Iod was casting long shadows across the road when the town finally came into view.
Half a league away, straddling three small hills, was Atund, the second largest town Illiom had ever visited. It looked bigger than she remembered, and she straightened in the saddle to gain a better view.
The road was soon filled by a tribe of goats steered by a lone shepherd, a solemn man wielding a slim willow branch like a whip. Tarmel reined in to allow them to pass.
Soon after, they rode past small groups of women bearing urns of water upon their heads, and field workers carrying tools on their shoulders, talking and jesting on their way home.
They reached a bridge and were forced to wait while a sounder of swine crossed, heading in the opposite direction.
The bridge seemed to signal some kind of boundary, for beyond it the buildings crowded in closer together and became more dignified, stone replacing timber on many of the lower floors.
Children chased one another across the street, making the most of their window of freedom before the evening meal. When a small child ran squealing in front of Tarmel’s horse, the Rider reined in.
“Time to get down and walk,” he announced as he dismounted.
Illiom found that she could not raise her leg past the saddle horn.
Tarmel could not suppress a smile.
“You can stay in the saddle, if you prefer, and I will walk your horse.”
The road passed beneath an ancient stone archway, a probable remnant of Atund’s original entrance, and then wove its way through a dense tangle of buildings.
Most of the houses were of stone, old and respectable. Their walls had been freshly rendered and the roofs had wooden shingles rather than thatch. They passed a few inns but Tarmel ignored them all.
Side roads spread out from the main one like twigs from a branch. Peering down these, Illiom saw people going about their business, bartering, gossiping, or just watching the world go by from windows and doorways.
Virtually all the buildings on the main road were shops, with their wares spilling out onto the street. Crates of apples, tomatoes and mangoes leaned against the walls. Pots and urns sat in haphazard rows on benches and trestles. Sacks, fat with chestnuts, flour, fresh herbs, cardamom, and chillies squatted on the ground, their tops rolled open to entice customers with their contents.
The Rider led them down a narrow side street that was crammed with activity. Some shops were closing for the day and merchants were busy carting wares indoors or shouting orders to young lads. Overloaded carts, drawn by oxen, negotiated narrow corners, women yelled at their children or their husbands. Dogs, chickens and even the occasional goat scuttled out of their way.
Illiom, overwhelmed by the mayhem of voices haggling and laughing, cursing or taunting, completely forgot her discomfort. At a crowded junction she gagged on the sudden stench of an open sewer, and held her breath as she hurried past.
Illiom closed her eyes and tried for a moment to conjure up the peace of her mountains. An angry shout wrenched her back to the world and she turned to see a red-faced man pummelling another with his bare fists.
The one under attack, a weedy fellow with greying hair and a beak of a nose, lashed back ineffectively and stumbled as he retreated. Several bystanders leapt in to intervene and dragged the assailant away.
“Welcome to civilisation,” Tarmel commented dryly.
The road clambered up a rise to the top of a hill where a clump of houses with red-tiled roofs huddled around a small square. It led them past an iron pump to an old double-storied building that still exuded an air of splendour. A stone wall surrounded the entire edifice, and a weathered sign depicting a strutting goose hung above the inn’s entrance.
Tarmel helped Illiom dismount.
Normally she would have disdained any assistance, but her legs seemed to have become fused to Calm’s flanks. Wincing, she managed a clumsy landing and would have fallen if Tarmel had not steadied her with an arm around her waist. Despite the pain, she quickly found her balance and pulled away.
“Thank you,” she muttered, avoiding his eyes.
A big man stood at the inn’s entrance, regarding them sternly. His girth was impressive, but even more so were his bushy eyebrows that straddled dark, intense eyes.
“Ye be lookin’ fer a room or just a meal?”
He squinted, the setting sun in his eyes. He scowled at Tarmel and then, inexplicably, beamed.
“Tarmel? Well swat me flat! Good ter see ye lad.”
He wiped his hands on his less-than-clean apron.
“Well well, if it hasn’ been nigh on five years!”
“Aye, it has. Good to see you still remember me even after all this time...”
“Well, how was I goin’ to forget ye now, eh?”
The innkeeper then levelled his gaze at Illiom.
“This man stopped a brawl from tearin’ me inn down ’round me ears, singlehanded! If it wasn’t fer ’im, me whole place could ’ave been thrashed fer good.”
Tarmel’s brows arched in mild but genuine surprise.
“Maybe, or perhaps you are exaggerating just a tad,” he commented modestly, and to forestall the man’s protests, the Rider introduced him to Illiom.
“Illiom, this is Magno.”
The innkeeper beamed a yellow-toothed smile at her and then proceeded to release an ear-piercing whistle.
“Let’s take care of ’em ’orses first, shall we?”
Two boys came running out of the inn, looked at Magno for instructions, then led all the horses to the stables.
“So, how long will ye be stayin’ this time?” asked Magno, ushering them into the building.
“Just two nights,” Tarmel informed him.
Illiom followed the two men inside, trying hard not to limp.
The inn was large and mostly empty. They picked two rooms on the second floor, hers with white walls, a dark wooden ceiling, a high bed and a west-facing window, ablaze with the late afternoon sun.
The innkeeper’s portly wife arrived, arms laden with fresh linen scented with lavender, and proceeded to make Illiom’s bed, while the woman’s daughter shook the pillows, fluffing them out. Soon afterwards their saddlebags were brought up and Tarmel ordered a bath.
“You can have the first water,” he told her with a gracious bow.
In no time the two lads who had stabled the horses heaved a wooden tub into the room and positioned it by the window.
“Me daughters’ll fill it up for ye,” Magno informed her.
“Dinner’ll be served an hour after sunset – but ye can’t miss it, ye’ll hear the bell clang as loud as yer please.”
He left them to their own devices.
The Rider dropped Illiom’s saddlebag just inside the door.
“Let me know when you are finished with the bath and I will drag it into my room; I am starting to smell like something a crow might want to eat. While you are bathing I will check on the horses. Also, there are a few things I want to grab in town before it gets full dark, so take your time, I may be gone a while.”
Waiting for the water, Illiom studied the room. It was sparsely furnished, but what was there appeared quite regal to her. It compared favourably not just with her most recent abode, but with every other place in her living experience.
The view from the window was of a quiet street and the cluster of nearby houses. Beyond that, layers of rooftops descended, like red terraces, down the hill. Smoke drifted over them, making Iod glow red.
In the distance the Weal sparkled before the dark green of the woodlands that claimed dominion over the lands beyond. Further along, the Sevrocks rose into the twilit sky, diminished by distance and haze, but still dominating the landscape with their presence.
The first delivery of water found her still gazing at her mountains. It took the girls several trips to fill the bath. On their last trip they also brought in a wood-framed mirror glass which they placed by the door.
“There ye go, m’lady,” said one, wiping her brow on her sleeve. She nodded towards the last two pails that sat, still full, beside the bath.
“They’re full o’ water what’s jus’ boiled. When the bath gets cold ye can pour ‘em in as well, tho’ it don’t get cold that quick this time o’ year.”
They left and Illiom bolted the door behind them.
She swirled the steaming water with her fingers.
In the past four years she had not once luxuriated in a hot bath. Mostly she had washed in the stream, or stood under a rare summer downpour. In winter, the bitter cold ensured that she had bathed no more often than once a moon.
She undressed slowly, feeling a myriad aches and pains with every movement. She knew the water would be too hot, but could not wait until it cooled down. She hungered for its embrace.
When she finally sank into the steaming waters, her thighs stung horribly, but the pain soon subsided, and she was able to savour the deep healing that hot water brings. It produced such torpor in her that she yielded to the sudden weight of her eyelids. Her head rolled gradually to rest on her shoulder and she slept.
When she awoke, she was briefly disoriented. The bath water was still warm, but the light outside was failing and the room was filled with shadow.
A knock at the door startled her, making her aware that it had not been the first. She struggled out of the bath and wrapped a blanket around herself.
“Illiom, is all well?”
She unbolted the door and let the Rider in. He carried a lantern.
“I am sorry, I fell asleep. But I am done; the bath is yours, if you want it.”
Tarmel lit Illiom’s lantern and hung it from a chain inside the door.
“I have bought something that might help with the chafing.”
He placed a small earthen bowl in her hands. She opened and sniffed it.
“It is a poultice made from comfrey and ribwort. Just rub it into the sore spots.”
“Thank you,” she murmured.
He placed something else on her bed.
“You may also want to try on these clothes. If they are no good, we can always fetch more tomorrow. I just thought you might like to wear something clean after your soak.”
He then turned to the task of dragging the bath out of the room. After he left she shed the blanket and sat on the stool, scooped up some of the balm, and applied it to her thighs. It stung, but soon enough a soothing warmth spread across the raw and broken skin.
As she gingerly applied the salve, a movement caught her eye.
She jerked her head up and saw a naked stranger staring at her from the mirror glass. Illiom held the reflection’s eyes.
They were like those of a child, wide open and startled. They were an intense brown, and her very soul seemed on display within them. She saw a look of surprised innocence, like someone who had just woken from a dream.
She had a slightly boyish look which was probably due to her short hair. Illiom had hacked it off rather brutally.
Her skin was incredibly white.
Illiom studied the reflection but could not shake the eerie feeling that it was not herself that she was seeing, but someone else’s image that she spied upon.
She took in the length of her body, her nakedness. She was lean, maybe a little too lean, almost gaunt, but there was muscle on her arms and legs. She looked strong, like someone accustomed to fending for herself.
Illiom looked younger than she felt, but was certainly no longer the girl she had last seen in a reflection. Her breasts had swelled and become more defined and her hips seemed wider; both reminders that her femininity had not lain dormant while she had shunned the world.
Her history showed in the lines of her face. She noted her propensity to frown, and even as she did so, the frown in the mirror deepened.
Illiom tore her gaze away from the mirror glass and turned to the clothes that Tarmel had placed on the bed for her.
She was not sure if she was pleased or irked by his initiative, even though she was grateful to have something clean to wear.
She held up in turn a shirt, a sturdy pair of riding pants, a long white shift, and a dark red tunic. By comparison her old clothes, lying in a smelly pile by the bath, looked exactly what they were: rags to be discarded.
When the dinner bell tolled at the appointed time, Tarmel appeared at her door, refreshed and invigorated. He had pulled his still wet hair, which clung close to his scalp, into a tail. He looked strong, competent and a little dangerous.
He stood in the doorway and appraised her for a few long heartbeats.
Illiom felt the heat rise to her cheeks under his scrutiny.
When he did speak, however, a smile crinkled his lips.
“You certainly do not look like someone who has lived in a hovel for the last four years; though your hair could benefit from a bit of attention. Maybe we can do something about that in the morning, if you like.”
They descended into the common room to find that only a few other patrons had gathered for the evening meal. A balding merchant with his wife and children were seated near the door that led to the kitchen, while two traders had claimed a table on the other side of the doorway, muttering about their concerns over mugs of ale. A few others sat alone with their drinks, eyeing the newcomers as they entered. Tarmel led Illiom to the other end of the room where the children’s teasing and the traders’ noisy dialogue receded into the background.
Magno came over, wiped their table, and took their order.
“What news on the trade routes?” asked Tarmel.
“News? Pah, same as always. Traders be a sour lot, given to complaining ‘bout everything an’ anything. Methinks it’s all part o’ their act, to justify the awful prices they charge.”
He snickered knowingly.
“Although complaints ‘bout trade with Kroen seem to be on the rise. Some are sayin’ they’ll not go back there even if the Kroeni ’alve their prices.”
The Rider nodded.
“The Kroeni are too greedy, eh?”
Magno’s shrug might have denoted either ignorance or indifference.
“Nah, word is it be too dangerous a place for travel. There’s talk ’bout beatings of foreigners and ’specially Albradani traders. That’s the word, anyways,” he concluded.
His eyebrows shot upwards, and with a grin he strode off towards the kitchen.
Silence sat like an invisible guest between them for a time.
Illiom passed a hand though her hair as if to tidy it.
“Were you hoping to glean something from him?”
“Just habit, is all. Innkeepers and taverners have their ears to the pulse of the land. If anything is happening they are the first to know.”
Another silence followed.
“I suppose I should take this opportunity to ask you about Kuon or the palace; about what I am stepping into. But right now I am just too tired. I am sure I would not remember a thing you told me.”
The Rider’s smile was sincere.
“We do not have to talk, you know.”
A maid arrived with a tankard of ale and a goblet of mead.
“I know,” Illiom said, her eyes lighting up. “Tell me a story instead.”
His smile evaporated and a small frown replaced it.
“What do you mean?”
“A story, any story,” she said. “Maybe one from your past or one you heard when you were a child. Or even a story about the Ward. Any story, whatever comes to mind.”
Tarmel looked puzzled.
“Well and good then. Let me see...”
He sat in thought for a time.
“All right, I think I have one, although it is not very long.”
Illiom nodded encouragingly.
“Very well, so this is from Altra. Do you know much about Altra?”
“Almost nothing,” she admitted. “I know that it lies to the northwest of Theregon and that it is mountainous, but other than that...”
The Rider nodded.
“This happened more than seven hundred years ago, in the year 252. The king of Kroen, Chuda Halfwing, despatched his armies to invade the neighbouring kingdom of Altra. Two main things were said to have lured him to do this. The first was that the Altran Mountains had a reputation of holding treasures of rare metals and precious stones. The second was that the Altrans themselves were known as a gentle, peace-loving people. In the mind of the king, this meant they were weak and therefore easy to conquer.”
Tarmel leaned back and splayed his hands on the table.
“So, he despatched his armies to annex the weaker kingdom. As they entered Altra on five separate fronts, the invaders met no resistance. This was both a good and bad thing, for whilst it promised an early return home, it also left the soldiers bored – never a desirable thing in any army. What puzzled the commanders was that they found no signs of habitation, no people at all. Now this was a serious problem for two reasons. One, the soldiers relied mostly on looting to subsidise their meagre wages and two, the strategists had planned on restocking the army’s dwindling supplies from the conquered settlements. But neither towns, nor villages or hamlets, nestled within the Altran valleys. The army found nothing to plunder and burn. To make things worse, when hunters were sent out to look for game, they found none. Altra appeared to be an uninhabited land and the army marched on unhindered.”
The Rider took a long, slow draught of ale before continuing.
“Then, one morning, the five armies that had marched into Altra awoke to an unsettling sight. During the night and under the noses of the sentries, a strange army had gathered to confront the Kroeni forces. This army consisted entirely of bears, wolves and of something even worse; enormous white cats with fangs as long as daggers. Amidst the beasts, they saw hooded figures bearing bows. This unusual army, however, did not attack. Having surrounded the invaders, they seemed content to simply hold their ground.”
Their meal arrived and Tarmel stopped speaking. They waited in silence while a maid refilled their drinks.
“Go on,” urged Illiom when the maid had retreated.
“As the soldiers readied themselves for battle an eerie sound, like the call of a thousand eagles, filled every valley, echoing through the mountains. The sound grew louder and washed over the Kroeni army until it became unbearable. It kept rising in pitch, eventually becoming more felt than heard. It was then that the weapons began to shatter. First the lighter ones, knives and daggers, began to vibrate until they could no longer be held. This vibration spread to the heavier weapons until every single blade, sword, bow, all the halberds, lances and every other weapon at their disposal, lay in pieces. The soldiers, suddenly vulnerable, were at the mercy of the beasts. Unable to attack, or even to defend themselves, they were left with no other recourse than to withdraw.”
“As they began to retreat, they soon realised the true extent of their predicament. With almost no supplies, it seemed inevitable that they would starve on the way back and that many would perish, defeated without a single clash of weapons. Grimly, the army began the long humiliating march back to Kroen, shadowed from a distance by the beasts. There is a rumour that persists to this day - one that Kroen has always denied - that the retreating soldiers found caches of food placed along the return route. So, in the end no one died, and the invaders lost nothing but their pride, although the generals commanding the army did lose their heads when they returned to King Chuda Halfwing defeated and empty-handed.”
Illiom looked at the Rider in wonder.
“How did the Altrans do that?”
“No one knows, but it would seem that the Altrans, like the Iolans, have no fear of magic. There is no other explanation. In any case, that was the first and last attempt that Kroen made to annex Altra.”
Illiom nodded and began eating her food.
“How did you come by that story?”
“History ... in the Ward, each candidate marked to become a Rider is instructed in many things. Military history is one of them.”
The stew was common fare but tasty and hearty. They both consumed it with relish, Tarmel devouring twice as much as Illiom.
After the meal they retired to their rooms. Illiom took to her bed but lay there with eyes open, unable to sleep.
Her mind was suddenly like that of a child, full of scenes of weapons shattering, of an incapacitated army in retreat, and of strange hooded figures marshalling animals to their cause.
Illiom resolved that she must travel to Altra. It seemed to her that perhaps she had more in common with the people of that land than with those of Albradan.
Maybe I am Altran, she mused.
That would explain a few things...
It was her last thought as she finally surrendered to sleep.