*** 4 ***
When they reached her room and the fold box, Elden removed the scarf and turned down his shirt.
“Tell me where this hurts,” Brillar instructed as she pressed lightly, then more strongly, on the wounds left by the dimlock. He stiffened only once at the place where the pendent had sunk near to his bone.
“They’re mending very well,” she said, applying more salve. When she finished, he shrugged on his shirt, stood, and replaced the scarf as she closed the fold box.
“And now, good niece, it is your turn to sit,” his voice was quiet but commanding. She blinked in surprise but sat obediently.
“You are young, Brillar of Laurenfell, and have much to learn. You almost lost us in the great room.” She started to speak and he silenced her with a cautioning gesture.
“You did well to respond to my touch and the curtsey was well-played, but you need further schooling. I have decided to take on that schooling as your reward for my life.” She blinked in astonishment. “Yes, yes, I know this is a reward unlooked for and you are probably unworthy of it,” at this, her face tightened, “but if I let you go stumbling into the Wild in your sad state, you will likely get yourself killed in a week. As I see it, the world is more interesting with you in it than you dead on some deserted mountain.” He stopped.
“Why you ungrateful, pompous, overbearing . . . ” she sputtered to a stop.
“Exactly,” he said cheerfully. “Now I need to see what the tailor has made for me and you need to get ready for supper.” He left her quickly, she was still sputtering, closing the door behind him.
Muttering to herself at the man’s impertinence, Brillar took out fresh clothing although it was made for the trail, and changed quickly. A knock came at her door and she opened it to find her uncle well dressed in dark grey pants and an over shirt of lighter matching grey with deep blue stitching.
“Shall we go down to dinner?” He offered her his arm. Still astonished and now speechless, she took the offered arm and allowed him to escort her to the great room.
The Rooster was lively that night. Dinner was boiled and roasted tubers with herbs, fresh bread and slices of roast venison. Hana had added her herbs to tenderize the fresh meat and the result was wonderful. By now, many of the townsfolk had met both Brillar and Elden and greeted them with an open comradery. Among the first to arrive was the bootmaker, carrying new boots for Elden by the uppers.
“Give them a try,” he encouraged, “I think you’ll find them sturdy and comfortable.” Elden did as he was asked and the boots were a perfect fit. With dark brown leather uppers and sturdy soles, the boots were made for walking the trails and riding both.
“I thank you cobbler Morglain. And here is the remainder of your fee, plus a bit more for such a fine job and so quickly.”
Morglain stared as three silver coins were placed in his palm. “And thanks to you, Elden. Berl keeps a bit ‘o brandy for special occasions.” At this, Brillar grimaced slightly. “Ah, the lass does no’ like brandy then? Berl, two brandies here if you please.” Elden let the cobbler pay for the brandy. The coins he had given over were almost twice the promised payment.
They were interrupted by the arrival of the tailor who held a wrapped bundle. He was a bit out of breath. “It was the last stitching needed to be done,” he panted, “I had thought to catch you before you came down . . .”
“Nothing to worry you,” Elden replied. “Now my niece can make a grand entrance.”
Hebrel, the tailor, handed the bundle to an astonished Brillar who stood and raised a questioning eyebrow at her uncle.
“Ahem,” he began. “What with the festivities and now the players come to town, I thought you might like something a bit more… suitable?”
“It laces before, not behind, you’ll need no help w’that,” said Hebrel nodding at her.
“Look how she stands and stares,” chuckled Morglain.
“Come now lass, go see if my measure was right.” Hebrel shooed her toward the stairs.
Brillar fled up the stairs to her room in consternation followed by their laughter. Closing the door, she leaned against it and recovered her breath. Moving to the bed, she opened the bundle and a dark green dress fell onto it. She felt the soft cloth and fingered the stitched design on the bodice. It was a modest dress coming to her collar bone, with long sleeves and a full skirt. It did indeed lace up from the front.
The dress amazed her. Elden must have ordered it along with his clothes for it to have been made so beautifully and quickly. She stripped down to her scants and pulled it over her head, settling and lacing it before she looked in the small cracked mirror in the room. What she saw delighted her. She twirled around and the skirt, which reached just below her knees, flared for dancing. She opened the foldbox quickly and took out some pins for her hair. Swiftly coiling her braid around her head, she inserted the pins. Taking the glass, she smiled at the result, closed the foldbox and headed for the door.
At the head of the stairs, she suddenly paused, self-conscious, then straightened her shoulders and, head up, descended to the great room.
At their table, three heads turned in her direction and the men stood. Seeing that, other heads turned, and applause began. Flushing, and giving a wave for them to cease, she crossed to the table and sat down, reaching for her cup.
“Who would have guessed that a dress could make such a change,” said Elden and the others nodded.
“From a lass to a lady,” added Morglain, raising his tankard as did the others, toasting her.
Brillar sat and sipped from her tankard to hide her embarrassment. “Enough,” she said, making the men chuckle. “I thank you, Master Hebrel, for your fine work. Especially seeing that you had only your eyes and not a model for your stitching.”
It was Hebrel’s turn to redden. This was the first time anyone had named him “Master” in his craft.
“Master Hebrel,” they chorused, raising tankards.
“Wait a moment,” said Morglain, eyes widening, “If we name him “Master” no one will be able to afford to buy from him.” All four dissolved into laughter.
The inn was filling rapidly. Farmers and their wives, clean and dressed in their better clothes, farmhands, merchants and their wives, elders and older children crammed into the inn and sat outside waiting for service. The town dogs gathered waiting for whatever might drop to the dust and a brindled cat watched from a windowsill. It was a fine spring evening with the sun low in the sky. A lute player and a juggler from the traveling players arrived to entertain and the party became merry. The juggler remained outside as the inn was too low roofed for his art and took what coppers were offered him. The lute player took up station on a chair by the unlit fireplace and began to strum his instrument.
Berl and Hana bustled through the inn with the serving girls and even Enk, cleaned up for the evening, was pressed into service carrying ale and filling empty cups. One of the townsmen produced a fiddle and struck up a tune while the lutist ate a hurried plate. Some of the men coxed their wives onto a small cleared area to dance and Elden finally held out his hand to Brillar.
“Let’s see if that dress swirls well in a dance,” he said. Hebrel’s wife had arrived, a slender woman in a fine blue dress with lace down the sleeves. They were up and dancing and were then going to sit with friends.
Brillar took Elden’s hand as the fiddler started into a lively tune. A bow and curtsey, and they were off. Elden proved a fine dancer and whirled her around and through the other dancers with ease. When the dance ended they returned to the table and Brillar put out her hand to Morglain who was still alone.
“A man who makes such fine boots can surely dance,” she said catching her breath quickly. In truth, she wanted no more dancing with Garnelden, his brown eyes had never left her and there was no laughter in them.
“I’ll squash your toes,” he protested as she pulled him upright.
“And they will heal,” she laughed as she took him into the crowd. He did indeed tread on her toes, but only once, and she sat him back down as one of the town archers grabbed her hand and swung her away.
Morglain found a new dance partner, a widow someone told them. She did not seem to mind having her toes trod on, and the two sat back down with Brillar and her uncle when the singing began. The lutist, refreshed, took his place at the cold hearth and began a well-known ballad. He had a rich tenor voice and the crowd stilled to listen to the song. He moved on into a love song that had some of the younger women in bright tears, then swung into a lively tune inviting the crowd to join the chorus. The exchange of singing and dancing went on for hours. Some of those inside left for home as the sun set and some of those outside joined the dancers in the Rooster.
Exhausted, for someone had claimed her for every dance, Brillar bid the company goodnight and went to her room locking her door when she entered. ‘A lock would not stop my good uncle, but it might deter that sprightly archer,’ she thought. ‘A fine party. I have not danced like that in well over a year.’ She unlaced the dress and pulled it off hanging it as neatly as she could before casting a cleansing spell to rid it of any dust and odor. “So lovely and how kind of him,” she thought as she stretched out on the bed. She slept at once and didn’t stir until morning, even when the ‘sprightly archer’ tried the lock.
It was well past dawn when she woke and dressed. She splashed water on her face then unwound her braid letting her hair fall down her back. Dressing quickly she went down the narrow back stair and visited the necessary. Uncle Elden was already in the great room and stood as she entered after splashing her hands in the bucket outside the kitchen.
“A bright good morning to you niece,” he said. “Hana will be out in a minute with food but she left a cup of fresh juice for you.”
Brillar sipped the juice with pleasure savoring its slight tartness. “And a fine good morning to you, uncle,” she returned. “But what’s that in your cup?” The scent was strong.
Berl hastened over with a cup of the hot brew. “Something new. I got it from a trader who said that hot water should be strained through the powder for a stimulating drink in the morning. Your uncle and I found it tasty and it really opened our eyes. They call it corin.”
Elden nodded approvingly and she sipped, pursing her lips at the somewhat bitter flavor. “Ah,” said Berl, “Hana likes a bit of sweeting in hers.” He came back with some sugar normally used for Hana’s baking and a spoon.
Brillar spooned, stirred and sipped. “The taste is much improved,” she nodded at Berl as Hana came up with her breakfast.
“It does open the eyes,” Hana added. “Something I needed. It was a long night, but I got in a dance or two with Berl at the close. We can still dance, love, can we not?” She gazed fondly at her husband who bussed her cheek. Brillar tilted her head at Hana, sensing something, reached out and was thoughtful.
“Away with you now and back to work,” she responded to the kiss, blushing, “such cleaning there is after such a night and the players later in the day.” Both went back to their tasks, leaving Brillar and Elden alone in the room.
She applied herself to breakfast. “Many thanks for the dress,” she began.
“It was a pleasure to see you in it,” he said quietly, “Besides I can’t let my new apprentice...” She sputtered into her corin. “My new apprentice,” he went on strongly “be seen dressed for the hunt at a party.”
“Nor do I recall accepting your offer,” she replied softly, “dress or no.”
“What? Refuse an apprenticeship with a Mage of the Four Powers? I have never made such an offer to any and, while I admit that I only have second standing in Life Magic, which is where your skills seem to lie, I still have much to teach.” Brown eyes were fixed on her.
She tried to ignore him, but, much to her surprise, she found herself considering the offer.
Taking a slice of bread from her plate he continued, “It would not be all one sided you know. There are things in the Wild that resist magic. They can be weakened by a mage but killed only by steel.”
“Perhaps, then, you should make your offer to a swordsman, not an archer,” she said primly.
“None seem to be available,” he rejoined.
“None available?! So I’m ‘available’ am I,” her response was indignant.
His hand went to hers warmly. “No one else has shown such courage nor saved my life. I think it was more than chance brought us together. I would have my niece with me and none other.”
Flustered, she withdrew her hand and sipped the corin. “What, then, am I to pay for this apprenticeship?” The custom was for the apprentice to pay the Master.
“You have already paid more than any other could. Your company and your bow are all that are needed,” was the quiet reply.
Brillar lowered her head. It seemed to her that something in the world had just shifted and that her answer would make it stable again. Her answer.
“Then,” she said quietly, “on my honor I will bind myself to you as your apprentice for one year. If, by the end of the year, one of us has not killed the other, we shall see.”
Elden roared with laughter. “A fine answer,” he said when he caught his breath. He continued to chuckle as she rose from the table.
“The horses need tending,” she said tartly, “if you would care to join me uncle.”
“That I will. And we will give them a fine grooming because,” he let his voice drop and deepen, “I will teach you an easy spell, suitable to your skill level,” Brillar poked him in the arm, “A spell that will tease out both dust and any insects there may be in their coats.”
The Creature spell was within her reach but took some practice. The words were easy, the seeing more difficult.
“You must see and reach to the skin and not beyond. See what’s there, the dust, the life.”
Finding the life was the easier task, akin to far-sight but more intense. The dust was more difficult. What Enk thought to see them “grooming,” their hands barely moving, her concentration obvious, made him shake his head. “N’er get the job done that way,” he thought. But he felt self-conscious in their presence and said nothing.
By lunch, Brillar had mastered the spell and the reaching, but with a headache as her reward.
“With practice, my dear niece, you will have your animal cleaned in a few minutes. I am satisfied,” said her instructor.
“I’ll want more corin with lunch or I won’t be awake to watch the players,” was her weary response. “I hope that great tub of Hana’s is full as well. I feel ready for a full washing.”
There was indeed a tub full of clean hot water and a towel laid out for her. It was a convenience the inn offered weekly to travelers. Brillar unbraided her hair, soaped, then climbed into the tub to rinse and soak. A brief soaking, because she knew Hana and Berl were waiting for the same tub and that fresh water was on the stove. A quick spell cleaned her clothes. She climbed out, toweled and dressed.
Hana had laid out a cold lunch; Garnelden had waited for her before eating. Covered tankards held corin and she gulped some of hers. She could feel the headache fade away as she reached for bread and meat. Some fresh fruits had been added to the table to be enjoyed after lunch. She stabbed a slice of meat with her belt knife, only to have her hand slapped away by Elden. She looked at him in astonishment.
“Another lesson, niece, this one in manners. A belt knife is a fine thing but a fork,” he produced two tined instruments, “is for gentlefolk.”
“A refinement from the west that I think will sweep eastward,” he replied. “Used for transferring meat and vegetables from plate to mouth, thusly.” He stabbed a small bite of meat from his plate, put it in his mouth and chewed. “It also leaves the hands clean and free of grease. Which means” he lowered his voice, “less chance of a sword or bow slipping if it’s needed quickly. Now you.” He handed her the second fork.
“May I at least cut my meat with a knife?” she asked and he nodded.
She transferred some meat to her plate. He took her hand to show her the proper holding of the fork, and she managed to take meat from plate to mouth with no trouble. “Again, practice is everything,” he said encouragingly.
An archer has deft hands and she had become skilled with the fork by the end of the meal. “Must I use it for the fruit as well,” she asked.
In response, he took an apple and bit into it. “This is the only way to eat such fine fruit even if it was cellared since the fall.”
Taking one for herself, she laughed and went up to rest and change before they went out to watch the players. Finishing the apple, she rinsed and dried her hands then turned to the green dress. It looked even finer to her than it had in the evening. Stripping off her work clothes she opened the foldbox taking out a small vial of perfume forgotten the previous evening in her flustered state. Now she dabbed it on her shoulders. A cream softened her hands. Then, taking a comb from the box she tugged the knots from her hair and tied it up, fastening it with an ornamental pin. Satisfied, she closed the box and slid the dress over her head enjoying the feel of the fabric.
“Let’s see how my uncle likes this,” she thought and headed down the stairs. She stopped at the sight of him because the tailor had done himself proud with uncle’s clothes. Evidently there had been more deliveries and he now wore a deep blue shirt over his grey trousers. A black belt that must have been ordered from the harness maker, held the shirt at his waist.
She stared, then, “The tailor has fitted you well, it seems. Are you all finery or has something been made for traveling.”
“Travel clothing is nearly ready but, at present, we seem a pair well suited for watching the players,” was all he could answer as her scent reached him. He offered his arm which she accepted with a nod. They strolled out of the inn and were met with hellos and waves from others headed toward the show; all were dressed in their best.
The players had set up their stage, the bed of a flat wagon, near the tree just outside of the village. Rough boards supplied by the villagers formed the seating. The juggler was already hard at work entertaining the crowd and the lutist played a bright tune from the stage. A curtain behind the stage hid the players from sight. Elden paid for their seats from his purse and they sat off to one side near the last row of seats. “We shall see many performances,” he whispered, “but the village sees few players.”
With the roll of a drum, the crowd settled and a player stepped out to pronounce the prologue. The play was to be a comedy, set in an ancient town with strange customs. The audience applauded at once for comedies were well loved and ‘strange customs’ meant that there would be some wildness to the scenes. He bowed at their applause and exited the stage.
Three players, two men and a woman in yellow emerged from behind the curtain and stepped onto the stage. The men were quarreling over her shoes and she was pretending disfavor when Elden stiffened.
Her hand went to his, “Uncle,” she whispered, “you are practically broadcasting displeasure.”
He took a deep breath and calmed at once. “The woman, she was one of the two at West Riversgate.”
Now she understood his alarm. “Be still. We have to wait, are you sure?”
He nodded, took another breath and relaxed further. “We wait.”
The play, which set the villagers roaring, seemed too long to them both, although they smiled and forced laughter to seem one with the crowd. The play was over at last and the villagers drifted to their homes or stayed, chatting in small groups.
Brillar and Elden took station under the tree with his back to the stage as the players tore down the curtain. “Do you think the beard will suffice,” he asked anxiously, “it wouldn’t do for me to be recognized quickly.” Brillar nodded, “The beard hides you very well,” she assured him. “Wait, I see her, separate from the others.”
“See if you can bring her over; perhaps she would join us for dinner?”
Brillar strolled casually toward the woman who was still in her yellow costume. Brillar’s carriage proclaimed her more than a common villager and the player dropped a small curtsey as she arrived.
“My uncle and I enjoyed the comedy; it was well played. He’s resting in the shade and asks if you would care to join us for wine and a meal at the inn.”
The offer of a free meal and wine was enticement enough and the player, who gave her name as Jenel, went to change from her costume before joining them at the tree now dressed in a light blue. Elden offered an arm to each woman and they walked to the inn, seating themselves in a corner near the stairs. “I am sure that a player as lovely as you are would be swarmed with admirers and we prefer a quiet supper. Then perhaps you might recite a few lines?” Jenel preened at the compliments and nodded.
Hana had prepared a light soup then sliced herbed venison with good red wine instead of ale. Elden and Brillar demonstrated the use of forks as a refinement and Jenel, believing herself refined, insisted on trying one.
“Yes,” she agreed with feigned sophistication, “so much more genteel. I will have some made for the company.”
The meal completed, Elden lifted his wine and said quietly, “A toast to our new friend Jenel,” she fluttered at this, “who, I think, had another name when we met at West Riversgate.” At the last words, his voice dropped and he met her eyes for the first time. She stared at him closely and then with recognition. She tried to rise but his hand on her arm was steel. She tried to speak, but a quick arcane word stopped her voice.
“Now, my sweet Jenel, I think you and I need a private word.” He steered her toward the stairs and up them toward his room. She went, unresisting.
Hana had just served the few guests; there were not many who could afford eat in the inn two days in a row. Now, on her way back to the kitchen, she gathered up their plates and winked. Brillar simply rolled her eyes and both laughed.
On her way past the bar, Hana whispered to Berl, “I said they were uncle and niece. He’s taken a player to his room.” Berl’s eyes widened a bit. “Aye, the fancy one in yellow. Fine sport they will have,” she said as she went back to the kitchen.
Brillar waited a while then went up the stairs and rapped gently at Elden’s door. He opened it and had her enter quickly. Jenel was sitting on the chair, wild-eyed and helpless. Elden was evidently letting her speak, but only in whispers. She looked at Brillar with pleading eyes.
“Please, mistress,” she begged “make him stop, I’ve told all I know. Pilik paid me and another,” with a wave of his hand Elden silenced her and her eyes bulged slightly.
Brillar looked at her without sympathy. “What has she said?”
“Little more than that. Pilik gave her drugged scents. She wore the first perfume that lulled me, while the second woman wore a stronger scent that dulled me further. I was already well in my cups so I didn’t notice what was placed in the drink they gave me. When I woke, I was trapped.” His voice was grim, harsh with barely controlled anger. He looked at Jenel without pity.
“She knows more, but there’s a block on her memory. It will take some time.” Jenel shook her head, clearly frightened. “You had best go back to your room and block your ears. If there are sounds, they will be like some harsh lovemaking; some like it harsh.” Jenel shook her head again and her eyes were now terrified. What she had endured in the space of less than half an hour was clearly enough for her but Brillar, remembering the dimlock scars, simply nodded and left them alone. She went downstairs and took another glass of wine then went up to retire. She murmured a brief spell, undressed, and went to bed. Whatever sounds came, she never heard them.