Jo stared numbly at the monstrous towers of the castle. It would have held anywhere from three to seven thousand people easily. More than that, not-so-easily. The magnitude of it was paralyzing.
Stalker watched in amusement as Jo moved her head farther and farther back to take it in. She was especially drawn to the script carved in the arching doorway.It was beautiful, almost wild in its execution and detail.Yet, it was simple, nothing ostentatious.
Having heard the halloo of Portance, a crowd had gathered, their faces filled with interest. All were unbelievably deformed.
“Jo,” Stalker hissed, “don’t look at them if they bother you. Your altered color perception makes it worse.They understand; you’re not the first.”She only nodded in response, starting to feel sick.She had imagined something on the lines of Greek mythology, but this…this was barbaric and revolting.
Something too small, too furry, and too pink, rushed by in front of them and Jo staggered a little. Stalker grabbed her roughly and jerked her to the edge of the crowd.She caught the amusement at her reaction as it flickered across his face.She shot him a brief grin, and then caught her breath.
The forbidding guardsman gave her a gentle nudge, and led her to a woman who looked like a frog in a brown silk dress. Jo had to bite her lip at the sight of the woman’s bright orange hair.She eyed Johanna closely then gave a jerk with her head.“You missed the fight, Stalker.” She snapped in Fher’denish.
“A fight?” He asked, perplexed. “What fight?”
“Something came through a forbidden door, and a small squad of warriors bombarded our door. Lady Satara was very put out about it, and she doesn’t get put out easily.”
“I see… It should have been impossible, those doors haven’t been used for over a hundred years. What could they want?” He trailed off, a sudden thought occurring to him as he viewed Jo’s perplexed face trying to comprehend their words.He made a hand signal to the woman and she switched to English.
“Come girl, follow me.”
The girl looked quickly at her guide and Stalker nodded to show the woman was alright, so Jo submitted. She didn’t see the guard disappear in a hurry as they walked away.
The frog-woman led the girl up a stair made of oak, hickory, and stone to the next floor. They were on a landing, which led to a hallway, open on one side to allow a view of the courtyard to the left.Rows of doors were on the right, wood and stone, all carved and polished various shades. The woman marched rapidly along until she came to a dark wood door, carved with battle scenes and books.She opened the door, and Jo walked in behind her.“You’ll sleep here.There are clothes for you in the wardrobe, along with anything you might need.The black panel in the back left corner leads to the private room.When you’ve dressed, go back the way we came to the guard room on ground level. It has a bronze shield on the door.After you are through there, go to the dining hall for breakfast.”
The woman nodded, and left Jo gaping around her.
The room was large, with earthy colors and materials. On her right stood a huge four poster bed, and on the other side of that, a desk and book shelves were carved directly into the marble wall.Small stands were placed here and there around the room for convenience.Three green upholstered chairs had been placed around for the same purpose.Across from the door there was a window, overlooking the last of the forest, and the beginning of a meadow and plain.
Jo went to the wardrobe and opened it slowly, listening to the satisfying creak it made. Inside were several black and white uniforms, a few finer dresses, and some green and brown working clothes.Boots and flat slippers, all brown, black and green, were lined neatly under the clothing.Towels, sleepwear and undergarments of varying kinds were folded neatly on the shelves.She decided on one of the uniforms, sure it was the wrong choice, and pushed on the black panel and went into the bathroom to clean up.A few moments later, she emerged, carrying her own things.She set them on her bed, and with the first wave of homesickness, wished she’d remembered to bring her Bible.She forced herself to fold the clothes without crying, and set them on a back shelf in the wardrobe.With a last longing look at them, she closed the door.
Johanna now went slowly out to the hall to begin looking for the guard room. She retraced her steps back down to the courtyard, and once there, found an open hall directly below the one she had left.She turned into the open walk, and went slowly back and forth looking for the bronze shield.She nearly missed it.
It was in a shadowed recess; the door half open to reveal a man working with polish and rags. Apparently she was expected, and he seemed a kindly, gentle person, looking Jo over carefully before he decided on a weapon.It was one of the oldest there, he told her as he belted the sword on her.
The sword was, as far as she could tell, a plain broad sword. An eye decorated the hilt; but she couldn’t tell whether it was painted or set in.Sword, belt and sheath had been etched or embroidered with a strange writing.The belt sewn into a V caused the sword point to nearly rest on her ankle.She was still adjusting it as she went out and found Stalker waiting.There was no sign of the hurry he had displayed earlier, had she even been looking for it.He eyed her critically.“Very good, the fit was correct.Your friends are perfectly outfitted as well.”Jo turned to see the three sisters coming down the stairs.They had clothing similar to her own, but a bit more colorful.
The four friends stood facing each other, each seeing their own uncertainties in the others. Jo slid her arm around Beth for a second.It was the only thing she could think of to do.The younger girl gave a sweetly nervous smile.
Stalker stood in a large doorway, far enough away so as not to intrude. He straightened a little as they came over to him.“I’m assuming you are hungry after our forced march last night.Here, this is where you will sit for now.”He indicated seats near the door.
Breakfast over the years had become a grand affair at the castle. It consisted of five courses, five readings, and a brief lesson at the end.Jo understood none of the language.Stalker listened closely, but showed no reaction to any of what was said.It occurred to her that his expressions earlier had been to put her at ease, not because it came naturally.The people at the other tables were indifferent, excited, intent, convicted, or touched.The emotions displayed toward the words spoken were as varied as the people listening to them.The only response that no one differed in was the respect they showed.
As they filed out, Jo asked Stalker what had been read. He stopped by the stairs and waited for the Netherlands to catch up.“The Bible.Morganda started translation during her time here with us.Several of our scholars, who were versed in your languages, completed it.It has been a great asset to our people here, and to their knowledge.”He nodded at the foursome.“Go and rest, all of you.”
In the solitude of her room, Jo curled up in the bed, and stared out the window. If she learned the language swiftly, she would be able to use those Bible lessons, or any breakfast reading, she mused.Alone now, her situation overwhelmed her. The rending from home, fear, danger, warnings, threats, a new part of the world seemed to fill the room and press on her, squeezing her in.She curled into a tight ball and wept.
An entire week had passed since that night, and Jo was waiting by the guardroom door for Stalker. The frog-woman with an unpronounceable name had taken her there, and promptly left.
She had never heard Satara spoken of since the morning of their arrival. It was almost as if a ghost had summoned her, and it was twice as bewildering.At least a ghost had some precedence.Satara was like nothing Jo had heard of before.
Stalker appeared suddenly, with some scrolls, pencils, and a book under one arm, a hefty sword strapped to his side. “Know your way around yet?”
“More or less. I end up exploring a lot because of all my wrong turns.” She admitted, trying to be frank.
He smiled. For someone so grim and unresponsive, he smiled quite frequently.“Every new one explored is one less to learn.Come, I am your first teacher.”
The apparatus under his arms proved to be battle charts, and old training manuals for tactics. As Johanna couldn’t read a word of Fher’denish, Stalker had to translate the writing for her.He would read it word for word, slowly and clearly, expecting her to take notes of some kind throughout.For whatever the reason, she had to learn the basics of war, and recite the five rules all solders were to obey.
1. No man shall leave his faith behind. If he has none, he is to be respectful and supportive of those who do believe.All shall keep their language and behavior clean to represent the army well.
2. No soldier shall leave a fellow behind, unless no other choice is viable.
3. All men shall train and see to their weapons and keep themselves battle ready, even in peace.
4. Respect is to be shown to the superiors, the country and the people the army serves. Any in need are to be given help as possible for no other reason than they are human also.
5. Animals and prisoners are both valuable and in need of proper care. Unneeded abuse will result in punishment by the whips.
After the mental drilling, she found herself in a corner of the courtyard, with the sword in her hands. Time after time, Jo felt the ground against her face, the sword feet away, and Stalker berating her for her poor posture and uneven balance.He would then show her what he wanted all over again, how the form went, and what to do with it.And she would be flat on the ground in a matter of seconds.It was, to say the least, embarrassing.
In spite of the new discomforts, she began to enjoy the lessons, and never missed their triste every other day.
The first friend Jo made for herself was a young bowman called Motag, one of Apolingo’s close friends. Motag was a little awkward around people, and he spent his time on the shooting range. He was a gentlemanly soul, and happy to answer Johanna’s endless questions, no matter how silly. The two would sit and chatter together for hours, mostly in a question and answer format.The Netherland sisters soon began to join them for these visits when their own classes allowed.
As the girls began to absorb the language things became easier for them.When the barriers came down, each found their own place to learn and work.Mae found the stable and infirmary were the most intriguing to her, and was readily welcomed. Anne settled into the scriptorium, finding the art and literature to her taste. Beth was perhaps the most famous.Once her fear faded, she began looking after everyone in the castle, earning her the loving title of “Little Mother.”
Jo stayed around Stalker and Motag for the most part, or helped in the kitchens. She would find herself suddenly looking behind her, with the conviction that something was wrong, even in the most normal conditions.It puzzled her, but then she would remember all that had passed, and decided it wasn’t so puzzling after all.
Stalker saw it, but said nothing. He had lived through years of heartache, and could see that it would soon visit again.The battle before their arrival was proof enough it was a darkening.This time, it would gather the girls into its crushing embrace.So, he began the training that would help keep their bodies alive, as he tried to hone their souls to endure.