“Tell me, my girl,” Caldor began, picking one of the river rocks up before tossing it into the rushing water, “what is stronger: a person’s will, or a person’s word?”
Liora sat on the incline leading up to Pellar’s tent as she worked away with washing the wild turnips she found earlier while exploring the outskirts of Downrow with the wild man. Pellar was tending to a patient, while Caldor avoided being anywhere near the tent as to not get involved with such ill-practice.
The sage had been staying in his own tent farther down river, so as not to listen to the wild man’s snores. Liora slept outside near the campfire, wrapped in several woolen blankets. Liora liked being outside and enjoyed staring up at the stars at night. There wouldn’t be a chance like this until spring and people in Demor would comment about how primitive such desires were. In Downrow, this was common. In Downrow, she was normal.
Shaking her hands above the basin before wiping them on her dress, Liora knew the answer to her mentor’s question.
“Both,” she replied. Liora enjoyed the questions her mentor asked. It allowed her to think outside the usual subjects covered during their lessons.
“Explain,” Caldor prompted her to continue. She noticed his right brow rise and the left corner of his mouth twitch. She had captured his curiosity.
“A person’s will can be stronger than their word depending on the situation, just as their word can be stronger than their will. It all depends on what is needed at the time,” she picked up another turnip beside the basin before soaking it in the water.
“All right. What is more important when it comes to being king?” the sage inquired.
“Word,” Liora chimed, “if a king cannot keep his word, he’s not a king.”
“And a soldier?” Caldor asked.
“Will,” Liora answered, “without the will to fight or will to live, a soldier has no real purpose to win.”
“But is it not their word that is important as well?” Caldor could see the girl’s face crinkle before she tilted her head.
“A soldier gives his word to the king to fight in the king’s name. His reason for fighting is due to his word,” Caldor explained.
“That’s why I said they’re both important depending on the situation,” Liora reiterated, sweeping her hair back and out of her face. “You say the soldier took an oath, where his word is most important. I say the soldier is fighting on the front, where his will is most important.”
“I see,” Caldor smirked, “we have a different answer to this question.”
“That’s correct,” Liora beamed, washing another turnip in the basin.
The sage enjoyed hearing her answers. They were never what he would expect someone her age to say. Liora thought outside the common answers, finding answers few would even consider. The most impressive part came when she explained her reasons. They were complex and showed him that she was advanced for her age.
“Shall we move on to another question?” Caldor noticed the girl’s eyes light up.
“Yes,” Liora felt a shiver dance up her spine.
“Here’s a question,” Pellar called from his tent, “how’re those turnips doin’?”
The prim sauntered down to the river’s edge to wash his hands before resting his hands on his hips. Liora shook her head when he rested a hand on Caldor’s shoulder.
“Tell me wee man, why yah fillin’ ‘er head wit nonsense? Aren’ yah supposed to be teachin’ her healin’ thin’,” Pellar spouted.
Caldor shrugged the man’s hand off his shoulder and dusted the spot with his hand. He stayed for the girl’s sake, not because he wanted to deal with such a useless person as the fool that stood beside him.
“She reads and observes my practices, but sometimes it is good to expand the mind in other ways,” Caldor retorted, crossing his arms and taking a step away. “You should try it sometime it may help with… this…”
Caldor waved his hand up and down the man. Pellar laughed.
“Unlike yah lil man, I’m happy wit me life. I need nah fancy words or knowledge ta know wha’ I’m doin’,” Pellar winked at Liora, as the girl shook her head before picking up the basin. “They washed?”
“Pretty much, yeah,” Liora replied, noticing Caldor’s eye twitch at hearing her say that. The girl knew it bothered the old sage, but what Caldor would do next was worth hearing the Pellar’s gut wrenching laugh.
“See, spending not even four days here has lowered her intelligence,” Caldor called, “Downrow ruins potential.”
“Calm down, Caldor,” Liora spoke calmly, pouring the water into the river. The murky cloud dissipated in the clear water of the rushing stream. “I know it’s either ‘yes, pretty much’, or ‘pretty much, yes’. I’m just playin’ wit yah.”
“Playing with you. There is a G, H, O, and U, girl.” Caldor noticed Liora sticking out her tongue. He took a deep breath, flaring his nostrils. If he wanted to be with children he could have just stayed in Demor. “I am going to my tent. Call me when dinner is ready.”
“Whatever yah say,” Liora called, noticing the old man wave his hand at her before disappearing around the bend. She laughed, turning back to the river.
Pellar was sitting on the edge, his feet in the ice cold water, and a smirk on his face. The girl had missed the wild man. Well, she didn’t miss his smell or his terribly assembled tent, but she missed his easy nature. Pellar didn’t care what others thought about him. People respected who he was, and he did the same for them in turn. Liora wished more people were like him.
Yes, he was strange and sometimes flew off the handle about small things, but he had a good heart. She could see that in how he had gone out of his way to help her those months ago and how he was still helping the village of Downrow, despite getting nothing in return.
“Yah happy livin’ in big walls?” Pellar asked, looking at her with his dark brown eyes.
“Yes, very much,” Liora smiled.
Things had been easier after talking with Foe and Caldor. It was like someone had opened curtains to reveal the shining sunlight outside. She didn’t feel trapped, or forced to be in the stone prison anymore. Demor had become a place she could consider home.
Even Charn had become more tolerable. The king still grumbled and growled when she was visiting his son, but he didn’t insult her like he had. Small steps were better than no steps at all.
The one constant was Cáel. The boy was the first person she would visit in the morning and the last in the evening. He still coughed, but no one was concerned about it. Caldor hadn’t been worried and Marcia was under the impression his throat was still recovering from those long weeks of screaming. Liora believed they knew what they were doing, but she was worried. The boy had been taking longer naps in the afternoons and not eating like he had when she had first discovered the problem with his leg.
Again, no one was worried about him except her. Maybe she was over-thinking it? That was a habit she didn’t want to pick up from Caldor. It obviously made him miserable.
“Yah talkin’ all fancy now. Like a proper lady of te Nort,” Pellar muttered, breaking her thoughts. “Me thinks I call yah lady Li from now on.”
“No, please don’t,” Liora giggled, lifting the basin when it was filled with water. She needed the turnip to boil before she could peel them and put them in the stew. “I’ll always be your lil Li.”
The Pellar took the basin from her hands and helped carry it up the incline before resting it in the coals of the fire. He stood up, stretching his back before nodding his head.
“Yeah, ya’ll be tat fer sure me dear.”
An inch of snow blanketed the ground when Liora awoke the next morning. The river glimmered in the early morning against the crisp white world around her. The trees that had resembled bony fingers scratching at the air were covered with a light layer, as if dusted with icing sugar. The birds were quiet, but they jumped between the branches in the nearby trees, knocking the snow to the ground.
Liora didn’t want to leave the warmth of her woolen blankets, and pushing the cauldron on the fire - and making a fire - felt like too much work for her when she was cozy. No one was up - there was no rush. She could take this moment to relax and admire the beauty before her.
I wouldn’t have seen this in Morza. Liora realized.
There were a lot of things she wouldn’t have seen or done if Morza was still standing. There were a lot of people she wouldn’t have met if she hadn’t been forced to leave Morza. Foe wouldn’t have convinced her to make friends with Vesper. Marcia wouldn’t have helped her with her studies, and Druce wouldn’t have learnt Morzi. In a short time, so many people had touched her life and in a way, she had touched theirs.
Pellar snored in the tent behind her. Liora giggled, tightening the blanket. Even Pellar, as odd as the man was, had touched her life in his unique way.
Taking a deep breath, Liora closed her eyes for a moment to listen to the rushing stream. Her cheeks tingled in the cold air, but the rest of her was toasty warm.
And, of course there was Cáel. He was still suffering, but not as badly as he was before they had met. Her translations could prove to be helpful, according to the old sage, but it was too soon to tell.
I want that vision to come true. Liora prayed; remembering the boy running around the garden, climbing trees and shouting at the Gryphon Guards flying overhead. That was the Cáel she could see, and the Cáel everyone wanted.
An image darted through her mind, as she felt her stomach sour.
Blood. Bed sheets. Charn punching the wall.
The image disappeared just as fast as it came. That hadn’t been like the other images. That hadn’t been like her strange dreams. There had been nothing she had touched to prompt that, and no one near her to trigger. What were those images and why was she feeling uneasy?
“For the sake of seven bloody hells!” that was Caldor’s voice from around the bend. His cursing was followed by the distinctive tearing of material and the hollow bouncing of wooden poles.
It was time to get up - as much as she didn’t want to - and see what the man was doing. But, first she wanted to make sure the fire was stoked and water was boiling. It was safer for everyone to have tea ready for the sage. Caldor hadn’t had his mandatory three cups to function.
The fire was easy enough to start with the embers from the evening’s fire resting under a charred log. With several strong breaths and a handful of birch bark, Liora had a fire roaring within minutes. It took less time to move the cauldron, already filled with water from their evening tea.
Wrapping the heavy blankets around her and lifting them off the ground as to not trip, Liora waddled her way to where Caldor camped. The snow made her bare feet tingle, and the snow that melted between her toes made the ground beneath her slippery.
When she was around the bend, it was easy to see what had happened to the man’s temporary living arrangements. Caldor struggled with folding the large piece of material. One of the pine poles had torn through. He pulled on the edges of the tent to try and put them together. The Steward had rolled the tent so neatly and had made the process of putting it together appear flawless.
“Need help?” Liora caught a bitter glance.
The sage’s spectacles were hooked into his robe and his hair was matted on one side. Caldor had never allowed his appearance to become so disheveled before, and Liora tried not to giggle.
“Did I wake you?” he asked, dropping the corners on the ground before pushing his hands into his back. Sleeping on the ground hadn’t helped his lower back, and he only had four hours or so to look forward to riding on a back of a bird-lion.
The girl shook her head to answer his question adjusting the blanket, feeling a chill on her leg. The old sage returned to attempting to fold the tent. She saw his foot catch on the flap of material that had been the door. He almost landed on his face.
Dropping the blanket, Liora pulled out the pole that had torn through the material and hurried to take the opposite corners of the tent. Yes, Foe had done this on his own before leaving, but that didn’t mean the old sage had to put it away all by himself.
They worked together, folding the material with only head tilts and hand gestures to indicate their unspoken plan. It took longer than it had to put up the tent to have it all neatly folded, but it took less time than it would have if he had done it alone.
“What about the poles?” Liora asked, glancing at the awkward pile beside the neatly folded tent. She picked up her blanket, wrapping it around her shoulders again.
“Leave them. We have done enough miracles today,” Caldor grumbled, hobbling off. There was no questioning where he was heading now.
The sage had made a strong cinnamon chai tea, while they sat around the fire sipping from the cups. The warm liquid chased the chill that had settled over her throughout the night, and was helping with energy.
The old sage yawned less, and Pellar talked less. Maybe the last few hours in Downrow wasn’t going to be about the two men bickering. Liora could only hope.
The snow had melted by noon when she heard the distinctive noise of flapping wings in the distance. The same sound had chased her into the forest those months ago, but this time she stood her ground.
Cupping a hand over her brow and squinting her eyes, Liora could see the faint outline of the Steward on the back of his beast. The closer they got, the clearer they became until Foe and Vesper landed gently along the rocky river edge. The Steward hopped off the creature’s back, hobbling for two steps before he was on the incline heading up to greet the girl.
Foe appeared wider than he had when he had left. His winter cloak was thicker and lined with black bear. His pants were thick wool, and he wore a hat that covered his ears made from the same animal that lined his cloak.
“What are those?” he pointed to her feet.
“Feet…” Liora thought the man knew the basics of the human body, but maybe he wasn’t as smart as she was led to believe.
“I know that, Li. Why’re they bare?” Foe turned to look at the small man huddled by the fire. A cup of tea in one hand, his pipe in the other. The cloak he wore was longer, and worked better as a blanket, but that wasn’t the point. “Yah didn’ think she should be wearin’ boots?”
“Oh, believe me, I tried,” Caldor took a sip of his tea. “If you can figure out a way to get her to wear them, by all means.”
“They hurt my feet,” Liora chipped in. The Steward’s ice eyes flashed her a disapproving glance.
“Frost bit toes hurt a lot worse,” Foe sighed, before pointing to the saddle. “There’s winter clothes in my bag, go get them. We don’ need yah gettin’ sick too.”
Liora headed to the saddle. There was something in the way he said that, which made her feel the need to follow his instructions. His brow had been knotted and eyes had been sorrowful.
Slipping on a pair of woolen leggings and fur lined boots, she glimpsed back over her shoulder. To her surprise, she couldn’t hear Foe while he spoke to her mentor by the fire. It was Pellar’s jaw dropped expression that made her concerned about what was being said.
The sage was standing, dumping his tea by the end of the fire before tapping his pipe ash onto the ground. He stomped the embers with the heel of his boot before pointing towards the bend. The Steward nodded before lumbering off to where Caldor had left the pieces of his tent, while the old sage turned to look at her.
Liora didn’t like the expression on the sage’s face. Caldor never showed worry. The man had expressed many different things but never something like that. Worry was when there were no answers. Worry was when they didn’t know the problem.
Liora approached the fire with caution, before allowing her hands to escape the blanket to warm up by the flickering orange light of the fire.
“Say goodbye, Liora,” Caldor ordered, his voice harsher than it usually was. Whatever they had spoken about was obviously not for her to know. “I will be at the bird-lion.”
“Gryphon,” Liora corrected, while he waved his hand to indicate he didn’t care for her correction. He was old and set in his ways. No one could change his mind in calling the beast a bird-lion no matter how hard they tried.
“So, ya’re off,” Pellar groaned, standing when the girl approached him. “Be good fer those Nort’erners now.”
“I can’t promise that,” Liora smirked. The man tussled her hair before pulling her in for a hug.
“An’ yah keep tat stubbornness, m’kay. They don’ like it, someone’ll. Be honest ta yarself and let no one tell yah otherwise,” Pellar fought back the tears. “We’ll see each other again.”
“Of course,” Liora nodded, moving away. She really hoped that was so.
“Li!” Foe called from the river’s edge, as she turned to look at him. Caldor was already tied to the saddle, while Foe waited with crossed arms for the girl to join them.
“Goodbye, Pellar,” she sang, hurrying down the incline. The man waved while she was being tied to the saddle. Caldor had his hands on her shoulder.
The gryphon stumbled forward when Foe jumped up onto its back. With two flaps of Vesper’s wings they were up in the sky. Liora watched the Pellar fade out of sight behind the misty grey clouds of winter.