The man in black stands at the top of a small hill and a feeling of dread washes over him. Around him are the charred and smoking corpses of his loyal followers, necessary but tragic sacrifices in the battle for survival. Looking down the hill he counts the figures in white walking towards him: twelve, all that remains of a larger force he has expended almost all of his will to repel. Taking little satisfaction from the white-clad forms scattered around the area, he takes a deep breath and prepares to throw what power he has left at those still approaching. The twelve simultaneously bring their hands forward, however, and his body is suddenly frozen in place, preventing him from retaliating. Unable to move, he resorts to a verbal assault. “You cannot win! My line doesn’t end here!”
The twelve climb the hill and one of them reaches out a hand to touch his forehead. Despite his best efforts he screams, a piercing sound that seems to travel for miles.
Lia awoke with a jolt and the hairs on her neck rose due to the shrill nature of the cry. She ignored her robe and jumped out of bed, then ran through the door into the kitchen. Lia muttered a curse, grabbed a carving knife, and ran into her parents’ room, only to find no-one there. She then fled to the outside of their small home and nearly gutted her father in the process, as he opened the door just before she did.
“What in Revan’s name are you doing? You could have killed me!”
Lia looked at her father in disbelief; had he not heard it? “I… I heard a scream… is mother alright?”
“She is outside.” Her father paused, apparently ignoring Lia’s hysteria. “I did not hear a scream; perhaps you were dreaming?”
Lia did not answer and ran past her father. She stopped almost immediately; her mother was sweeping the path, as she usually did after breakfast. “I… I… must have been dreaming. It sounded so real…” Lia looked down at the knife in her hand and noticed her knuckles were white from gripping it. “I am sorry, father. I must have had a nightmare.” Lia hastily moved back into the house and placed the knife back on the kitchen table.
Francis Essmoor knew well enough to leave his daughter alone at certain times; Lia was eighteen, proud and did not deal with embarrassing situations well. The temple scribe shook his head, smiled, and looked across at Lia, who was sitting at the kitchen table nibbling on a piece of bread. She was his only child, and he was immensely proud of her. Lia had sharp wits, a similar intellect and didn’t suffer fools gladly, which was more than he could have ever hoped for. He had often wondered what Lia would make of her life and was still unsure what his daughter would decide to do. For women in Suria, there were usually two choices: marry young and raise a family, as his wife Natalya had done, or join the church of Revan as an acolyte and live a life of sacrifice. Despite her age, however, Lia had no interest in either of the more traditional paths. She preferred to have dalliances with the more charismatic local boys, and evening prayers aside, showed no real interest in religion. As a father in Suria, Francis was unconventional, in that he had not forced Lia to choose a path that was not in her heart, despite criticism from friends and neighbours.
For some time Lia had shown a desire to see the world outside of Crossmoor, where the family had settled before she was born. When Natalya was with child, Francis had received an offer of employment within the Temple of Revan in Crossmoor. What was unusual about the offer was that the family lived in the southern region of Suria, and the Priestess of Revan who offered him the position had travelled south especially to do so. The Priestess had said it was normal for the church to recruit people in that manner, but Francis or Natalya weren’t aware of that method and neither were any of their friends. At the time Francis and Natalya were struggling to make ends meet, so he had eagerly accepted. Within two weeks they were settled in a small dwelling in a remote area on the south side of the town, a home in which they still resided. The only condition was that while Francis was employed at the temple, neither he, Natalya or their child could leave Crossmoor. Francis had found the request odd and when he had politely enquired as to why the condition was necessary, the Priestesses only provided a vague response.
After watching her father leave the kitchen to re-join her mother, Lia made a more substantial breakfast; Lia’s slim figure belied her considerable appetite. While she cut a large slab of cheese from her mother’s store, Lia cast her mind back to the scream she thought she heard. Her father didn’t hear it, which meant it must have been a dream, no matter how real it felt. She forced down a shudder, helped herself to a glass of milk, and considered her plans for the day. Unsurprisingly, she didn’t have any, which she knew would irritate her friends, who all had significant responsibility. Lia grinned as she pictured their faces scowling, then finished her breakfast and returned to bed.
Lia woke around mid-morning, the earlier incident all but forgotten. That particular day, she decided to wear something bold, and chose some dark-brown trousers with a loose-fitting crimson blouse and some soft boots. As was usual most mornings, Lia decided to wander around Crossmoor, and shortly after dressing she offered a breezy goodbye to her mother and walked into one of the more active areas of the town.
Crossmoor was a medium sized town in the heart of Suria and had a population of a few thousand. To the south east lay Surian, the nation’s capital city, and the home of the senate. Due to its proximity to one of the main trading roads through Suria, Crossmoor was well supplied with a large number of inns and merchants. There was also a sizeable temple in the town dedicated to Revan, the God of Pity, and pilgrims often travelled long distances to worship there.
Inns. There was something about them that had sparked Lia’s interest since she was an adolescent. The scribe’s daughter often spent hours at a time in her favourite inn, The Piebald Lamb, which while not one of the Crossmoor’s truly up market establishments, did by no means attract the dregs of society. The Lamb had a reputation for being particularly welcoming to travellers, and the proprietor, Warnock Spicer, was not one to ask too many questions of his patrons. As a result, it tended to attract folk passing through and colourful characters from the local area.
The Lamb was a short walk from Lia’s home and the latter part of the journey was through an urban trading district. There were two merchants whose wares Lia particularly enjoyed browsing through, the first of which was Mulby’s jewellers. One day, Lia would find enough wealth to be able to purchase the attractive pieces it stocked. How she got that wealth, however, she had absolutely no idea. The wares of the second merchant, Daved Trescanthy, were completely different from those of any other establishment in Crossmoor, which was why Lia enjoyed visiting. The merchant’s premises were opposite The Piebald Lamb, and the two establishments shared an almost symbiotic relationship: the types of client that Spicer encouraged would sometimes visit Trescanthy’s shop, and people who came to buy or sell an exotic item would often stop by The Lamb for refreshment.
That day Lia decided against visiting the jewellers but did call in on Trescanthy; she hoped he had acquired some new items since her last visit, which was three days previously. The Exotic Emporium appeared to be a simple shop from the front, with no striking sign or window dressings, and its proprietor also wasn’t much to look at: Trescanthy was a stockily built man in his early forties, with a greying and balding pate. The Emporium was a smallish place but was packed with shelves full of items from outside of Crossmoor, including books, clothing, weapons and trinkets. Lia often thought the outside didn’t do the splendour inside justice.
Even though she had been told nothing new had been added to the stock, Lia spent a fair amount of time browsing, which prompted the merchant to let off steam. “Lia, do you have nothing better to do than bother my genuine customers? You’ve seen everything I have at least twice!”
“You never know what you have here, Daved. With your dreadful memory, you might have forgotten!” Lia continued to look around the shop, and traced her hand over a particularly fine looking rapier, one she had developed a fascination with.
Daved rolled his eyes in mock disbelief. “You know how much that thing costs, Lia, and you will never be able to afford it. And even if you could, I wager you have absolutely no idea how to use it. I would not want your father banging on my door complaining about his skewered daughter!”
Lia didn’t hear him because her eyes were focused on the rapier; she gazed at the blade in awe and picked it up in her right hand. “I just love the sound it makes.” She then whipped the blade around in a failed attempt at swordsmanship. As she turned around with the blade, Lia caught Trescanthy’s disapproving stare. Reluctantly, she replaced the blade on the shelf and started browsing through a set of books.
“Lia, I can see you are bored. Why don’t you join the temple? It may not sound exciting, but you could really help people.”
Lia looked at the older man and smiled briefly. “I know where you are coming from, Daved, and I appreciate your concern, really I do. I do want to help people, but not in that way.” She sighed. “I suppose I just haven’t found my calling in life, and my father says I shouldn’t have to worry about that at my age.”
Daved’s expression darkened and he shook his head. “He is your father, Lia, and I trust he knows what is best for you. Don’t dismiss being of service to Revan. I am sure He will decide if He wants you or not.”
Lia nodded. “I will do that, Daved, but do not hold your breath. Your emporium has far too many interesting items for me to look at, and girls in the service of the temple are not allowed to browse frivolously!”
After muttering something about uncaring and disrespectful youths, Daved returned to his bookkeeping, which left Lia to fiddle with a tray of ornate looking rings, one she had only looked at three days ago. Eventually she grew bored, left the shop and walked over the street to The Piebald Lamb.
The Lamb was a medium-sized inn with rooms to support fifteen or so travellers. Underneath the sleeping accommodation was a bustling, smoky bar with an ale and wine stained floor. The Lamb was quiet that day, which was not unusual considering the hour. Lia noted a couple of late-risers eating breakfast and what looked like two merchants speaking in hushed tones in a booth away from the counter.
Lia strolled confidently up to the counter and rested both elbows on the wooden surface; she also resisted the urge to reach across the bar and help herself. The one time she had tried that, she had nearly lost her hand: Spicer was a good man, but he didn’t get where he was by letting people help themselves.
Lia raised her voice. “Spicer! Where are you, you lazy dog.”
A moment later a reply came from a room at the back of the inn. “I was trying to find your next client, my dear. I even have an empty room you can use!”
Lia laughed out loud, and the two merchants looked at her disapprovingly.
A few moments later a tall, dark-skinned, well built man nearing his fifth decade entered the tavern from the back room; he was carrying a barrel over his right shoulder. Warnock Spicer was a strong man: he had been somewhat of an adventurer in his younger days and had earned enough coin to leave that life behind and settle down. His wife, Freda, had passed away some years ago and Lia was the closest thing he had to a daughter. She trusted Spicer more than anyone beside her father, and he often repaid that trust by recommending her to travellers who needed local information or wanted someone to carry messages. Lia earned a steady if unspectacular income as a result.
“Good morning, Lia. You’re a little late this morning, aren’t you?” If Lia was going to stop-by The Lamb, she usually followed the same routine.
Lia repressed a shiver as she recalled the scream. “Yes. I was woken early this morning and went back to bed after breakfast.”
Spicer dropped the barrel to the floor behind the counter. “Well, I’m glad you are here.” He reached down and moments later his hands appeared with two mugs, one of which he handed to Lia. While she took a long draught of the spiced juice, Lia waited for her friend to tell her more.
Spicer leaned towards Lia and lowered his voice. “One of my current residents needs something doing that I feel is right up your street.” His eyes moved towards the booth where the two merchants were talking.
Lia’s interest sparked; she was short of coin. “What is it they have in mind?”
“I don’t know too many details, and as you know, I don’t usually ask, but they need someone with local knowledge to track somebody down. The person they are looking for is about your age.”
“So what’s the fee?”
Spicer nodded and smiled. “Five silvers, less my usual twenty percent of course.”
“Five silvers!” She said it rather louder than she had intended. “They must really be desperate!” Four silvers was more than Lia had ever earned before.
Spicer nodded. “I get that feeling, but if you agree to do this, be careful. If they are desperate, there is either danger involved or the task is hopeless. One of them isn’t exactly what I’d call a modern-thinker, either.”
Lia groaned. “Just because I am a woman doesn’t mean I cannot find someone who is lost.”
Spicer grinned. “You converted me to your cause a while ago, Lia. Stop preaching.”
”Yes I know, and I’ll be careful.” Lia had already decided four silvers was an amount she couldn’t ignore.
Lia sat at a table closer to the cubicle so she could take a better look at the men. Both were well into middle-age with contrasting looks. The older man had no remarkable features: his hair was almost white and his clothing drab. The other, although of a similar age, dressed younger and still had most of the colour in his dark brown hair. Lia waited for an appropriate moment, approached their table and cleared her throat. “Excuse me, gentlemen, may I join you?” Lia’s left hand gestured towards a chair at an adjacent table.
The white-haired man looked across at her and scowled. “Forgive me, girl, but we are discussing important business. We have no time to debate how to bake a loaf of bread.” He turned away almost as quickly as he started the insult.
Lia was about to offer a suitably cutting retort but the other man beat her to it. He put his hand over his companion’s. “Now Black, I suspect you were not paying attention when the proprietor spoke to us earlier. I believe this is the young lady he described to us.” He looked Lia up and down with a grin. “Although he didn’t mention the attire.” He rose from his seat, lifted up the chair Lia had gestured towards and placed it alongside the booth. “Please, take a seat.”
Black gave the other man a look of pure malice. “I am only doing this to reclaim what is mine, Jonson. If you make a mistake using this girl, you will pay for it!”
Jonson gave Black a glare of his own, one of contempt. “You will get what is owing to you, one way or another.” Black’s face grew redder, but he did not respond.
Jonson turned his attention back to Lia and for the first time she noticed his eyes. The left one was as you would expect for a man with dark brown hair: dark brown. The right, however, was a sky blue colour, similar to Lia’s own eyes. The handsome man ignored the scowls from his associate and continued. “My name is Alane Jonson. I have lost someone, and I believe he is in Crossmoor; Spicer believes you are the person to find him for me.”
Lia grinned. “I’ve been known to locate people, from time to time.”
“That person is my son Olbane. I do not want to discuss why he is not by my side, and it is not your place to ask why. All you need to be concerned with is finding him.”
Lia inclined her head. “Understood.”
Jonson smiled briefly. “I last saw him three weeks ago, in Susanon, where my business is based.” Susanon was the third largest city in Eureza, and approximately three days’ ride from Crossmoor. “I have reliable information that he decided to come to Crossmoor, and I believe he joined a pilgrimage to ensure safe passage.”
“What does he look like?”
“He is about six feet tall, fairly slim, with sandy coloured hair. He normally wears fine clothes, but to be honest he looks like any other young man in his twenty-second year.” Jonson sighed. “We have asked at the temple and no-one has seen him. The pilgrimage did arrive, but that’s as much as we know.”
Lia understood why five silver coins was the reward. How in Revan’s name was she going to find a young man with no distinguishing features in a place the size of Crossmoor? “Is there nothing else you can tell me that will help? Does he have any particular interests? Ale? Women? Pastimes?”
Jonson considered the question. “He enjoys a drink, and female company, but no more than any other man of his age. He does enjoy the arts, so he might visit the open air theatre or taverns with particularly good bards. Unfortunately I do not have the time myself to search.” Before Lia could respond, Jonson looked across at his associate and ended the conversation abruptly. “I am here for three days. If you find Olbane before I leave, let me know where he is and the silver is yours. I am staying here, so Spicer can act as a liaison.” He smiled briefly at Lia. “Good luck.”
While walking away from the table, Lia silently cursed Francisca for dangling a large carrot and then taking it away; the Goddess of Fortune was usually more favourable towards her. How on Eureza was she going to find the young man with so little information to work with? There were likely dozens of sandy haired men in their early twenties in Crossmoor, and while the dialect in Susanon was different to the local one, it was not that different.
Lia returned to the now deserted counter, gulped down her drink and left the inn. Still irritated at what was an almost impossible task, she deliberately ignored Black and Jonson. Despite her lack of enthusiasm for the search, however, the thought of four silvers inspired Lia to spend the day walking around, asking people if they had met a sandy-haired man from Susanon named Olbane.
When she returned home she was irritable, hungry and no closer to finding her quarry. As she stormed in her mother and father were sat at the kitchen table and she barely acknowledged them on her way to her bedroom. Lia sat down at her small dressing table and started brushing her shoulder length blonde hair, something she did whenever she felt frustrated.
After a short while there was a knock at the door. “Lia?” It was Francis’s voice.
“Come in, father. I didn’t lock the door.”
Francis opened the door and sat down on the bed. “That wasn’t your normal happy entrance to our family home. What happened today?”
Brushing her hair hadn’t had a calming effect. “I think I have realised my life is lacking something. I spent half the day looking for someone I have never met and I wish I hadn’t bothered.”
Francis smiled. “Coin?”
Lia nodded and allowed herself a small smile. “Four silvers.”
Her father raised an eyebrow. “For four silvers, I would have tried to find the person too!”
Lia chuckled. “Well I doubt you would have had any more success than I did, father.” She sighed again.
Francis moved a little closer to her. “It doesn’t sound like four silver pieces is the problem here, Lia.”
Lia put down her brush and turned to face her father, then recalled the conversation she had earlier in The Exotic Emporium. “Should I join the church, father? Sometimes I think my life will come to nothing.”
Francis frowned and took her hand. “I am not sure that is your path, Lia. You would undoubtedly make a powerful and wise Priestess, but I feel you are destined for something else.”
Lia snatched her hand back. “How can I be destined for something else when you won’t even let me leave Crossmoor!” She said it in a harsher tone than she intended and surprised herself at how passionately she felt.
Francis kept his voice soft and his face took on a neutral expression. “We have discussed this many times, Lia. One of the conditions of my role at the temple is that my family remain in Crossmoor.”
“But that makes no sense! I don’t see the harm in me taking a trip somewhere, say to Susanon? It is only a short journey and I’d be back within a day or so. I could go with Michael next time his father has business there.”
Francis appeared to consider her request for a few moments, and Lia hoped that by mentioning her friend Michael it would put his mind at rest. Eventually her father shook his head. “I understand why you want to see new places, Lia, but I must respect the wishes of the church.”
Lia turned her back on him, partly out of anger and partly to hide the tears of frustration in her eyes. “Eventually you’ll be unable to stop me going, father. When I have enough coin saved I will leave Crossmoor.”
There was a long pause before Francis responded. “I know this means a lot to you, Lia, but we owe the church a lot. If it wasn’t for my position at the temple, we would have had a very different life.”
Lia turned around; the tears in her eyes were not important any more. Her response was shouted back at her father, something she had never done before. “That agreement was eighteen years ago! I am not a child any more!”
Francis’s face remained impassive. “I am sorry, Lia. A Priestesses’ word is the same to me as if Revan Himself had spoken.”
She was about to utter a retort when Francis rose from the bed. “I don’t think we should continue this discussion today. The next time you are out and walking around town, take a look around you. I am sure you’ll realise you already have far more freedom than anyone else your own age.” He smiled briefly and left the room.
Despite wanting to shout a challenge back at him as he left, Lia knew he was right; unfortunately the ache in her heart didn’t diminish.