Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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*** 3 ***

A noise woke her and she sat upright, knife in hand under her cloak. Garnelden was taking some of the last of the stew from the pot scraping the bottom as he did.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, not so rudely,” he settled back on the blanket as she stood and stretched. “And there’s still some left for you.” She nodded and helped herself to what remained in the pot. They ate in silence.

“I’ll need to hunt today after I tend those wounds. Healing spells don’t touch them and you are in no condition,” he looked at her quickly, “yes, I said no condition to perform self-healing or for me to cast to heal you. You know it saps the body of strength. For a while, you need to be an ordinary person with ordinary cuts and bruises. I have salves for them and teas for you. Rest, food, and no exertion,” she said firmly.

“I will obey the healer,” his made his voice meek and contrite and she laughed.

“When was a Mage of the Four Powers ever meek?” She was rewarded with a slight smile.

“Then, good healer, I will sit by the fire like an old uncle and wait while you hunt.” He leaned back and closed his eyes. She shook her head at him, opened her foldbox for a sack then went off to the horses.

The grey mare was the focus of her soothing spell and came to her promptly. A piece of rope was attached to her halter as reins and they set off back to the field where she had taken the cwel. Leaving the mare, she made a short stalk through the field flushing a covey of linic and downing one. Another half hour and she took an unwary cwel. Checking the ground around the second kill, she found two types of tubers and put them in the sack. ‘More than enough,’ she thought and went back to the mare.

When she returned to the camp, she found Jez by a sleeping Garnelden and returned him and the mare to the roped enclosure changing its configuration a bit to include fresh grass. At the fire, she cleaned her kills, cutting the cwel for stew and leaving the linic for roasting. She took the kettle and the jug for water. Sliced cwel and cleaned sliced tubers went into the kettle, herbs and water into a cup for tea. Garnelden needed liquids as well as food for healing.

Satisfied that everything was done for the moment, she fastened a few skewers for the linic and set them to cook with herbs then leaned back and let her mind wander as she listened to spring birds in the trees.

“I was dreaming of food,” came his voice, stirring her from her reverie, “and I see why.”

Garnelden was sitting up, reaching for a skewer. He looked at her, questioning.

“It should be done although the stew will take more time.”

Satisfied, he began to pick the meat from the skewer and eat.

“By the Light, you are a fine cook,” he exclaimed, closing his eyes in bliss as she laughed.

“Hunger is a good sauce, my father would say,” she replied.

“No truly, the herbs are perfect.” She handed him a cup of herbal tea.

“You need liquids as well, drink that and then some water.” She handed him more linic and took some for herself.

“The mare went well for you?” he asked between mouthfuls.

“A lovely animal. Is she yours as well?” He shook his head.

“I have no idea where she came from. For all I know, Pilik,” he nearly spat the name, “owned her or he could have stolen the animal. He must have ridden hard to take me at Riversgate.” West and East Riversgate were trading towns where a large river emptied into Clee Lake, the largest of the northern lakes.

“Ridden from?” she knew there must be more of this story.

“It doesn’t matter. I tried to mix my trail. He could have picked it up anywhere.”

‘Not ready to speak, then,’ she thought. ‘A dimlock would make anyone cautious and there is still the bounty.’ Aloud, “Now then, I need to tend to those wounds.” Working quickly she made more salve. This time, he was able to sit up straight to let her apply it but still shuddered at it touched the lesions.

“My spells don’t seem to prevent the pain here.” She spoke quietly as she worked moving his hair off his neck.

“The curse of the dimlock,” his voice was grim, “is more than just its hold.”

“I don’t know very much about them. There is a key I’m told, although I was able to pick the lock. I would have thought it should be harder to open without the key.”

He gave a short laugh with no humor in it. “Seeing a mage in a dimlock, who would want to get close enough to pick the lock? Opening the lock could release a monster.” His hand was suddenly on her wrist and he twisted to look at her. “Thank you for your courage!” Startled briefly at his intensity, she stopped, flustered, then dipped the cloth in salve. He let go of her wrist to let her go on with her work.

“There’s a bit of salve left. I’ll put some on the other injuries.” There was a large gash in his side that took some attention and small scores on his feet.

“It looks as though you were dragged at some point?” He shook his head.

“I have no idea. I don’t suppose they cared much about my condition. I remember being in pain…” she could feel his agitation, even fear.

“No worries about that now,” she said trying to sooth him but his hand was on her arm now and there was desperation in his eyes and voice.

“Don’t let them take me again?” His tone was tense and pleading. She sent out wave after wave of soothing, calming and felt his hand relax.

“You need to sleep. Food and sleep.” She had no spell for sleep but her waves of soothing were enough. He was still very ill.

“Sleep. Jez is here, my bow is here. You are protected.” He leaned back, shivering, and she covered him then gave him a cup of broth. He drank and closed his eyes. When she looked up, the stallion had joined them. She added some wood to the fire and sat back shaking her head.

‘Did I just offer to kill to defend a man I don’t know?’ she thought. ‘I certainly don’t think I would let him be taken again, he walks in the Light, that I’m sure of, so any that try to take him…he’ll be able to defend himself soon enough.’ She looked at Garnelden, asleep, evidently trusting her. ‘What, by all that is Good, am I doing?’ She went off to gather more branches to stockpile for the fire.

That afternoon, they were greeted by a lone horseman and Brillar waved him toward the spring. “My uncle is ill,” she told the man, “but please water your animal.”

“Good that he has someone to tend him,” the man replied courteously. Garnelden had wrapped himself in the blanket and turned his back to the fire.

“Thank you. He does get grumpy with the tending though,” she laughed lightly and turned back to the fire.

“Good day to you then,” the man said as he left them.

Garnelden rolled to face her. “Grumpy?”

“Just conversation,” she replied mildly.

“You’ve been busy while I slept.” He was looking at the pile of branches.

“We’ll need to stay here for several more days. So says the healer.” She smiled at him.

“Then I will rest, eat and sleep and try not to be grumpy,” he replied with a half-smile.

Just before sundown a small group of farmers passed them on foot, but they were in a hurry and exchanged only brief greetings. The next day, Brillar took the mare out again to hunt and returned with more birds and tubers.

“You must have a good hand with that bow,” Garnelden said admiringly.

“Ah, you should see me at the spring games. I can’t outshoot for distance with the longbow, but my shortbow skill hasn’t been matched in years.” She smiled at the memory.

“And your teacher?”

“My father. I outshoot him as well. And my brothers. They used to tease me about it, but not any longer. I wonder if they have improved much. I was home about three months ago and could still beat them.” She chuckled.

“Ho, travelers,” was heard from the road as a carter came into view and stopped. She glanced at Garnelden who nodded, then pulled the blanket around him and turned a bit from the fire.

“The traveler is welcome,” she shouted and the man came forward. She stood as he approached, bow on her shoulder.

“What then? A fine fire you’ve here and by the look of things, ye’ll be here a bit?”

“My uncle has been ill and needs the rest,” she told him.

“Aye? Then I’ll not stay but to water the horse and fill a jug.” He was a rough clothed farmer and his cart was well loaded but covered. “Have ye vegetables and fruits then? I could sell you something, fruit is good for the sick.”

“Water your animal and then show me what you have. I’d be happy to buy something.” Brillar nodded.

“Ruggle is me name, wait while I fill this bucket.” He went off to the spring.

“Fine animals ye have there, most fine,” he remarked when he returned. “Now then, me wares.” He pulled back the ragged cover revealing vegetables and fresh berries. “Eight for a copper and ye can mix ’em and a copper for the three nets of berries.”

Brillar picked out some vegetables and handed the man the coppers from her pouch. “And I thank ye,” Ruggle waved as he remounted the cart and clicked his reins at his horse.

Garnelden rolled back to face the fire and sat up. A net of berries went into his outstretched hand.

“These seem fresh picked,” he remarked taking one of the fresh berries as she cleaned vegetables for the stew.

“Hmm,” was all she could say. Her mouth was full of berries.

They spent the next few days companionably as Garnelden renewed his strength. He was weak both from the dimlock and starvation. Every day, Brillar took the grey mare to the open fields to hunt and gather. It was a rich field and she had no trouble keeping the stew pot filled.

There were no more carters, but there was plenty of traffic on the road. Twice a group of horsemen then three groups of farmers on foot who all called a greeting and were welcomed. Horses and men watered at the spring. Asked why they were camped with the town so near, Brillar answered that her “uncle” had taken ill quite suddenly and they could go no further. They were discrete with their own questions but there was no news of a missing man or men, no news of an outcry of any kind. ‘At least not yet,’ she thought.

Garnelden still spent a great deal of time sleeping, eating then sleeping again. During his waking spells, Garnelden turned their talk away from his troubles with the bounty hunters unwilling to discuss it any further. They did talk quietly of the Brotherhood and her training at the Sisterhood. The Houses were akin although skills in War magic were never taught in the Houses of the Sisters. Her home of Laurenfell was near the Great House of the Sisterhood.

“I’ve traveled through that area. Lovely farms there.” He was now wearing an old scarf from her foldbox around his neck to prevent questions about the scars there. He laughed when she told him about Sister Rodenis’ insistence that she continue her training saying he deemed her skills good enough for anywhere in the settled lands.

“I have wandered the settled lands for nearly two years,” she said in response. He smiled at that. Younger mages often ‘walked-about’ testing and increasing their skills usually doing some good in the process.

“Now,” she continued with determination, “I want more. I’ve heard many a tale of the Wild and mean to make my way there.” That brought him upright and staring, but he said nothing. He had been in the Wild.

The nights usually brought some spring rains but they were light and easily dealt with. Finally, on a morning that was clear and bright, Brillar judged Garnelden strong enough to ride in the cart which he resented.

“I have a fine horse! Why should I ride like a carter?”

“Because, uncle, until you are stronger, you can rest a bit in the cart. After all, tongues will wag and we’ve told travelers you were ill,” she said firmly. “And we need to keep up the appearance of being two average travelers when we arrive at an inn.”

“An inn! My purse!” he started suddenly. He’d given no thought to his belongings as they camped.

“I wondered about that. I found a heavy purse on Pilik. The gold is yours?” she asked.

“Gold and some silver.” She removed the purse from her belt and tossed it to him.

“Some of the silver I gave to Trog to keep him quiet. As for the rest, the gold is there and the balance of the silver.”

He looked at her quizzically and tied the pouch on a piece of rope he was using as a belt.

“You trust me then?” she asked lightly.

He was silent a moment, then answered softly, “You could have taken everything, including the horses and my life. I owe you my life. Yes, I trust you; and I will pay at the inn.”

Brillar blushed and turned to douse the fire to hide her embarrassment. Such compliments were rare and valued. Whatever came, she would hold that to her.

“I found a pool downhill of the spring. If you will keep watch I think I need a good bath before we go,” was all she said.

There was still the sacking from the cart and a cleansing spell would suffice for her clothes. She could have cleaned her body with an easy Item spell, one of the few she knew, but Brillar preferred a plunge in the cool water. She let out her braid and her hair floated free around her. A quick bath, a cleansing spell for her clothes, the sacking to dry her and she was redressed. Re-braiding her wet hair, she returned to the clearing where she found that he had harnessed the roan to the wagon.

“Too much exertion and you will weaken. And after all my care,” she clucked her tongue at him and he grinned, his first true smile since they had met.

“Are you a mother hen or my niece?” he asked cheerfully. “I promise to ride in the cart bed if you can handle the reins.” He handed them to her with a bow. His good humor buoyed her and she laughed in response.

“Well then, uncle, we should be off.” He had looped a rope around the neck of the grey and tied it to the cart. The stallion, he assured her, would follow where he went.

“Jez was bred and born at the Great House. I was there when he was foaled eight years ago. I helped him to his feet and held him to his mother. He used to follow me like a puppy when I was teaching the younger students.” He shook his head. “He was as much a rascal as some of them were but trained better than they did.” He laughed, stroked the stallion’s long face and was nuzzled in return.

Brillar watched with a bit of jealousy. Still, it was her younger brother Terol who had a true way with animals. She climbed aboard the cart as he settled in the back and clucked at the roan which moved obediently to the track. It was full morning and the air was sweet under the trees as they set off. Spring leaves were everywhere and birds were calling for mates. A fine day for travel and the road was easy.

“Now, uncle, a story for the road,” she insisted. “And it had best be a good story for a woman and her ‘uncle’ to be on the road together or I will be taken as more than a niece. Who are we?”

Together, they concocted a story to ward off any inquisitive innkeeper or, if they were not questioned too closely, a sheriff’s man; although they knew that the charade would not be enough if they stayed in any village for long. Too many people could recognize “Uncle Elden” - they had settled on the short form of his name for his niece - as a mage and someone from the Sisterhood might know Brillar. Some time for restocking supplies, new boots and clothes for Elden, for he carried no foldbox, and the two would separate. When she asked him about the foldbox, he shook his head and left the question unanswered.

“I know who set the bounty on me,” ‘Uncle’ Elden said at one point, “but before we meet I need to recover what is mine in West Riversgate. There may be more people here and there, seeking the bounty.”

“You are a well-wanted man then,” was her comment. “Perhaps I should stay with you just to watch your back. And your drinking.”

“Hrmph,” was his short reply.

Together they decided that when they left the first town, they would drive the horse and cart to the next and sell them. The mare she would keep. She had refused Garnelden’s offer of gold.

“I won’t take money for doing what was right,” she insisted. “It caused me neither harm nor delay and there may come a day when I need the help of a Mage of the Four Powers.” There had been laughter behind her words but they made him thoughtful.

“What do you plan to do then?” he asked. They were crossing a small stream and had stopped to let the horses drink. Brillar hopped down from the cart, knelt at the stream, and was splashing water on her face.

“When I left the Sisters, I had no plan; just a desire to be out in the world, to be away from study. Now I’ve worn out two pairs of boots walking. With no plan, I’ve killed a man and rescued a mage.” She shook water from her hands and stood. “Still, I haven’t seen an orc, a fire sprite, or even a harpy and the Wild holds all those. Who knows? Tomorrow might be more interesting.”

He laughed at that, thinking her both serious and naïve. He had seen everything she mentioned and more but not usually near settled lands. Somehow the idea of her wandering into the true Wilds unsettled him. Finding himself unsettled left him more unsettled. Surely he, Garnelden, Mage of the Four Powers, didn’t care what happened to this youngling? He tried to shake off the thought.

“The town can’t be far ahead,” he said to dismiss the feeling of unease. “I can feel open land.”

She climbed back into the cart and stretched out with far-sight. “True enough. Let’s hope there’s an inn soon. Riding in this cart has worried my bones.”

Less than a mile brought them to open farmland. The fields here were well plowed and rich and the scent of warm earth filled the air. Some of the crops were already tall, others just beginning to grow. The sun was welcome after the cool of the forest. A few men and women in the fields who stood to stretch their backs saw them and gave friendly waves which they returned. Carters were always welcome as they brought both goods and news. Some people closer to the road looked at their horses with appreciation.

“A fine pair a’ horses you have in tow there,” said a man who had just come into road from a field. “If ye be looking to sell one, the blacksmith in town does a trade in horses.”

From the bed of the cart, Elden laughed. “He wouldn’t be a brother or cousin of yours, now would he?” Brillar stopped the cart. The farmer seemed inclined to talk and news would be welcome.

Looking down, the farmer kicked at a clod of dirt in the road with a well-worn boot. “Well now, family is important here a-bouts.” He looked up, and grinned. “And a man who don’t support family, tisn’t much of a man.” He was ruddy from the sun, with light eyes and sandy hair.

His rough good humor had Elden and Brillar smiling.

“If we asked about an inn in the village, would you send us to the best or to the one owned by your cousin,” asked Elden good-naturedly.

Smiling back at them, the farmer replied, “There is only one and ’tis my brother-in-law runs it. My sister does the cooking and the food is from my farm. I was headed there now…” he paused.

“Well met then, friend,” said Elden. “Climb aboard and I’ll buy you a pint at the finest of the town’s inns.”

Nes (“Me name is Nester, but folks’ calls me Nes”) teased their brief story from them. “Illness on the trail, a bad thing,” he said. “Good you had your niece with you.” He was a country farmer in rough clothes and dirty from the fields but good company. Seeing him riding in the cart brought more waves and hellos from the people they passed.

“And there’s the inn. Berl keeps a good barrel of ale of his own making, there’s a barn for the horses and a room?” he looked at Brillar speculatively.

“Rooms,” she turned and answered him. “My uncle snores.”

That remark kept Nes in laughter until they stopped at the inn door. A sign proclaimed it – not very originally – the Red Rooster Inn in faded red paint on dirty white. Looking at it, they hoped that it was cleaner inside. Still, the building was of local stone, the windows had clean glass in them and the shutters on the upper floor were well hung.

“The only rooster you’ll find is ‘in’ the stew pot,” and Nes laughed at his own witticism.

“As if I would cook such a fine rooster,” said a full bodied woman coming outside. “Only hens for my stews.” She had been cooking and was wearing, short boots, a skirt to her knees, white apron, and a faded blue shirt rolled to the elbows. A smattering of flour attested to her occupation. She appeared to be around thirty, her face was open and kind and her dark hair was pulled back neatly and tied at the nape of her neck.

“Welcome, worthies,” she said with a brief dip. She stared, first at Elden’s bare feet and then at the bow over Brillar’s shoulder and shouted for the stable boy.

Following her glance, Brillar spoke up. “We came through a river where perhaps we should have looked for a bridge. My uncle’s boots and clothes dumped from the cart along with our trade goods. We were hoping to replace the clothing here? He’s used to better than his old clothing.”

She exchanged a glance with the woman that said, ‘Men. What can you do?’ and they both smiled.

“There’s a tailor in town and a boot maker, if you have coin?” She called again for the stable boy.

“No worries then,” said Elden and stepped down from the cart. “A few pints to ease our travels, dinner and beds for our weary bones.” He opened his purse and took two silver coins. The woman’s eyes grew round as she accepted them.

“Then this way, worthies, this way and I’ll have my husband draw the ale.” She held the door open for them.

“Three pints,” Elden said, “as your brother will be joining us.”

“Berl, we have guests,” she called as they entered the inn; she headed for the rear of the building.

The travelers were surprised at the interior. A plank floor, tables and benches sanded smooth and oil lamps for the evening. For a country inn, it had a solid look. There was a fireplace well stocked with wood and one wall held a map of the territory.

“She had curtains on the windows, but one of the lads was in his cups of an evening and set one alight. Now she has to do without for Berl thinks they might burn down the inn, as if stone could burn,” Nes explained chuckling. “She was a good sister, Hana was, and a good woman she’s become.”

“That she is,” said a man coming over with three pints of ale. “And how did you manage to get them to buy you a pint, Nes?” he asked with affectionate humor.

“But we insisted,” Elden put in immediately. “After all, he showed us the best inn in the village.” Berl roared with laughter and slapped him on the shoulder, making him wince.

“Careful, my uncle has just recovered from an illness,” Brillar spoke up.

“Beggin’ your pardon then,” said Berl, concern in his voice. He was taller than Elden but stockier. Light brown hair was close cut and a clean towel hung from his belt.

“No harm done,” answered Elden. He sipped his ale. “A fine ale. Nes says you do your own brewing.”

“That I do, and none better for many miles. And no inns either,” he laughed at his joke. “I had the boy take the horses and cart to the barn. They’ll be well cared for.” He went back to the bar for plates.

Nes stood; he had fairly gulped his ale. “I’ll need to be going. Only one pint for me or my wife will fetch me one with her broom.” They thanked Nes as he hurried out the door.

More ale from the bar and chicken stew from the kitchen appeared quickly along with fresh bread and churned butter. After lunch, Brillar wanted her ‘uncle’ to rest, but Berl had called two men from the town, a tailor and a cobbler. Elden went off with them with stern instructions to return quickly and rest. Brillar went to the barn to be sure the horses were well cared for.

After ensuring that they had fresh food and water, Brillar spent some time with them, letting them become easy in her presence reaching out to them with friendship and soothing. Returning to the inn, she was told that her uncle had come back and gone to his room for rest. Rest seemed a fine idea, but she took hers near the stable, stretched on sweet smelling hay near the horses and watching clouds. At some point, she fell into a relaxed sleep.

Voices woke her. “There she is, well and fine,” it was Berl’s voice.

“Many thanks,” she heard her uncle reply. She stood and stretched, brushed at the hay, then glancing around, threw it off with a spell.

“Uncle,” she greeted him, “did you rest well?”

“I did that, but food is almost ready and you were nowhere to be found,” he glared at her.

“I apologize. It was such a fine day I must have fallen asleep in the sun.” She glanced at his shod feet.

“An old pair of boots the man had in his shop. Now, if you would join me, I will buy you an ale to clear the straw dust from your throat.” They went in through the back door of the inn and past the kitchen where wonderful aromas rose from the stove, taking a table in a corner where they could see everyone enter. Brillar could feel Elden reach toward everyone, testing them lightly and wasn’t surprised to find herself subject to the same scrutiny. When she looked at him he whispered, “Sorry. Habit,” but she just smiled.

The inn began to fill with townsfolk as mealtime neared but they managed to call for a pint before it got busy. A few curious glances came their way. Both tailor and boot maker stopped in for a pint and assured Elden that all was beginning as he had asked. Their supper, for Elden has offered a bit extra for something more than stew, was roasted duck with tubers fried with onion and herbs. It made a fine feast after their meals of linic and cwel on the trail. Elden washed his down with more ale but Brillar chose a cider that Hana suggested.

The oil lamps were soon lit and Brillar, seeing Elden’s face in the fresh light, motioned Hana over. “I judge it time for us both to get some rest now.” Hana lead them upstairs where Brillar found a small but reasonable room with a chair, a stand with ewer and bowl, window, and a sturdy bed.

“The mattresses and pillows are feather stuffed,” Hana hastened to tell her. “You won’t see any finer in the territory.”

“And they will be welcome, mistress Hana,” said Elden gallantly bowing over her hand and making her blush. “You are a kind hostess and a fine cook. A good evening to you.”

Unused to such courtesies, Hana reddened further and hurried away.

“And a good evening to you too, uncle,” Brillar said wryly. He winked in return and retired to his room.

In her room, she dropped her pack but went down the back stair to the necessary and then to the stable before returning and splashing her face. Wearily she sat on the bed and found that the feather mattress was just as Hana had promised. ‘Not that I couldn’t sleep on rocks,’ she thought as she pulled off her boots and stripped to her scants. The pillow was also full of feathers and the blanket was soft.

“And a good evening to me as well,” she murmured to herself and fell into a deeper sleep than she had enjoyed in many days.

In the next week, Elden, as he was now known to all, fleshed out. Breakfast at the inn was a massive affair with fresh bread, eggs, sausage and bacon, hotcakes and fruits. Explaining that they would need to stay a few days more while the tailor and cobbler made up his clothes, Elden handed over more pieces of silver for the inn much to the delight of the innkeeper. He also put some coppers in the hands of the stable boy, knowing that stable hands were paid little.

Every morning after they had eaten, Brillar tended to the wounds left by the dimlock. Under her careful hands, they had healed nicely and she treated them with little or no pain to him. The skin had pulled together well particularly on the back of Elden’s neck which had taken the least damage. “You’ll carry scars so keep them covered from casual eyes. Best be ready with a reason for them if there’s an asking, especially by a wench.” She was still applying salve but he had slapped at her hand at that.

They spent nearly a week in the village waiting for clothing and boots. The tailor, noting the loaned boots, loaned Elden some patched clothing on the second day. Brillar and her uncle walked the streets that day, stretching out for any dark signs and finding none. Elden spent more time with both tailor and boot maker who promised that they would hurry with their makings.

Foringil had two streets with blacksmith and harness maker at the end farthest from the inn. A plank boardwalk lined one side of both streets, attesting to a town of some prosperity. Where the roads crossed there was a neat cobbled plaza. A well-ordered town and clean since a night soil collector, paid by the village, removed waste in the early morning. Despite his trade, he was amiably greeted by the villagers. Shops with porches covering the walk stretched from the inn. They took up again after they crossed the street and continued down the road toward the harness maker then stopped, leaving a space between town and smith. The street was wider than in some towns with several water troughs and hitching posts for horses. The cross street held mainly richer townsfolk, those who owned fields but didn’t work them, and merchants.

After the second day, Brillar split her time between archery practice and the stable, joining her uncle for breakfast and dinner. She had found that the village fletcher was a good craftsman and replenished her supply of arrows. At first, a small group of children had gathered when she took out her bow but soon a few of the men and older lads joined her practice. Some were fine archers but she held back on showing her true skill. They were, after all, their hosts and companions at the inn. Asked about her skill, she joked that she grew up with brothers

At the stable, Brillar spent time with the grey mare, learning her ways, letting her become easy with her. While the horses were well tended, she took some time with caring for her. It was obvious that she had not been washed or curried for some time and Brillar did both, making her true coat appear from under trail dust.

“She’s finer that I thought,” came Elden’s voice one morning as she brushed the mare yet again. “A light coat and fine dappling.”

“She has turned out to be a beauty, haven’t you pet,” she responded, stroking the mare’s long cheek and being nuzzled in return.

“And you’ve done well with Jez; he seldom let’s others approach him,” he returned. The chestnut’s coat fairly glistened in the sun despite the dust in the corral. “Even the cart horse looks healthier.”

“Many thanks, Uncle. But perhaps you would like to take over some of these duties if you feel up to the task? I promised Berl I would hunt for the kitchen.”

“You’ve left me little to do,” he chided. “But perhaps I should give Jez some exercise?”

“If you keep it brief. No good undoing what I have done,” she responded with a smile.

She turned and looked him up and down. The truth was, he looked quite well even in patched and borrowed clothes. His shoulder length brown hair was clean and curled slightly. Hana had insisted on trimming hair and beard with her shears and the result suited him. His brown eyes were dark but clear alongside his strong nose. She had suggested he keep the beard he had grown over several weeks to hide his features. “Why trim away what time has already made,” she said and he had agreed. It would keep any other bounty hunters from instantly recognizing his face. That and a moustache almost hid his generous mouth and even teeth. He had put on weight but was still lean and well-muscled. A hand and more taller than she, he made a fine looking “uncle.”

He caught the intensity in her gaze and decided that she was fair game. He liked what he saw. She was tall for a woman, slender, even graceful, but there was steel in her. Under her dark red-brown hair, deep green eyes looked out from beneath curved brows. She had fair skin evenly darkened by the sun and high cheekbones. A straight nose, a serious mouth but a woman’s lips above a firm chin. He had suggested she put some spare clothes in a pack before they arrived in town, “So the foldbox won’t draw attention.” Today, she was dressed in dark green leggings and a lighter green shirt. Dressed for hunting.

They suddenly became aware of mutual scrutiny and each turned aside, her to the mare, him to Jez.

“Yes, well, to the hunt then. And a short ride for you, Uncle,” she admonished.

Lowering her head, the mare accepted the bitless bridle; she wore no saddle. Brillar took her bow and quiver from the mounting box and used it to mount the mare.

Elden chucked. “I expected you to simply scramble aboard.”

“What, and risk a twist to my arm? I hunt today, Uncle.” She squeezed the mare with her knees and headed out toward the fields and woods beyond.

‘A fine pair they make,’ thought Elden looking after her. He felt a twinge of worry as they disappeared, knowing she was serious about going into the Wild; it was so easy to die there. How did this youngling manage to disturb him so? He shook his head and took down a borrowed hackamore and saddle. When he pulled himself onto the chestnut, he felt a twinge in his chest and shoulder. He patted Jez on the neck as the chestnut tossed his head impatiently. “Perhaps my niece was right. We should keep this a short and easy ride.” He set off around the inn and down the town’s wide street urging Jez into his walking gait, smooth and easy but good exercise for them both.

Brillar headed across the fields and into the woods following a small track. The morning was clear, the sun not yet overly warm and the trees were bright with new leaves. Several times she heard small game move away from them but kept on, crossing a small stream where she and the mare enjoyed its clear waters. “We must find a name for you,” she said, patting the firm neck. Vaulting back onto the mare, which would have pleased Elden, she continued for another mile until she came to a clearing.

Now she stopped, stretched out with far-sense looking for deer, and dismounted telling the mare to stay where she was. A tangle of brush near the clearing caught her attention. She counted five signs there at perhaps a hundred paces and to the left. Checking the direction of the wind, she started her approach. Four were drowsing, one more alert. She moved slowly, stealthily, bringing the distance down over an hour. At twelve paces, she rose slowly, bow ready. As she had expected, one animal rose stirring the others. Now all were on their feet, only a second to make a choice . . . her arrow was true catching a yearling buck and striking deeply. He staggered a few feet and fell while the others fled. A flock of birds, surprised by the noise, took to the air as she started toward the fallen animal seeing that it was well fed. She whistled for the mare and began to clean her kill.

The ride back to the inn took less than an hour and Hana was still preparing lunch when she arrived. The chestnut was back in the corral and nickered to the mare. Hearing her arrive, Berl came out the back door of the inn.

“Well lass, a fine kill that, t’will be tender. Hana, come see what our archer has found for us,” he called. He hefted the deer down from the mare. Brillar handed her over to the stable boy, Enk, with instructions to wash her down thoroughly.

Hana looked admiringly at the deer proclaiming that she would be sure to prepare it with some fine herbs.

“And you must be hungry,” she added, “what with all that time in the forest and all this fine work. Come in, for lunch is near ready and you can have something to ease your hunger and slack your thirst. How you found such a fine young buck when all our hunters come back empty handed,” she shook her head.

“Indeed, a fine kill,” added Elden as he joined them, winking at her because he knew full well how she ‘found’ the deer.

Brillar followed Hana to the kitchen and stopped to wash in a bucket kept for that purpose. Neither uncle nor niece used what they knew of spells in the town unless they were sure no one watched. “Now you go and sit in the great room and Berl will fetch you an ale. Such heavy work for such a lass,” she had scolded.

Elden joined her in the great room as she sat sipping her ale. “An ale and some lunch, then perhaps you’ll minister to me?” he asked.

Brillar sputtered into her ale. “Overdid it? Well I did warn you.”

“It was such a fine day and Jez hadn’t been out. He fairly ran away with me,” was the somewhat embarrassed answer.

“Ran away with you? And thank you Hana,” she said as stew and bread for them appeared from the kitchen.

“Oh we had a good gallop and now I need some of your good salve. But first,” he lowered his voice, “there was some news before you got back. News of an unidentified man found in a shallow grave with an arrow in his chest. Steady,” he added when she stiffened, “drink your ale and smile.”

Brillar smiled and sipped and nodded. “What else?”

“There may be a sheriff’s man in town to talk to the villagers.”

After a thoughtful lunch, she stood and stretched. “I think a walk would do me good. Coming Uncle?” she asked. “It will walk out some of the stiffness from your gallop.” She could hear Berl chuckle at the bar.

“A fine thought. After you.” He nodded to Berl as they stood.

Uncle and niece left the inn and turned towards the farmlands. Hana watched them go from the kitchen door at the rear of the bar and headed back to the kitchen as Berl dipped a tankard in water and rinsed it. “Do you think them two be more than uncle and niece,” he called to her.

Hana stopped to hit him with a towel. “You watch your thoughts and words, Berl. Those two are as kind and honest a pair as we have seen in many a day,” and she stalked back to do her baking. “I was only wondering,” he called after her. “Then wonder about something else,” she called back. He went back to his washing. “I was only wondering,” he muttered.

Brillar and Garnelden walked slowly out towards the fields and stopped under a towering tree left as a cool place where farmers and idlers could enjoy the day. No one else was there.

“About the arrow?” Elden raised an eyebrow.

“I removed the shaft with my fletching and burned it. No one will mark it. Do they think they know when he died?” She watched birds over the fields, her mind on Pilik.

“As I heard it, scavengers had been after the body. No one has mentioned a time.”

“Well, that’s in our favor then.” She was worried

“Besides, niece, we were together when it happened.”

“True enough, but our small story may not stand up under questioning.”

One of the local farmers waved to them as he went toward town.

“We should walk.” They resumed their stroll down a well-packed road the light rains hadn’t disturbed.

Elden was thoughtful, searching for a lost memory, but shook his head. “I don’t think Pilik went through any towns after Riversgate, but I can’t be sure. Someone might remember a cart with me, perhaps, covered in the back. He wouldn’t have left me exposed in a town.”

“Carts are common enough and the roan looks much different now what with good food, good care, and nothing to do.”

“True enough, but we are supposed to be merchants, traders. What was our stock that was lost in the stream? What towns did we pass through? What innkeepers might remember us?”

Deep in thought, they walked back to the inn to find a bundle waiting for Elden. “From the tailor,” said Berl, “he has more for you but wanted you to have this now.” Elden took it to his room watching as his ‘niece’ exchanged curtsies with the innkeeper.

The Red Rooster was busy that afternoon preparing for an evening crowd. The next day was traditionally one of rest and the townsfolk prepared for it in cheerful style. Men carried extra tables and benches outside; Hana had hired two local girls to help her serve while Enk turned venison on a spit behind the inn. A small troop of players had stopped just outside of town and were to perform the next day.

The atmosphere was relaxed and festive until one of the sheriff’s men arrived at the door in the early afternoon while Brillar and Elden sat watching the excitement over pints of cider. The deputy greeted Berl and Hana cheerfully and accepted a half pint of ale to wash away the dust. He was a dark-haired man of average height, with something of a belly that he constrained with a sword belt. Leather armor was settled on his shoulders.

“Have you heard the news then,” he asked the innkeeper.

“A man found dead? Aye, we’ve heard.” Berl went on with his washing knowing the inn would fill soon. Beside him, Elden could feel Brillar tense and begin to stand.

“Found dead with an arrow so deep in his chest it struck has backbone. No belt, no money, no weapon,” was the reply. His eyes wandered around the inn.

“Robbed then?” asked Berl running a cloth on the bar.

At the table, Brill felt Elden’s hand on her leg, cautioning, holding her still.

“Most likely. But we heard a tale of a red-haired archer,” the deputy continued. “One with a strong bow, for the arrow would have gone clear through him if unstopped by bone.”

Berl laughed. “An archer with that might, here? Are you daft? Such an archer would be on a castle wall or guarding a manor house.”

The deputy laughed with him. “True enough. Have you travelers then?” He looked toward the table where they sat listening to the exchange with Berl as any stranger might.

“Elden is my name, a merchant” said Elden, standing, “and this is my niece, Brillar who learns our trade. I was taken ill on the track and we’re resting here for a few days.” Elden held out his hand in greeting and the man took it as Brillar stood and dropped a slight curtsey. The deputy barely glanced at her red hair.

“Well then, I’d best be off. If I press, I can reach the next town by evenfall.” With a slight nod, he left the inn.

“An ale for me,” Elden called to Berl, “and a half-pint I think for my niece.” Brillar had gratefully sunk back onto the bench as the deputy left the inn, although her back remained straight.

Delivering the ale, Berl glanced at her. “We’ll say nothing about that fine deer you took this morning,” he said quietly. “If a man is dead, ’tis like he deserved killing.” With a nod to her relieved face, he went about his business.

“A good man, that, and you had best learn to guard yourself more carefully, niece,” Elden said softly.

“A good man indeed,” she responded exhaling. She took a strong pull on the ale, then sputtered and coughed. Elden looked at her quizzically.

“That ‘good man’ thought I needed something stronger than ale,” she said, looking toward the bar where Berl stood washing a tankard and smiling. “I’m not used to strong drink.”

Elden sniffed the tankard and chuckled. “Time to learn then.” She glared at him.

“Or perhaps not.” He made a sudden decision and realized it had been in his mind for some time. “I’m still missing that salve and there’s time before Hana has supper ready.”

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