Orb and Arrow, Book I: Exploration

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*** 5 ***

In the morning, Brillar dressed quickly and found her uncle already in the great room with, to her surprise, Jenel at his side smiling at him. He gave his niece a quick wink and kissed Jenel’s cheek. “Time for you to be off, my dove,” he said jovially. The woman smiled again, nodded at them both and went out the door obediently.

“What on earth?” Brill began quietly.

“Ah breakfast,” he interrupted, “and more of that fine corin, such a great host you are Berl and what an excellent cook you married.” He seemed pleased with himself and the whole world and she grinned to herself remembering her father’s expansive mood the day after he arrived home from travels. She almost giggled but restrained herself.

“You seem in a fine mood, m’lord uncle,” she teased, feeling that was expected.

“Now then, girl,” he admonished, “none of your impudence. Eat and drink and keep to yourself.”

Which she did, laughing internally and impatient for the real day to begin.

“I think the horses could use some exercise,” he said when they had drunk the last of the corin. “Join me in a ride?”

“With pleasure, uncle,” she responded. Nodding to their hosts, they went out the back door of the inn to the stable.

It took no time to get the horses into borrowed saddles and bridled. Brillar took her bow and quiver, “Just in case,” she said, and swung up on the mare.

“Thought of a name for her yet,” he asked.

“I’ve decided on Bright. Her eyes are bright and a fine feature,” she responded, and the mare twitched an ear back, catching the sound.

“A race then, to the other side of the field,” he shouted and dug his heels into Jez. Bright leaped after them almost unsettling her rider. Leaning forward, she shouted into the mare’s ear, “A horse is supposed to wait for a command,” and laughed into the wind.

Jez was too far ahead to be caught and Elden had flung himself from the horse to be seated on a log when they arrived.

“What kept you?” he asked innocently.

“An honest race someday?” she replied hopping down. “But first, you have a story to tell and perhaps two.”

“I have that.” He settled himself more firmly taking a deep breath of the spring air. “In case you worried, I left no marks on her.”

“I had no such worries.” She sat and leaned against a rock.

“Well then. Her name is not Jenel; that’s her stage name. When I met her first she called herself Eldana and she worked for a smaller company. Her time in the pleasure house was staged by Pilik who approached her with a proposition after one of her performances. He had, he said a rich patron in Lands-end who needed a favor. She met with the man and described him.”

“And you know him?”

“To my misfortune, yes. But let me finish the story. The man, Harrolen, offered her gold for her work. He gave her the perfumes and the drug for the wine and asked her to engage another woman to help her in what he called a jest at my expense. He put a block on her memory and made Pilik the only one who would come to mind if she was questioned. Removing it took some time.” He frowned. “I dislike such methods even when I have to use them.”

“And this morning?”

“Ah. When I had what I needed, I eased her mind so she slept. While she was sleeping, I blocked what had happened and added the memory of such a pleasant night with me that she insisted on more this morning. What could I do?”

Brillar drew back, tilted her head a moment and burst out laughing. After a moment, he joined her. She laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Pointing at him, she continued laughing, “Then that ruse this morning, not so much a ruse.”

He slapped her hand away. “After all I’ve dealt with, a few moments of play . . .” he left the statement hanging. “Besides that, you locked your door,” he accused.

Brillar continued to chuckle. “I locked it against an archer. As if a lock could stop you.”

“Except that knowing it was locked was all the lock needed.” She eyed him and nodded.

“Well and good,” she replied, “for I have a fine uncle and am apprenticed to a fine teacher. For now, that is all I need and all I want.”

“Well said. That is what you shall have, niece. Now we had best get the horses back to the stable. Does Bright have a fifth gait?”

“We shall soon see. You ride ahead a bit and we’ll follow.”

They were quickly astride their mounts and Jez set off at his walking pace. “Can we match that Bright,” Brillar whispered in the mare’s ear, then gave her a squeeze. To her delight, the mare moved smoothly into what some called the traveler’s pace, and caught up with Jez.

“So much better than bouncing around in a trot,” she called, passing him.

Both man and horse were surprised as Bright continued to pull ahead. Slower in the gallop she was faster at the walking pace.

At the stable, Brillar slid from the mare and leaned against a post. “What kept you?” she asked innocently, and Elden responded with laughter. They continued to chuckle as they wiped down their mounts.

“A fine morning. Do you suppose Hana would provide an apple apiece for these wonderful horses?”

Hana could and did, and the horses munched them gratefully.

“Mistress Hana,” Garnelden said when they went to the great room and settled in for lunch, “I am sorry to say that this will be our last night at your fine inn.”

Hana just stared. Then, “Well, you’ve been good lodgers,” she said, “and we will miss you.”

“Who will we miss?” asked Berl, bringing ale to the table.

“Good host, we must be going,” Brillar put in. “My uncle, as you may have guessed is well mended,” this brought a snicker from Berl, and a slap on his arm from Hana, “the horses are rested and we need to be on our way on the morrow.”

“If we go to West Riversgate, how many days do you think by cart?” Elden asked.

“With the cart, perhaps twenty,” Berl answered.

“And to Land-end?”

“Land-end! No, that’s not a place for two honest traders, not now. Most avoid it. I would nae send you there. Something dark has happened to the town they say,” Berl replied.

“But if we had a need?” Elden pressed.

“By cart then, a week, perhaps ten days. Some of the roads be rough and the people have recently been unfriendly.”

“Well then, we will take your advice. I thought I heard of some fine pottery nearby?”

“Aye, that would be in Eafel,” Hana responded. “Near enough, and fine enough pottery for trading.”

“Eafel it is then, and our thanks to you,” said Brillar. She and her uncle had finished their lunch while they chatted; now they stood. “Dinner and breakfast and then we’ll be off. I think, uncle, that we should see to the cart and have a talk with the harness maker about a few things.”

The harness maker’s apprentice was quick to serve them. He had hackamores of the type they wanted, more sturdy rope and a few odds and ends for the trail. Elden tipped the lad a copper for his help, knowing that apprentices usually had little pocket money. They bought dried meat and fruit for the trail and some plates to eat from. Cups were good enough for stew, but plates served better at times. They also stopped at the tailor’s shop and received a bundle of travel clothes for Elden, paying for them in silver.

Before supper, they had a moment of quiet conversation.

“So we’re bound for Eafel?” she questioned.

“To Eafel and then beyond. I think that we should perhaps keep up the behavior of merchants, fill the cart with pottery and go on from Eafel.”

At her surprise, he said, “There may be others looking for bounty. A merchant teaching his niece the road will be less suspect than one alone or two on horses. We need time before Riversgate, time for me to plan and for you to take instruction.”

When she raised an eyebrow, he went on, “There are some things of mine there that I would like to reclaim. We’ll probably find them in shops or already sold. I had a foldbox, left in my room at an inn when I went out for the evening. The innkeeper probably tried to sell it or threw it away when it wouldn’t open. I would like it back.” He smiled grimly.

She nodded thoughtfully at that. “A hard thing to lose. Yours is charmed?”

“It is. If I can get within a mile, I’ll find it.”

“A mile! A few hundred feet for me to pick up the charm. I suppose the maker never thought I would be apart from it.”

Elden grinned. “Remember, a First in Item spells, although I didn’t make the foldbox, and I sometimes need to leave it behind. I can help you learn some spells for Item, very useful ones at that. However, I think your time is better spent mastering more of what you’ve already learned.”

At the stable, they inspected the cart and found that Enk had made a few repairs and washed it down. More coppers left Elden’s purse in thanks. They packed what they had purchased and tied it all down securely.

Supper that evening was a fine affair. The news that two well-liked travelers were leaving brought many to the inn. Berl opened a new keg of ale and made a good profit on it.

“Good friends,” said Elden, standing, “we are off in the morning so we must make an early night. We look forward to a speedy return for such a fine inn deserves another stay.” There were cheers at that, and they went up the stairs to their beds.

Before dawn, there was a tap at her door. Elden was there already dressed for travel. She hurried to join him, dressing for the road with what she didn’t need in the foldbox at her belt. She put a silver coin on the bed where Hana would be sure to find it and went down to the necessary then breakfast. Hana was used to early rising.

“You are well dressed for travel,” she said, seeing Elden in his new clothing. The tailor had made him a fine blue longshirt suited for the road and dark breeches of soft hide.

“Are you sure you can’t stay a while longer,” Hana asked as she served them.

“Good hostess, we have stayed this long only so that my uncle could recover his strength,” answered Brillar.

“Well then,” and Hana almost sniffled, “I’ve put an old basket in your cart with a few things to ease your journey.”

“Many thanks,” said Brillar, standing and giving the woman a hug. Then, remembering something she had heard in the village, that Hana was barren, surely belied by her sense of the woman, she whispered, “The child you have hoped for is within, a fine boy.”

Hana looked at her in astonishment.

“I have some foresight in these matters, you’ll know soon.”

Dabbing at her eyes, Hana fled to the kitchen.

Elden looked at her.

“She would guess in another month, and it made a good parting gift,” Brillar said shrugging.

“As did the coin you left on the bed.”

“What? Am I to have no privacy then? Perhaps I should travel alone.” She glared at him but had to smile when he began to chuckle.

They left the inn through the back door and found Hana, Berl, and Enk waiting. The roan was hitched to the cart and everything was ready. Berl rushed over to her.

“Is’t true then?” he asked anxiously for the pair had been 12 years married and had no children.

“Aye, ’tis true,” she replied, and Berl surprised them – and probably himself - by bursting into tears and running back into the inn.

Hana blinked back tears. “I’d best see to him, good travels then,” she said and turned away quickly.

Elden and Brillar climbed aboard the cart and bid Enk farewell. Jez and Bright knew to follow the cart and they started off for Eafel.

The morning was bright for all that it had rained the night before, leaving the track a bit muddy.

“No matter,” said Elden when she mentioned it, “we can always lighten the cart by riding the horses and leading Hob.” They had given him a simple name for a simple animal.

The road to Eafel lead back past the clearing where they had met and Elden stopped there to water the horses. Brillar stepped down from the cart and stood looking out over the clearing, the spring and the remains of the fire. The blood that had been there had been washed away by the rains. Sensing her mood, Elden came up behind her silently. When she lowered her head, he put a hand on her arm. “You grew a bit here,” he said quietly.

“I’ve killed for food, but never a man, not until here,” there were unshed tears in her voice. “I tell myself it had to be done. I know it had to be done. Then, when I saw you tied to the cart . . .” Her voice hardened. “There are indeed times when a man needs killing,” she said, echoing Berl. She turned abruptly and climbed back onto the cart.

“If you will, uncle, we should be on our way.” He clambered up beside her and clucked the reins. Much to her surprise, he began singing in an acceptable baritone and she joined in. The day seemed brighter with song. They reached the crossroad and turned toward Eafel.

At noon, they stopped and inspected the basket Hana had laid for them. To their delight, there was fresh bread thickly buttered, venison, cold tubers and a flask of Berl’s fine ale. There were even some bruised apples for the horses and fresh ones for them.

“After such a feast, a nap would be pleasant, but we’ve a town to find,” said Elden.

When the track turned too muddy for the cart, they hopped on their horses and led Hob, reaching Eafel just as the sun was setting. They were taking care to appear ordinary. Brillar’s foldbox was stored in her pack and they allowed themselves to show the strain of the road.

In front of the inn, they were scraping the mud from their boots when the owner came out to greet them.

“Ah, good travelers, welcome to The Rose. What will you be needing for you look to have come a long way.”

“Only from Foringil, but the track was muddy and Hob was stubborn,” Elden answered. “If you have room in the stable for everything? And a place where my niece and I can remove some of the road?”

“That we do, and my wife will thank you. Many a traveler has muddied what she just cleaned.” He led them to the stable himself and showed them where to pump water for washing. Once the horses were well taken care of and their boots were cleaned of mud, Brillar and Elden went back to the great room for ale.

“Now, good folk, what will you need? Ah lass, you look fair worn out. Ale, a meal and a soft bed?” The little innkeeper’s head was bobbing as he questioned and they had to smile as they thanked him.

“All three, good host. We’ll only be here for the night. We mean to buy some of your fine pottery for trade down the road.”

His ale was not as good as Berl’s but the supper laid for them was satisfying and the rooms adequate. The pair kept to themselves since their stay would be short. After breaking their fast, they looked at local pottery and found some they thought might be suited to “traders” such as themselves.

“We had something like this,” confided Brillar, “for daily use at Laurenfell.”

They haggled over the price, something expected, and loaded the cart, declaring themselves off to Healdsten, some two or three days away.

“There be an house of the Brotherhood halfway,” said the potter. “Mayhap you can stop a while there.”

They thanked him and set off on the road which had dried and was suited for riding in the cart. “The Brotherhood usually welcomes guests and I imagine you have high standing,” she said as they set off.

“No,” he replied, looking grim. “I’ve avoided the Brotherhood since Land-end. I’ve no wish to bring trouble on my Brothers.”

She waited. When they had cleared the town and were back on the road, he began to speak slowly.

“I trained first in the War Powers. I was young and hotheaded. My Brother and friend Harrolen and I went across the sea with Lord Celbex. He initially recruited us to fight against orcs. We fought behind a shield wall and saved the lives of many soldiers as we cleared the orcs. Harrolen used blades on them and laughed at the blood; I struck them with stone. At the celebration after the battle, it changed. Celbex rewarded us with the gold he had promised, but told us that some of his farmers had been slow with their taxes and that he wanted us to teach them to submit to their lord. ‘A lesson in obedience’ he called it that would keep the rest of his tenants biddable. Harrolen agreed readily but I only pretended to agree. Harrolen had reveled in the blood of orcs, I can still hear his laughter during the battle. He drank and toasted when told that two small groups of homes were to be set alight and everyone killed. I drank and toasted to save myself, but stole away that night to warn the farmers. They helped me to the coast and into a boat. The last I had heard of Harrolen, he was still there and still killing. I came back home although it was some time before I went back to different studies with a cooler head and forgot about him. Well over a decade has passed with no word of him. Until recently.” He was quiet for a while.

“During Wyth there was news of a powerful mage who had taken over the city of Lands-end. The mage’s name was unknown to the Brotherhood so I was asked to investigate and report back. The town swarmed with soldiers but I went through the gate in disguise. The city folk were like mice trying to hide from prowling cats. I saw two soldiers pull a woman from her market booth screaming and take her into an alley. No one moved to stop them.” He paused again. She was chilled by the story.

“It’s not so much magic he rules with but fear and strength of men. Except for killing the lord who ruled and his family, I doubt used much magic had to be used except in demonstration. I bought drinks at a tavern and learned something of what had happened. A richly dressed man proclaiming himself a lord came by ship. He gained an invitation to the ruling house and came out the new lord of the city. It seems he had men on the ship and set them loose on the citizens. A second ship arrived with more soldiers, and the taking was complete.” He was briefly silent. “I was fortunate. I felt soldiers approaching, left the tavern through a high window in the kitchen and was over the wall before I was seen. I was unseen, but I had recognized Harrolen. He may have had to go to the tavern himself, but I’m sure he knew that I had been there. I sent word to the Brotherhood and tried to disappear.” He was pensive.

“Those with a true talent are rare but people hear of the Brotherhood and think of great and powerful spells of destruction. In fact, most of the students study Item magic or Creature, more useful skills. Those who study for War have different paths. They die young with an arrow through the neck, retire young and rich, or find that, although the spells are exhilarating, they dislike the smell and taste of blood and want no part of killing. Some return to the Brotherhood for study in other schools, some have gone into isolation; others have died at their own hands, or despaired and gone mad. Each living member pays a yearly sum for those who need care. There are few true War mages outside the Elder teachers in the Great House, fewer still of the First Rank and we are widely scattered. There are too few to take such a town by storm not when it’s defended by a mage as skilled as Harrolen must be and surrounded by men-at-arms.”

His story took most of the morning and she had kept still, aware of what the telling had cost him; she could feel his remorse. Coming to a stream, they stopped to water the horses and dine on trail rations and apples. The day was pleasant enough and the stream sang as it danced on the rocks but his mood was dark. There were plowed fields on both sides of the road and some were already greening with new sprouts while others had standing crops probably planted in the fall.

“Now, good niece,” he said, with a sigh as they finished lunch, “reach out and tell me what you see.”

She had not expected a lesson, but did as she was told. Relaxing, she closed her eyes only to be pinched on the arm. She looked at him, surprised.

“Eyes open,” he commanded. “If you close your eyes you can be taken unawares.”

Obediently she relaxed her shoulders preparing to try and heard, “No, no. Anyone with eyes would see you change your posture. Try again.”

Sitting up straight, she cast a glance around trying to look unconcerned then reached out. Open-eyed, her range was only 50 paces. She told him so.

“Again. A deep breath from the belly - no one could fault you for breathing – and this time actually try.”

She glared at him, took a deep breath from her belly and pushed herself.

“More that time. Perhaps a hundred paces.”

“What did you see?”

“Cwel, to our right and behind the rocks. Birds. Little more than that.”

The lesson continued for nearly an hour and left Brillar exhausted. She handed him Hob’s reins, curled up as best she could among the sacks of pottery and closed her eyes. The sun was setting when she opened them again.

“Since you have rested,” was the greeting, and she could tell his mood had brightened, “you can light a fire and set the camp in true apprentice fashion. But first, what do you see?”

She groaned inwardly but obeyed. Open eyed, she reached out . . .

“And work as you do it,” he commanded.

A deep breath, “Water nearby, cows to the left where tomorrow’s road lies,” stretching further, “and a farmhouse. All is quiet and without danger,” she finished.

He hid his surprise at how well she did while gathering firewood. She lit the fire and put the kettle on to boil with some dried meat and tubers then laid out their blankets. The horses were not tethered but grazed nearby.

“Something comes,” she said suddenly.

“And?” He didn’t seem concerned.

“A dog, probably from the farm, he seems friendly.”

“Well done niece. Yes, I see him. Probably came to sniff us out and found no danger.”

“Hmm,” she mused, “it seems I am the only one in danger – from a headache.”

“What?” he queried.

“Nothing, uncle. I think your meal is ready.”

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