Kera’s sword connected solidly with her opponent’s shield, splintering a large chip from the edge.
He stepped back, shaking his shield arm to relax the strained muscle from the force of the blow.
Kera quickly closed the distance the retreat created and swung again, connecting with the battered shield once more. The wood groaned and splintered, revealing a crack through the shield’s face.
He took another step back and attacked Kera’s shield, causing her to momentarily lose balance. She recovered, delivering a third blow to the shield. With a splintering sound, the shield broke and the man flung his arm down, shaking the remains of wood and leather to the ground. Kera took a step back and tried to unstrap her own shield.
“Keep it,” her opponent instructed, grasping his sword with both hands.
“What about the code?” she took hold of the loose strap again.
He swung at her and she dodged, dropping to one knee to avoid the blade. “You need to learn to fight, not respect.”
“Are you saying I don’t know how to fight?” Kera’s sword glanced off his legging, shaving a yellow spark.
“That’s right!” her opponent’s sword came down hard across her own blade, breaking her grip on it and throwing the weapon to the ground.
Sir Ariam Brand stepped back, sheathing his sword. “Get up. You talk too much. You’re letting the conversation distract you.”
Kera stood up, removing her helmet.
“Why the shield?”
“You kept blocking,” Kera explained her attack.
“But at the end you ignored me. You fought my shield.”
“I thought I could get to you if you didn’t have it.”
“And you killed my shield, but that left you tired and gave me a free arm. Get your sword.”
Kera picked up her blade.
Sir Brand drew his sword and brought it down on Kera’s right side. “You got down to avoid my blow. That saved you from dropping your sword.”
Kera brought her blade up to block the one pointed at her.
“Here,” Sir Brand indicated, tapping his sword against hers. “I’d force it into the ground and you’d either bend with it or drop it. You did the right thing by not parrying. But then you should have brought your sword in behind the shield and gotten up, instead of attacking me.”
“I shouldn’t fight up,” Kera repeated what she had heard so often.
“What about a feint?” Kera asked.
“That was a feint. I swung left, you went right. I had a choice of your head, your shield or your sword.”
“All right,” Kera got down on one knee. “I’m down, sword in, trying to get up. You still have a choice of head or shield.”
“Push forward as you get up,” Sir Brand assumed his previous position. “I can’t hit you if you’re inside my reach.”
Kera got up, stepping forward. “Like this?”
“Right. Now look, I lose my swing when we’re this close. I have to step back. Now, be careful not to try this with opponents who are fighting with a stiletto or a short sword in their off hand. You’ll have to get up by pushing away, then. It’s not as effective, but you’d at least make them chase you down before they can hit you. Luckily, most people can’t fight with two weapons.”
“Sir Keegan does, sometimes.”
“He was trained at it. Few people are.”
“Now come on, let’s try that again and don’t distract yourself by talking.”
“Yes, Sir,” Kera prepared for the next match.
“Lady!” A young page called from the fenced edge of the Arena.
“Go ahead,” Sir Brand said. “I need to get a shield.”
Kera hurried over to the page.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, ma’am, but the Baron wishes to see you right away.”
“All right,” Kera said. “I’ll be right there.” The page left and she turned to Sir Brand, ready with a new practice shield.
“Go ahead,” he told her. “It’s getting close to dinner. We’ll continue tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Kera dropped her own shield on a bench and sheathed her sword. “I will be seeing you at dinner, my Lord. Good day.”
“Good day,” the knight answered and she left.
It had been just three days since Rien had left and two since the three regiments training at Valdasly Keep marched out the gates and down the road towards the village, on their way to the Royal Duchy. Few soldiers and knights remained at the Keep — mostly guards and assistants to the Baron, who waited for word from Duke Glavenford.
Rien would have gone with the troops, but Adrea’s disappearance forced him to go to Sharks’ Cove instead, where he was to meet Deven and look for her. Kera asked him to take her along, but he told her to stay and practice, insisting that going to war would be too dangerous for her.
“When your training is complete…” she remembered his strong hand under her chin. “I fear for your safety.”
“Then what’s the point of being your squire if you hide me behind stone walls?”
“I want you to be the best that you can — better than the soldiers who you’d have to face. I want you to have a better chance than they.”
“You make it so difficult,” Kera whispered.
“I’d rather not go looking for you as well as for Adrea,” he insisted. “Take care.”
Kera embraced him, trying to burn the feeling of holding onto him into her mind. The stable attendant who held on to Rien’s horse politely turned away. Rien put his arms around Kera, returning the embrace.
“I have to go. I’m wasting time.”
“Be careful…” Kera muttered. “Don’t make me come looking for you.”
“I won’t,” Rien laughed. “I won’t abandon you, I promise.”
They broke the embrace and Rien mounted his horse, a tall slender animal the Baron had given him.
“Take care of Kelsey.”
“I will.” Kera bit her tongue to force back tears.
Three days were not enough to get the tears to stop. She paused in the great hall, wiping her face and straightening her hair, not having had the chance to do so after the practice. Setting her jaw, Kera walked up to the door to the library and knocked.
“Come,” Baron Dower’s voice sounded on the other side and she entered.
The Baron stood over his desk, a large map before him, a stack of books, a bottle of ink and a straight edge nearby. The chandelier over the desk, as well as two heavy candelabras illuminated his work, casting a bright glow over the desk and the papers on it.
“You sent for me, my Lord?” Kera asked.
“Yes, please, sit down, Kera,” he said, making measurements on the map on the table. He was always informal with her in private for some reason, just like he was with Rien.
Kera sat down across from the desk, watching the Baron work. He looked tired, worn out. A distinct change from dinner the night before.
Finishing with the measurements, he sat down as well. “Kera, I need you to do me a favor.” He shifted and pushed a stack of books out of the way so they could see each other. “I received the message I was waiting for from Duke Glavenford at noon. He, although reluctantly, approved my plan to march on Gateway. I will be leaving to catch up to my troops tomorrow morning and I need you to do me a favor…”
Kera started to answer, but the Baron did not stop.
“…I want you to take Stefan to the Ducal Palace in Hawksbridge. Few guards will stay here after I go and I would feel much better knowing my son is safe.”
Kera kept looking at him after he stopped so abruptly, waiting for him to add something else. “Of course, my Lord,” she caught herself.
“Good,” the Baron nodded. “Don’t tell him what I told you. He doesn’t know I’m going to war. I’ve told him we will be picking up men in Narragan to add to the standing troops.”
“Of course, Sir. What should I do after I deliver him?”
“Do? You’ll stay there. And you will continue your training in Hawksbridge.”
“What about Sir Keegan? How will he know where I am?”
“I will leave word here. The servants and some guards will remain at the Keep — I’m not abandoning it.”
“Good.” He picked up two letters from the desk and handed them to Kera. “This is your letter of introduction to the Duke and this is a letter for him. You and Stefan are to remain in Hawksbridge until sent for by myself or Rien. All my letters are marked with my seal, so watch for it. And having been with Rien for as long as you have, I’m sure the two of you have an established method of communications.”
Kera nodded, although she had no idea how she would recognize a message sent by Rien.
“All right, then. Any questions?”
“Just directions, Sir.”
He smiled, realizing he missed so simple a thing. “Take the forest road west. After you exit the canyon, it will join a larger road. Take the right branch, three days, and it will bring you into the city. There are signs along the way and, besides, Stefan has travelled it often since he was a baby. He’ll give directions if you need them…and if you don’t.”
Kera also smiled at that.
“Go ahead and clean up for dinner,” the Baron said, indicating the conversation was over.
Taking the two letters, Kera left the library and headed upstairs to her room to get out of the armor and prepare for dinner. She knew Baron Dower had been waiting for word from the Duke about taking the available regiments to Gateway. He sent the message to Hawksbridge the same morning Rien left for Sharks’ Cove and a three day turn around time was rather spectacular for what was normally a three day one way trip.
In the morning she would take the Baron’s son to the Ducal seat and the Baron would join his troops on the way to war, the same war Rien left for only days before. It scared her to think about the war, about the unchecked slaughter of people as the two sides fought over stretches of land no one would think about twice in time of peace.
She leaned on the window sill, looking south towards the dark green forest stretching beyond the keep walls and the peaks of mountains on the other side of the valley, that the forest leaned against. Where was Rien? Somewhere in those mountains by now? When they left Sharks’ Cove in late spring, they travelled as close to the mountains as they could, so she could see the snow in their peaks, present even in the summer. Kera ran her hand over her eye, trying to prevent its watering from becoming a tear. Summer snow was not unknown to Rien, but it was something she had never seen before and so simple a gesture as going a couple of days out of their way, meant a lot to her.
Somewhere out there, in the mountains to the southwest, Rien made his way towards Sharks’ Cove, to find out what happened to Adrea. And somewhere, not far behind him, marched three regiments of soldiers, heading for Gateway, to fight the Beinison army that no doubt outnumbered them four to one. Kiyan Kanne was with those troops, ready to become a hero.
“In a way I’m glad I’m not going,” Kera sighed. “I don’t know how I would handle it.”
“First kill is a hard thing,” Kiyan answered. “Then you become cold about taking a life.”
“I know,” Kera said. “I’ve killed before…”
Kiyan turned to face her. “I feel there’s a past you’re not telling me about,” he commented and quickly looked away.
“There’s a past I’m trying to forget,” Kera responded, slowly and cautiously. “…and I’m not quite ready to fight new opponents to the death just yet.”
“I’m glad you’ll be here, where it’s safe,” Kiyan answered. “I’d be afraid for you if I knew you were there with the army…and that’s one less person I’d have to out do to become a hero.”
An abrupt laugh slipped from Kera’s lips.
“You don’t think I can do it?”
“I think you’re taking it too seriously.”
“Yeah,” she smiled. “It’s a bit much to win a war singlehanded.”
“But’s it’s a goal to aim for.”
“It is that.”
Kiyan bent down, and pulling a fresh pale blue Iris from the lawn, handed it to Kera. “Hold on to this until I come back.”
He kissed her before she could respond and disappeared into the barracks. The next morning, the troops left at the crack of dawn.
Kera ran her fingers over the still fresh Iris, standing on the window sill in a cup, wiping the moisture from her eyes off on the delicate petals. Each time it seemed that her problems were about to lessen their grip on her, something new would cause a conflict in her life. Something there was no way to predict and something that could not be avoided.
Quickly changing into a clean set of clothes, Kera went down stairs. Life had to go on, no matter what challenges it would throw her way.
“…grain ready for harvest, we’re bowing to the damned Benosian army!” a deep voice declared as she entered the great hall.
“Now, Clev, you know we have more uncommitted forces than Beinison,” the Baron’s calm voice answered. “We’re fighting for our lands, with people who live on these lands. We’ll take them back.”
“But before we take it back, we have to look at us as a country, at our losses, our morale, our…” Noticing Kera, he stopped and stood up.
The other three men at the table did likewise, as has been done the past two nights, them being a small group and Kera being the only woman dining with them.
“Please,” she smiled, embarrassed. “You don’t have to do this… I’m sorry I’m late.” She took her seat on Sir Hardin’s right, across from Sir Brand. The Baron sat at the head of the table, between his son and Sir Hardin.
The men sat back down as a servant hurried to place a warm plate before Kera.
“Looks like you’ll escape having to practice with me,” Sir Brand said to Kera.
“I can’t say I’m disappointed, my Lord,” Kera answered. “You’ve been working me much harder than Sir Bonhan.”
“You have to understand Ariam is much more zealous,” the Baron laughed. “He knows he has little time, so he wishes to see a marked improvement over the training you have received so far.”
The others at the table laughed.
“This reminds me,” Sir Hardin said thoughtfully. “I took a squire soon after I was knighted, a bright young lad. You might remember him, Rev — Alaman Helvik. His father was your father’s scribe…”
“Yes, yes,” the Baron nodded.
“He was a frail little thing, but Lord Gregor said I must take him, as a favor to him and his father, and so I did.” He paused to take a bite from a leg of mutton and wash it down with ale. “The boy was so zealous to learn to be a knight, he broke both arms when he fell off a horse the very first day. He became a scribe after that, just like his father…”
The Baron chuckled over his food. “And it took you five years to select a new squire after that, one that wouldn’t `break’ on you.” He paused and added in a more somber tone, “I always felt sorry for him over that. He wanted to be a knight so much, but he really wasn’t made for it.”
“Then there was Albert Targ, who you took as your squire,” Sir Hardin laughed. He turned to Stefan, the Baron’s son, to tell the story. “A large lad, built like Sir Bonham, but much taller. Bigger than either your father or I were at the time. The lad lasted a whole week, then one morning I’m woken up by your father and he tells me Targ ran off.
“Now, we entertained rather late the night before, so I tell him to stop bothering me and turn over…”
“I drug him out of bed screaming and kicking,” the Baron laughed.
“…and he tells me his mother’s best silverware is gone with that rogue!”
Stefan looked at his father. “Silverware?”
“Your grandmother’s pride and joy — her parents gave it to her for a wedding present — a fine, almost pure alloy from Othuldane.”
Sir Hardin laughed. “So like two fools we dress and saddle up in the middle of the night to go look for a thief. Snow’s hip deep, wolves are freezing in mid run and we’re out there looking for a thief.”
“Did you find him?” the boy asked.
“No,” the Baron shook his head. “Spent a week in the cold, knowing we lost him, but afraid to come home. I knew how dearly my mother loved that silverware…”
“So what happened?”
The Baron looked at Sir Hardin and the knight nodded. “Well, we came back a week later and my father calls us to his study and says if we want to go wenching, the least we can do is leave him a message. He doesn’t say a word about the silverware, so Clev and I keep quiet about it.
“That evening, at dinner, the servants bring the roast on the silver platter. Turns out guests were expected earlier in the week and mother sent the dishes to the smithy to be polished.”
Sir Brand chuckled. “What punishment.”
“What about Albert Targ, father?” Stefan asked.
“I worked the boy so hard, he ran back home to farm wheat and never looked back.”
Sir Hardin let out a hearty laugh. “So she could be leaving under worse circumstances,” he warned Sir Brand.
“Having broken things and stolen silverware?” Kera smiled.
“You broke three shields in two days,” Sir Brand reminded her. “That’s a rather impressive number, considering they’re made of oak.”
Kera blushed and hid her face behind a mug of ale, taking a log sip in the process.
“Three oak shields?” the Baron asked. “Quite an accomplishment. How has your progress been?”
The servants started replacing the empty dishes with dessert.
“All right, I suppose. I’m really not the one to judge my own skills, Sir.”
“Quite fine, although she needs to learn to be more comfortable with the blade, learn the finesse of using the weapon. We made good progress on feints and breaking binds.”
“Pardon my bluntness, my Lord,” Kera said, “but I feel perfectly comfortable with my weapon. It’s fighting with someone more skilled that troubles me.”
“Troubles me, too, my girl,” Sir Hardin muttered, “troubles me, too.”
“It is the only way to learn,” Sir Brand insisted. “You have to stretch yourself so you may reach.”
“Talking about stretching,” the Baron said, “I want you to leave for Hawksbridge as early as possible tomorrow — right after breakfast, so act accordingly. And that goes for you as well, young man,” he tuned to his son. “And stay out of trouble while I’m gone, understood? Do everything Kera tells you.”
“Yes, Sir,” the boy answered.
After dinner Kera went for a walk in the keep’s courtyard, relaxing in the cool evening breeze. In the morning she would have to accept a new responsibility, perhaps the greatest one she was ever given. She considered how long she may have to remain in Hawksbridge and what she would need to take with her. It may be a short trip, or a very long one. But then Valdasly would be three days away, possibly less on Hasina, so she could always return.
When she went back into the keep, Baron Dower stopped her in the great hall. “One last thing, Kera,” he said. “I have one more thing to give you to take to Hawksbridge.”
She followed him to the library where he handed her a thick envelope, with a large wax seal holding it shut.
“My will,” he explained. “A duplicate will remain here in the keep, and I want you to give this one to the Duke’s archivist. It is to be opened only on my verified death.”
“I’m not going to Gateway to die,” he interrupted Kera. “I am going to save Baranur, but we must always be prepared. Give it to the archivist.”
“My prayers will be with you, Sir,” she accepted the parchment.
“Thank you, Kera. Good night.”
In the morning Kera got up much earlier than any of the previous mornings and went for her daily run. She spent the last few days running in the meadow or up the canyon leading away from the forest, but on this, her last morning at Valdasly, she decided to run by Charnelwood, towards the village on the other side of the valley. It was still dark when she made it to the point where she and Rien had stopped on their very first run together. She paused there, at the edge of the road, looking into the forest. For the first time in her ten days in Valdasly, she could feel something from the forest. She took a few steps off the road, closer to the tree line, to see better into the darkness of trees. For an instant she though she could see a light in the distance, floating in the darkness between the trees.
“Who are you?!”
The sensation quickly faded, leaving an empty feeling and the giant towering trees menacingly standing over her. She hesitated a moment longer, then hurried back to the road and back to the keep itself.
All the way back she could not help but wonder what it was that she sensed. Was the forest really alive, like Rien said? Could it really watch those who passed by it? Kera shrugged the chill that her thoughts had brought on. She was there, in the forest, saw its inhabitants. There were people living in those woods, people much like Rien, who took comfort in the seclusion the dense forest provided.
It was light when Kera returned to the keep, the sun just high enough to shine its first beams over the top of the eastern range, bathing the valley in a comfortable yellow light. She ate a quick breakfast and packed what little she would be taking with her — the sword, the bow Rien purchased for her, the armor Enneth made some months before and some clothes.
Once packed and ready to go, Kera took her things to the stables and then called on the Baron in the library.
“Come,” Baron Dower’s voice sounded after a long wait.
Kera entered the room. The Baron sat behind his desk, maps no longer on the table. Before him sat Stefan and Sir Brand stood by the window. Kera greeted the men.
“Are you ready?” the Baron asked.
“Yes, your Lordship.”
“Good. Stefan, get your things. Meet us at the stables.”
“Yes, Sir,” the boy got up and left the library.
She shook her head. “It’s a great responsibility, Sir. I won’t let you down.”
“Very good,” he nodded. “Don’t let Stefan boss you around. I warned him not to already. Take charge and follow your best judgement.”
“Yes, Sir.” She wondered if he would say these things if he knew of her past in Dargon.
The Baron turned to Sir Brand. “How soon are we going to be ready?”
“As soon as you are, Sir. I saw to the horses myself and servants were readying the armor.”
“Will old Ealhfrit be ready?”
“Your guess is as good as mine, my Lord,” the knight laughed.
“Check on him while I see Stefan off,” the Baron stood up.
“Yes, Sir.” He made a few steps towards Kera. “I wanted to…”
“I forgot about that,” the Baron interrupted. “You two go on to the stables. I’ll remind Ealhfrit. Wait for me.”
“What is it?” Kera asked the knight.
“It’s nothing serious,” he answered as they left the library. “Just something to make things right. There was no opportunity before.” He handed her a palm-sized box. “This is a chain of the order. Wear it around your neck so Knights of the Stone will know who you are.”
“What? What order? Knights of the Stone?”
“I guess Sir Keegan had no time to explain the politics of knighthood to you. Knights in Baranur are broken into orders. Each order was started ages ago by various Houses of Baranur. The House of Arvalia, led by Duke Bargine, established the Order of the Knights of the Stone, in honor of his father, Duke Bayder the Second, also known as Bayder the Stone, for his charming personality. There are painting of them in the gallery upstairs. All squires of the order and all knighted by it wear the chain and pendant to show membership.”
Sir Brand reached inside his tunic and pulled his chain out as an example. “This may or may not help you in your journeys, but it will give you identity and a history…and it’s a tradition.”
Kera opened the box and took a look at the chain. It was thin, of fine workmanship, with silver links and a stone tear. “I’ve never seen Sir Keegan wear anything like this,” she commented.
“I have,” Sir Brand said. “It’s your identity with us.”
They entered the stables and Kera double-checked the equipment on Hasina, as well as tack, harness and saddle, then did the same for Kelsey.
“How soon will you be at Gateway?” she asked Sir Brand as she worked.
“A month, I suppose. Maybe mid-Sy, if we’re lucky.”
“What do you think you’ll find?”
“A war. I know we’ll find a war.” He fell silent as Stefan walked in, followed by the Baron.
“Yes, my Lord.”
“I’m not ready,” Stefan complained. He went to check his horse and Kera led the two thundersteeds out of the stables.
“You’re taking Kelsey also?” the Baron asked.
“Sir Keegan asked me to keep an eye on her,” Kera said. “Can’t do it if she’s here.”
Baron Dower chuckled. “Hope he keeps half as good an eye on the horse I gave him.”
“I’m sure he will, Sir.”
Stefan came out of the stables, leading his chestnut-brown stallion, with a white steak diagonally across the neck. “I guess I’m ready.”
“Stefan,” the Baron addressed him, “I know you’re practically a man, but I want you to listen to the Duke and to Kera and do what they say. I don’t know how long I’ll be in Narragan or where I’ll go from there, but I will write you as often as I can.”
The boy embraced his father. “I’ll make you proud.”
“I know you will,” the Baron tousled his hair.
“Would you like to ride Sir Keegan’s horse?” Kera asked the boy when he was ready to go.
Stefan looked at his father and the Baron nodded.
“Mount up, then!”
Sir Brand took hold of Hasina’s reins while Kera mounted her horse. “Thank you, Sir Brand,” she told him. “And good luck in your mission.”
“Thank you, Kera,” he handed the reins to her.
The Baron helped his son mount Kelsey. “Remember to visit the crypt in Hawksbridge, Stefan. Lay flowers for you mother and tell her I wish I could come.”
“Yes, Sir,” the boy promised.
“And take care. Write often.”
The boy nodded somberly.
The Baron walked over to Kera, putting one hand on Hasina’s neck. “Take good care of Stefan.”
“I will, Sir. May Sevelin help you on your quest.”
“Sevelin?” the Baron asked, puzzled, “the god of magic?”
“He helped me, Sir. I think he helps everybody.”
ReVell Dower released a hearty laugh. “Have a good journey!”
Kera kicked Hasina into motion, followed by Stefan and Kelsey and Stefan’s horse. The boy paused at the gates of the keep and waved to his father. The Baron waved back.
“My Lord?” Sir Brand asked as the Baron sighed.
“I worry about my son, Ariam. I may never see him again…”
“I worry about Kera, my Lord. She is a young woman, alone, charged with the protection of the boy. I hope her courage and skill remain untested.”
“Before he left, Rien told me about where she’s from and how she lived,” the Baron said. “I’m not worried about her courage. I’m worried I may not return to tell my son the truth of where I went…”
“We must have hope, Sir.”
“I do. I hope Baranur wins this damn war. I hope this is as close as my son ever comes to being in one.” The Baron turned away from the keep gates, realizing he will not be seeing his son any time soon. “Lord Ealhfrit is ready. Assemble the men. We’ll leave in a bell.”
Stefan Dower remained quiet for a very long time after he and Kera left Valdasly Keep. Kera watched his somber expression and wondered how to strike up a conversation to distract him, but could not think of what she should say. It was many years since she was fifteen and her worries were not of living in the Ducal Palace at that age. She was more worried of rotting under one. She had to be adult at that age, know what risks to take and how to take them. She had to be self-sufficient and self-reliant. And she had to steal to survive.
“Kera?” Stefan caught up to her, having fallen a little behind as they rode.
“Tell me the truth.”
“The truth?” she asked. “About what?”
“My father. He’s going to war, isn’t he?”
“Stefan… What gives you that idea?”
“I know my father.”
“I’m not privileged to know some things,” Kera tried to avoid the question.
“But you’re not saying `no’.”
“I’m…” She sighed.
“He is, isn’t he? Tell me. I won’t turn back.”
“I promised I wouldn’t say a word,” she uttered.
“But you’re not denying that he’s not going to Narragan?”
“No, I’m not. He’s doing what he feels right, what Duke Glavenford thinks is the right thing to do.”
Stefan sighed. “I wish he’d have told me the truth.”
“He loves you. He doesn’t want you to worry.”
“I’m his son. I have to worry.”
“He’ll come back in the fall, I’m sure,” Kera said. “Don’t worry yourself. Why don’t you tell me about Hawksbridge instead? I’ve never been there.”
Stefan fell quiet for a while, giving Kelsey a chance to start falling back, but then caught up again. “I guess you’re right — there’s no use worrying about what can’t be helped.
“Hawksbridge is pretty old. The castle was built about three hundred years ago, but the city is probably five hundred years old. It’s in the plains on the other side of the mountains. It’s very beautiful. On a clear day you can see all the way to the mountains…” Stefan thought for a moment.
“The castle was built on the east bank of the river Ty, to protect the kingdom from the barbarians on this side…and from the evil spirits….”
The boy laughed. “The peasants say demons live in Charnelwood. No one ever goes there. It’s a very dangerous place. I remember a few years ago some children from the village went into the forest and never returned. And no one went to look for them, either. Every one was afraid that the demons took them.”
“Do you believe they’re real?” Kera asked.
“The spirits? Of course! Everyone knows there are spirits there. They’re older than Arvalia!”
“Have you ever seen them?” Kera asked. She couldn’t help but vent the urge to pull his leg.
“No. They stay in Charnelwood.”
“Then if you’ve never seen one, how do you know they’re real?”
“Have you ever seen a Benosian?”
“No,” Kera shook her head.
“Then how do you know they’re real?”
“Word of mouth?”
“Well…?” Stefan answered, victoriously.
“I guess I had that coming,” Kera laughed. “But I’m sure the people living on the Beinison boarder will swear they’ve seen Benosians.”
Shortly before sunset Kera and Stefan made their way to a small village in the mountains, at the crossroads where they were supposed to turn southeast.
“I guess we’re making good time, since we made it here before sundown,” Kera commented.
A stream ran on the north side of the crossroads and Kera dismounted Hasina, letting her quench her thirst. Stefan also dismounted and soon all three horses were in the middle of the stream.
“There’s a lake up that way,” Stefan pointed north. “It’s locked between mountains, about a league north of here. It’s very hard to get to, but very beautiful. My father hunts there every summer. Every summer except this one…”
“You two will go there, again. As soon as the war is over,” Kera assured him.
He nodded. “It’s very quiet there, just birds and the beavers that dammed up the river… And north of that is a valley full of wild game.”
“Maybe if the Duke doesn’t have a problem with it, someone can take you here this summer,” Kera offered.
“Maybe,” Stefan agreed.
“Is there an inn here?”
“There’s one down the road. It’s not a very good one, but it’s the only one in the village.”
“Then we’ll have to make the most of it,” Kera said. “Come on.”
They got their horses and walked down the road to the inn.
“We need two rooms,” Kera told the innkeeper once they were inside. “And we need stabling for three horses.”
“Are there three of you?” the man asked.
“There are three horses. Two of us.”
“Kill someone on the way?” the man laughed.
“Yes,” Kera answered, annoyed at his nosiness and the stupid laugh.
“Well, here you go. Two keys, two rooms, two Rounds.”
“Two Rounds,” Kera placed two silver coins on the counter. “Do you serve dinner?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Do you want to eat here?” she asked Stefan.
“It’s fifteen leagues to the next village,” he answered. “And this is the only inn and tavern here.”
“All right, we’ll eat here,” she agreed and turned back to the innkeeper. “There are three horses outside. You can’t miss them. I want them stabled, fed and brushed down.”
“That’ll be another fifteen Bits, five a horse.”
Kera put another Round on the counter. “I expect to find them in VERY good shape tomorrow morning.”
“You’ll find them in great shape, missy.”
Kera set her jaw, but did not answer the man. There was no need to pick a fight. They would only be staying here overnight. She and Stefan went upstairs to leave their things it their rooms, then came back to the common room downstairs to eat. It was dark outside by this time and the tavern was partially full, mostly populated by middle-aged men, drinking and laughing and complaining about their wives.
“How about right here?” Kera indicated to an out of the way table by the wall.
“Sure,” Stefan agreed. He waited for Kera to select a chair, then helped her with it.
“Stefan, I don’t want you doing that again,” Kera said after a moment’s hesitation.
“Why not?” he sat down across from her.
“Because of your social rank and because of my goals for myself and…and because I’m not a cripple and can do it myself.”
“Then perhaps you should start addressing me correctly, too,” he said caustically.
“I don’t think so,” Kera answered in mocking serious tones and Stefan laughed.
“I thought I’d be a gentleman and show some chivalry.”
“I appreciate the gesture — it was very sweet — but also inappropriate and it’s something I’m not used to.”
“All right,” Stefan agreed. “If you insist.”
“Forcibly, if I have to.”
A lanky wench came over to the table. “All right, you two, make it short. What do you want?”
“You first,” Stefan said and Kera decided not to argue with him again.
“What have you got?”
“Dinner special is five Bits. Chicken, duck or mutton. Turkey will cost you six, pheasant is seven. Ribs and beef are seven Bits, venison is nine. We have stew and soup, for three Bits a cup.”
“Turkey sounds good,” Kera said.
“Turkey,” Stefan agreed.
“Ale, mead, wine,” the wench went on. “Milk?” she glanced at the Baron’s son.
“Milk,” Kera said.
Stefan looked at her and set his jaw. “Water.”
“Cost you the same,” the wench warned.
“Water,” he repeated.
“And bring us a bowl of fruit,” Kera instructed.
The serving girl left and Kera looked at Stefan. “Milk?”
“Men don’t drink milk.”
“You’re one of those…”
“I have to be in public,” Stefan said. “And this past year father has been having me drink ale and mead at functions, as well. I am the next Baron, after all.”
“You can drink what ever you want once we get to Hawksbridge, but on the road stick to milk and water,” Kera said.
“Water. Men don’t drink milk.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“Kera,” Stefan said, “I told you about Hawksbridge. Would you tell me a little about Dargon?”
“Dargon…” It seemed worlds away. “Dargon’s a small place. I didn’t think of it this way before, but I’ve seen a little of Baranur now. It’s a beautiful city, if you stay in the right part of town and don’t go outside after dark.” She chuckled, remembering. “It’s home. Dirt and misery and bandits — I’m still from there.”
The serving girl came back, placing bread, cheese and milk and water on the table. “That’ll be eighteen Bits as soon as I bring the rest of it,” she warned.
“The new part of the city is the most beautiful,” Kera went on once they were left alone. “That’s where Dargon Keep if built. It was built on top of some old ruins, so in some places the streets are very, very old. Some say a thousand or two thousand years old, but the town of Dargon is just over two centuries and the new part isn’t even a hundred years old…
“There’s a port that spans the length of the beach, too. And during the summer the water…”
“Kera,” Stefan interrupted her, tilting his head to the side.
Kera turned, just in time to see a large man sit down at the table by her. “Kid bothering you?” he asked.
A second man sat on her other side. “We can make him go away.”
“Aw, look, milk,” the first man said.
Kera held her breath not to gag at the stench of liquor.
“The boy’s just having water,” the other one said.
“What, boy, ale? No milk? Or do you drink hers?” the man indicated to Kera.
“I think that’s quite enough,” Kera stood up.
“Aw, come on, spend the night with me,” the drunk advanced on her. “What has he got that I don’t?”
“Har, har,” the drunk choked, backing Kera against the wall.
“We’re not interested,” she warned. “Leave.”
“We’re interested,” the second man towered behind his companion. “So why don’t you send the boy to bed and we’ll find another one for you.”
Kera looked around. The other patrons had moved further back, the nearest few tables being abandoned with unfinished meals. Neither the innkeeper, nor the serving wench were anywhere to be seen.
“I think you should go,” Kera repeated. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“Trouble?” the drunk laughed. “We don’t want it either!”
Kera drew her dragger and swung it across the man’s gut. The blade skipped across the tough hauberk and bit into his arm, throwing a bloody streak across the wall.
Her fist, reinforced by the dagger hilt, impacted the man’s stomach, making him double over and with a final swing, she planted the base of the hilt into the back of his head, making him drop.
The second man stood stunned for a moment, then advanced towards her, fumbling with the dagger at his belt.
“Leave ‘er alone!” Stefan yelled, grabbing the water pitcher off the table and swinging it at the man. The wood vessel crashed against the drunk’s head, splintering and spilling water. The man stumbled and fell as well.
“Go, go,” the innkeeper rushed up to them. He blotted the water and blood on the table. “Go, before they figure out what hit ‘em. I’ll have the meals sent up to your rooms.”
Kera stretched in bed, savoring the warmth of the old blanket. The black of the night slowly dissolved into reddish hues, forming outlines of the furniture. Was it time to get up? She sat up, holding the blanket tightly around her shoulders. The night air was chilly, even colder than the drafty old castle she had been staying at.
Outside something creaked, the sound of a rusty wheel joint turning. A whip snapped, followed by a “move it, you old nag.” The whip snapped again.
Was that a thud that woke her up a few moments before? Kera could not remember. She got up, with the blanket, and walked over to the window, to look out, but by the time she pushed the latched shutters open, the road past the stables was empty.
“Damn.” It was the middle of the night, the eastern sky showing no evidence of morning light. “Like I’ve got nothing better to do.” She returned to the bed and fell on it in a tangle of blankets, but for some reason sleep had already left her for the night.