s mind stuttered to a stop, confronted by something so vast that it couldn’t be grasped.

Thaddius had once seen a potter, working at her wheel with a lump of wet clay, press her thumbs into it and suddenly draw it up and out into a new shape. That’s what he felt like when this new Idea, unformed and frightening, too powerful to resist, disordered everything he thought he knew.

For days, he had just ignored that part of the horizon while this thing had grown. There must be some magic at work that made people look the other way, but from this close it wasn’t working. Tad was breathing heavily, and his fists were clenching and unclenching. Excitement and confusion assaulted him at the same time: here was something so profound, nobody wanted to look at it.

He was standing on the very edge of the world. It shouldn’t be possible, but there it was right in front of him. It shouldn’t be there. Worlds were supposed to be spheres. He should be able to walk forever, and come back to the same spot. Minzerek had explained it to him. Yet here, it all just dissolved into nothingness.

“I said, come back to the fire, boy.” Mr. Brightstar’s hands were turning him around and leading him to the camp, then pushing a hot cup into his hands. “Drink. It’ll take your mind off of ... things for a minute.” Thaddius allowed this, but without particularly caring about it. What was tea, when compared with the vast emptiness of the end of the world?

“Why isn’t he talking?” It was Aidan. She sounded alarmed. She cupped his face in her hands, none too gently, and forced him to look at her. His cheeks flushed so hot he thought the skin would burn, then cooled just as quickly. “Father, come look at him.” From this close, Tad could see her dark eyes were rimmed with a miniscule fringe of gold.

“Just sit him down over there,” Ambrose pointed with the spoon he was using to stir a pot of beans. Once Tad was settled, facing the fire and with his back to the end of the world, the Bishop started tearing dried meat into small bits and adding them to the pot. “He’ll come around, he just needs a few minutes.” Minzerek came to look at him briefly, but didn’t say anything. He just peered at Tad with eyes like polished orbs of stone.

The party gathered around and sat, some on fallen debris from the tower above them, and others on the bare ground, so that Tad found himself part of a circle. They talked of inconsequential things, like how much longer it would take to reach Stamfield, and whether they would need to hunt to replenish their supplies. Bishop Ambrose dished out the beans into bowls to be passed around, and Tad discovered he was famished. He gulped down his tea with a grimace and ate furiously.

A fine song this would make: They were a band of famous heroes, breakfasting on beans around a tiny fire at the end of the world. The humor in that idea did as much to bring him back to near normal as tea and breakfast had. Apparently, the antidote for mind-shattering news was the mundane.

“How come nobody knows about ...,” Tad waved his hand ineffectually towards the thing at his back, “... that.” They all just looked at each other, for so long that Tad began to wonder if anyone was going to answer.

It was Earkey who took up the question, at the same time pouring himself a generous measure of the bitter tea. “What makes you think they don’t?” Tad tried to think of any time he had ever heard that the world suddenly came to an end, just two weeks ride from the kingdom, but he could remember nothing of the sort.

“Thaddius,” said Mr. Brightstar, gently, “do you remember when we took the boat up from Reeland? They taught you a song about the Great River.”

Tad thought hard: it had been just a few weeks after Mr. Brightstar had taken him on, and he hadn’t yet learned to commit everything to memory. They hired passage on a barge, pulled upriver by giant horses that plod along the right-hand bank. They slept on top of bales of wool, because the only cabin was taken. It was dark, and winter, and very cold. The wind that came from downriver iced painfully through his blankets and made him whimper.

To ease him, the bargemen sang him a song. It was a simple learning song, full of bad grammar, which told the settlements along the western shore. But of the Eastern shore, there was just one verse:
The Eastern shore none may see,
Cloaked in mist it always be,
Hidden by her sorcerous hand,
The queen of faeries holds that land.
“This is the same mist that always sits on the other side of the river?”

“The very same,” said Earkey, but he did not elaborate. They were going to make him work it out on his own.

“Rivermen see a fairy mist. Ocean maps show monsters breathing smoke, or the seas spilling over in giants waterfalls. I see the end of the world. People make up their own explanations, but it’s all the same thing.” For some reason, Tad’s eyes landed on Minzerek. “So what is it, really?”

“Yes Minzerek,” echoed Earkey, “what is it, really?”

The dwarf had his wizard face on. Tad knew they would receive only partial truths. Minzerek would tell them only as much as he thought they should know, or as much as the Academy would allow. “In the vernacular of Aspera, it is the Veil.”

“I thought the veil was the separation between life and death, this life and the hereafter given by the gods.” Tad looked at Bishop Ambrose for confirmation, but Ambrose was watching Minzerek.

The dwarf stroked the braids of his beard, several times, before answering. “A linguistic confusion. A not entirely accidental one.” He poured himself the dregs of the tea, no doubt wishing for a good beer instead. “What do you know about the third Emperor?”

“He called himself the Golden Emperor, but he was a madman.”

“He was also astonishingly gifted, what today we would call a divergent talent. To aid in his insane conquests, allied with forces of chaos. Demons that aren’t even from this world, summoned from a place of pure chaos. They would have torn the world apart, so Arcane Council created a barrier to hedge them out. It has been protecting us ever since.” When Minzerek sipped his tea, the beads in his beard clicked against the cup. Tad wondered for about the dozenth time the significance dwarves gave to their facial hair, but again had to leave that for some other time.

“On the other hand,” Earkey offered, “our own lore about the barrier is a little different.”

“I don’t think we should be teaching Thaddius superstitions, do you?” Minzerek appealed to Mr. Brightstar, “He has enough to think about already, without adding folklore.”

“Oh, I think he can handle a little more,” said Mr. Brightstar. “And you should have more respect for Gnomish lore, Minzerek. I’ve seen six-hundred-year-old texts that match their modern copies, perfectly.”

“Well,” continued the gnome, “you might have heard that we come from another continent. Our homeland was invaded by Sidir, your Golden Emperor, and he forced us to worship him as a god. All other religions were banned, and clerics were hunted down and killed. The same was true all over the world, wherever he ruled. He wanted to be immortal. To become a god, he made people treat him like one. Terrible punishments were meted out to anyone who opposed him.”

“So he was talented, and he was crazy.”

“Not as crazy as you might think. Prayer and sacrifice are powerful forces.” Minzerek scoffed audibly, but Earkey pretended not to notice, “All of that directed at someone like Sidir, who knows what he could do with so much devotion?

“In our writings, the Ghaucia and the Arcane Council created the barrier to shut the world off from divine magic. By keeping him from using divine magic, they stopped his ascention. The gods allowed this. What’s more, they were subtly involved, guiding those who made it.”

“So all of that,” Tad waved his hands, “was to keep a man from becoming a god? And the gods planned it?”
“The mortal hands of clay have drawn a line
which gods in secret anger have surveyed
to topple throne of one man's gilded hate
and those who through inaction gods betrayed.”
All eyes were on Aidan, who had spoken those lines. “An oracle said that, when Ghaucia tried to undo the Veil. Or the barrier, or whatever we’re calling it. I think she meant that the Academy was just the hands that built it. The gods inspired it, and the gods will see to it that it comes down. When they’re ready.”

“That’s similar to our lore,” agreed Earkey.

Tad already had more to think about than would fit in his head, but one question begged to be answered. “So what happened to Emperor Sidir?”

“All of the histories agree that Sidir blamed the Fey for his sudden loss of power. He gathered an army, forded it over the Yeron river, and went into the Feywold. His army was turned back by the barrier, of course, but Sidir went right through it and was never seen again. Nobody really knows what happened.”

“Turned back,” whispered Tad. He hazarded a look over his shoulder at the looming barrier. “What happens when an army marches right at it?”

With two clicks of her tongue Nadia summoned Nightbow, and vaulted onto his back. She brought the charger around to Tad, and offered him her hand. “Want to find out?”

Minzerek stood in a sudden fury, “This is irresponsible! You do not toy with the great magics!”

“Oh, go comb your beard! If your Veil is so great, then we’ll be right back.” Tad grabbed Nadia’s proffered hand, and she swung him easily up behind her. “Hold on tight.”

With a light touch, Nadia pointed Nightbow at the gray wall and sent him into a canter. When the barrier loomed over them so hugely that it blocked out the sky, Thaddius had a moment of near panic. He was sure it would swallow them, and never spit them back out. Tad held Nadia as hard as he could, but he refused to close his eyes.

It did swallow them, and within a few seconds Tad felt disappointment: it wasn’t any different at all from being inside a bank of fog. The same tall grass hissed and rustled as they passed through it. The same damp morning air streamed past their faces. The only difference was the fog itself. Nightbow took a stride, then another, then another, and suddenly they were clear of the mist. At first, Tad thought they had gone through it. But the camp site right in front of him told a different story: they had come out right where they had gone in.

“It does that every single time,” said Nadia. “Nobody can get out, and nothing can get in.”

Basil’s voice floated to them from the camp, “If we have educated the boy enough for one morning, perhaps we can move on?”

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

9: Leaving Aspera

Their last night at Nearshore was a strange combination of a dinner party set against preparations to escape the area by first light. It started with a closed meeting in the remains of Lady Calanth’s library: other than Mr. Brightstar and his party, only the Princess and Thaddius were present. Tad hadn’t exactly been invited: had trailed close behind Mr. Brightstar and then done his best not to attract any attention to himself. He positioned himself in the shade of a leaning bookshelf, and stayed as still and as quiet as he could manage.

The library had suffered grievously under Calanth’s geas, its two stories of books, scrolls, tomes, codexes, and curios disarranged into piles of various sizes. A pair of ancient-looking bronze chandeliers shined down on twelve-foot-high shelves, now mostly stripped of their contents, arranged around a central cluster of comfortable chairs and the occasional writing table. The second story was a gallery. It housed a great number of portraits, alternating with cabinets and bureaus that neatly organized a great many interesting objects. More than half of these had been rifled. One cabinet, an ornate piece blackened by age, was the only half-emptied thing in the entire library: it must have been where the Princess had found the Harapa crow figurine.

Tad had seen several private libraries in his brief months with Nolan Brightstar: most of them consisted of a few dozen tomes, each of which their owners counted as minor treasures. The Arcane Academy ran schools throughout Aspera, and indeed the entire world, but even the largest school might have only a few hundred books. The contents of Lady Calanth’s library was thousands of volumes that had taken nine hundred years to accumulate. Toppling it all over the floor was like spilling chests of jewels into the street and hammering them with rocks.

Pulling his mind off all the spilled books, Tad focused on Aidan, who was holding an unrolled missive bearing the seal of the Duke of Corak. She read aloud, “Whereas the treaty between the noble descendants of Harrell and the once-enobled Hemmets of Stamfield has been honored for seven hundred years; Whereas We are called upon to give aid to the former Duchy of Stamfield in the name of our common forbearers; Whereas Stamfield has held for us these many years a history that must not be forgotten; Whereas the Riders Aidan and Nadia, servants to the Throne, daughters of Magi Seraphina Baroness of Ardengard, daughter of Magi Issyren who was Baroness before her;“ and here Aidan sighed, her patience sorely tried, “Whereas the Throne and the Heirophant are in accord in the Right Course of Action; ... It goes on like this for another six inches,”

“Skip to the end, I think,” agreed the Princess, “the rest is all protocol.”

Aidan took a deep breath, “... we command the Riders Aidan and Nadia to act as our Agents and journey to Stamfield, once a Duchy under the Throne; As Our Agents they shall render such assistance as will satisfy the terms of the aforementioned Treaty; Lastly, our Agents will recover the Item which obliges Us to Stamfield, thus dispatching the Treaty altogether. To these ends, our Agents are to gather to themselves companions of such ability and courage as their own, who shall if they accept the Task swear to its completion as best as they are able.” She passed the scroll to Earkey, who began to examine the seal and read it for himself.

“There is also,” added Nadia, “a bit about us having salvage rights among the ‘former Duchy’, but the people who live there might have other ideas about our taking off with all their gold.” There was some laughter. At that moment Tad was hit with the notion that these were people who had carried off a fair amount of treasure in their time.

“Second order of business,” spoke Lady Calanth, very business-like, “is to determine who will go. The Sisters have royal orders and a powerful geas, in addition to their considerable honor. As for the rest of you, there is no requirement to join such an adventure. If you pursue this quest, you commit to it’s aims of your own free will. Only your honor and the duty of comrades binds you.” The Princess moved to a writing desk prepared with an ink pot, a quill, and a short length of parchment. “Sign, and pledge yourselves to the goals presented, that the Duke may know who has taken up the Task.” She eyed each person present with a merry eye, as if she were about to deliver a joke, “Or else abstain, and no word of dishonor will be spoken over it.”

Of course they all signed. All except the Princess herself who, in spite of her past trials, was not the sort to go on great adventures of her own accord. Tad was not of age yet to sign any contracts, but Mr. Brightstar signed for him as his legal master. It thrilled Tad, knowing his name was there, even if it was preceded by “Mr. Nolan Brightstar, Gentleman Adventurer, and his servant....”


Guests began arriving in the late afternoon, well before the packing was finished. They mostly drove up in carriages, but a few of Lady Calanth’s closest neighbors decided to simply walk the distance over the fields. Among the first to dismount at Nearshore’s front door was Father Quinn, the priest from Walter’s Bailey, and with him was none other than his eminently annoying acolyte, whom Tad had met earlier. The moment her was off the carriage, she started walking towards the stables.

Resolving to ignore her, Tad turned to his duty. It had fallen to him to gather all the common baggage and lay it out for Nadia, and then check it all off of a list. There was feed for horses and humans, a modest quantity of cooking gear, tents made of a very sturdy cloth, a few hundred feet of expensive silken rope, an impressive number of bolts and arrows, a sack of charcoal, and an assortment of other supplies. Nadia, with help from Horesemaster Lewis and his apprentice, divided it among the eight mounts and packed it all carefully. The largest share went to the single packhorse, but each mount received some portion of everything: this practice was to prevent disaster in case the packhorse was lost. Realizing that the girl was drawing close to him, Tad pronounced that all items were present, and that he was going to check on the horses.

Tad fled into the dark of the stables, found the tools he needed, and proceeded to examine each animal that would be going on the journey. He went from one stall to the next, checking their coats and manes for any debris, then checked their hooves. As they had already been through the hands of the blacksmith in town, Hank the stableboy, and then inspected by Lewis, there wasn’t much to do. Tad saved Nadia’s Nightbow for last, intending to hide in the warhorse’s stall until the bothersome girl was gone from the area.

The Arducian permitted Tad to approach the stable, which he did slowly, then the huge animal shook its head until Tad agreed to rub him above his eye ridges. Nightbow leaned his forehead against the boy’s chest and snorted a few times, then Tad began to rub his hands along the stallion’s neck in long firm strokes. Every animal liked to be touched a certain way, and this is what Nadia had taught Tad to do, so he could groom the horse for her.

The big animal blew into the boy’s chest a few times, then began to nicker softly. “Hi Nightbow,” said Tad in a soft voice. “Looks like Nadia was already here. I guess I don’t have to do anything.” For a moment, Nightbow seemed to relax completely in Tad’s hands, but suddenly he tensed, and gave Tad a firm shove in the chest. The boy took two steps back, lost his footing, and landed hard on his backside with big “whuff”. The great stallion stamped and chomped in his stall and shook his mane with pleasure. Thaddius couldn’t help but laugh along with big brute: the horse had played him a good trick.

Someone else was laughing, too. The acolyte girl was standing nearby, covering her mouth while she giggled. “I’m Valda,” she said, when she finally stopped laughing. She had exchanged her robes for a modest blue frock embroidered in black. The motif was, like everything around Walter’s Bailey, horses, done in tiny detail with the finest thread, galloping around her ankles. From his position on the ground, Tad could see she still wore the same boots as earlier. Her only jewelry was a thin bronze chain around her waist, from which hung a little medallion bearing the icon of Te, the Mother Goddess.

“Hi Valda,” he responded, his aching behind momentarily eclipsing his dislike of the girl, “I’m Thaddius. But people just call me Tad.” He got back onto his feet and dusted off the seat of his pants. “And this big fellow is Nightbow. Don’t let his good looks fool you,” he glared at the animal in mock anger, “he’s a monster.”

“Oh, I know,” said Valda, performing a brief curtsey in Nightbow’s direction. “He bit Ernie Pick today. All afternoon, Ernie’s been telling everyone that he was almost killed by the savage Arducian. But I think Ernie should learn to keep his hands to himself.” Nightbow chomped twice more in reply, and then turned his attention to his hay, having had all the human conversation he wanted.

“Well,” said Tad into the growing silence, “I still have a lot of packing to do before the party.”

“Ok,” said Valda, with too much enthusiasm, “I’ll help. I’m good at packing.” And for the next hour, Tad could not get rid of her. She followed him into his quarters, which was far from proper, and promptly began refolding all his clothes. Once he made it clear she could not touch any of his or Mr. Brightstar’s things, she took control of the packing list. The items were checked off the list once as they were gathered together and organized on the floor, and then again as they went into the appropriate backpack or saddlebag.

Some of the items were of a questionable character, which caused Valda’s voice to drip with disapproval. “A crowbar?”

“It’s a lever, for moving heavy things,” explained Tad, placing it next to his lantern.

“Lockpicks?”, she read archly.

Tad unrolled a length of cloth to reveal a neat line of sewn pockets, each one occupied by a curiously bent length of metal. After verifying that each tool was present, he rolled it back up and tied it firmly closed. “In case someone loses a key,” he said. Tad shrugged: it could happen that way.

“I see. And you would never use them to open something without permission?”

“Don’t be silly,” he tried to reassure her, “it would be much easier to break the lock.”

“Next item on the list,” read Valda, “is a hammer. And ten spikes.” She waved the list around in exasperation, “Just what kind of ‘Gentleman Adventurer’ are you?”

“Legally, I’m an indentured servant,” said Tad, repeating his master’s words from the other day, “so I guess I’m not any kind of gentleman.” He put the heavy hammer and iron spikes in their own leather drawstring bag, and arranged the bag on the floor next to the crowbar. “We use the spikes for climbing,” he said in a reassuring voice. He didn’t tell her that the spikes were also very handy for breaking locks.

“Mmmm,” murmured the girl, “You’re not planning on using any of this in Walter’s Bailey, are you? My aunt is the Mayor, and she’d be really angry.”

“We only steal from ruins,” said Tad, which almost seemed to satisfy her.

Valda stayed until it was time for Tad to wash and dress for dinner. He had to remind her that such a task usually required removing one’s clothing, and she finally left him alone. Tad shook off the clothes he was wearing and put them aside for tomorrow, then gave his dress shoes a quick polish. After they were sufficiently cleaned and blackened to a low shine, he washed himself at the basin. He put on his white shirt, his good pants, his shoes, and finally his long jacket with the bone buttons. Looking very much the apprentice of a Gentleman Adventurer rather than a mere indentured servant, he went down to dinner.


There were thirty places set that night at the Princess’ table, enough for the Baroness, the Mayor, the Priest, the local Arcanist (who ran the town’s school), prominent breeders and tradesmen, wealthy farmers, and a few people whose main achievements in life seemed to be that they were in some way related to the hostess.

Typical of polite gatherings, most of the guests had brought a single attendant: either a trusted servant, an apprentice, or in some cases a young relative who badly wanted to attend. Mr. Brightstar sat almost directly across from Father Quinn, which similarly put Tad almost directly across from Valda. Their jobs were pretty simple: fetch and carry anything that was needed, most commonly plates of food, and keep the masters’ goblets filled. Do anything else one was asked. Speak only when spoken to. Other than all that, just stand behind their masters’ chairs and wait. Without much to do during the courses besides stand still, it was an opportunity for Tad to observe and memorize.

The appointments were, Tad thought, beautiful without being gaudy, rich without being showy, elegant rather than ornate. All in all, very much like the Princess herself. But the conversation was as polite and careful as any gathering at the most ornate houses in Corak.

There were toasts and speeches, including a brief but very fine one from the Bishop, and a stunning amount of gold was pledged for Saint Engel’s new basilica. Lady Calanth’s physician told a vaguely funny story about a man who thought he had a pox, but who had been victim of a practical joke: his friends had painted colored dots on him in his sleep. It was poorly told, but people near the doctor laughed anyway. Thaddius happened to glance to the other side of the room just then, and caught Valda looking at him just in time to see her turn red and look away.

“I was in Soubous for three months during my Grand Tour,” the dowager Woolom was saying, “in my day a young person of means saw all the great cities of the West, and one of our party was abducted by the Academy. It seemed young Timeas had gotten ahold of something he shouldn’t have -- probably from that dragon he killed near Vohanis.”

“As it happens, I am familiar with the case,” interjected Minzerec. “He had copies of a few pages from a very dangerous text.”

“Well, the wizards sure got him for it!” The old bird was comfortably into her cups. “They stormed the playhouse during Anamogea’s Iyeru and Tygea. In the third act! Put him into wizard cuffs and hauled him off, and we never saw him again. Common born, but quite talented. Very promising young man.” Woolom jabbed her dinner knife at Minzerec and the town’s resident Arcanist accusingly, “And his family never got a satisfactory explanation. Never!”

“Now see here, madam,” protested Arcanist Dassha, the general practitioner stationed here by the Academy. He was a thin, middle-aged man with cropped black hair and a little pointed beard that bordered on the absurd. His olive skin marked him as a native of the Principalities, probably Eboa. In his plain black wizard’s robes he looked like a villainous school teacher. “Everyone knows you don’t mess around with dark magic, especially if you aren’t even a wizard. The enforcers have to be stern with people, for everyone’s protection.”

“I bet you wouldn’t feel the same if our priests dragged off some of your apprentices for heresy and locked them in a dungeon somewhere.” Woolom’s face nearly lit up at the idea, “Serve you right to get a dose of your own brand of justice.”

“We fight heresy with fact and example.” said Father Quinn soothingly, “Faith can’t be coerced.”

“Not to mention the treaty,” rumbled the dwarf Minzerek. “Aspera leaves arcane matters to the Academy, and the Academy allows Aspera its religion.” At these words, all conversation at the table died. Most rational people would have been abashed at the sudden hostility in the room, but Minzerek merely looked around him as if nothing were the matter. The only person who seemed the least bit happy was Woolom.

The wizard was too smart not to know what he had done, which meant he was putting on the arcanist’s inscrutability. Tad watched the dwarf, with all limited skill he possessed, for some sign of discomfort. Arcanists were said to keep their emotions in an iron box, but not even dwarves were made of stone.

“I think you may want to reconsider the wording of that last statement,” said the Bishop with care, “in the interest of continued amity between the Arcane Academy and the Kingdom of Aspera.” There it was! A bit of beard on Minzerek’s left cheek pulsed once, twice, and then he moved his jaw a little to the right to relax the offending muscle. Something had definitely moved him.

To his credit, Minzerek recognized his error and strove to make amends. He stood formally, and apologized. “As always, Bishop Ambrose, you are wise. I misspoke, and badly. I should have said that we leave divine matters to those who understand them best, just as Aspera leaves arcane matters to the Academy.” Then he sat, as calm as if nothing had happened.

“Thank you,” said Lady Calanth, “for the clarification.” Indeed, nearly everyone seemed to relax, and conversation slowly returned to the table. Only the Sisters didn’t seem satisfied, in fact they had a moment of shared anger, yet they were willing to let the incident pass.

Over the pear tarts, Valda started acting positively strange. She would catch Tad’s eye, then smile at him, then look away and pretend he wasn’t there. Sometimes during these odd exchanges, she would bob up and down slightly as if wanting to dance. Or needing to pee. After several minutes of this, Mr. Brightstar turned towards Tad and raised his eyebrows, as if to say, “what the heck are you doing”? Tad did his best to pass the very same look over the table to Valda, who obediently settled down with a barely suppressed smile.

“So what’s next,” asked a wealthy breeder, “for Bishop Ambrose and his companions?”

“We’ll be heading West, through Straight, then turning Northwest towards Ardengard,” came the ready answer from Mr. Brightstar. “Our Riders have family there.” Tad noticed that Mr. Brightstar did not say they were going to visit Ardengard, only that they were turning in that direction.

“Taking the faith to the outer baronies then?” said the doctor. “That’s some dedication. You’d get better collections for your Basillica in the larger cities, your Grace.”

“I think going farther afield is a great idea,” said Earkey. “The Basilica will be a symbol of faith to all Aspera, not just people in the cities. Why shouldn’t the frontier get to see a proof of faith?”

“Just so,” said the Bishop. “By the way, I see a lot of blue tile roofs in Walter’s Bailey. Have you been importing the clay from Ardengard, or do they make the tiles there and ship them down?” This launched the conversation in a new direction, towards trade and taxation, and away from the group’s travel plans.

Again, Valda caught Tad’s eye, but now they were watery as if she were about to cry. He couldn’t understand, for the life of him, what was wrong with that girl.

Nearly all the packing had been finished before dinner, but there were a few last-minute details. A scribe, in the employ of Lady Calanth, discretely handed a scroll tube to Mr. Brightstar, who in turn entrusted it to Tad, who took it upstairs to add to their baggage. On impulse, Thaddius switched the contents of the tube with that of another, which contained a partially completed manuscript. If someone should try to steal details of their planned journey (to an old city deep in the Southlands, Tad noted) all they would get was an incomplete treatise on “The Origins of Cave Dwellings Among the Hightable Cliffs”. Tad strapped the shiny new tube, which now contained the manuscript, onto the outside of Mr. Brightstar’s backpack. The old battered tube, containing a map and some other papers, he stuffed deep inside his own backpack.

After dinner there was dancing, to the tunes of a troubadour family from Tasep. To Tad’s disappointment, the dancing was of the politely choreographed sort rather than the wild elven kind. All were invited to dance but, as there were too few men present, Tad and two other boys were pressed into service against their will. Tad was partnered with the dowager Woolom, who seemed to like it when people called her “dowager” to her face, for an intricate and lengthly dance that involved numerous changes but always brought one back to his original partner.

“Ah, I get the young adventurer, Mr. Thaddius Poole,” said the garrulous woman. She was sixty-ish, swathed in several layers of ornate cloth, a great strand of pearls, gray hair piled two feet high, and yet still able to trod the polite dances. “I trust you’ve been taught the Pavadona. You won’t let me down, will you?”

“No ma’am,” said Tad with a bow, and he hoped not too awkward a one. Dowager Woolom favored him with the slightest of curtseys, and the dance began.

The Pavadona was a slow dance, but to be danced well it had to be done lightly and easily: and that was something Tad could do well. What was more difficult was the conversation, which the girls seemed to carry on without care but with which the boys had to struggle. “So boy,” began The Dowager, “where are you really going tomorrow?”

It was an easy question. People asked him this all the time, and the answer was always the same. “Wherever my master goes, madam.” She would have to try harder than that.

“That’s not an answer,” she said in a disapproving voice, but she didn’t seem genuinely upset.

“No ma’am,” responded Tad yet again, “but it’s the only answer you’re going to get. Ask something else.”

“That’s a rather saucy answer, young man. I’ve a mind to tell your master.”

“Go ahead. He’ll say the same thing.” Tad was warming to the rascally old lady, but before they got a chance to talk more it was time for the change, and the ladies all switched places, leaving the men with new partners.

Before him now was none other than the mayor of Walter’s Bailey, a thirty-ish woman who danced with the fingers of one hand twined in the hair at the back of Thaddius’ head. It was intimate to the point of being a little creepy, especially with the mayor’s husband dancing just a few feet away. “You’re in an awful hurry to leave our little town, Mr. Poole. Why not stay a little while?”

“I just go with Mr. Brightstar, Madam Mayor. You have to ask him and the Bishop about where we’re going.”

“A smart boy like you, I’ll bet you know exactly where you’re off to.” Tad thought of the map, hidden in his backpack, then cursed himself inwardly. She would know that he knew.

“I thought so. Is it Thrace? Did they offer the Bishop something to go preach there?” That was so far from the truth that, for a moment, Tad forgot to dance. “I thought so,” said the mayor, misreading his confusion. “The Count does this every time we get something really good.” She was evidently very angry, because her intimate caressing fingers had turned into claws. Just as he was in danger of losing some of his hair, Tad was able to hand her back to her husband in exchange for the Dowager.

They dallied for a few measures, just long enough for Dowager Woolom to ask Tad what he’d been learning lately (“fighting and history, mostly”), and then it was already time to exchange her for a new partner.

It was Valda, who fairly flew into his arms. “Do you think she’s pretty?”

“For a woman her age, I guess” shrugged Tad, “but I think I like her.”

Her voice dropped a note. “What do you like about her?”

“Well, she’s the sort to tell you exactly what she’s thinking.”

Valda snorted, “She’s not like that at all. She’s a great liar -- you can’t trust anything she says.” They performed a series a steps together, giving their feet a little more lift than was strictly necessary. It was a relief to be with someone his own height. “People think they can trust her just because she’s pretty.”

“You really think Dowager Woolom is good looking?” asked Tad. It was Valda’s turn to look confused, and in a few more steps he exchanged her for the older woman.

“Are you having a good time, Madam Woolom?”

“You can’t divert me, boy. I see you making light feet with little Valda, and on the eve of your departure no less. And they say I’m a rogue and a scoundrel.”

“I haven’t done anything improper with Valda!” insisted Tad.

“Then you are worse than a scoundrel,” she accused him, “you are a tease!” By the next change, he was so baffled he barely noticed that not only was he dancing again with Valda, but that she was out of place. She must have thrown some other couple into disarray by being there.

“Not the Dowager, silly! I was talking about my aunt.” When Tad didn’t respond she added, “The Mayor. What do you think of her?”

“Oh,” said Tad, “I think she’s scary.” After that they fairly flew through the steps, and Valda somehow conspired to keep from changing partners again until the end of the song.

Tad danced the next several songs, each time with whatever partner the hostess gave him, and still Valda passed through his arms at every opportunity. After an hour, thinking of having to ride at first light, Tad left the floor looking for Mr. Brightstar to beg permission to go to bed. That was when a small hand grasped his and pulled him into a shadowy corner. It was Valda, and she had both of his hands in hers, and before he knew it her lips were on his. It took a few heartbeats for him to realize that she was kissing him! Some large fuzzy presence filled up his brain and blotted out all sensation except her thin lips on his, and his continuing shock that somehow, in her world, she thought this was a good idea.

It seemed to go on for a long time, although it couldn’t have been for more than a few seconds before her mouth released him. She must have sucked his breath right out of him, because he knew he wasn’t breathing right. Sometime during this operation, she had backed up against a wall and pulled him along with her, and he found himself leaning against Valda pinning her there. His arms had gotten around her and were trapped between her thin body and the wall. If she was as uncomfortable as he was, then she was doing a good job of pretending otherwise.

“Promise you’ll think of me,” she whispered earnestly, “when you’re in the Southlands.”

Tad thought that she had some nerve kissing him, especially after the way she was been so haughty just hours before. And what did she want from him, exactly? And how did she know about the Southlands? And if she thought he was going to moon over her for weeks on end like one of those Riders, who you sometimes read about, who fall in love with courtly ladies, then she was crazy. He wasn’t coming back here, and if he did he would do his utmost to avoid her.

“I promise,” said Tad’s mouth, quite rebelling against his good sense. She kissed him again, and this time all he could feel in the whole world were her soft and lively lips. They moved around and around, and made his own lips move in ways they shouldn’t have. They definitely weren’t supposed to move like that.

Valda broke their grapple suddenly, both of the lips and the arms, with an audible pop. Just as suddenly as she had grabbed him, she was walking away buoyant and satisfied, as if she had just accomplished some kind of personal achievement. The girl turned a corner, looked over her shoulder at him, and then was gone.

For a while, for longer than she had kissed him, Tad stood looking at what she had pushed into his hands during their tryst (he supposed that was the right word for it, “tryst”): a length of blue silk embellished with strands of green and silver thread. Utterly bemused, he went up to his room, stuffed it deep inside his pack, and threw himself onto the bed to sleep. With any luck, he would forget the whole matter before dawn.


The next morning he and Mr. Brightstar and the rest of their group was up before the sun. There wasn’t much in the way of leave-taking: just a quick but hot breakfast, courtesy of Calanth’s excellent cook, and a transfer of their baggage onto the horses, beautifully turned out by Horesemaster Lewis. In a matter of minutes they were mounted and away, with Tad taking up the rear of the formation. They rode through Walter’s Bailey, where a few early risers waved at the Bishop and called out to greet him. Thaddius feared Valda might be among them, but to his great relief she was nowhere to be seen.

They rode West at a brisk pace, through the city of Straight around noon, after which the road turned Northwest. They kept riding, past a large number of farms and a small caravan, until they encountered a fork in the road: onward lay Coldmyr Lake and, eventually, the Barony of Ardengard. The road branching South, sturdily built but neglected for decades, would lead them across the border and into the Southlands.

It was at this modest crossroads that the party dismounted and checked their arms. Riding around in the early Autumn heat wearing armor was uncomfortable and tiring, but only a league south lay the border of Aspera. Beyond that there was no law. It was all fine and good to let your guard down a little when riding on the King's Road in times of peace, especially while accompanied by two well-known and easily-recognized Riders. It was another thing entirely to neglect one's safety in the wild.

Basil exchanged his tattered robes, much cleaner since their visit to Nearshore, for a padded jerkin and a long shirt of fine chainmail. It looked too delicate to be useful as armor, but cloaked as it was in flowing green and yellow overgarments it had a kind of grand flair. The elf would have looked every bit the ancient elven warrior if it weren’t for his rusted and nicked sword. The Bishop donned his own, more mundane, chain shirt and ensured his knobbly staff, or cudgel as he insisted people call it, was where he could lay his hands on it. Earkey put on a suit of metal scales that seemed so large for his size he would surely fall over.

Nolan and Tad had ridden all day with their leathers on, and didn’t need to change. Tad strung his crossbow, and made sure his sword and dagger were still where they belonged. The sisters always rode armored in metal-studded leather no matter how safe their path, but they took the opportunity to loosen their weapons and take up lances from the packhorse. Their business ends were nearly two feet of diamond-shaped steel, narrowing to a newly honed and deadly-looking point. Lancing was, Tad had been told, harder than it looked but an extremely effective tactic. Each sister had brought three of the long heavy spears, just in case something big needed to be poked at from horseback.

Meanwhile, Minzerec looked on this preparation with the supreme disinterest of one who puts faith in his own mind over base tangible things like pointed sticks and bits of iron.

Basil produced a thick metal flask, sipped from it, and passed it on. In silence everyone drank, except for the Bishop who touched it to his lips ceremoniously. Nadia was last in line and, when she was finished, passed it to Tad. When he didn't take it right away she pushed it into his hand and, compelled by an urge not to disappoint her, he took a mouthfull and swallowed. Something harsh and flammable hit the back of his throat and up into his head, then went down his throat and set his lungs on fire. He coughed and wheezed so hard he nearly fell off his horse, and several pairs of hands had to steady him and thump him on the back until the fit passed.

Thus buoyed, the group turned resolutely South.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

8: In Honor of the Gods

It took most of the day for Tad to realize that Mr. Brightstar and his friends were killing time. They managed to find so much to do that they seemed purposeful, but all their activity was just keeping impatience at bay. After breakfast the entire party rode into town on their horses except for Tad and Mr. Brightstar, who borrowed a two-wheeled cart from Lady Calanth. Tad got to drive the cart all the way to town while his master sat silently on the bench next to him, uncommonly still except for the bumps in the road.

Before he even entered Walter’s Bailey, Tad understood that it was a horse town. The expansive fields of oats and alfalfa, plus the numerous stables with round pens beside them, indicated a thriving economy based on the noble beasts. Within the town, it seemed like every business had a horse-related name, every sign featured some kind of horse, and there were more horses in evidence on the streets than people. What surprised Tad most about the town was the scarcity of horse manure, but this riddle was quickly solved. Within the first hour of his visit he saw three different crews cleaning the streets, shoveling the manure into uncovered wagons and carting it away for compost. It was a nearly round-the-clock operation, operated at public expense but to great effect.

The Sisters didn’t get far into town before their princely mounts made them the center of attention. Dozens of people had questions about the Arducians, or simply wanted a closer look. One foolish young man ventured too close to Nadia’s Nightbow, and got bitten and knocked down for his poor judgement. Most of the curious knew better than to do the same: Warhorses were fiercely loyal to their riders, but were otherwise dangerously temperamental. Tad could usually handle them because the Sisters had “introduced” him properly and over time, but strangers were best advised to keep their distance. Aidan and Nadia each had to take turns watching the animals while the other did her shopping, just to to make sure nobody strayed too close accidentally.

Like any thriving town of a few thousand people, the public life of Walter’s Bailey took place in the town square. One side of the square was bordered by the main street, and on the opposite side was a fine stone building where the Baroness kept her offices and, above them, her residence. The Throne’s law and the safekeeping of every citizen within twenty-five miles was her special concern. The baronal seat was a large enough building that the town’s Mayor and a large meeting hall took up part of the left-hand side. The other two sides of the square were occupied by the town’s temple on one side, and a row of businesses on the other.

The square itself was busy with the morning market when they arrived: purveyors of this and that, mostly foodstuffs, sold goods out of stalls or the backs of wagons. Some arrangements were made quickly, with a friendly greeting and a swift exchange of goods and coin. Other sales took more time, and a lot more noise. Tad watched an old gnome with dyed black hair argue loudly and with a full palate of verbal color with a gray-haired human man twice his size. The item at stake was a pretty blue shirt, suitable for a young woman of gnomish proportions, and the disagreement was over a quarter-copper. After a few minutes watching the masterful display, Tad decided that neither party cared aught for the money: they knew each other and enjoyed the conversation.

There were forty-one sellers, and at least three hundred potential buyers that Tad could see. From the prices he could hear and and a survey of the goods leaving the market, plus a guess at how many people would visit on that day, Tad tried to guess how much silver would trade hands in the four hours the market was open. He wondered if he should count the exchanges that took place between sellers, like the butcher buying bread from the baker, and the baker buying shoes from the cobbler. After deciding that such events should be counted, he figured what a 1/8th tax would be on everything he was seeing, and came up with about three hundred silver for the morning. It sounded like a huge amount of money to him, enough to feed a tradesman and his family for half the year. Maybe his figures were wrong, he thought, and resolved to ask Mr. Brightstar about it later.

Earkey was purchasing provisions, from a variety of sellers, enough to last the party for two weeks. Tad hauled the supplies to the cart, where Avra loaded them and kept watch. The sisters went off looking for a blacksmith to mend some tack and a few other minor items, and the Bishop was doing something with the local priest. Mr. Brightstar had managed to disappear, most likely into the large tavern adjacent to the square, to gather news. Minzerek was probably shut up somewhere with the local arcanist. Thaddius had to move all the supplies alone from the sellers Earkey bought them from, to the wagon.

Tad was sweating under thirty pounds of oats when he noticed the gathering of people. Instead of leaving the square when their shopping was finished, people were lingering by the temple. By the time the market closed, Tad had heard the news a hundred times over: Bishop Ambrose would be gracing their local temple with a sermon and with a working of miracles. All of a sudden, Tad got impatient with Earkey’s haggling, and wished he would just forego the few extra silver: it wasn’t as if the party was short of coin.

Someone breathing noisily came up from behind Thaddius, just as he was handing off coils of silken rope to Avra, and tried to touch him near his money belt. It wasn’t something Tad saw coming, or that he had time to think about. He just knew someone was touching him without a good reason, and acted as he would on the streets of Corak: he swung around on one heel and grabbed the offending wrist, then turned it hard until its owner gasped in pain and fell to his knees to prevent his arm from breaking.

“Ow,” she cried, “let go!” Her arm, Tad corrected himself. The person before him was a girl, a hair taller than himself if she had been standing, in a shapeless blue temple robe. Her long brown hair was bunched up at the back of her neck, and her brown eyes made him think of a hurt puppy. She was very thin, like she had just grown a lot and parts of her hadn’t caught up yet. Tad figured she wasn’t likely to take anything from him while he was watching her, so he let go. “Brothers’ anger,” she said hotly, “what’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with you, trying to grab people like that from behind?” Tad countered, “I thought you were trying to steal from me.”

“I was trying to get your attention,” she said, like it was obvious he was being stupid. “You didn’t need to break my arm off. Or are you going to stab me now?” The last remarkable statement was emphasized with a look at his right hand, which rested on his dagger. (Always carry a weapon, boy, especially when you don’t think you need one. That’s what Mr. Brightstar had told him just that morning.)

In spite of her thinness, she showed signs of being well cared for: she was clean, and the clothes that peeked out from under the temple robe were of good material and weren’t very worn. Her shoes were low boots with inch-high heels, nearly new. She had family who loved her, and the smell of clean leather and lavender marked her as someone who spent time around horses but didn’t sleep in the stables. “I might,” he declared Thaddius, “if you keep sneaking up on me.”

“I wasn’t sneaking. I was trying to get your attention.” Her inflections were subtle, layered, and numerous. All at once she managed to convey the idea that she never snuck up on people, that sneaking was far beneath her, that he was stupid for thinking that she was sneaking, and it should have been obvious to anybody that coming up behind someone and grabbing them was a perfectly normal activity and didn’t deserve to be met with violence.

Something about this girl was really annoying Tad. “Well, you have it. What do you want?”

“I want an apology,” the girl declared, “for trying to break my arm and stab me to death.” She had stepped back, as if there was a chance he really would stab her, and she was standing her ground bravely. It was just silly, and it made him want to laugh.

“You should announce yourself before grabbing people from behind, or else you deserve what you get.”

“I want an apology,” the girl insisted.

“And I want out of this sun,” said Earkey, tossing the final parcel into Avra’s waiting hands, “so maybe you should apologize. Then the young lady can deliver her message, and we can all get inside.”

If it had been up to him, Tad would not have given in. But Earkey seemed serious about it, and Avra was watching him with those merry elfin eyes. For whatever reason, they seemed to think he should apologize, so he would. “I’m sorry I thought you were a thief,” was the best he could bring himself to say under the circumstances.

His adversary either didn’t like his apology, or else she was hiding the fact she was very pleased with it. But Tad wasn’t going to get a clarification because the girl said, “Bishop Ambrose wants you, in the temple,” then turned and tromped off towards the big stone building, her hands balled up into fists.

“Looks like you made a friend,” said the gnome bracingly. Tad followed after the girl, trying hard to look like he knew where he was going and wasn’t following her.


What the Bishop wanted from Tad was someone to stand next to him in acolyte’s robes and pretend to pay attention during the service. Tad didn’t understand why Ambrose didn’t use one of the locals, someone who knew what to do. Instead, Tad had to be directed where to stand and what to hold, and felt very out of place. His vestment was black, to more closely match the Bishop’s dark brown, while the dozen other acolytes wore blue. Tad resigned himself to following along and pretending he belonged there.

The temple itself was impressive for a mere barony. The building was a big stone box three stories tall. The exterior walls were stone arches with semi-circular tops, filled in alternately with removable hardwood panels and stained glass windows. The center of the building was topped by a modest dome, covered in bright blue tile. Inside, the temple was one big room, large enough to hold a few hundred people. Statues of the gods were arranged throughout the temple, each with His or Her own altar for offerings. They were facing outward from the center, where the mother goddess Te was depicted in white marble veined in blue, with waves of water erupting around her feet: the moment of creation of the Yeron River and all the lands of the West.

Emerging from the waters beside her were her sons Avegar and Lochus, defenders of Aspera, also known as the Brothers. Avegar was the patron god of Valor and Mercy, and a favorite of Riders. Offerings of silver and braids of horse hair covered his alter. Lochus was colder and more foreboding, the god of Law and Strength and, said some, Tyrany. Although few would admit to favoring him, candles and incense and silver were on his altar. The Brothers competed against each other over everything, except when Aspera itself was at stake. Only then did they work together, and together they always prevailed.

The highest-ranking gods ringed Te and her progeny, on tall plinths. The creator of the Dwarves, whose name was a secret but who was openly called the Eldest Beard, was depicted with his hammer upraised over an altar shaped like an anvil. The elf-god Shihabba stood facing East, his bow in one hand and the other raised in benediction. The gnome god, whose name Tad couldn’t remember at the moment, stood facing south with his all-revealing lantern upraised in one hand. Beyond these gods were several lesser deities, patrons of this and that, all of them worshipped almost exclusively by humans.

Today the focus was on Saint Engel, who had a small niche near the north wall where he leaned on his great club and kept watch out a stained glass window. Thaddius thought the statue looked like a gardener he knew in Corak, but he kept that opinion to himself. He was the patron of Hard Work and Zeal, a defender of Faith, and he looked like someone who would begrudge a man a day of rest if it was used for anything but paying proper homage to his fellow deities. The huge wood panels on that side of the building had been removed, to enlarge the potential audience to include people outside the temple.

They needed all the space they could get. The temple was filled with the citizens of Walter’s Bailey, hundreds of them standing shoulder-to-shoulder, spilling outside and all the way into the street, and more were still arriving as the service began. A wooden dias, shorter than the god’s pedestal, had been moved next to Saint Engel’s statue. It was here that Bishop Ambrose held forth speaking eloquently of the need to guard one’s Faith, to do one’s utmost with the life he was given by the Gods, and to not fear death. It must have been a speech he made often because he was quite good, Tad thought. Not at all his usual stiff self.

Even Ambrose’s strong voice could not reach all of the people outside, so he spoke in fragments to let his words be picked up and passed on by the crowd. Like water, his sentences rippled and flowed out, and in time a smaller wave of them came back to him in the murmurs of the most distant worshipers. It took time, but not a word was lost.

The sermon closed with a prayer, in which the Bishop sang a versicle and the thousand voices chanted an enthusiastic response. This exchange went on for a few minutes, the several hundred voices filling the temple’s heights. Tad, who had never experienced a full service before, pretended to mouth words when the audience did and hoped that somebody out there was fooled.

After the prayer, the local priest spoke for the first time since turning the service over to Amrose. “Your Grace, we have a woman in our congregation who broke her leg a year ago, and it healed crooked. Will the Gods make her whole again?” People had come to see miracles, and miracles they would have.

“They may, Father. Bring her forward.” And the crowd produced the woman in question, Mrs. Marsten, for there was no doubt in their minds just whom the priest had meant: she was a sturdy woman of about thirty years who looked like she had spent her life washing other people’s clothes, and who put copper onto the Gods’ altars instead of silver. But the crowd pushed her forward eagerly, and before she could fully realize what was happening she had been lifted (on account of her bad leg and cane) by the crowd onto the dias. Whispers of her name rose and spread and echoed: the good washerwoman Mrs. Marsten would be blessed. She was a widow, had children to feed, worked hard and was humble. People knew her.

Ambrose prayed over the woman and anointed her with blessed water, as Tad and the girl he had mistaken for a thief moved to flank her. The congregation was dead silent: the Bishop’s voice could be heard, with uncontested clarity, throughout the temple. Tad and the other helper grasped the woman’s hands to support her, like they had been instructed. Her hand was sweaty, and trembled in his. It occurred to Thaddius then that nobody had asked Mrs. Marsten if she wanted to be healed, but the woman was caught and couldn’t get away without making herself out to be ungrateful. Ambrose finished his prayer, and touched the woman lightly on her shoulder.

Thaddius hadn’t known what to expect, or else he might have held on harder. There was a surge of warmth, which passed over the dias and down into the onlookers, and then Mrs. Marsten writhed so violently that she completely escaped the acolytes’ grasp and went flopping onto the dias like a landed fish. They went down on their knees to try and help her stand up, but the best they could do was hold her down until her convulsions stopped.

When Mrs. Marsten finally rose, with only a little help, she was almost a different woman. Not only had her bad leg become straight, but twenty years of hunching over buckets of dirty water were erased from her shoulders. Her step was graceful and lively. Her movements were free of pain and stiffness, maybe for the first time in a decade. Even if the whole town hadn’t witnessed it, people would have known something profound had happened to her. A cry of praise shot like lightning from the assembly. The Gods were present! Praise them! Thaddius was caught in the rapture, and he yelled out with the rest of them without thinking. We are blessed! Praise them!

The exultation ended as suddenly as it had began, leaving only a ringing noise high in the dome where something was vibrating in sympathy with all the clamor. Tad spied Aidan and Nadia in the crowd, near the center of the temple. They had said their parts of the prayers along with the townsfolk, and appeared properly respectful, but they were not awed as everyone around them. They had seen this before, Tad realized, and perhaps much more. But that knowledge didn’t quell the huge feeling in his chest.

After Mrs. Marsten, there were other miracles. Ambrose and Earkey both created divine food in great quantities (which manifested as flaky and slightly sweet wafers) onto giant silver trays. The mounds of sacred food seemed to float among the people as they handed the trays to each other overhead. Everyone took small pieces from the piles and placed them reverently in their mouths, passing the remainder to their neighbors. As the trays worked their ways around the temple and towards the crowd outside, Earkey created a flame that did not consume fuel or burn, but which shed light like a normal fire. He put the fire into the gnome god’s lantern, and declared that it would never go out. Then Ambrose cured two men of a deadly sickness that paralyzied the lungs, and would have killed them in a few weeks if not sooner.

It was while the Bishop was curing the lung disease that the messenger arrived, dressed in a tabard of Duke Frederick’s colors. The man was in the street, at the very back of the crowd, covered in the dirt of a long ride hastily made, bobbing up and down on tiptoes looking for someone. Tad used the Rider hand-cant to signal the Sisters, but in small gestures to avoid much attention: “I see a messenger. That way. Far.” The sisters, a head taller than nearly everyone, shifted about until they could see the man. “I see one, will engage,” signaled Nadia, and the two women shouldered their way toward the messenger.

After the second man was cured and Tad could let go of him, he looked for the Sisters. Nadia was reading a scroll, and Aidan was trying to get his attention. “All of us move forward,” she motioned, which Tad took to mean it was time to leave. He passed this on to Ambrose and Earkey verbally. After some searching, Tad spotted Avra and Mr. Brightstar standing next to Shihabba, whose sole offering was a boquet of rare herbs. “All of us move on, that way,” Tad canted at them.

Within minutes, the service was wrapped up and the party was mounted. “We have orders,” was all Nadia had to say, and the party quit town without a second thought. Only Tad looked back. Trusted lay people were taking away the heavy boxes used for offering money to the temple: they had overflowed, and were being replaced with empty ones.

It was a nice town, Tad decided, but he was unlikely to ever visit it again.