Keira spent the next few weeks in a state of cautious optimism. For every unpleasant realization she had about her new life—the complete absence of running water chief among them—a new discovery helped to reignite her natural positivity. She spent her days outside, helping Danny with the chores, surprising even herself with the interest she took in caring for the animals—horses, primarily, but also the chickens and milk cow they kept. The friendly barn cat, Mildred, made a pleasant surprise as Keira cleared out the hayloft. She found the cat carving out a nest that Danny predicted would soon be filled with mewing kittens.
Yet even these distractions were often not enough to keep Keira’s mind from wandering back to the world she still couldn’t quite believe was really gone. Some days the misery of her situation completely overwhelmed her, and she could feel the wall she’d carefully constructed around the memories of her former life, and her mother most of all, crumble.
Oddly enough, Danny seemed to possess the uncanny ability to sense when this was happening. He could tell almost instantly when it was all becoming a bit too much. At these times, he seemed to make it a personal mission to distract her, keeping her mind focused solely on the present and out of its own dark crevices. On these days, they’d spend long hours after the chores were through exploring the woods and riverside in and around the house. The woods fascinated Keira, and she’d happily spend her time admiring the babbling brooks, where tiny frogs leaped out and kissed her toes as she marveled at the felled trees with their drooping moss beards strung low as they reclined against their neighbors. These places came alive to Keira, and for the first time in what felt like months, she felt herself truly relax. She breathed the cool, moist air in deeply as she let the sun’s rays, tinted green from their journey through foliage, wash over her face.
When he thought she might be ready, Danny took her back into Abalás and walked her down the streets, pointing out the laughing children playing a game of Karvesh with carved wooden hourglasses that they tossed back and forth, carefully balanced on the string joining the river reeds they held in each hand. Keira stopped to listen for a while as they passed a galout player bent awkwardly over the many-stringed instrument, utterly focused as he sent peals of lyrical melody dancing into the afternoon air.
Keira marveled at the all-too-strange and yet somehow familiar community before her. A woman with flowing flaxen locks caught Keira’s eye as they passed. Draped against an open doorway, she was dressed similarly to the other women in a single piece of cloth draped across her shoulder, wrapped numerous times around her middle, and artfully draped in full skirts whose edges folded back up to tuck into the large belt at her waist. Yet while most women seemed to wear this style out of practicality, the better for wading into the water to check fish traps and wash clothing, this woman’s skirts seemed shorter, and she showed off her bare legs in an almost taunting fashion. When she started whistling and fluttering her eyelashes at Danny, he quickly steered Keira in the opposite direction. She laughed openly at the deep shade of crimson that stretched to the tips of his ears.
Overall, Danny seemed to enjoy his role as her personal teacher and tour guide, telling Keira all he knew about the people and buildings they passed, and giving her a genuine sense of the community she’d entered. He explained the culture of Abalás, how its reliance on both the fishing and logging industries competed with the merchants’ emphasis on the river trade, bringing small-town sensibilities into conflict with the wiles and whims of city life. When they passed robed men and women in various shades of color, Danny explained how most people in Loren worshipped Pneumos, the goddess of order.
“Pneumos as in pneuma? Like what Elliott uses?”
“Yes, but most don’t fully understand the connection. Each of the robe colors represents a different sect. I’m sure you can imagine, with something as vague as ‘order,’ everyone who takes the time to think about it somehow finds their own interpretation.” Keira nodded thoughtfully, not sure what to make of this supposed “goddess” herself.
Elliott, too, took his assumed role as mentor and instructor seriously. Their lessons began almost immediately, eager as he was to pass on to her all that he knew. A favorite activity was hunting for the herbs he used in his medicines and poultices. In the hours they’d spend trekking over the countryside in search of the desired flora, Elliott would regale Keira with stories of Loren—tales of invading conquerors, Regios and their loyal knights, and warrior queens that charged at the head of mercenary armies. It often left Keira unsure of which stories were history and which legend, an objection Elliott would merely shrug off.
“My dear, we tell stories to understand who we are and how we came to be. History may inform the present, but our understanding is defined as much by fiction as by fact.”
These tales were interrupted as much by Keira’s curious questioning as to the details of these warrior kings and queens, their lives, motivations, and ends, as by Elliott himself. He would frequently interrupt these ancient tales with his own practical knowledge about the various plants and animals they encountered and workable instruction for their use and care. Keira was an eager student, always one to relish a new challenge, and challenge this was.
Here she’d found an entirely strange world with a history she knew nothing of and scientific disciplines she had yet to master. She soon found that Elliott shared this love of knowledge and delighted at the multitude of things to be learned in the universe. They soon slipped into an easy companionship on these long walks, teacher and pupil both marveling at the world around them.
It was late morning, a few days later, when Keira and Elliott returned from an expedition in search of flygrass, an herb Elliott needed for a tea used to break a fever, to find a strange wagon in front of the house. Keira was instantly nervous, unsure who would visit, but her questioning look was barely noticed by Elliott, whose face had burst into an earsplitting grin. His strides suddenly doubled in length, and Keira had to jog to keep up as he strode the hundred yards remaining to the house’s front door.
A tall, dark-skinned woman met him, her traveling cloak draped over leather armor and hand resting easily on the hilt of a sword Keira guessed to be nearly as tall as herself. The woman met his whoop of laughter with a small smile of her own, her dark eyes crinkling at the edges. Elliott wasted no time at all and swept her into his arms, spinning her around and laughing at her sharp protest. He robustly kissed her on the mouth before returning her to her feet. She growled a reproach at him, straightening her mail tunic as she feigned affront at the indignity, betrayed only by the smile that still tugged insistently at her lips. Her eyes then fell on Keira and regarded her intently.
“So this is the new cantor you sent word of.”
The woman had a low, velvety voice that belied her fearsome exterior. Her accent was almost British but had more of a lyrical quality that Keira couldn’t quite place. She held Keira’s gaze steadily, then smiled. “I am Chinazor Onodugo, but you may call me Nazor.” The woman’s gaze never faltered from Keira’s, assessing . . . for what, Keira had absolutely no idea.
Elliott draped an arm casually over the woman’s shoulders, a feat made more difficult by the fact she was nearly as tall as he was. “Keira, meet Nazor, my grounder and Danny’s other mentor.”
Keira noted nervously that the woman stood a full head and shoulders above herself, a daunting figure decked in armor, her head haloed by a thickly braided bun that only added to her intimidating height. Keira shifted nervously from one foot to the other, regarding warily this woman she’d heard so many impressive stories about.
Danny suddenly appeared in the doorway and ran over to join them. Keira was momentarily freed from the woman’s steely gaze as she turned instead to address Danny. “And you, have you kept up with your drills, as I asked?”
Danny smiled sheepishly back at her. “Come on, Nazor, you have to admit it’s been a bit out of the ordinary here, what with getting Keira settled and showing her around.”
“Indeed?” Nazor cocked her head at him, a severe look in her eye. “And how will you explain your distraction to the bandits that catch you unawares next time you take the Eastern Road? Never mind then. I’ll just have to get you back in shape myself.”
Danny’s mouth twisted slightly at that, but Nazor continued, unheeding, “And with the three of us drilling, we can start learning larger group tactics.”
Nazor’s smile was in earnest now, obviously pleased with these plans. But her statement caught Keira’s attention.
“Three of us? You mean I’ll be learning, what, sword fighting?”
Danny grinned at her, and Nazor gave her an even look. “Why, of course. I’m sure Elliott has explained the very real dangers that inhabit Loren.”
She turned to glare accusingly at Elliott, who quickly clarified, “Well, of course we discussed them, but, I mean, we hardly wanted to scare the poor thing right off.”
Now it was Nazor’s turn to roll her eyes as she turned back to fix Keira with a measuring look. “As I’m sure you’ve seen, Loren is very different from where you come from. There are laws here, yes, meant to keep the citizenry safe. But those who would flout them do so with little fear of repercussions. Every person is largely charged with their own defense, and I would never dare to travel alone with such cargo . . .” She motioned at the cart behind her, filled with packages and baskets, not to mention the cow tied to the back. “. . . were I not able to defend myself and my property. Besides,” she said offhandedly, “our work requires more than the average amount of endangerment.”
“Your work?” Keira asked. Was she finally going to figure out what exactly this mysterious Legion actually did in Loren?
Nazor smiled slightly at her, clearly reading the direction of her thoughts, if not their actual content. “Yes, our work, the nature of which you will discover in good time. As for now, all you need to know is that it requires our ability to move freely through the country without fear of harassment.”
Keira felt the corner of her mouth twist ruefully as she glanced at Danny, who shrugged amicably. He was clearly no help. Didn’t he ever wonder about this mysterious “work” they’d seemingly been volunteered for? Apparently not, she decided.
“Besides, I’d assume you’d like to be able to feed yourself,” Nazor continued, eyebrows arched pointedly, “and that you’d like meat to occasionally grace the menu. How’s your archery?”
Keira didn’t bother to reply. This woman clearly knew full well she’d never touched a bow or arrows in her life. This entire exchange was starting to seriously get on her nerves.
Nazor’s smile widened. “Well, that’ll be the first lesson then, once we get these supplies unpacked.” She turned and began unhitching the packhorse from the cart. Danny cleared his throat pointedly, and she turned to look at him.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Danny asked, eyes twinkling. Nazor paused for a moment before suddenly remembering what he was referring to.
“Oh, yes! I did have one thing to show you first,” she told Keira. “Come with me.”
The three of them followed Nazor around the side of the stables to the large pasture they let the horses graze in. Keira heard Elliott whistle long and low, and she shielded her eyes against the sun to get a better look at the prancing chocolate mare in front of her. She was smaller than Boyd, Danny’s palomino gelding. But her tall haunches curved down her back in a sleek slope. She tossed her silken mane in greeting as she ambled over to them, allowing Keira to admire the high step of her gait.
“She sure is a beauty,” Danny murmured, reaching out a hand to stroke the star on her forehead. Mesmerized, Keira reached out a cautious hand toward the horse’s nose and was greeted by flared lips nuzzling her, clearly seeking treats.
“I bought her off an old Tramor come down for the faire; gave me a good price too.”
Keira felt Nazor’s eyes on her but couldn’t seem to tear her gaze from the mare’s long, intelligent face.
“When Elliott sent word you’d arrived, I figured a small palfrey would suit you well. Mind you, you’ll not be charging into any battles on her,” Nazor warned, patting her own great black destrier, who’d sidled up to the fence in greeting. “But she’ll serve you well for long hours of riding. She ambles, see, making her smooth as silk to ride. Good for beginners.” Keira heard the teasing in her tone and turned to stare at her.
“You mean, sh-she’s mine?”
Nazor regarded her long and hard. “In as much as any living soul belongs to another, she will serve you and serve you well. Mind you care for her in turn. She’s a smart girl, and she’ll know when she’s being disrespected.”
Keira rubbed the beautiful mare’s neck and breathed, “Always. Isn’t that right, Cerise?” Keira thought she saw Nazor’s eyes soften as she nodded approvingly.
“A noble name. She’s a mountain mare, you know,” Nazor informed her. “She lives for roaming hills and clifftop trails, and she will rarely misstep.”
Brushing off her tunic, Nazor then turned brusquely about and motioned for them to follow her. “But first, we have supplies to unload, a midday meal to prepare, and a first archery lesson to conduct.”
Keira wavered at the fence, not wanting to leave this beautiful creature that had only just found her, but she eventually turned and reluctantly followed the others back toward the wagon.